William Lane Craig makes sense of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement

Probably one of the most common questions that you hear from people who don’t fully understand Christianity is this question: “why did Jesus have to die?”. The answer that most Christians seem to hold to is that 1) humans are rebelling against God, 2) Humans deserve punishment for their rebellion, 3) Humans cannot escape the punishment for their rebellion on their own, 4) Jesus was punished in the place of the rebellious humans, 5) Those who accept this sacrifice are forgiven for their rebelling.

Some people think that humans are not really rebellious at all, but it’s actually easy to see. You can see it just by looking at how people spend their time. Some of us have no time for God at all, and instead try to fill our lives with material possessions and experiences in order to have happy feelings. Some of us embrace just the parts of God that make us feel happy, like church and singing and feelings of comfort, while avoiding the hard parts of that vertical relationship; reading, thinking and disagreeing with people who don’t believe the truth about God. And so on.

This condition of being in rebellion is universal, and all of us are guilty of breaking the law at some point. All of us deserve to be separated from God’s goodness and love. Even if we wanted to stop rebelling, we would not be able to make up for the times where we do rebel by being good at other times, any more than we could get out of a speeding ticket by appealing to the times when we drove at the speed limit, (something that I never do, in any case).

This is not to say that all sinners are punished equally – the degree of punishment is proportional to the sins a person commits. However, the standard is perfection. And worse than that, the most important moral obligation is a vertical moral obligation. You can’t satisfy the demands of the moral law just by making your neighbor happy, while treating God like a pariah. The first commandment is to love God, the second is to love your neighbor. Even loving your neighbor requires you to tell your neighbor the truth – not just to make them feel good. The vertical relationship is more important than the horizontal one, and we’ve all screwed up the vertical relationship. We all don’t want God to be there, telling us what’s best for us, interfering with our fun. We’re obstinate tin soldiers, as C.S. Lewis says. We don’t want to relate to a loving God if it means having to care what he thinks about anything.

So how do we get out of this mess that we are all in?

This article from Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason may help you to make sense of it – without any churchy jibber-jabber.


Christians often say, “if you believe in Jesus you go to Heaven; if you don’t believe in Jesus you go to Hell”. Is that true? Well, it is true, but it doesn’t communicate a sense of the true circumstance. It’s not coherent to most people because it just seems bizarre why what one person thought about some guy who died 2000 years ago has anything to do with their eternal destiny. Whether they believe in him or not seems irrelevant to anything that might happen after we die. So we have often not been careful to communicate the sense of things.

We need to be clear so that someone rejects the real message and not some incoherent mess that some Christian has handed him that they can’t make sense of. So, I don’t say, “if you believe in Jesus you go to Heaven, and if you don’t believe you go to Hell,” because this is misleading. I’d rather try to explain it more accurately.

Many of you are familiar with the conversation I had with a fellow at Barnes and Noble in which he asked me a question. I was giving a talk there as part of the book on relativism that Dr. Frank Beckwith and I co-authored, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Since I was talking about it in the bookstore, he came up afterwards and started asking questions about Jesus. Instead of unloading this slogan on him, I asked him this question. Do you think that people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished? He said, “Yes.” I said, “Good, so do I.” Second question, “Have you ever committed any moral crimes?” Pause. Then he said, “Yes, I guess I have.” You know what I said to him? “So have I.”

This just took 30 seconds, right? Then I reflected back to him, “Look where we’ve come so far. We both believe that people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished. And we both believe we’ve committed moral crimes. You know what I call that? Bad news.” And it is bad news.

Most people are concerned with doing what is right. That was one of the first things he told me. “I’m Jewish. I believe in morality. I believe in God. Why do I have to believe in your Jesus?” Here is a man who has some level of commitment to the moral life. The problem is, he knows that that commitment does not guarantee that he is going to live a fully moral life and he’s aware of his own moral crimes. And so am I. Now what? That is the issue? We are guilty. That is the bad news.

This is why it is so important to get the bad news before the good news. The bad news gives meaning to the good news. I was able to talk about the fact that now we both admit we have a problem, but that there is a solution that God has ordained. Since He is the one who is offended, He is the one who can call the shots on how to fix the problem. The answer is through His Son Jesus, who provides mercy because he took the rap for our crimes. We got off. He went to jail. A modern metaphor to put it in perspective.

Now I’ve noticed that on some atheist blogs, they don’t like the idea that someone else can take our punishment for us to exonerate us for crimes that we’ve committed. So I’ll quote from this post by the great William Lane Craig, to respond to that objection.


