What exactly does it mean to say that "Christ died on the cross for us?" Listen as Scott interviews Talbot research professor and renowned Christian philosopher William Lane Craig as they discuss the implications of the cross for us today, coming out of his recent book, The Atonement. As we approach Good Friday and Easter, we hope that you would have a new appreciation for what Christ accomplished for you.

More About Our Guest

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot. He is one of the foremost Christian philosophers in the world today, with numerous publications and a reputation of successful debates with opponents of Christianity worldwide. For more information on Dr. Craig, visit his web site—reasonablefaith.org

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics and dean of the faculty at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here at the meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society where we get all the big hitter theologians and philosophers together in one place. I was so grateful to have our good friend and research professor, Doctor Bill Craig with us today. So Bill, thanks for joining us. Bill serves as research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He is also the head of his own apologetics organization in which you can get access to at the site reasonablefaith.org. He's the author of more books than we have time to talk about, and journal articles. He debates all over the world. He's one of the foremost Christian philosophers in the world today. Very happy to have him on our team at Talbot. And especially delighted, Bill, to have you with us for this time today.

William Lane Craig: Thank you, Scott. I am delighted to be on the team at Talbot, I'll tell you that.

Scott Rae: Well you've just made a wonderful contribution to the lives of our students over over many, many years now. Maybe we shouldn't go down that road of how long you've actually been with us. But you've done a lot of research over the years in various aspects of the philosophy of religion and done so incredibly well, spoken on these, debated on these aspects all over the world. But this new area of research that you've undertaken and just published on, on the atonement is something a little new for you. And more in the realm of understanding of the philosophical issues and some of theological issues behind the atonement. So first of all, what motivated you to undertake this particular area of research at this time?

William Lane Craig: Well, Scott, for many years I've been aware of philosophical objections to the reformation doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. And I've looked to my fellow Christian philosophers for direction and guidance in answering these objections. But been disappointed again and again, as contemporary Christian philosophers have failed to step up to the plate and offer a robust philosophical defense of the reformation doctrine of penal substitution. And with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation, it seemed an appropriate time for me to tackle this issue myself.

William Lane Craig: So I began to explore what are the most important and widespread philosophical objections to the doctrine of penal substitution. And it has proved unexpectedly rich. I have gained new insights into this doctrine that I never had before and it's been very enriching on a personal level to do this.

Scott Rae: Okay, we'll get to some of those objections that have been raised sort of down through the ages in just a moment, but first, let's be clear right at the start. Tell our listeners what exactly do you mean by the term penal substitution as our understanding of the atonement?

William Lane Craig: This actually is itself a philosophical question because you can give varying definitions of penal substitution. Probably the most popular idea would be the idea that God punished Jesus Christ in our place, that he bore the punishment for our sins that we deserved. But I think that a more modest definition of penal substitution as possible, and that would be the Christ voluntarily took upon himself the suffering that we deserved as the punishment for our sins, thereby removing our liability to punishment. And that leaves it open to the theorist to decide whether or not Christ was punished for our sins or not. I think that either of these could be a legitimate definitions of penal substitution.

Scott Rae: So if somebody asked you, Bill, what exactly was accomplished at the cross, how would you summarize that?

William Lane Craig: Well, in my view, Scott, I would say that Christ bore the punishment that we deserve for our sins, thereby releasing us from our liability to punishment. Now that is a stronger version of penal substitution. Many Christian theologians like John Stopped, for example, resist the idea that God punished Christ. They would prefer to say Christ voluntarily suffered what would have been the punishment for our sins had it been inflicted on us. But instead he bore it. And I want to allow that to count as penal substitution. But I myself affirm a stronger doctrine, namely what I just said, that Christ was actually punished in our place.

Scott Rae: Okay, so tell our listeners a bit, what are some of the other views of the atonement that had been put forth by some very reputable theologians over the years? Different views of what exactly was accomplished at the cross.

William Lane Craig: I think it's important for our listeners to understand that there's a difference between the fact of the atonement and a theory of the atonement. The fact of the atonement is that Christ died for our sins. A theory would be an attempt to explain how the atonement works, how it is that the death of Christ removes our liability to punishment.

