Saturday, November 05, 2016

What's the point of the atonement?

In his debate with John Lennox, Christopher Hitchens said that for the first 98,000 years of human suffering, God watches this with perfect insouciance. Finally, God says we have to intervene now. We have to do something about this. What would be the best way to intervene to redeem this rather bleak picture? What about having someone tortured to death in an obscure part of the Middle East? That ought to cure it. 

Likewise, in his debate with John Lennox, Richard Dawkins said it's "petty and small-minded" to think the creator of the cosmos (if he existed) would come to this speck of dust to rid the world of sin. That fails to do justice to the grandeur of the universe. 

Several problems:

i) I wonder what Christian theologians, if any, Hitchens and Dawkins ever read. What's their source of information regarding the purpose of the atonement? Or is this just an applause line? 

ii) The purpose of the atonement is not to rid the world of sin or suffering. If you're going to cast the issue in terms of ridding the world of something, the purpose of the atonement is to rid the world of guilt, not sin or suffering. The point is not to eradicate sin or suffering. That's the purpose of Judgment Day. Rather, the point of the atonement is to satisfy divine justice so that God can justly forgive sinners. So, yes, you have sin and suffering both before and after the atonement. That's not a failure of the atonement. The atonement accomplished precisely what it was aiming at. In particular, to make atonement for the sins of the elect. 

God will indeed eradicate the world of sin and suffering. More precisely, God will glorify believers and separate them from the wicked. But that's a different action than the atonement. 

iii) I'd add that 1C Jerusalem was hardly an "obscure part of the Middle East". Again, maybe that's just another applause line, but it's rhetorical rather than factual. 

iv) Finally, Dawkins stresses how supposed incongruous it would be for God to come to our little planet to rid the universe of sin. But that's like saying it's "petty and small-minded" for physicians to go where there's an outbreak. Of all the awesome and scenic parts of the world to choose from, why would they go to some Third World hellhole? The answer, as Jesus said, is that physicians tend to the sick, not the heathy. You go where there's a need. 

Suppose we're the only intelligent creatures in the universe. Or suppose we're the only fallen creatures in the universe. Naturally, God would zero in on our planet. If sinners are earthlings, wouldn't we expect God to intervene on planet earth? 

For that matter, even if there were other fallen creatures in the universe whom God redeemed, why assume we'd know about it? Indeed, that would be distracting information. 


  1. For those who don't know, William Lane Craig has been giving brief lectures on the doctrine of the atonement with a view to defending the Evangelical doctrine of Penal Substitution. Each are from around 5 to 15 minutes long. So far he's done 22 of them. I've been collecting the links in my blogpost here:

    1. Actually, they average out to about 3-4 minutes long.

  2. I've heard that in counseling contexts this dynamic could be construed as a double bind. On the one hand that God doesn't intervene to ameliorate suffering can be taken as a sign of God not being benevolent but, on the other hand, why should we matter so much that a God (if God exists) would waste time on us? The primary injunction insists upon the evil of God permitting suffering to happen while the secondary injunction insists that we can't possibly be so important to justify God acting on our behalf or for our benefit, even to eliminate some suffering. It's this contradiction between the aims and ideas of the injunctions that creates the proverbial double bind.

    In terms of apocalyptic literature the creation of a new heavens and earth indicates that the Christian understanding of the impact of sin includes observing the necessity of a new universe in which sin no longer has endlessly forward-moving consequences in space and time. At the risk of using a computer analogy, the universe is a computer and sin is malware. The atonement is the means through which Christ salvages programs (we humans who have faith in Christ, if you will) before the entire hard drive is subjected to a malware purge/reformatting process. That's not intended to be advocacy for annihilationism per se, just a short analogy for a comment section. :)

  3. "In his debate with John Lennox, Christopher Hitchens said that for the first 98,000 years of human suffering, God watches this with perfect insouciance. Finally, God says we have to intervene now."

    1. Hitchens is assuming a timeline for human history which stretches back "98,000 years" before Christ, but that's not necessarily a given.

    2. Regardless, what's Hitchens' real objection about the "98,000 years"? What's he getting at? Does Hitchens have a problem with God sending Jesus in the early first century? If it hadn't been the early first century, it would've been another time. In which case I'd imagine Hitchens would have a problem with this other time period too.

    3. Would Hitchens have preferred God to have sent the Messiah immediately after the Fall? If so, then a possible response is this would not have allowed for God to demonstrate his sovereignty over human history. I'm referring to prophecy, especially prophecies about the Messiah. The unfolding of his plans for our salvation. Not to mention many of his other wonderful attributes (e.g. his faithfulness to his people in his promises). All this echoes to the benefit of Christians across many generations. Indeed, across all generations until the end of time as we know it.