This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
It is not my expectation that this message will reach you, but perhaps someone can help me with an answer.
I have been struggling with Christian faith, and I would say my beliefs orbit Christian doctrine, but there are fundamental tenets of orthodox Christian doctrine that I do not believe (yet?).
One very important example is the person and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. I do not believe that Jesus is divine, nor that he was resurrected from the dead. I do believe he was a real person and was sort of a emissary plenipotentiary.
I have been presented with an argument that in order to reconcile God's perfect justice with salvation, that there needed to be a Jesus who is divine and who paid a kind of substitutionary penalty for the one humanity was responsible for paying, otherwise.
There is a concept (which I know you are undoubtedly aware of) in law and justice that spans different times, places and cultures which posits that the law of a realm is made and administered in the name of the sovereign of the realm. As such, it is in the authority of the sovereign to grant pardons and commutations of sentences. This pardon or commutation does not remove the guilt of the offending party (accepting a pardon or commutation is actually a tacit admission of guilt) but is nonetheless justice served. It requires no third party to stand in place of the offender to receive the punishment due to the offender.
As God is the sovereign over creation, and is the ultimate law giver, it would follow that a free pardon from God would be keeping with a just outcome. So if God chooses to gift humanity with salvation and reconciliation, why would there need to be a third party to receive the punishment due to mankind, and why would such a pardon be anything less than a fully just outcome?
I am writing this to you in all sincerity, I have so many questions and unfortunately no one to answer them or engage in an intellectual examination of my beliefs. My hope would be that, through logic, my (in the view of orthodox Christianity) false beliefs will be dispelled and I can come to adopt the faith you enjoy and (if your belief is correct) avoid whatever hell is (a fiery torment, a permanent separation from God, annihilation of my soul/consciousness, etc.). Thank you to whoever reads this, and especially if you have the opportunity to send a reply.
William Lane Craig’s Response
Thanks so much for your excellent question, Tyler! May God lead you to full and confident faith in Christ!
I’ve actually addressed your question in my two books The Atonement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Atonement and the Death of Christ (Waco, Tex.as: Baylor University Press, 2020), and I’d encourage you to look at what I say at greater length there.
You are quite right to notice the analogy of divine forgiveness to a legal pardon by the executive authority of a state for crimes committed. I would issue just one corrective: a pardon does, in fact, “remove the guilt of the offending party.” Your well-taken point that “accepting a pardon. . . is actually a tacit admission of guilt” shows why those theologians are mistaken who say that we are acquitted before God’s bar of justice through Christ’s sacrifice. No, the guilty verdict is not overturned as in an acquittal; rather it is nullified by a legal pardon. We are justly condemned as guilty and then offered a legal pardon which we are free to accept or reject.
The question, then, is why God could not have simply pardoned us without Christ’s vicariously bearing our punishment for us. It might surprise you to learn that many Christian theologians, including the Church Fathers, have thought that such a thing is possible. Nevertheless, they hold, God had good contingent reasons for preferring to satisfy the demands of divine justice by means of Christ’s substitutionary death. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, like Thomas Aquinas before him, maintained that while God could have pardoned us without Christ’s penal substitution, nonetheless He chose to punish Christ in our place to underline in the most dramatic way imaginable the heinousness and seriousness of our sin and to display the depth of His self-sacrificial love for us. I think Aquinas and Grotius’ point makes good sense. The influence of Christ’s self-sacrificial death upon mankind is truly inestimable. Repeatedly represented figuratively in literature and graphically in art, the death of Christ has, even more than his teaching, more than his character, made Jesus of Nazareth an arresting and captivating person for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.
Still, God’s pardoning our sin without the satisfaction of divine justice does seem to involve a trade-off between God’s justice and love. Such a trade-off is not a problem for human executive authorities. If the executive authority out of mercy decides to pardon a criminal, then the demands of retributive justice are not met. But if God is both essentially just and essentially loving, then it is very difficult to see how such a trade-off is possible in His case. Neither His justice nor His love can be compromised. By Christ’s voluntarily bearing vicariously the punishment for sin that we deserve, the demands of God’s justice are fully met as well as the demands of His love. (Of course, this raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the justice of vicarious punishment, but that is a different question than yours and is addressed in the books mentioned above.) Through Christ’s penal substitution the demands of divine justice are fully discharged, enabling God to offer us, without compromise, a full pardon of our sins.
As you intimate, Tyler, such a substitutionary death implies the deity of Christ. For no finite, sinful human being, already under condemnation for his own sins, could possibly atone for the sins of all mankind. We require a divine, sinless substitute, whose death is of inestimable value, to expiate our sins. I’ve also argued that Christ’s satisfaction of divine justice implies as well his resurrection from the dead (QoW #748). Thus, Christ’s substitutionary atonement implies the two doctrines that have been stumbling blocks for you up to this point, namely, the deity and resurrection of Christ. May you come to experience the marvelous redemption we have in him!
- William Lane Craig