Posted on / by Ben Jones

Part 7: Substitutionary Atonement

A Series of Responses to Jon Steingard’s Declaration of Disbelief in God

Substitutionary Atonement may seem like a big, fancy theological term, but it is at the very heart of Christianity itself. Don’t let the term scare you away! Christians believe that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a cross ~2000 years ago in Jerusalem somehow frees them from the justified eternal penalty that they would otherwise suffer for their own moral wrong-doing upon death. This is a major claim and comes with many questions, some of which are put forth by Jon in his declaration of disbelief. How does Jesus’ death possibly accomplish such a feat? And why was it necessary? An understanding of ‘substitutionary atonement’ speaks to both the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ As Jon asks, “Why can’t God forgive humans without someone being killed?” and “If God required the death of someone in order to forgive sins, why can we humans forgive someone without human sacrifice?” There are excellent answers to these and a wealth of insight as we gain an understanding of the mechanics of how Jesus’ death paid for mankind’s sin (if applied to their lives) and the necessity of it for salvation. This article is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the concept and theory of substitutionary atonement, or even a complete summary. For that, Dr. William Lane Craig’s newest book Atonement and the Death of Christ is hot off the press and is the most extensive historical and philosophical commentary on substitutionary atonement that I have ever read. I recommend it highly and quote from it a few times below. Here we will briefly discuss substitutionary atonement only in regards to the specific questions asked above.

What is substitutionary atonement? The first word refers to Jesus playing the role of a ‘substitute’ in paying the penalty of our sins and wrong-doing. We have seen in a previous article that the existence of objective moral wrong is very real; immorality is obvious when we look at the world today, and most recognize their own personal guilt as well. It is self-evident that punishment is justified for wrong-doing. Since the ‘wages of sin is death,’ paying the wages of sin ourselves would result in eternal separation from God (or ‘hell’). However, if someone else serves as a ‘substitute’ for us, they can pay the penalty in our stead, freeing us from paying it ourselves. It’s important to note that the penalty could not be paid by a substitute who already owed the penalty themselves for their own wrong-doing; thus it could only be paid by someone who was perfect, who had no sin or wrong-doing for which they were already deserving of punishment. This is one reason why only Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to have been sinless, could possibly serve as this ‘substitute.’ The word ‘atonement’ is a Middle English term meaning “at onement,” referring to a state of harmony. In this context, it refers to being “at-one with God.” Whereas sin automatically separates us from a perfectly holy God, and a just God must punish this sin, ‘atonement’ refers to a state of harmony or reconciliation between God and man, something that could only be achieved if sin and its punishment did not stand between them.

Many people will attempt to read the Bible starting at the beginning but get bogged down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy with all the detailed laws and sacrifices. However, this system established an understanding of the penalty of sin, which required blood and sacrifice. The Levitical animal sacrifices helped ancient Israel understand that sin has consequences and that forgiveness comes at a price. Similarly, Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrificial offering to God which truly cleansed us from sin, thereby reconciling us with God. The strict and detailed sacrificial system under Moses set the stage for the descendants of this new Hebrew nation to better recognize the necessity and significance of Jesus’ sacrifice hundreds of years later.

To help us understand the necessity of Christ’s death, we must better understand the attributes of God Himself and how they interact with one another. For example, how can God be perfectly just and also be merciful? By definition, having mercy on someone is not giving that person what they deserve, which is inherently unjust. Only in Christ is it possible for God’s divine justice to be satisfied and for Him also to be merciful to the sinner. He shows this mercy by allowing someone else to pay the penalty for our sins. However, this brings up another problem. Is it just for God to punish someone who is innocent, as it would be in the case of God punishing Christ? There seems to be nothing just about Jesus being tortured and dying a brutal death as an innocent man. There are two potential answers here. First, God did not punish Christ, but rather Christ voluntarily took upon himself the suffering we deserved. As Craig says, “Christ was not punished but he endured the suffering that would have been our punishment had it been inflicted on us.” Second, if our sins were truly imputed to Christ on the cross, He was no longer innocent at that time. The sin of all mankind rested upon His head; Christ was legally guilty before God the Father and thus legally liable to punishment. Either way, God is able to forgive us our sins and have mercy on our souls because of Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice, thus His perfect justice is also satisfied. So, to answer one of Jon’s questions, under this view, God could not arbitrarily forgive sinners or else this would conflict with His essential attribute of divine justice.

Now, the relationship between God and man is entirely different than that of human-to-human interaction involving forgiveness. There is no divine justice to be satisfied when we choose to forgive someone. For example, we must distinguish between a judge in a criminal case and a creditor in a civil lawsuit. From Craig,

“…as a litigant in a civil lawsuit, the creditor occupies a ‘private role’ and so does not have an antecedent obligation, required by the rules of justice, to impose harsh treatment by demanding repayment of the debt owed. He is therefore free to show mercy without prejudice to justice. By contrast a judge in a criminal case ‘has an obligation to do justice- which means, at a minimum, an obligation to uphold the rule of law. Thus if he is moved, even by love or compassion, to act contrary to the rule of law- to the rules of justice- he acts wrongly.’ …The overriding lesson is that God should not be thought of merely as a private party to a personal dispute but as Judge and Ruler of the world and therefore responsible for administering justice.”

