Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Atonement Dilemma: An Addendum

Some months ago, I wrote a short essay arguing that the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement, at least as understood in the orthodox sense that most Christians adhere to, is plagued with fundamental inherent inconsistencies. In the Christian mythology, Jesus Christ is said to have suffered and died for the sins of humanity. If that is the case, I asked, should Jesus Christ not be acting as a placeholder in hell for eternity? Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus took upon himself the sins that condemned all humanity to an eternity separated from God in hell. Therefore, in order for the theological structure to remain internally consistent, Jesus would necessarily have to remain in hell permanently in order for any Christian to enter heaven.

I now realize that my formulation of the problem in that previous essay did not take into account the mythology in its entirety, and the feedback from my readers served to remind me of this. The reason why Jesus could take upon himself the sins of all people and yet avoid being permanently trapped in hell is because he is God, and therefore holds the power to avoid that fate by a fiat act of will. For example, one reader responded as follows:
To use a really lame analogy, if you take a balloon full of air and try and submerge it underwater, it is going to fight its way to the service. So too because the nature of hell (which IS separation from God) could not contain God Himself, the process of atonement somehow broke the gates. On His return from hell, those who clung (and do cling) to Him in hope are lifted out of death and decay as well. If not bodily yet, in spirit yes.

In a similar vein, another reader responded by pointing out that
I don't think your representation holds, because there's nothing that said Jesus had to go to hell forever. There is a difference between us (the debtor) and Jesus (the one who paid.) The scriptures say that while the penalty of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life.

One other thing, if God exists and the Bible is His word, God can do whatever He wants. There is no absolute standard of 'justice' above Him, because justice is defined by Him. Also, what is sufficient is defined by Him as well.

While this aspect of the mythology is certainly relevant to explaining how Jesus Christ could have escaped the fate of permanent placeholder in hell for the redeemed, the more important insight and the more pertinent point to be made is that there was no sacrifice. If Jesus was trapped in hell forever, that would be a true sacrifice. I am not saying that, according to the story, Jesus did not suffer and die brutally. But this would not hold a candle to the claim that Elvis Presley died for our sins. Elvis stayed dead! Jesus, on the other hand, took an extended weekend and then returned to his position as God afterwards. As revealed by Mel Gibson, Jesus experienced horrible suffering and pain that was literally excruciating. But Jesus did not even experience the most horrible pain and suffering in human history. Compare, for example, the alleged sufferings of Jesus Christ at his execution to people who were kept alive for long periods in the midst of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. I have seen Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ several times (it was not as good as the book, by the way). I have read several historians who point out that as bloody as Gibson's portrayal was, it was very commonplace at that time in history for people to be scourged, brutally beaten and crucified to the same degree experienced by the Christ in the film.

Thus, the relative brevity and commonplace nature of Jesus' sufferings compared to the level of suffering experienced by people in all of human history pose another problem threatening the credibility of the atonement scenario. But the problems do not end there. Suppose a godlike being came to you and presented this offer to you: "You are going to be beaten brutally, scourged, have your skin ripped out, stabbed, and nailed to a tree until you die. You are then going to stay dead for three days. Then, when the three days are over, you become God, the supreme ruler of the universe." Who in their right mind would not sign up for that? Far from being the deal of the century, this would be the deal of an eternity. It is anything but a sacrifice.

The Christian notion of substitutionary atonement is essentially that God sacrificed himself to himself as a workaround or loophole for rules that he devised himself. If God can do whatever he wants and still retain his perfect morality, with no absolute standard of justice being above him, he could have simply forgiven all people, or at least admitted that his original rules were patently absurd. For what exactly is the actual point in masochistically taking on that extra punishment? If you want to forgive an individual or a group of people, then forgive them, most especially if you are the one who is in charge of making up the rules concerning whether your special creations can be forgiven or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment