In my book I argue that there is no coherent understanding of the atonement. Here are some questions for those who accept the penal substitutionary view:
In order for someone to be forgiven why must there be punishment at all? We know of victims who have forgiven their assailants even though they have never been punished, and we know of other victims who won’t forgive their assailants even after they have been punished. To forgive someone doesn’t mean that you must first punish the offender at all. Forgiveness doesn’t really depend upon the remorse of the offender, either, although it does help quite a bit. At this point it’s not up to the offender at all, but the victim who must find a way to forgive.
To forgive means bearing the suffering of what that person has done to you without retaliation. If I stole something from you, then forgiveness means bearing the loss without recompense. If I slandered you, forgiving means bearing the humiliation without retaliating. If the cross of Christ means someone got punished for my sins, then that’s not offering forgiveness, that’s punishing someone for what I did wrong.
If the cross was needed to pay the punishment for my sins, then how can God really be a forgiving God? Forgiveness doesn’t require punishment. To put it bluntly, if I can’t forgive you for striking me on the chin until I return the blow back to you, or to someone else, then that’s not forgiveness, that’s retaliation, or sweet revenge! Revenge is never an ethical motive for action, even if we are led to take revenge on others sometimes. John Hick: “A forgiveness that has to be bought by the bearing of a just punishment is not forgiveness, but merely and acknowledgment that the debt has been paid in full. (The Metaphor of God Incarnate, p. 127).
For someone who went to seminary, Loftus displays a remarkably ignorant and misinformed view of the atonement. (Loftus often plays the “And I studied uner their best” card, as if that is supposed to help his argument. Whether or not William Lane Craig is “the best” is certainly debatable. But we can’t even be certain that Loftus understood those things which Craig taught him). The cross of Christ was a propitiatory sacrifice in the sense that it satisfied the wrath of God. That is the point of the atonement, even if it is an essential truth that is lacking in many “gospel” presentations today. God’s wrath is not something that can simply magically disappear. It is a reality, and that is why Paul starts where he does in the book of Romans. Because of the atonement, because our sins have been imputed to Christ and God’s wrath against them has been poured out on Christ, we have justification through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ which is received through faith on the basis of the sovereign and sufficient grace of God. This is the gospel, and this is where Loftus should be concerned.
Loftus recognizes that the Bible certainly calls an effect of the atonement “forgiveness.” But does Loftus define forgiveness in the same way that the Bible does, or does he impose his definition upon the text? And is not Loftus equating horizontal forgiveness with vertical forgiveness? Let’s say someone murders a friend of mine. I forgive that person. Do the courts then look at my forgiveness and say “All is well” without prosecuting the murderer? My particular forgiveness may not be contingent upon the punishing of the offender, but the justice of the court certainly is. Furthermore, I am not the one who was primarily offended in this case. It was my friend who was murdered. Sure, I was offended by the effects of that offense, and for those effects I can forgive, but ultimately the one who was offended was not me. It was my friend. Biblically speaking, when I sin against you, you are not the whom I am offending. God is the one whom I am offending because his are the laws that I am breaking. Now, you are wronged by an effect of my offense against God, but you are not the one whom I am directly offending.
The Bible describes God as a “forgiving God.” But those are not the only words that it uses to describe him. Scripture also calls him a “just God,” a “righteous God,” a “holy God,” and a “wrathful God.” For God to simply forgive a person apart from the cross would be an unjust act. It would be an unrighteous act. It would be an unholy act. It would fail to satisfy his wrath. Going back to the illustration of the courts, it is not the duty of the court to forgive the offender. I can forgive the person who wronged me (indirectly) by murdering my friend, but for the court to “forgive” him without requiring punishment for his deeds would be an unjust act. The same is true with God.
Loftus also fails to recognize that the effect of the cross, the forgiveness we receive (on the sole basis of justification through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, we must remember) means that our sins are never counted against us. This is why justification as forgiveness is a reality. Loftus continues to highlight the payment of Christ, but he does not tells about the forgiveness that the Christian enjoys based upon the punishment of Christ. Has Loftus forgotten these types of passages since his days in seminary?
Romans 4:7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.”
What is truly sad is that based upon Loftus’ mockery and rejection of the gospel through the perfect atonement of Christ, we have no basis to call Loftus “blessed,” for his sins will certainly be remembered.