Thursday, February 28, 2019

Is damnation a process crime?

I'll comment on Craig:

The question of the extent of the atonement is one that I would rather avoid, as it seems so secondary an issue when it comes to the atonement. I want to focus on the really central questions raised by the doctrine of the atonement. Nevertheless, one can’t help running into this issue when one reads widely on the subject of the atonement, so I’ll share here some tentative thoughts on the matter.

At face value, it seems incredible to think that Christ died only for the elect. You couldn’t get a much clearer repudiation of this view than I John 2.2: “he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Reformed thinkers are forced into exegetical acrobatics in order to explain away the prima facie meaning of such scriptural statements.

i) Open theists would say the same thing about how Craig interprets many passages of Scripture.

ii) The "acrobatics" metaphor is such a shopworn cliche. 

iii) I've discussed the usual Arminian prooftexts:

So what in the world would compel someone to re-interpret such passages in order to make them compatible with the view that Christ died only for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of every human being? The reason is a theological inference that forces one into such contrived exegesis. One is forced into this position by a theological argument that implies the limited extent of the atonement.

The argument is this: at the cross Christ by his death wins our actual redemption. For he satisfies the demands of God’s retributive justice, which had condemned us for our sins. The demands of justice having been met, there no longer remains any punishment for our sins to be exacted. Christ did not win for us merely potential redemption; rather he secured our actual redemption at the cross. Therefore, if Christ died for all people, everyone would be saved, which we know from Scripture to be false.

I think you’ll agree that this is a pretty powerful argument. Nevertheless, it remains an inference, and if it leads to a conclusion that flies in the face of scriptural teaching, then we need to question whether this is a sound inference. Rather than embrace universalism or limited atonement—both of which seem clearly unscriptural—we need to call this theological inference into question.

It's interesting to see him concede that the Reformed position is a "pretty powerful argument". 

In fact, Reformed thinkers themselves recognize this truth in distinguishing between redemption as accomplished and as applied. They will say that our redemption was accomplished at the cross but that it is applied individually when persons are regenerated and place their faith in Christ. This distinction is vital because otherwise the elect would be born redeemed! They would never be unregenerate sinners but would be justified and saved from the instant of their conception. But Scripture teaches that we once were “children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2.3), and many of us recall our pre-Christian days. But how can such a distinction make sense if Christ won our actual redemption at the cross? If I was actually redeemed in AD 30 (never mind that I didn’t exist then!), how can I not be redeemed at every moment that I do exist? The undeniable distinction between redemption accomplished and applied makes sense only if we say that Christ’s death wins our potential redemption and that that potential is actualized in individual lives through repentance and faith.

That's confused. The elect were always redeemed, as of the Crucifixion. And that applies retroactively to OT saints. But it doesn't follow that if they were always redeemed, they were always regenerated or justified. Salvation is a process with different phases. Although redemption, regeneration, and justified are linked inasmuch as anyone who was redeemed will be regenerated and justified, it doesn't follow that these must be simultaneous–anymore than the redemptive death of Christ must be simultaneous with OT saints to redeem OT saints. And, yes, you can be redeemed before you exist because you exist in God's mind and plan. 

It seems to me that the questionable assumption of this argument is the presupposition that Christ’s death achieves our actual redemption rather than our potential redemption. True, Christ suffered what would have been the punishment for our sins, thereby meeting the demands of God’s justice. But that payment of our debt needs to be freely received by faith in order to accomplish our actual redemption. It is as if Christ has made a massive downpayment sufficient to pay for anyone’s sins, which we must then appropriate in order to become a beneficiary.

I don’t see any problem of “double jeopardy” here. That is a convention of our human criminal justice system in the United States which cannot be automatically applied to God’s dealings with humanity. In any case, it is not as if the unrepentant person is being tried twice for the same crime. There is only one Judgement Day, and that is the only time a person is tried. If he has freely rejected the pardon Christ offers him, there is no one else to pay for his crimes.