Scott Rae: What exactly what exactly that means [crosstalk 00:06:05].

William Lane Craig: Yes, it's almost like a mechanism in a way for the atonement. And here are various theories are available. For example, there is the so called Christus Victor Model, Christ the conqueror, as it were, which basically says that Christ took on human nature and suffered on the cross in order to free us from bondage to Satan, to sin and to death. And by his suffering and death, he broke the bonds of sin and death and hell, thereby freeing us. That's the Christus Victor Model.

Scott Rae: Isn't that true, Theologically?

William Lane Craig: Well, that's the thing, Scott, is I think it's a big mistake to take one of these motifs and make it your entire atonement theory. I think the doctrine of the atonement is very aptly compared to a precious jewel, which is multifaceted. And each of these different theories of the atonement really represent mere facets of an overall atonement theory, which will exhibit all of these traits.

Scott Rae: That's a very helpful analogy to this. Okay, so what are some of the other facets to [crosstalk 00:07:24].

William Lane Craig: Some of the other facets would be the moral influence of Christ's death. Some atonement theorists have said that by dying on the cross in our place, Christ exhibits to us the tremendous love of God for us, that he would go to such horrible extent to when our allegiance to him. And this kindles within us a flame of love for God in response and thereby reconciles us to God. So on this view, the Crucifixion and Passion of Christ exhibit a kind of moral influence that draws us to him.

William Lane Craig: Another theory would be Saint Anselm's satisfaction theory. And the idea here is that we have, by our sin, offended God's honor. We have outraged his justice and thereby we have incurred an infinite debt to God, which we cannot pay. And what Christ does, being sinless and owing nothing, he comes along and offers to pay our debt for us so that he offers a compensation to God for the debt that we owe, thereby freeing us from debt so that we can be forgiven and pardoned and so forth.

Scott Rae: That sounds an awful lot like penal substitution.

William Lane Craig: It may sound like Scott, but it's a very different.

Scott Rae: What's the difference?

William Lane Craig: On the satisfaction theory, it's really more properly called I think a compensation theory. And what Anslem said is there are two ways in which divine justice can be met, either through compensation or through punishment. You can either punish the criminal for what he did or the criminal could offer some kind of a compensatory payment to God so that he doesn't have to be punished. So they're really very different. On the compensation theory, Christ is not punished in our place. He does not bear the penalty for our sins. Instead, he offers a kind of compensatory gift to God that allows us to go free. Whereas on the penal substitution theory, Christ actually bears the penalty for sin that we should pay.

Scott Rae: Okay, so on this, would you say this compensation theory is one of those facets of the jewel? Or is that a notion that's not quite consistent?

William Lane Craig: I think that the compensation theory is more difficult to integrate because I do think that the biblical view is that Christ bears the punishment for our sins and in that way he satisfies divine justice. But it is possible to add to penal substitution that God also offers a kind of super abundant compensation to God for the wrongs that we have done in. An interesting analogy for this would be that in civil law and in criminal law, even though criminal might be sentenced to a certain punishment for his sins, he may still be found liable in a civil suit to make compensation to the plaintiff for the wrongs that he has done. So you could have a combination of punishment for criminal wrongdoing plus the payment of a settlement for the liability, the one that's in a civil suit.

Scott Rae: Again, that's a really helpful analogy. So that could actually be one of the facets of the jewel.

William Lane Craig: Yes. I think you could put them together in that way.

Scott Rae: Any other facets of that?

William Lane Craig: Well, there's one other that is usually associated with the famous international jurist Hugo Grotius called the governmental theory. And I think Grotius's most brilliant insight is that we should not think of God as merely the offended party in a private dispute. Rather God is the judge and ruler of the universe who is therefore in charge of administering justice and maintaining the moral order of the universe. And that's why God can't just blanket sin and say oh, it doesn't matter in the way that a private person in a personal dispute might with a wrong done to him. And I think that that governmental aspect of the atonement theory, frankly, I think is absolutely crucial. We mustn't think of God as merely a private party to a personal dispute. He is the judge and ruler of the universe.