The central problem of the Penal Theory is, as you point out, understanding how punishing a person other than the perpetrator of the wrong can meet the demands of justice. Indeed, we might even say that it would be wrong to punish some innocent person for the crimes I commit!

It seems to me, however, that in other aspects of human life we do recognize this practice. I remember once sharing the Gospel with a businessman. When I explained that Christ had died to pay the penalty for our sins, he responded, “Oh, yes, that’s imputation.” I was stunned, as I never expected this theological concept to be familiar to this non-Christian businessman. When I asked him how he came to be familiar with this idea, he replied, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance business.” He explained to me that certain sorts of insurance policy are written so that, for example, if someone else drives my car and gets in an accident, the responsibility is imputed to me rather than to the driver. Even though the driver behaved recklessly, I am the one held liable; it is just as if I had done it.

Now this is parallel to substitutionary atonement. Normally I would be liable for the misdeeds I have done. But through my faith in Christ, I am, as it were, covered by his divine insurance policy, whereby he assumes the liability for my actions. My sin is imputed to him, and he pays its penalty. The demands of justice are fulfilled, just as they are in mundane affairs in which someone pays the penalty for something imputed to him. This is as literal a transaction as those that transpire regularly in the insurance industry.

It might be a good idea to also read this post on CARM, which explains the Bible verses that have led generations of Christians to believe in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This isn’t something that the church tells you, it’s something that comes straight out of the Bible, when you just read it alone, by yourself.


Jesus did what we could not.  He took our place and bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and made propitiation for our sins.

  • Rom. 3:25, “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”
  • 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
  • 1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

The word propitiation “properly signifies the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift.” Propitiation properly deals with the wrath of God. The wrath of God is due to the legal requirements of punishing the sinner.  Remember, the sinner is someone who has broken the law of God; hence, the legality of punishment, and since Jesus is our propitiation and turns away the lawful wrath of God, we have further evidence that Christ’s sacrifice was to avert God’s righteous wrath against us, the sinners. Since the law of God must be met and cannot be ignored, it is proper that the law be fulfilled.  Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law and never sinned (1 Pet. 2:22).  But, he bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21) thereby suffering the penalty of sin, which is death.

I think that the way that a person becomes a Christian is by recognizing that they really are a rebel against God, and that their own made-up standard of what they ought to be doing is insignificant, arbitrary and self-serving. The way forward lies in acknowledging that we need to have a fresh start with God – we need forgiveness. If we are going to start to do what we ought to do, then we need a change from the inside out. And there is only one person who has ever solved that problem – Jesus. He paid the price, and offers us a fresh start. That’s what Christians mean when they talk about “being saved”. They mean that Jesus solved the problem of the rift between God and man that is caused by man’s rebellion. Appropriating his sacrifice on the cross requires a genuine belief that Jesus is who he said he was, and did what he said he did. It’s easy to recognize people who genuinely trust in Jesus, because genuine trust causes the person to re-orient and re-prioritize their lives in light of that sacrifice. That’s what people mean when they talk about being “a follower of Jesus”.

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5 thoughts on “William Lane Craig makes sense of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement”

  1. Love this. Have you read Living the Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Maheney? Or anything by Charles Spurgeon? There’s a whole free archive full of his sermons online. I highly recommend “The Approchableness of Jesus Christ” for starters:
    It’s important for apologists to have a devotional life now and then.


  2. Excellent post WK! I have never read the excerpt you posted from Craig talking to the businessman. That was a good example.

    I’ve often wondered why churches don’t let people reject the real thing. I too was told people who go to heaven believe in Jesus, those who don’t go to hell. I didn’t really understand the crime I committed.

    I think salvation is actually more clearly defined when the person realizes what they are being saved from, you know? We committed a crime, we deserve to be punished, but instead Jesus paid the debt for those who put their trust in Him.

    Also, Mary did an excellent job on her post!


  3. While I agree with (and appreciate) Koukl and Craig and CARM, I’ve always felt that such explanations are insufficient. Here’s why: they don’t explain WHY.

    A more full explanation of why Jesus had to die should, in my opinion, include both Revelation 13:8b and Romans 5:8.

    the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.

    But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

    Jesus’ death wasn’t a reaction to our sin…Jesus ‘was slain’ from the very beginning. It was part of the plan. What was the plan? To DEMONSTRATE GOD’S LOVE toward us.

    Jesus’ death was more than just a demonstration…but, as I see it, the demonstration is the point. Jesus didn’t die because He HAD TO take our place. He died because God decided that taking our place would be the DEMONSTRATION we needed.


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