This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I have a question regarding the chronology of the atonement.
I know that, in one sense, the atonement encompasses all of Jesus' life in that it involves the imputation of his righteousness to us and not only our sin to him, and therefore we can say that everything from his birth, the silent years of his life, his baptism, temptation, etc. are all a part of the atonement.
On the other hand, the bible seems to focus specifically on the death of Jesus on the cross.
On the third hand (I need more hands), when I look at the point of the sky going dark and the Jesus crying out from Psalm 22, it seems to me like -that- is the focal point of the atonement, the point when God turns his back on Jesus and he becomes our scapegoat. I see it that way because it's after this point is over that Jesus says "It is finished". But then, if it were truly finished at that point, wouldn't that make the physical death superfluous?
I suppose my question is this, at what point exactly in the passion narrative does the atonement take place?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Yours is a question, Ty, on which I have no firm opinion. But let me share some thoughts.
On the one hand, Christians have typically taken Christ’s so-called cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34) to be the moment at which Jesus came to bear the punishment for our sins. Sometimes it is said that only here does Jesus refer to God as “God,” rather than as his “Father,” thus showing his estrangement from the Father at that moment. This is thought to be the moment at which, so to speak, God the Father turned His back on His Son and allowed him to experience the separation from God that is sinners’ just desert for sin.
This seems plausible; but upon reflection second thoughts arise. In the first place, once one realizes that what Jesus is doing here is reciting the words of Psalm 22, which is the prayer of God’s righteous servant in distress, then a very different perspective emerges. Far from showing Jesus’ alienation from God at that point, his praying Psalm 22 seems to show his deep reliance upon God at this bleakest moment of his life. Moreover, a little later he prays, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23.46). Here he addresses God as his Father. Is the punishment for sin then past? Has Jesus been restored to fellowship?
That seems incredible. For then, as you note, God might as well have stopped the whole thing and miraculously delivered him from death. But the Scripture says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23) and that we are redeemed by Jesus’ death (Romans 4.24). It was by dying that Jesus paid the penalty for sin that we deserved.
So I’m inclined to think of Christ’s punishment as a process that began prior to his death and culminated in his death. During that time, he certainly sensed his forsakenness by God, though he continued to cling to Him in faith. When he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19.30) and expired, he did not mean that redemption was now over and done with but that it had reached its culmination, his death.
What do you think?