Isn’t the view I suggest biblical? The Old Testament sacrifices availed for nothing unless they were conjoined with a contrite and repentant heart on the part of the person for whom they were offered. Similarly, Paul says, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3. 23-25). Those who are not in Christ, who do not believe, have no redemption. That is not because Christ did not die for them. Paul compares Christ to Adam, commenting, “as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5.18). This statement does not imply universalism, since the benefits of Christ’s death come only to those who have faith in him. So in Romans 6 Paul describes how the benefits of Christ’s death are individually appropriated through believer’s baptism, which epitomizes the conversion process: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.3-4). Actual redemption takes place when an individual identifies with Christ through faith.

So I think the theological inference made by advocates of limited atonement and by universalists alike is faulty because it is based on a false assumption.

i) I agree with Craig that there are limitations to the analogy with human penology. However, in his monograph defending penal substitution (The Atonement [Cambridge 2018]), he relies on analogies with human penology at several crucial junctures to skewer intuitive objections to penal substitution. So his position seems to be ad hoc. 

ii) Craig's position reduces the grounds for damnation to a process crime. The damned are damned not for underlying sins but just for the sin of refusing to believe in Jesus. But isn't that a manufactured crime? Like prosecutors who can't indict someone for actual, original wrongdoing, so they indict him for lying about a crime he didn't commit. Although he didn't commit the crime they question him about, he lied about it, so that becomes the crime. It's a setup. 

iii) I don't see that Craig quite gets to the nub of Owen's argument. Did Jesus died for your sins? Is disbelieving in Jesus a sin? Did Jesus die for that sin? If so, and if, like Craig, you subscribe to penal substitution, then in what sense is disbelieving in Jesus culpable? How is it just deserts to be punished for the sin of disbelief if Jesus died for all your sins, including the sin of disbelief? 

iv) However, Craig's position seems to be that Jesus didn't actually die for any of your sins. Rather, faith actualizes the atonement for you. 

Now, it's true that in Scripture there's a relationship between faith and salvation. There's a sense in which salvation is contingent on faith. But does that mean faith is what makes the atonement efficacious? How does that follow? How does faith figure in the metaphysics of the atonement? How does faith have the power to transform a potential atonement into an actual atonement? He says "It is as if Christ has made a massive downpayment sufficient to pay for anyone’s sins, which we must then appropriate in order to become a beneficiary." But that's a metaphor. That's not an actual explanation. He needs to describe what literally happens. Is the atonement dependent on faith? Does faith cause the atonement to become actual in the case of a believer? 

There are different kinds of dependence relations. Take a stock illustration in debates about scientific explanation: you can calculate the length of a shadow from the height of the flagpole and the angle of the sun. Conversely, you can calculate the height of the flagpole from the length of the shadow and the angle of the sun. In one respect these are equivalent. But there's an explanatory asymmetry in the dependence relation. The sunshine and flagpole cause the shadow whereas the shadow has no causal role. 

v) He defines the potential redemption in counterfactual terms–"Christ suffered what would have been the punishment for our sins…" (emphasis added). So Christ redeemed the damned in a possible world, but not the actual world? That fissions the atonement into redemption in possible worlds for the damned, but redemption in the actual world for the saints. So there are multiple atonements. Not one atonement for everyone, or one atonement for the elect, but rather, customized atonements. A one-to-one correspondence between an atonement and the possible or actual world in which a given sinner exists. Each individual has his own atonement, be it potential or actual, fissioned all across the real or possible worlds. 

vi) Perhaps what Craig means is that Jesus died to redeem sinners on condition of faith. In that case, Jesus had no intention of redeeming unbelievers but only believers. Yet doesn't that amount to a limited atonement? And on that view, doesn't the overall number of the redeemed coincide with the elect in Calvinism?

But suppose you do think that Christ dies only for the elect. Does that imply that “most people couldn't even possibly be saved”? I don’t think so. 

