This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.


I was listening to Chris Date's views on conditional immortality, and one point stuck out as particularly difficult as a challenge to the traditional view on hell. He said that annihilationism, and specially conditional immorality, do a better job at handling the atonement. He pointed out that the fulfillment of the atonement is through Christ's death, not His suffering. When Jesus paid for our sins, he died. However, for the damned to pay for their sins, the traditionalist view says we must suffer eternally. When coming at the atonement from a perspective of eternal conscious torment, how do you understand the reasoning behind the necessity of Christ's death as a payment, and why the damned's payment seems so different from what Christ did?




There are a couple of issues entangled here, John. It is true that the penalty of sin is death. But it is a non sequitur to infer that death is equivalent to extinction. Death in the Bible is not merely physical death (loss of biological life or bios) but more profoundly spiritual death (loss of spiritual life or zōē). Spiritual death consists in separation from God, a state of alienation from God. Such a state presupposes that the damned continue to exist, even if they are not alive.

In bearing vicariously the suffering that we deserved as the punishment for our sins, Christ did experience that sense of abandonment by God. The eternal suffering of the damned, being potentially infinite in duration, is at every point finite (think of someone suffering from a hangnail for eternity). The sum of that suffering was compressed into a brief time and poured out on Christ all at once, making up in intensity what it lacked in duration. So Christ’s suffering was not dissimilar to the punishment suffered by the damned in hell. If anything, it was worse. It involved incomprehensible suffering for the Son who had never known separation from his Father.

Although we may think of Christ’s death “as a payment” for a debt we owe to God, as in St. Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, his death is primarily, as I say, the punishment for sin that we deserve. By bearing our punishment vicariously, Christ frees us from our liability to punishment and thereby achieves the possibility of a divine pardon.

Chris Date’s assumption that “the fulfillment of the atonement is through Christ's death, not His suffering” is, moreover, based on too narrow an understanding of the doctrine of the atonement. In my work on the atonement,[1] I have emphasized that a full-orbed doctrine of the atonement is like a multi-faceted jewel. To focus myopically on just one facet is to miss the beauty and complexity of the whole. Even if the doctrine of penal substitution is the “table” or central facet of the gem, nevertheless it is but one facet, not the entire Jewel. Christ’s passion leading up to his death can be part of other facets of a complete doctrine of the atonement. For example, one facet of the doctrine of the atonement is the moral influence theory of the atonement. According to this theory, the passion of Christ displays graphically, as nothing else could do, both God’s wrath upon sin and His intense love for us and thereby kindles in our hardened hearts contrition for our sins and a love for God that motivates our desire for reconciliation. Thus, it would have been inept to have Christ die for our sins by, say, simply being hit by a car. The importance of his passion is especially underlined if theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius are correct that Christ’s vicarious death was not strictly necessary for our pardon, but was contingently willed by God as the best means of reconciling the world to Himself.


[1] Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2020.

This Q & A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig’s website.