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.
Are humans rebellious?
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 don’t want to relate to a loving God if it means having to care what he thinks about anything that we are doing.
Who is going to pay for our rebellion?
The Christian answer to the problem of our rebellion is that Jesus takes the punishment we deserve in our place.
However, 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.
So, it turns out that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is not as mysterious or as objectionable as everyone seems to think it is.
Looks like Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable radio show found a pastor with a Ph.D in philosophy, and he can really whip some ass. And that’s a good thing, because he is taking on one of the two leading proponents of religious pluralism, in my opinion, (the other being Paul Knitter).
John Hick is a noted philosopher and theologian who is a proponent of a pluralist view of religion – that there is one light (God) but many lampshades (religious expressions).
Chris Sinkinson is a pastor and Bible tutor who has critiqued Hick’s work. He says that pluralism empties Christianity of any content and in its own way disrespects other religions more than his own exclusivist stance.
Justin does a great job as moderator of this debate. He said what I was thinking of saying a number of times during the debate.
Anyway, here is my snarky summary. I creatively paraphrase some of the things that Hick says to make it more clear. And funny.
– had an experience looking at the buildings of other religions
– other religions have buildings, so all religions are equal
– I spent some time in the East, and met nice Eastern people
– since Eastern people are nice that means all religions are equal
– isn’t Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive path to salvation offensive?
– all religions that are exclusive and have to deal with religious pluralism
– even John Hick writes polemically in favor of his own view
– even John Hick thinks that religions that are exclusive are false
– what about the blind man and the elephant?
– the story seems to say that other people have a partial grasp?
– but the story-teller himself has the privileged view
– so isn’t the religious pluralist just as arrogant as exclusivists?
– well, it’s not arrogant to claim to have the right answer
– Jesus never made the claim to be God incarnate
– Jesus never made the claim to be the exclusive path to God
– historians don’t think that John’s gospel is reliable because it is late
– the proclamation of exclusivity was added by evangelists much later
– the historians who doubt the high Christology are radical skeptics
– the mainstream of historical scholarship accepts a high Christology
– the EARLIEST history about Jesus has the highest Christology
– the moderate scholars do think Jesus was divine but that he didn’t think he was divine
– the phrase “Son of God” was used to describe any remarkable person
– only later did the early church turn the generic term into “God the Son”
– there is reflection on Jesus’ identity and developments, but not invention
– Jesus and his followers were in trouble precisely for linking him to deity
– why else would Jesus get into trouble and get crucified?
– the Romans crucified him because people were saying he was the Messiah
– but the Messiah was not identified as being divine, but political
– and that’s why the Romans crucified him
– do you (Sinkinson) think that people in other religions can be saved?
– the traditional view is exclusivism
– the other world religions are logically contradictory with Christianity
– you have to respect their differences – they are not the same as Christianity
– exclusivists allow that people can be saved by responding to natural theology
– and there are also other cases where non-Christians are saved, like old testament saints and babies who die in infancy
– but people’s religions are based on where they are born
– so it’s not fair for God to expect people to be saved in one religion only
– the plurality of religions grouped by location doesn’t make christianity false
– that would be the genetic fallacy – rejecting an idea because of its origin
– the real question to consider is whether it is true
– and even the objection assumes that God is a God of love, who should be fair
– but how do you know that God is loving? that is an exclusive view
– how can the “blob” ultimate of religious pluralism be “loving” and “fair”
– the ultimate reality is loving or not loving depending on each person’s religion
– but some religions and theistic and some are atheistic
– how can those God exist and not exist?
– God is beyond everyone’s understanding, except mine
– God is beyond all definitions, except mine
– God is beyond all human understanding, except mine
– i’m not contradicting myself, it’s a mystery! a mystery!
– as long as you don’t look to closely, they’re all the same!
– allow me to tell you about God, which no one can do but me
– doesn’t your religious pluralism mean that Christianity is false?
– well, Christianity can’t be true, because it disagrees with other religions
– Christianity can’t falsify other religions, that would be mean to them
– other religions are just as “profound” as Christianity – and that’s what matters – not whether a religion makes true claims
– some religions are older than Christianity, that means they can’t be disagreed with
– we can’t let Christianity be true, because then some people will feel bad
– if people feel bad, then they don’t like me and then I feel bad
– if there’s one thing I know about the unknowable ultimate reality, it’s that it wants me to be liked by lots of people
– your view seems to be agnosticism – that nothing can be known about the “ultimate real”
– if we can’t express in words what God is like, then why are you saying what God is like?