Scott Rae: Okay. So this, I think, is really helpful to see all of those theories, not as being in competition with each other, but all kind of to a complimentary as part of a, and I think it really helps fill out our view of what was accomplished at the cross.

William Lane Craig: Oh yes. And it makes the atonement, as I say, so rich in all of its different facets and ramification.

Scott Rae: Yeah, it's sort of hard coming, it's hard to imagine there's a phrase so pregnant with meaning when it says Christ died for our sins.

William Lane Craig: Yes. Right.

Scott Rae: Because it sounded like all of these elements are part of that and what the Bible puts in four words. We've spent lifetimes trying to unpack all of that. So again, back to what motivated you to undertake this, the philosophical objections to the idea of the atonement. One that I've heard, which I suspect has come up, matter of fact, I heard it in a debate that you did. Is that, I'm sort of paraphrasing your opponent where it said that the atonement constitutes something akin to cosmic child abuse.

William Lane Craig: Yes.

Scott Rae: Is that the main philosophical objection?

William Lane Craig: Well, that Scott is simply a cheap shot. That's an attempt to move the listener emotionally by making an emotionally charged metaphor. The real serious objection is that it would violate the principles of retributive justice for God to punish an innocent party in the place of a different guilty person. That this would show that God is in fact unjust. And that's the most serious objection to the doctrine.

Scott Rae: Before we get into the response to that, that idea though, has a lot of precedent, it seems to me, both in the Old Testament with the idea of the day of atonement sacrifices and things like that. But also I think throughout the ancient near east, contemporaries to the Old Testament. Did you find that as well?

William Lane Craig: Yes. One of the things that I wanted to do in this study, Scott, that I've published on the atonement, is to not simply deal with the doctrine philosophically. I felt that we first needed to have a serious biblical understanding of what this doctrine is because one of the greatest shortcomings I think of contemporary philosophical work on the atonement is that Christian philosophers construct their theory of the atonement not on the basis of serious acts of Jesus, of the text, but rather on the way in which reconciliation is typically achieved in human relationships. When I and a friend of a falling out, how is reconciliation achieved? And then we build an atonement theory based upon this human model rather than upon scriptural teaching.

William Lane Craig: I think you can easily see the fallacy of doing that. The disanalogies between my relationship to my friend and God's relationship to us are so patent that there's no reason to think that the way in which reconciliation is achieved is going to be the same. Moreover, it threatens to give you a nice congenial theory of the atonement, which just isn't biblical. So one of the first things that I wanted to do was do a very serious study of first the Old Testament motif of atonement, which as you say, plays a major role in the Levitical personal, animal sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle and then later in the temple. And also then in Isaiah chapter 53 with the vicarious suffering of the righteous servant of the Lord. And then to turn to the new testament and see how Jesus understood his own death in light of those texts and how New Testament authors interpreted Christ's death in light of those Old Testament texts.

Scott Rae: So just one more question on this then I want to get back to the answering the philosophical objections, but what is the clearest New Testament text in your view that teaches the penal substitution?

William Lane Craig: I think it would be second Peter 2:22-24, which is virtually a quotation of Isaiah 53/. The author says he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. By his wounds, you have been healed. I think that that is a very clear affirmation of penal substitution.

Scott Rae: But in either version, what you call the softer version of that, you would say it's consistent?

William Lane Craig: Yes. I would.

Scott Rae: Both of those, okay. So let's back to the violation of retributive justice. The idea of God punishing innocent substitute is a violation of his rules of justice that he had set up an embedded in the universe. Is that the philosophical objection that's top of the list?

William Lane Craig: Well, typically it doesn't appeal to God. The objection will typically appeal to human systems of justice and often analogies will be used here, how immoral it would be to yank somebody in off the street and punish them for something that some rapists or sexual assaulter did. That clearly would be unjust and wouldn't satisfy the demands of justice. So it's typically using analogies from the human justice system.

Scott Rae: Okay. And how did you end up responding to that?

