30 March 2016
Easter and Atonement: The linchpin of Christianity is trouble
The Philosophy of Easter
March 29, 2016
Most of this paper’s readers celebrated Easter this past Sunday. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in 30 AD. It occurred on the third day of burial after the Romans crucified him in 30 AD. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15: 12-20). The holiday is linked to atonement theory. Atonement theory asserts that Jesus’ suffering and death 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. Let’s consider whether atonement theory is true and, also, whether its truth should matter to us.
The philosophical issue surrounding atonement theory is why God would cause or allow Jesus to suffer horribly and die as a way to forgive ordinary people for their sins. Here I will leave aside historical theories such as ransom theory (Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice to buy mankind from Satan) and focus on more plausible theories.
First, consider penal substitution theory. This theory was defended by Protestant luminaries such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. This theory holds that God punished Jesus, who didn’t sin, instead of punishing people who did and that this substitution justifies his forgiving our sins. The problem is that penal substitution is unjust. If a young man commits a brutal battery and rape, it is unjust for the state to punish someone else for what he did. For example, it would be wrong to punish his mother, even if she volunteers to be punished in his place.
The best theories of punishment assert that the right to be punished is held by the victim or her agent (consider, for example, her government). A third party does not have a right to punish a wrongdoer because the wrongdoer did not wrong her. God is not the victim of most, if not all, of people’s sins. In the above example, he was not the one who was beaten and raped. Thus God has no more right to punish sinners than a random Chinese man has a right to punish an American who murdered someone in Detroit.
God would have a right to punish sinners who victimize others if he owned people similar to how farmers own livestock. It is a loathsome theory, though, that one person can own a second in this way. Things might get murky if the second consents to being owned, but we can ignore this technicality because many people have not consented to God owning them.
Worse, many instances of sins (consider, for example, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) do not victimize anyone and hence do not justify punishment. Even if they did justify punishment, they surely do not justify eternal torment in hell. It is incredibly harsh to impose an infinite punishment on someone for a finite wrong. This would be analogous to sending someone to prison for fifty years for stealing a candy bar (and not even a good one, just a Peppermint Patty).
If we assume the trinity is true, then in some sense God punished himself in order to forgive or pardon others. It is hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving or pardoning them and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.
Second, consider debt theory. Catholic luminaries St. Anselm and St. Aquinas held this view (Satisfaction Theory). This theory holds that human beings are so full of evil that they owe a debt to God that they cannot pay. Jesus’ suffering and death pays off their debt and allows them to go to heaven.
The problem with this theory is that it is unclear why Jesus’ suffering pays off people’s debts. Compensation in law (consider, for example, damages in tort law) aims to restore a victim to as good a position as she would have been in had she not be victimized. It is unclear how Jesus’ suffering and death could compensate God in this way for humanity’s sinful ways. It is not like the payment of money or services that are ordinarily used to compensate victims.
Also, it is hard to see why God doesn’t just forgive everyone’s debt. Creditors forgive debtors all the time. Consider, for example, how often fathers forgive their children’s debts.
Moreover, as in the punishment case, wrongdoers do not victimize God. Rather they victimize each other. The rapist mentioned above should be made to pay compensatory damages to his victim, but not the victim’s father, sister, or aunt. Similarly, wrongdoers didn’t victimize God so they don’t owe him a debt.
Again, the doctrine of the trinity makes debt theory mysterious. It is hard to see why God would sacrifice himself to pay off someone’s debt. Again, it is also hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving their debt and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.
Other theories of Jesus’ sacrifice make less sense than do the punishment and debt theories. The notion that Jesus died to teach people to refrain from sin, love God, or become virtuous is strange in that this is an inefficient way to present such a message. Why not do it directly? Alternatively, why not change people’s hearts? In any case, hell or annihilation would be an appropriate response to people’s failure to learn only if this failure warranted punishment or a debt and so we return to the above theories.
Given the joy of Easter, chock full of family, friends, church, brunch, and chocolate Easter bunnies, it seems churlish to ask whether the holiday makes sense. Still, we want our holidays to make sense or, if they don’t, we might want to keep that in the back of our mind so that we emphasize the family, friends, and laughter and deemphasize the theory leading people to get together.