– the indescribable ultimate is described (falsely, but interestingly) by various tradition
– does the “ultimate real” exist?
– are all the exclusive religions wrong, and only you are right?
– all propositions about God in all the religions are false
– the experience of being deluded and having feelings about your delusions is “valid” in all religions
– all religions are equally good ways to believe false things and to have feelings about your false beliefs
– only my propositions about God are true
– everyone who disagrees with me is wrong
– so all the propositions of all the religions are wrong
– but all the experiences and feelings are “right”
– all propositions about God are humanly constructed, and so false
– except mine – mine are true!
– so everything distinctive about Christianity are literally false?
– yes, Christian doctrines are all false
– because if they were true, other religions would be false, and they would feel bad
– and we can’t have that, because everyone has to like me
– only things that don’t offend people in other religions can be true
– so do we have to then treat all religions as non-propositional?
– well just don’t ask people about the content of their beliefs
– just treat their religion as non-cognitive rituals, feelings and experiences
– don’t inquire too deeply into it, because all religions are all nonsense
– i’m very respectful and tolerant of different religions!
– but Muslims, for example, think their religion is making truth claims
– but there can be tolerance as long as you treat religions as non-propositional nonsense
– um, I have a higher respect for religions than you do
– I actually consider that the claims of other religions could be true
– I think that other religions make truth claims and not nonsense claims
– well they are all useful because they are all false
– I don’t emphasize beliefs, I emphasize living, experiences and feelings
– as long as everyone accepts my view and rejects their religion, we’ll all be tolerant
– erm, isn’t that an exclusive claim?
– you’re trying to say that your view of what religion is is right, and everyone else is wrong
– I’m not arrogant, I just think that all the religions of the worlds are false
– only my statements about religion are true – everyone else is wrong
– I’m tolerant, and Christians are arrogant
– but you think Sinkinson’s view is wrong
– why should we accept your view and deny his view?
– His view of salvation is false, and mine is true
– you use words with set meanings, but you mean completely different things
– when I say salvation, I mean deliverance from sins through Jesus
– I get to decide what salvation means for everyone, you intolerant bigot
– but that word has a specific meaning that has held true in all of Christian history
– but what you mean by salvation is people having subjective delusions that are not true
– I don’t like using the word salvation
– but you just used it!
– and you think that it is present in different world religions, but it isn’t
– God is unknowable and indescribable
– God isn’t a wrathful God though
– and the Christian description of God is false
– Evangelical Christians are mean
– I had experiences with people of other faiths
– and these experiences taught me that religions that think that the universe is eternal are true
– as long as you reduce religion to behaviors and not truth, then religions are all good at producing behaviors
– if you just treat all religions as clothing fashion and food customs, they are all valid
– the main point of religion is for people to agree on cultural conventions and stick to them
– never mind the propositional statements of religions… who cares about truth? not me!
– but Christianity is definitely false
– the Judeo-Christian God is different – he reveals himself to humans
– he is distinct from the other religions
– he is personal, and is loving but also angry at sin
– But God isn’t a person, and he isn’t a non-person
– I can’t say what he is – I’ll offend someone if I say anything at all!
– except Christians – I can offend them because they are arrogant bigots
– I’m also very spiritual – I meditate on my breathing
– you can’t assess a religion by the experiences that people have
– people who have weird experiences do all kinds of evil things
– so the real question has to be about truth – is the New Testament reliable?, etc.
This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has ever done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates). If you’ve never seen Dr. Craig in a debate with a non-Christian, this one is probably the best introductory one out there. Dr. Craig is the foremost defender of Christian theism on the planet, and probably of all time.
Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it! Normally, Dr. Craig debates at major universities in front of students and faculty.
There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.
Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)
God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)
He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically
Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God
His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument
Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines
The inductive argument from evil:
If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
There is evil in the world.
Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.
Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling
God could prevent tooth decay with no pain
God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer
Responses by Christians:
Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good
WLC opening speech:
Summarizing Walter’s argument
If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
Gratuitous evil exists.
Therefore, God does not exist.
Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.
Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.
The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.
Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.
the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous
Christian doctrines from 2.:
The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives
Arguing for God in 3.
If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.
Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):