15 October 2014

Atonement Theory Does Not Work

Stephen Kershnar
Atonement Theory and Atheism
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 28, 2014

Today, religion is in retreat and atheism on the rise.

A Gallup poll found that, worldwide, 13% of people are atheists and another 23% are non-religious. People are leaving religion in droves. 9% fewer people see themselves as religious today (2012 poll) than did so seven years earlier. This is especially true for Jews. Less than 40% see themselves as religious.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Rieke Havertz points out that in the U.S. religion is 
declining. The same Gallup poll found that one out of three Americans don’t consider themselves religious. The number who are religious has dropped sharply (73% to 60% in the last seven years) and atheists, while still rare, rose from 1 to 5%. This pattern will continue. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that young adults (people under age 30) are far less likely to be religiously affiliated than others.

One reason for people losing their religion is that religious doctrines don’t withstand scrutiny. One example of a flawed doctrine is Christianity’s atonement theory. The theory asserts that the suffering and death of Jesus explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. See, for example, 1 Peter 2:24 and 1 Peter 3:18. There are, roughly, four theories that explain how atonement works and none succeed. I should mention that some of the ideas for this column come from an outstanding colleague, Dale Tuggy, although he undoubtedly disagrees with this column.

One of the earliest theories (Ransom Theory) held that Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice to buy mankind from Satan (that is, he paid ransom for them). See Mathew 20:28. Even if one believes Satan exists, St. Anselm demolished this argument by pointing out that it is nonsensical to see God as having a debt to him. In addition, God is powerful enough and morally permitted to limit Satan’s powers or make him a better person. Perhaps he could have made Satan’s heart grow three times larger, as happened to the Grinch. A related theory (Christus Victor) sees Jesus’ suffering and death as part of God’s defeat of Satan. Again, God could simply have taken away Satan’s powers.

St. Anselm and St. Aquinas adopted a second theory (satisfaction theory) that holds that human beings are so full of evil and sin that they owe a debt to God. The debt might be one of honor or justice. On this theory, the debt was paid off via Jesus’ suffering and death. The problem with this theory is that it is hard to see why human beings owe a debt to God. If they’ve injured each other, then it is to each other that debts are owed.

Even if the debt were owed to God, it is unclear why God wouldn’t merely forgive it. Creditors forgive debtors all the time. This is especially true when a creditor (for example, a father) loves the debtor (for example, a son). A loving deity would do so unless he wanted to teach his debtors a lesson and this is a different theory.

This theory makes even less sense if one believes in the trinity, that is, God exists in three people (three distinct people each wholly and entirely identical to God). If so, it is odd that God had to sacrifice himself to himself to pay off someone else’s debt. He could have just forgiven them in a straightforward manner.

A third theory, penal substitution, is a distinctly Protestant theory and was defended by Martin Luther and John Calvin. This theory holds that God punished Jesus, who didn’t sin, instead of punishing people who did. Again, it’s hard to see to why God has a right to punish people for what they do to each other. Murder, rape, and robbery victimize fellow human beings and it is they, or their loved ones, who have a right to punish the evildoer. Under some conditions, the state has a right to do so if the victims transferred their right to it. Even if God has such a right to punish sinners, he still can and should forgive or pardon them.

Even if he can’t pardon or forgive them, it is unjust for God to severely punish one person for what another did. For example, Ted Bundy raped and killed innocent women. Justice doesn’t allow the state to torture and hang his mother. This is true even if she wants to be substituted in for her son.

This theory is plagued by additional problems. If one person’s suffering can satisfy the demands of justice ahead of time, then people’s sins are pre-paid and they may not punished or even given demerits for sinning in the future. The sins would have been paid for ahead of time similar to how some people used to have pre-paid phone cards.

In any case, Jesus’ suffering was finite and, on some accounts, people’s sins are infinite (which is why some deserve hell) and so, on this theory, Jesus didn’t suffer nearly enough.

If we assume the trinity is true, then God punishes himself in order to forgive or pardon others. Would it have made sense for the Central Park jogger who was beaten and raped to punish herself as a way of forgiving or pardoning her attacker? Obviously not.

A fourth theory asserts that Jesus’ suffering was a means of leading humanity to change itself morally and is associated with one of the most significant philosophers of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard. Surely, there have to be better ways to teach people to love one other than to torture and kill an innocent.

Even if there weren’t, it is hard to see why this would be the right thing to do. If the best way to get human beings to love one another were to torture and kill Miley Cyrus, this still wouldn’t be okay. 

And if the trinity is true, God tortures himself in order to instruct others on loving their neighbor. This is just weird.

Despite being put forth by world-class intellectuals, none of these theories work. This failure and ones like it are forcing religion into retreat. 

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