William Lane Craig: In multiple ways. I think there are around four or five different problems with this objection that are good answers to it. One would be to say that it has a view of retributive justice which is not sufficiently nuanced. Theories of retributive justice to our distinguished between positive retributivism and negative retributivism. Positive retributivism says that the guilty should be punished because they deserve it. That's why the state has the right to inflict suffering on criminal wrongdoers, because they deserve it. That's positive retributivism. Negative retributivism says that you should not punish an innocent person.

William Lane Craig: So the Bible, I think, clearly affirms that God is a positive retributivists who will by no means clear the guilty as it says in Exodus. But how do we know that God is a thorough going negative retributivist? Why couldn't it be the case that God has established a system of justice among human beings whereby we are not to punish innocent persons, and God himself has decided that he will never punish an innocent human person, but he reserved to himself the prerogative of punishing and innocent divine person for someone else's sins? Christ voluntarily offers to take upon himself the punishment for our sins that we deserve, thereby releasing us from punishment. That would not be an active injustice on God's part. It would be an act of grace. It would magnify his gracious nature to do such a thing.

William Lane Craig: So it may be that these objectors have simply gratuitously assumed that God is an unqualified negative retributivists. And there's no reason to think that he is.

Scott Rae: So is it important in reconciling that view, because you had mentioned that Christ voluntarily submitted to that while all at the same time, God was the one who punishment on an innocent person? So does that mean that the sort of softer review of penal substitution is necessary to answer that objection well?

William Lane Craig: I don't think so. As I say, one could say that Christ voluntarily bore the suffering for sin that we deserve, but he wasn't actually punished by God for our sin. That would completely evacuate the objection of any force because crazy wasn't punished. God didn't punish it and as a person in our place. But I want to affirm that stronger view. And so what I will say is how do you know that God is an unqualified negative retributivist? Maybe he reserves for himself the right to punish an innocent divine person.

Scott Rae: But affirming that stronger view, you're not denying the voluntary [crosstalk 00:21:42] Jesus.

William Lane Craig: No, not at all. Now I want to go another step though, Scott. I mentioned there are several ways to respond to this. Let's suppose that God is an unqualified negative retributivist and moreover, that it is essential to his nature. The unspoken assumption of this objection is that Christ was an innocent person, but for the Protestant reformers, that's not true because their doctrine is a doctrine of the imputation of our sins to Christ in virtue of which Christ was legally guilty before God and therefore liable to punishment. Now, it's important that our listeners understand that this does not mean that our sins were infused into Christ, that Christ became a wicked, adulterous, selfish, grasping person. No, not at all. He remained personally virtuous, but he was declared legally guilty before God.

William Lane Craig: This Scott, is actually again, a very prominent feature in our Anglo American justice system. The name of this is vicarious liability. Employers can be held vicariously liable for crimes and wrongdoing committed by their employees in the course of their duties as employees, even though the employer is completely blameless in the matter. The guilt or wrongdoing is imputed to the employer for the wrongs done by the employee. And that furnishes a very close analogy to this classic Protestant doctrine of the imputation of our sin to Christ. And if that doctrine is coherent, then it is not necessarily true that Christ was an innocent person.

Scott Rae: Yeah. We want to be, I think making clear what exactly we mean by Christ being guilty.

William Lane Craig: Yeah, we're talking here about a legal or forensic declaration. And this, by the way Scott, fits in so beautifully hand in glove with a Protestant doctrine of justification, which is a forensic declaration that we are now legally innocent before God. But that doesn't mean that we suddenly become virtuous people. And again, a great analogy is a pardon issued by the chief executive or governor of a criminal. The criminal who is pardoned becomes free from his liability to punishment. All his civil rights are restored. He becomes like a new man in the sight of the law. But obviously that criminal doesn't suddenly and miraculously become a virtuous person. It is a legal declaration.

William Lane Craig: And so penal substitution fits hand in glove with a Protestant view of forensic justification. That is one of the reasons that I think it is so powerful and so attractive.

Scott Rae: Now we would hope that a pardon would actually put someone on a trajectory toward becoming more virtuous in gratitude for that, which is, again, back to our doctrine of sanctification, who as we says, is a response to grace that's undeserved.

William Lane Craig: But we know that many times [crosstalk 00:25:14]. We've got an example in the New Testament of a pardon by an executive official, namely Barabis. Barabis was pardoned by Pilot. You think Barabis became a good guy after that? I kind of doubt it.

