Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Atonement Dilemma

The theological concept of substitutionary sacrifice is one that is prevalent throughout Jewish theology. Substitutionary atonement was embodied in Old Testament practices such as sacrificing animals or sending a scapegoat into the wilderness following the ritualistic confessing of one's sins over the goat's head. These practices were derived from a belief that the sacrifice of another living creature, if carried out properly according to the divine prescriptions, could serve to atone for a wrongdoing committed by an individual. This concept persisted and was carried over into the religion of Christianity as it developed from its Jewish roots. The symbology surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus bears this out. The Lamb of God, the title that came to refer directly to Jesus as the canonical gospel writers perceived him, is a direct reference to the Jewish practice of sacrificing a lamb at the Temple. Within this context, it may be understandable why the notion arose that Jesus Christ could be a sacrifice to God that atones for the sins of everybody who ever lived and would ever live, and at the same time maintain an intimate connection with God. But a daunting inconsistency and contradiction emerges from this theological concept, at least when such a theological scenario is taken literally and considered to be flawless.

The argument presented here highlights the difficulties confronting the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as understood in the traditional, orthodox, and/or literal sense that most Christians adhere to, and identifies what I recognize to be a fundamental inconsistency or contradiction inherent in it. I will do this by presenting a series of premises that describe the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Premise 1: All mankind has sinned.

Premise 2: The payment or the punishment for sin is eternal separation from God.

Based upon Premises 1 and 2, the first conclusion to be drawn is that all mankind deserves eternal separation from God.

Premise 3: Jesus paid the penalty and bore the punishment prescribed by God for sin in the place of mankind, so that humanity will no longer be eternally separated from God.

There is a contradiction in this particular theological model. Christian theology also claims that Jesus Christ currently resides at the right hand of God the Father and simultaneously in the souls of believers. The point to be taken from this is that Jesus is not eternally separated from God. According to Premise 2, eternal separation from God is the payment or the punishment for sin. If Jesus Christ took that payment upon himself, a consistent Christian theology should posit that he be separated from God for eternity. If Christ experienced a proper taking on of sins, going through an eternity in hell necessarily seems to follow.

Many Christians believe that, upon his death by crucifixion, Christ spent a mere three days in hell, suffering its torments while preaching to the captives contained therein. Yet this violates the second premise, which is a simple one that traditional Christianity affirms. Namely, total and permanent separation from God is the payment or punishment or price (however one wishes to phrase it) of sin against God. According to traditional Christian theology, Christ experienced God's wrath on behalf of sinful man. A Christian may argue that because Jesus was both human and God, the conditions of his sacrifice did not dictate eternal separation from God, due to his unique divine nature. This does not satisfy the logical dilemma, for it seems to amount to a moving of the goalposts. If the punishment for sin is not eternal separation from God, then what is it? In order for the Christian model represented by the three premises above to remain intact, either Jesus did not pay the penalty for sin, or Jesus is not at the right hand of God and has been consigned to hell for eternity. In the event that neither of these two options is accepted, one or both of the premises must be changed.

Most Christians who identify as one who affirms the historical and traditionally orthodox positions of Christianity would claim that Premise 1 (all mankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God) is a true statement. Most of these same Christians would also claim that Premise 2 (that the payment or the punishment for sin is eternal separation from God in hell) is a true statement as well. The moment the third Premise is added to the equation (that Jesus paid the penalty demanded by God for sin on behalf of fallen man) the logical conclusion based upon the two preceding Premises is that Jesus is not now seated at the right hand of God, but is separated from Him and will remain so for eternity. To avoid this implication, one could make a case that one of the Premises is wrong. But the Christian who decides to argue thus is obligated to point out how and why one of the Premises is wrong.

Another thought that arises from considerations of the Christian premise of atonement also relates to the temporality vs. eternity dilemma. While Jesus took upon himself the sins of everybody who ever lived and would ever live, the punishment he bore on behalf of humanity as their divine representative was basically to endure a crucifixion. At that time in history, thousands upon thousands of people died by crucifixion. Of course, this is not to deny that crucifixion is a terrible and extremely agonizing way to die. But even if a logical and consistent pathway was found that reconciled all three Premises and still managed to place Jesus at the right hand of the Father, one can conclude that Jesus presumably went through with his Passion ordeal in the knowledge that he was actually God, and that his suffering would not last long. This scenario seems to lessen the significance and weight of bearing the sins of the world and absorbing the punishment for that sin.

I invite Christian ministers or pastors, or anybody in general interested in discussing theology to address this dilemma by leaving comments or writing a response article. Perhaps a discussion can be initiated.

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