This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I have asked about the atonement in a previous submission. Please forgive this final, multipart question, which can stand alone.
Here is the question. Even if it is legitimate for God to use vicarious liability and punishment in saving us--legitimate because these are established elements of Western law--why would God prefer vicarious liability to pardoning, which is also a recognized part of Western law? What advantage, from a legal philosophical view, does vicarious liability/punishment have over pardoning? Could God have chosen the legal option of pardon if He wished, rather than substitutionary atonement? What purpose is there in Jesus suffering, if absolution can be gained otherwise? Or is there some other moral, aesthetic, personal consideration that makes penal substitution preferable?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Before I address your interesting question, Jarrod, let me clarify that my appeal to Western systems of justice is not intended to legitimize God’s punishing Christ in our place. It is rather intended to defeat the oft-repeated objection that the imputation of wrongdoing and guilt to a blameless party is unheard of and without precedent in our experience and therefore the doctrine of imputation is false or incoherent. It turns out that what that objection assumes is flatly incorrect.
You’re quite right that pardon, as well as punishment, is a device of Western systems of justice for removing one’s liability to punishment. Just as a person who has paid his debt to society is no longer liable to punishment, so someone who has been pardoned by a recognized authority of the state is discharged from punishment. This raises the question whether God could have simply pardoned us for our sins rather than exact punishment (on us or Christ). Was Christ’s bearing our just desert necessary in order for God to save us?
You might be surprised to learn that Christian theologians have not been of one mind on this question. The Church Fathers, focused as they were on ransom theories and our deliverance from Satan, held that God, being omnipotent, could have defeated Satan and freed us without Christ’s sacrifice. It was not until Anselm in the eleventh century that anyone argued for the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and passion as the means of our salvation. Anselm denounced the old ransom theories as inadequate to meet the demands of God’s justice, which must be satisfied if we are to be saved from our sins. Thomas Aquinas, while accepting Anselm’s account of Christ’s death, reverted to the view of the Church Fathers that God’s choosing to redeem us through Christ rather than immediately was the result of God’s free choice, not a requirement of His justice. Among the Protestant Reformers, Lutheran theologians accepted Anselm’s claim of the necessity of Christ’s passion as the means of our salvation, whereas Reformed thinkers were split on the question. With the rise of Socinianism, which rejected penal substitution and denied the necessity of Christ’s death on our behalf, Reformed theologians became increasingly united in the conviction that God could not have simply pardoned us without Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
Hugo Grotius, a famed international jurist, defended penal substitution against Socinus’ criticisms but accepted the view that Christ’s substitutionary punishment was not necessary. God could have forgiven us without Christ’s bearing the punishment for our sins, but God chose penal substitution rather than pardon because of the overriding advantages of doing it that way. Appealing to the Church Fathers, Grotius argued that God had good reasons for not remitting our sins without punishing Christ, though He might have done so. God was unwilling to pass over so many and such heinous sins without testifying by some act how greatly displeased He is with sin. The act most suitable for this is punishment. Moreover, to neglect to punish sin altogether leads to a lower estimation of sin, whereas, on the other hand, the best means of preventing sin is the fear of punishment. Not only so, but in Christ’s voluntary self-sacrifice God declares in a marked way His great love for us. Thus, God in His most perfect wisdom chose that way of redemption by means of which He could manifest both His hatred of sin and His love of mankind.
So even on views which take Christ’s death not to be necessary there can still be good reasons, such as Grotius mentions, for God’s choosing to redeem us via penal substitution. It might be thought that God’s pardoning people would be vastly superior to substitutionary punishment because it would result in universal salvation. But a moment’s reflection shows that that is not the case. Redemption must be not only accomplished but also applied (see #482). Just as the benefits of Christ’s substitutionary punishment need to be accepted by faith, so also the benefits conferred by a pardon would need to be embraced by faith. Just as people freely reject Christ’s substitutionary payment of their penalty, so they might reject God’s pardon. In fact, when you think about it, a world in which pardon is offered with no example of Christ’s sacrificial love and the cost of sin might might well be a world in which fewer people are saved than a world in which Christ bears our sins for us.