Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Logic of the Atonement

This is not a post intended to explain all facets of the Resurrection and atonement for sins. However, this is intended to explain at least the basic idea of Jesus Christ’s dying for the sins of mankind. The atonement really is logical. Here is a brief syllogism (and one which is by far not the last word on the subject).

1. If one has committed a sin, it must be paid for to be in a right standing with God.
2. In order for a sin to be paid for, one must be righteous.
3. No sinful man is righteous.
4. Every man who has sinned is sinful.
5. Therefore, one cannot pay for his sins (from [2-4])
6. Therefore, one cannot be in a right standing with God (from [1, 5]).

This is where Christ comes in. Since no person can pay for his sins (by definition), no one is saved. Unless, of course, all of humanity can be redeemed. Consider another set of premises:

7. Jesus was a sinless man.
8. If there is a sinless man, he can atone for the sins of humanity.
9. Therefore, the sins of mankind are the ones that are atoned for upon Christ’s death.

(1) may be controversial for many religious viewpoints. However, consider this: God is morally perfect. God’s moral perfection means that he cannot command or do sin. Imputed righteousness is God’s righteousness. Therefore, imputed righteousness to mankind is dependent upon a lack of sin. Hence, (1) is true. (2) is true in virtue of the fact that a sin can never itself be paid for, since no amount of payment by an individual can be sufficient if one is a sinner. On pain of logical contradiction, what has been done has been done.

(3) is true by definition, since “righteous” here means the same as “moral perfection.” (4) is also definitional, and I should suspect will not be contested. (5-6) are both conclusions, and hence cannot be denied. (7) will be controversial for the non-theist or non-Christian, however I am largely attempting to show the idea of atonement as reasonable, and compatible with justice. Hence, we may assume (7) here. It’s also worth noting that if one has to deny the fact of Jesus’ being morally perfect in order to deny the atonement, then it won’t do any good to use the atonement’s not being logical in order to deny Christianity. In fact, it would be the fact that Christianity is false that renders the syllogism false. In either case, the atonement stands as logical in this argument.

(8) is also plausibly difficult. However, consider this illustration: The idea of the atonement is that it is a category or class, not merely one paying for his sins. Suppose a math class has to have an average of 85. They take the test without one person present and average 83. Each member of the class can only take the test once. However, one person comes back the next day and takes the test, receiving a perfect score. Thus, the average is brought up to above 85 and the villagers rejoice! A member of the class did something no one else could do at that point (bring up the score) so that the failure of the class was mitigated. Jesus, as a member of the class of humans, paid for the debt of humans. He is not paying for someone else's debt only, but for the debt itself. Sure, it is not fair, just as in the case of the man who cannot make his loan payments. Say a rich guy comes by and pays the entire balance off in one shot. It is hardly fair, but it is just. The debt has been paid.

Fair refers to equal treatment. Justice does not always demand fairness. Indeed, because Christians believe God is omnibenevolent, once the justice had been satisfied, God would have had to extend his mercy to whosoever will take it; that is, in order to remain in his revealed character! God’s character is the basis of the logic of the atonement available to whosoever will take it.
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  1. I think I would have to disagree with 8. There would have to be a conjunct of divinity. I think we can base that from Hebrews. WIth the God-man conjunction that can be categorically efficient to atone for all humanity; whereas I only see a righteous man [without sin] as being null of sin and can only atone for himself. Since he is without sin it seems it would be moot anyways. Thoughts?

  2. Good overview of the Penal Substitution Atonement, Randy. I was wondering if you have looked into Robin Collins' Incarnational theory of the atonement. It's basically a further development of the greek orthodox view that doesn't run into the plausibility difficulties you describe here, and in his paper he does offer some critiques of the PSA.

    Personally I'm a big fan of the Christus Victor view; but really I think all three (PSA, CV, Incarnational) can probably be reconciled.

  3. Max, right you are! I need to explain a little more. First, I would need to differentiate between moral perfection and moral innocence. Moral innocence is what man has, whereas I would argue moral perfection is something only God can have. Therefore resulting in the need for (8) to include a God-man conjunction, as you say. So as far as I understand you I agree and need to clean this up a bit.

  4. Erik, thanks for posting! I have not examined this paper. I'll need to do that over the coming week (though I'll be quite busy). My belief is that the only true plausibility problems for those within Christianity might be (8), as Max pointed out. From without Christianity, the only objections are not to the logic of the atonement to the denial of Christianity, but from the denial of Christianity to a denial of such a view of the atonement. But I am more than happy to check out his article!

  5. I find that Collins' view presents a much more holistic solution to the problem of sin. It's just a 25 page paper, but to help you wet your appetite, here's a brief snapshot of the view vs. PSA.

    Rather than seeing sin as a legal debt that needs to be paid in order to secure forgiveness, (Anselm, Reformers) God can forgive us without such legal requirements if he so chooses, but it is Christ's atonement delivers us from the bondage of sin within. That is to say, the punishment we suffer for sin is something that results from the nature of sin itself. Our state of alienation isn't so much of a legal problem as it is an human nature problem. The solution of the atonement is that we get grafted into Christ, God's ideal person. We now get to tap into his subjectivity, so to speak, and face sin as he did on the earth. In Christ we tap into his faith, courage, love, etc and this is how we are saved from sin. God's wrath is satisfied because he sees us in Christ, our nature has been changed.

  6. (7) should be changed to "Jesus was a righteous man." If I didn't realize this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive article, I would also probably add a bit about the covenant of works.

    As for whether or not sin is a legal or natural issue, I don't see why it can't be both. In fact, it must be both.

    God cannot justly forever forbear punishing sin, which is why Christ needed to die for believers (Romans 3:25-26). He must be just as well as justifier, and Paul continues with this legal motif throughout Romans.

    On the other hand, it is our union with Christ in regeneration - in which we, having been imbued with a new nature, begin to be conformed to Christ's image - that allows Christ to function as our federal head in the same way the first Adam was the federal head of humanity. Thus, union must precede imputed righteousness/sin and justification.

    - Ryan

  7. Hi Ryan. Agreed about (7). Although I explained it as moral perfection, I unfortunately did not state it as such. Later on tonight or perhaps tomorrow I will amend the relevant premises I said I would. I would think that Christ's full humanity would be enough for him to act as our head. However, this is a side issue with respect to the atonement's being logical. What I mean is that while we may disagree about the extent of the atonement or whatnot, we nonetheless agree the atonement is reasonable. For instance, one may change Jesus' dying for the class or category of human sin to the class or category of sins of the elect, and the underlying logic holds. It's in the details where we differ, but for this direct purpose that is not a concern for me! :)

  8. Hi, I liked the post! Just being picky but I would note that a syllogism is a three point argument with a major premise, minor premise and a conclusion. So the 8 points you listed wouldn't be a syllogism.

  9. Hey J! Yes, what you say is true in the letter but not the spirit! LOL. But seriously, I suppose it is rather a grouping of syllogisms plural (since material conditionals are also allowed). I just prefer a bit of mixing and matching in an overall argument. :)


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