Scott Rae: I'm not holding my breath on that. So is there another significant philosophical objection raised by the atonement that you answer in your book?

William Lane Craig: Yes. I think a further question is whether or not the death of another person can satisfy the demands of divine justice. Here it is not claimed that it would be unjust to punish an innocent person for my wrongs, but that it wouldn't satisfy justice. So I call this the satisfactoriness of penal substitution. And here again, I offer a couple of responses as to how punishing Christ in our place can be satisfactory. The first of these would appeal to the doctrine of the imputation of sins. What our justice system shows is that it is not true that the person who did the wrong has to be punished in order to satisfy the demands of justice. It is a person who is liable for that wrong that needs to be punished in order to satisfy justice.

William Lane Craig: And in cases of vicarious liability, the liability can be imputed to the employer and he can satisfy the demands of justice for both himself and for his employee. This is especially clear in cases where the employer is a corporation, a legal person in the eyes of the law where say there's an oil spill that's going to cost $13 billion to rectify. It's impossible for the employee to pay the fine, but the employer, the corporation, can be held vicariously liable and can satisfy divine justice. Or not divine judgments, but satisfy justice for both of them.

Scott Rae: I think that makes good sense.

William Lane Craig: And so in light of this, similarly Christ can be held liable for our sins and his punishment can therefore atone for our sins.

Scott Rae: No, I think that's good. I think what makes this so helpful is the way you've constructed, I think, analogies to what goes on in our own legal system.

William Lane Craig: And I'll bet as an ethicist, you're familiar with a lot of these things.

Scott Rae: Well, I have thought about some of these things in that field.

William Lane Craig: Which is great. The theory of punishment is most fully explored in the philosophy of law. And so this is a subdiscipline of philosophy which not too many Christian philosophers are familiar with. And yet I think it sheds just great, illuminating light on Christ being punished for our sins.

Scott Rae: I mean you can see those correlations. It would be interesting to know if there was actually causation.

William Lane Craig: Scott, this is what I have wondered. The parallels are so close that I couldn't help but wonder did the influence of Christian theology in Western culture affect our justice system? And I haven't been able to establish this. I read a book by one author where he tried to trace parallels between atonement theories and development of theories of justice and he was not able to show any close parallels. Now, that doesn't mean that they don't exist, but at least the one book that I've seen written on this was, I think, a failure.

William Lane Craig: The fact is that when different systems of justice were in place such as in the Middle Ages, you had multiple different atonement theories emerging. It's not as though the atonement theories that merged over history have followed very closely the justice theories that existed.

Scott Rae: But it does, my intuitions tell us that this might not just be a coincidence.

William Lane Craig: Yeah, I hear you.

Scott Rae: Hey, one other question and then we'll need to close. Tell me how this research and writing on the atonement has impacted you spiritually.

William Lane Craig: Well, it's certainly given me a much deeper understanding of what it means to say that Christ died for our sins. I always believed this, of course, but it has given me, I guess I would describe it as a sort of spiritual delight. That would be the best word. Just a sort of boyish delight or enthusiasm in finding these intriguing legal parallels to things like vicarious liability, pardon, punishment and so forth. It has made this doctrine just so delightful to me.

Scott Rae: And here, my hope is that as our listeners get a chance to think about this a little bit more and to read your book on the atonement, we'll have a link in our transcript to where they can order the book, that they might have some of that same delight that you do.

William Lane Craig: Well, thank you Scott. And if I might say we have just issued a study guide through Biola University. It's available through our web store at the apologetics department at Biola, which accompanies the atonement books. So it's great for a small group to read the book and do the study guide.

Scott Rae: We'll put a link to that as well in our transcript. Bill, thanks so much for being with us on this. I think the notion of the atonement being a multifaceted diamond with lots of different things as you can see in it just adds so much to the richness of it. I so appreciate your work on this. It's so enlightening, I think so helpful to explain the richness of what we mean by that fundamental statement that Christ died for our sins.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Bill Craig, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed our conversation with Dr. Craig today, give us a rating on your podcast app and share with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.