So, in answer to Jon’s second question, humans play a very different role in the world than God the Father. We as humans can forgive someone their wrong-doing to us, or a debt they may rightfully owe us, without any further consequence to the offender. For example, if a friend borrows $100, promising to pay me back, I have the ability to forgive that debt instead of demand repayment. Or when a crime has been committed against us, we have the ability to forgive that person without any obligation to personally punish that person. They need not have asked for forgiveness or even been aware that they have been forgiven. In most cases, forgiveness between humans benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven. To have true peace in one’s soul or to move on from a terrible crime, sometimes a person must forgive an offender, even if the offender is no longer a part of the victim’s life. This may be an estranged parent, convicted felon, or even someone who has already died. Anger, bitterness, resentment, and depression typically increase over time in a victim when there is a lack of forgiveness. True healing can only begin when the victimized finds forgiveness in their heart for the person who has harmed them, even if this forgiveness is completely unbeknownst to the offender. On the other hand, “God’s pardon of us is based on Christ’s fully discharging substitutionally our sentence and so satisfying divine justice.” Craig continues,

“…God as Ruler does not merely pardon us but exacts the punishment demanded by retributive justice. He does not exact it from us but from Himself in Christ. We who accept Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice are thereby freed from our liability to punishment and therefore declared ‘not guilty.’ Seeing that Christ has vicariously satisfied the demands of divine retributive justice on our behalf, God can, in turn, pardon us of our sins. It is in that sense that God can be said to have forgiven our sins… Forgiveness in this legal sense is the declaration that the penalty has been fully paid and therefore we are free.”

When it comes to the relationship between God and man, certainly the forgiven is the one who benefits. This forgiveness, which is more akin to a legal pardon, is actually effectual in the life of the offender by freeing him from deserved punishment and certain spiritual death. As we can see, the effectual nature of forgiveness is completely different between our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.

The concept of substitutionary atonement is not without analogy in our own legal system. In owning a legal video firm myself, I’ve witnessed countless cases in which the defendant is not the same as the offender. For example, a FedEx truck driver falls asleep at the wheel and causes a major accident, permanently disabling a child in the backseat of another car. Even though the individual driver of the FedEx truck is at fault, the FedEx company is legally liable for damages. The family may or may not sue the driver, but they will certainly sue FedEx. Why? The individual driver almost surely does not have the financial capability of compensating the family for the harm he has caused or the ongoing medical expenses of the disabled child. On the other hand, FedEx has nearly unlimited resources to compensate the family financially. FedEx may have done everything correctly in the situation: proper training for its drivers, proper maintenance on the vehicle, etc, but yet they are still responsible for appropriate compensation to the injured child’s family. FedEx will legitimately and legally pay for what the truly guilty cannot. Likewise, a good judge could not simply forgive the defendants and dismiss the case. The analogy should be clear. God the Father, the ultimate Judge, must be just, which requires that the guilty be punished. However, it is not too great a stretch to conceive that if we are followers of Jesus and He ‘owns’ us, He can also pay our penalty. A penalty that would require eternal separation from God in hell, were we to pay it, but that God the Son, Jesus Christ, can pay with His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection three days later. In fact, the infinite value of Christ’s suffering and death is so great, that it can cover the penalty due any and every person who turns to Him in repentance- past, present, and future. The sacrifice of God the Son covered all the sins of the godly men that came before His death and resurrection, and it continues to cover all the sins of those who accept his free gift of salvation today. This helps us understand the mechanics of how Christ’s suffering and death so many years ago can still apply to us and still has the power to save us today. The value of that suffering transcends time itself, and thus Christ still awaits the opportunity today to place any repentant sinner’s deserved punishment on Himself should they be willing to accept Him as Lord of their life. However, for anyone who rejects Christ and His representation of us before God the Father, they are liable and responsible for paying the penalty of their own sins. And for a sinful human, this penalty is eternal separation from God in hell. Many will object that this punishment seems too harsh, but we underestimate the significance of sin in the face of a perfect and holy God, a God who must judge sin. Because we are not truly capable of paying the full penalty ourselves, this separation from God extends into eternity. Christ, on the other hand, as God the Son, proved He could fully pay the penalty of all our sins by defeating death itself through His resurrection.

We have only scratched the surface of understanding the different theories surrounding substitutionary atonement, but hopefully this sheds some light on some of the preliminary questions regarding God’s forgiveness of us through the work of His son, Jesus Christ. Certainly we can say with the Apostle Paul, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:56.