What belief is the most essential to Christianity? Probably the atonement: The idea that by sending Jesus to die, God has made it possible for your sins to be forgiven. Unfortunately for Christianity, nothing about that idea makes any sense.
How exactly does the death of Jesus make salvation possible?
Did Jesus bring forgiveness for sins, or did he pay for our sins? Those are not the same thing at all. If fact, they’re mutually exclusive. So why do people usually seem to talk about Jesus as if he had done both of those things? Which one did he actually do? It can’t be both. If the sins were forgiven, then there was nothing to pay for. And if they were paid for, then there was nothing to forgive.
If God decided to forgive people, why couldn’t he just forgive people? Why would someone still have to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins? The book of Hebrews says there can be no forgiveness without shedding blood, but it offers no explanation for that absurd claim. When you forgive someone, do you insist that there has to be some kind of bloodshed involved, or else you won’t really have forgiven them? Do you think the only way you can possibly forgive someone is by either having them tortured and killed, or having your son tortured and killed?
Why would God have to do anything before he could forgive people? Especially if he makes the rules, if he’s the ultimate authority on morality, as Christians like to say. If that’s true, he could have just declared that it was right for him to forgive sins without anyone having to be tortured and killed first, and it would be so. Or he could have just decided that none of the finite things people do make them deserve to be tortured forever in the first place.
An all-powerful God who can prescriptively define morality always has the option to NOT torture people forever, and a loving God who had a choice would never choose to torture people forever. That is not how you treat people you love.
According to one concept of atonement, what Jesus is taking away is “original sin”. That term refers to the idea that just by disobeying God once, Adam and Eve brought “sin” on all their descendants, making everyone guilty of “sin” regardless of what they actually do. (And so God decided to repay that insignificant finite offense with the infinitely disproportionate punishment of eternal torture for everyone.) If that’s the case, even the reason atonement is needed in the first place doesn’t make any sense. People aren’t guilty because of what other people do. People can only be guilty because of their own actions.
If God thought Adam and Eve’s descendants were all going to be “guilty” by default, why did he allow them to reproduce at all? Why not just start over with a new pair of humans? He said later that he was going to wipe out humanity with a flood and start over, but he didn’t actually do it. He kept a few of the sin-infected people alive, and then he let them fill the earth right back up with sinful people. He should have actually started over, with brand new sinless people. And he should have done it back before anyone had children. He could have separated Adam and Eve for the rest of their lives, and removed that pointless troublesome tree that he never should have put in the Garden of Eden, and then he could have made some new people in the garden.
Some branches of Christianity believe that Jesus and his mother were both conceived free from “original sin”. If God can make exceptions like this, if he can produce sinless people from sinful parents, why not just do that with everybody, and save Jesus the trouble of dying?
Early Christians thought they could explain why Jesus had to die. The generally accepted story in the early centuries of Christianity was something quite different from now: Satan had somehow gotten possession of everyone’s souls, and the only way God could possibly get them back was to give him Jesus as a ransom, because Satan demanded it. (Which makes God look pretty weak. And which ignores the fact that that sort of thing is against God’s principles.)
Then they decided that Satan didn’t even know who Jesus was, but for some reason he still agreed to trade many souls for what he thought was just one ordinary soul. Then God tricked him into giving up all the souls, by giving him one that he didn’t realize he wouldn’t be able to keep. That was the generally accepted view for several more centuries, till they decided that didn’t make God look very good either.
So after Christianity had existed for over a thousand years, theologians then started coming up with accounts that didn’t involve God making a deal with the devil, and they ended up with the modern atonement doctrine, where our sin is a debt that we’re unable to repay. But this version doesn’t explain why God couldn’t just forgive everyone if he wanted to forgive them. St. Anselm thought that God just forgiving everyone without being “repaid” would go against God’s justice, but making someone who doesn’t owe God anything pay the debt for everyone else isn’t just either.
Penal substitution theory
Christians say Jesus was punished in place of everybody else, so the requirement for justice was fulfilled, and now nobody else has to be punished. Except that’s not justice. Punishing an innocent person for what a different person did is absurdly unjust.
It doesn’t matter if Jesus was willing. That doesn’t make it just for God to punish the innocent, or to let the guilty go unpunished. Sure, someone could volunteer to, in effect, pay a fine for someone else, by giving them a gift of money which they could then use to pay the fine themselves. But that doesn’t work with other kinds of punishments. Guilt is not transferable.
No court would accept someone who had nothing to do with a crime offering to be executed in place of the criminal. And any judge who intentionally had an innocent person physically punished for someone else’s crime would lose his job.
Some people have made analogies attempting to show that we do normally accept guilt being transferred from one person to another. But those alleged examples are all flawed: Either the person who ends up being held responsible was already in fact at least partly responsible for what happened, or no actual punishment was ever going to be required in the first place, or the responsibility can at best only be transferred in the wrong direction.
God even says that at least some sins can only be atoned for by the blood of the one who committed the sin, so that rules out the possibility of anyone else’s blood atoning for them. So do the passages in the Bible that say that no payment can ever be enough to ransom or redeem someone’s soul so they can have eternal life.
Some Christians say Jesus took on everyone else’s sin, so that God considered him guilty and everyone else innocent. That would mean either that Jesus (who they believe is God) was actually incredibly sinful, or that God was wrong, neither of which seems compatible with Christian beliefs.
Was Jesus even punished in our place at all? Not really. If he was, he would be in hell. Yet the Bible says he’s in heaven. Jesus would have to spend eternity in hell if he was really taking the punishment for humanity, but the Bible says all he had to do was die. And only temporarily, since he’s an immortal God that can’t truly die. Because Jesus wasn’t damned, the best his “death” could be expected to accomplish would be to save us from having to die… and he didn’t even do that.
Other theories of atonement
The death of Jesus is often described as a sacrifice. If Jesus is God, that would be God sacrificing God to God. I can comprehend someone sacrificing himself. But how can you make a sacrifice to yourself? You would end up still having whatever you were supposed to give up, and then you wouldn’t have actually sacrificed anything. Or how about sacrificing someone to himself? Can you make any sense of that? “I’m going to sacrifice you to you. By killing you. Hope you appreciate the sacrifice I’m making for you!”
If we ignore all the parts of the Bible that portray God as sacrificing someone else, and just say that God paid the price for sin himself, does any of this make more sense that way? Well, if you forgive a debt that was owed to you, you are giving up that value. So by forgiving humans, you could say God is paying the price… to the people who were supposed to pay him? That’s backwards; that doesn’t actually fulfill anyone’s obligations.
And God isn’t who people are really indebted to, anyway. Do you know how Jews think about sin and forgiveness? It makes so much more sense than what Christians believe. People are sinful because they actually commit sins, not just because they were born. Sins that harm other people are sins against those people, not sins against God. God is conditionally willing to forgive sins that were actually committed against him. But God can’t forgive you for sins that you committed against other people. Only the actual victims can do that. What kind of jerk would declare that you were forgiven for harming other people, without even bothering to ask those people what they thought about it?
Maybe rather than punishing Jesus in our place, God punished us by harming Jesus? Like a whipping boy. It could be reasonably considered a punishment to know that someone you care about is suffering or dying. But harming an innocent person because of what someone else did would still be outrageously unjust.
If the innocent person willingly agreed to be harmed, then maybe this could be an acceptable thing to do. In that case, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t deserve punishment, since he’s not actually being punished. He’s just being treated the way he willingly chose to be treated. But it doesn’t exactly sound like Jesus was willing to be tortured and killed.
There are more problems with vicarious punishment: It vicariously harms people who don’t deserve to be punished, since the wrongdoer will probably not be the only person who cares about the proxy person. It’s unnecessary, since doing wrong will already have natural consequences that the wrongdoer can feel bad about. Hearing what happened to somebody else is not that much of a punishment for people who never actually met the guy or saw what happened to him. If the person really doesn’t mind being treated that way, that’s even more reason not to feel bad for him. And feeling bad for someone else is way too small a punishment to substitute for eternal torture.
Christians have to keep trying and trying to explain how killing an innocent person is good and removes the need to punish guilty people, because none of those attempts have succeeded, because their core tenet just doesn’t make any sense.
Embracement theory: Humans committed the worst possible sin, and God decided to just let them, and that somehow makes it okay, and means sin doesn’t matter anymore?
Shared atonement theory: Jesus is God, and the universe can’t exist without God. So when Jesus died, God died, and the universe died, and everyone died. And then they all came back with Jesus, so now everyone has already been punished, I guess? Except everyone didn’t die. Other people were clearly still alive in the Bible when Jesus was dead. And if nobody even noticed anything happening to them, that wasn’t a punishment. Also, this wouldn’t affect people who weren’t living at the time.
I bet I could come up with a much more coherent account of what the death of Jesus accomplished. How about this? God tried to save mankind from hell by killing the guy who was going to judge them and send them there. (And then God defeated his own plan by resurrecting him, so now most people won’t be saved after all. Whatever. Still makes more sense than any of the standard explanations. No matter what good the death of Jesus was supposed to do, it’s negated if he gets to just come right back to life like that.)
Or how about this? God is the author of human nature. God is the one who programmed our nature into our brains. Therefore, God is the one who is actually responsible for everyone’s sins. God knew exactly what humans would do if he made them the way he did. If he didn’t like it, he could have designed them differently. Since God somehow ended up designing humans so badly, and since he was so bothered by humans behaving exactly the way he designed them to, God had to punish himself. He never actually needed to punish us, because our nature is his fault, not ours.
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