The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



October 2012

An Abusive Atonement

by Blake Hereth, on Theology, October 2012

What we think of the atonement reflects what we think of God. If we think the atonement is designed to heal our emotional wounds, for example, we probably think God is interested in our emotional healing. But how should we think of the atonement? If God has revealed to us the nature of the atonement, we should allow that revelation to shape our understanding of it. While some believe they recognize a theory of the atonement laid out in Scripture, I cannot honestly claim that. I do not discern any clear biblical teaching on the atonement. But this need not halt critical reflection on the atonement, and so I will consider the atonement on other grounds.
Arguably the prevailing view of the atonement among Cedarville students and professors is satisfaction theory. In its most basic form, satisfaction theory proposes that (a) there is some moral problem with human beings, (b) that moral problem requires either that human beings pay for their sins with death or that an innocent substitute pay for them, and (c) Jesus freely decided to be that innocent substitute for at least some human beings.
I will assume the truth of the following theses, which will guide my discussion of satisfaction theory: (d) if another person has some property P and if having P means I should treat that person in way Q, then if I have P, then I should treat myself in way Q; (e) if I love another person and loving that persons means I should want her to be treated in way Q, then (if I should love myself in at least an equally good way) I should want myself to be treated in way Q. What d and e assert is that we should treat like cases alike, that we should treat morally identical (or similar) persons in morally identical (or similar) ways. Assuming these is unproblematic, since they are initially plausible and obvious enough to require little by way of 'motivating' argumentation.
Jesus finds us valuable enough to save, or at least potentially valuable enough to save. Some Christians believe that there is something good in us (e.g., the imago dei, sentience, rationality) which prompt God to save us. Presumably, however, that same good is in Jesus himself (Jesus is God, which is at least as valuable as having God's image; Jesus can experience pain; Jesus is rational), in which case God should be prompted to save even Jesus from the fate we would otherwise experience. Other Christians believe that only some future good that we do not yet possess prompts God to save us - typically, the character of Christ. But then Christ has that same character already, so for the same reason Christ should be saved from a terrible fate like the cross.
Alternatively, God's decision to save us has nothing to do with our actual or potential moral value. Yet it remains true that God saved us because he loved us (we know not why), and it is also true that God should love himself, and his love for himself should be at least as strong as his love for us. Thus, God should love himself just as much as he loves us, and therefore not intend for himself the horrors of the cross.
These conclusions are incompatible with c, for according to c Jesus intended to face the horrors of the cross; he intended that horrible fate for himself for our sake. Yet d and e show that Jesus should not have done this, since if Jesus had intended his own torture and death, then he would have failed to treat like cases alike; he would have mistreated himself instead of us, loved us instead of himself (or more than himself), etc. But it is just as morally objectionable to intend your own mistreatment as it is to intend the mistreatment of others, just as objectionable to intend a miserable state of affairs for yourself as it is to intend it for others.
Of course, we would not ordinarily infer that "c did not occur" simply because "c is morally wrong." (Another example: We do not infer "murder never happened" because "murder is wrong.") Divine persons, however, are in a special class: they never act wrongly. Assuming that Jesus is divine, it follows that Jesus never does wrong. If d and e are real moral obligations, then failing to act in accordance with d and e is morally wrong. From these two facts it follows that Jesus always acts in accordance with d and e, and that entails that c is false. Since c is a central pillar of satisfaction theory, it follows that satisfaction theory is false.
Some might think that each of us should be willing to surrender our own interests before we surrender the interests of others. I should be willing to die for you instead of letting you die; you should be willing to die for me instead of letting me die; etc. I suggest that we are permitted to do these things only if there is a real moral difference between us, such that it is objectively better (in some sense) for me to die rather than you, or for you to die rather than me, or for me to be tortured rather than you, or for me to love myself less than I love you, and so on. Yet we see that this simply cannot be true, since the only way for me to sacrifice myself instead of you is for me to have less value than you, and the only way for you to sacrifice yourself instead of me is for you to have less value than me. We cannot both be right; it cannot be that I have less value than you and that you have less value than me. This response, then, is incoherent.
Where do we go from here? The atonement is a central Christian doctrine, and because it is true it is also true that Christ's death saves human persons and that there is some explanation of how our salvation is accomplished. If satisfaction theories are false, then they do not properly explain the truth of the atonement, so we need look elsewhere. But to where should we look? I will provide a brief summary and evaluation of four major alternative theories and then gesture toward my own inclinations.
Moral influence theories are distinct from moral example theories, but the share the primary emphasis of Christ as divine moral teacher and example. According to these theories, Christ came to redeem humanity by offering us a powerful illustration of divine love, which humans imitate to be saved. Christus victor theories hold that the atonement serves as a means of overcoming the powers of sin and spiritual darkness. Some recapitulation theorists argue that Christ 'injected' 'Human-ness' with his own righteousness, and thereby 'injected' each and every human being with righteousness. Others argue that Christ was the first to enjoy resurrection from the dead, and that the atonement is a promise of resurrection to those who trust in Christ's teachings. Ransom theories posit Christ as a payment to the devil in exchange for the freedom of humans. On this view, the devil had ensnared human persons and consequently gained rights over the destiny and course of their lives, and Christ offered his own life to the devil as payment. Christ thereby comes to have those same rights over human persons, and decides that those who do as God desires will spend eternity with God. Merit theories understand Christ's life and death as worthy of reward. Some merit theories see Christ's perfectly obedient life as itself worthy of reward, and in particular the fact that Christ went beyond all moral duty to seek, cherish, love, and heal the lost. Having done this, the Father offered Christ a reward, and the award was (some of) humanity. Each model has its own worries. Moral influence/example theories struggle to explain the uniqueness of Christ's life and death, as there are many moral examples and influences. Christus victor emphasizes Christ's work as overcoming sin and darkness, but it is unclear why that suggestion is theoretically helpful. We know Christ did accomplish human salvation; what we want to know is how he did it. The explanations offered seem reducible to some other atonement theory, which suggests that 'Christus victor' is an unhelpful classification. Ransom theories run afoul of the criticism I have offered in this paper, since they represent Christ's death as an intentional payment. Merit models show Christ's life as worthy of reward, which is true, but on that model it is unclear why Christ's life and not the life of some other saint was necessary to merit the salvation of human beings. Granted, Christ was the only moral agent (other than the Father and the Holy Spirit) to be completely morally blameless, but it is arguable whether and why that perfection is required. Further, it is arguable whether the perfection must be found in only one person, or whether the combined virtues of various saints can merit human salvation.
I am attracted to a moral influence theory in which transformative divine love, present at Golgotha and ever since, and not the historical particularities of Christ's earthly life or their cumulative factuality, achieve every salvation. This divine love is revealed through conscience, through the sacraments, through the scriptures, through experience, and (most clearly and dramatically) through the Incarnation. While there are certainly various moral examples and moral influences, they are moral only thanks to the divine grace and love within them. This means that other persons exemplifying goodness are exemplifying divine goodness, and that there are no cases where someone exemplifies goodness without divine influence. I therefore escape the objection by denying that there even are other moral examples that are not divine in origin.