It's true that limited atonement doesn't prejudge the percentage of the elect in relation to humanity generally. 

There are two ways in which salvation could be universally accessible. First, if we take election to be primarily corporate, then it is up to us whether we want to be part of that corporate body which is the object of Christ’s redemption. Christ died only for the elect, but anyone can be part of the elect by repentant faith.

On that view, does Jesus die for specific sinners, or is the atonement a general fund that sinners can appropriate? Did Jesus die with particular sinners in view? Or is the atonement anonymous? Like throwing C-notes out an airplane. It's up to people down below to seize the opportunity and scoop up as many C-notes as they can. 

Or, second, we could adopt a middle knowledge perspective…

The cure-all of Molinism. 

…holding that God knew who would freely receive God’s grace and be saved, and so He sent Christ to die for them alone but not for those persons who He knew would freely reject Him. If someone who remains unrepentant were to place his faith in Christ, then God would have included him in Christ’s atoning death. Thus, salvation and the benefits of Christ’s death are available to everyone, even though Christ died only for some but not all persons. This would also make sense of the Reformed insistence that Christ’s death has the power and worth to save everybody. Once again, we see the astonishing power of the doctrine of middle knowledge to open up unexpected options theologically. Via middle knowledge, we could, if we wanted, combine a doctrine of limited atonement with the universal availability of salvation.

If Jesus never made atonement for the impenitent, how is that consistent with the "the universal availability of salvation"? 


  1. Steve, do we have any info about who the audience was for 1 John? I think it's typically stated to be Ephesus and, from the letter's content, it's addressed to believers. But, I wonder if we're looking at a audience that's prodominately gentile or jewish or a fair mix? What occurs to me when reading thru this is "for the whole world" is more to prevent any formation of an "in-group". In short, I don't think we can use the quote to claim universalism unless one knows for sure who John is referring to when he says "not ours only" and why he felt the need to expand it to the whole world

    1. Yes, when understanding certain biblical claims, it's important to consider the implicit point of contrast, because that may define what was meant. And your specific suggestion is good.

  2. "The elect were always redeemed, as of the Crucifixion."

    If the elect were always redeemed, why were they "children of wrath" (Eph 2:4)? If their sins were paid for, why would God be wrathful towards them?

    1. Paul is making a drawing a comparison between what humans deserve apart from Christ in contrast to their situation in Christ.

      BTW, this is still an issue if you reject predestination but accept foreknowledge. If God knows that Bill, at 18, will become a Christian at 20, then when God considers Bill at 18, does he only regard him from the viewpoint what he is at that age–or does he take into consideration what Bill will become two years later? Is God's perspective compartmentalized according to a particular phase in someone's life, or does it take the entire life into account?

  3. “Paul is making a drawing a comparison between what humans deserve apart from Christ in contrast to their situation in Christ.”

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Did Paul (using the first person plural) think that he and his audience (not just humans in general) were at one time apart from Christ and, at one time, children of wrath? If so, what was the basis of God’s wrath towards Paul and his Christian audience if they were always redeemed?

    1. i) To begin with, there's a distinction between time and eternity. There's God's timeless plan. But that's realized in time. Realized in stages.

      ii) There's also the question of whether the distinction is ontological or epistemological. If you're an open theist, you might say God changes his mind. He viewed Paul as a child of wrath prior to Paul's conversion, which God couldn't foresee. Then God changed his attitude towards Paul after Paul's conversion.

      That would be an ontological distinction. That, however, makes no sense if you subscribe to predestination or divine foreknowledge.

      iii) More plausibly, it's an epistemological distinction. It's not as though God can't hold two ideas in his head at once. There's what Paul deserves without Christ in contrast to Paul's position in Christ. Those aren't hermeneutically sealed compartments in God's mind.

      There's a change in Paul's condition, from pre- to post-conversion, but that doesn't entail a corresponding change in God's outlook, unless you think God lacks foreknowledge.