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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Can the Christian God commit an unjust act?

Can the Christian God commit an unjust act? The Bible says he can't (quotations from the ESV).

Gen. 18:25--Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

Deut. 32:4--The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.

Job 8:3--Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?

Yet, the central element of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement is that of punishing an innocent person for what the guilty deserves. This is itself an unjust act.

Oliver Crisp, whom I posted about earlier, argues in a recent paper that hell is necessary because God must demonstrate his justice and since he admits that the punishing of Jesus on the cross was not an act of justice, since he did not deserve to be punished, hell must exist as a demonstration of God's justice. He writes:
Were Christ to be the only human person upon whom divine justice was visited, as a vicarious substitute for sinners, this would not have the right connection to desert because Christ does not deserve to be punished – he acts vicariously (and sinlessly)on behalf of sinful human beings deserving of punishment. There has to be some connection between the display of divine justice and the idea that(at least some of) those upon whom divine justice is visited are deserving of punishment ( "Is universalism a problem for particularists?", Scottish Journal of Theology 63(1)[2010]: 22).

Leaving beside the whole problem of the injustice of infinite punishment for a finite crime, the fact is Crisp fails to acknowledge that to punish someone that doesn't deserve to be punished is a crime in and of itself. It is itself an unjust act.

How could an Evangelical Christian attempt to answer this problem? Well that is essentially what I have examined in all of my posts on various attempts to defend the PST.

Let's look at a couple of possible answers:

1. The death of the innocent Jesus in place of the guilty sinners is an act of grace and not of strict justice.

While it might be grace and mercy on the part of Jesus to voluntarily take the punishment, the fact still remains that for the judge to inflict the punishment is unjust. Can injustice be considered grace? I don't see how. Paul's whole argument in Romans 3:21-26 is that somehow the atonement results in God maintaining his justice while at the same time being able to justify sinners ("that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus," Rom. 3:26).

2. Jesus actually deserved to be punished in a sense because the sins of mankind were imputed to him.

This imputation argument results in a "legal fiction." In other words, Jesus is not really guilty of mankind's sin but God considers or regards him as if he were. But that would be contrary to truth. How can a God of truth, who cannot lie (Tit. 1:2 and Heb. 6:18), operate on the basis of a fiction? Of course some have tried to skate around this problem by saying that while the demerit or fault (reatus culpae) of sin was not imputed, the penal consequences (reatus poenae) of sin were. But as I have shown repeatedly, you cannot have penal consequences without being guilty of the crime. You cannot separate fault and punishment. Fault is the cause and punishment is the effect. Punishment without fault makes no sense and is unjust.

So, if the PST is correct, then the Christian God is not a just God.


  1. Wow! Your dissection of PST is very hard hitting!

    I think this is very important, because allot of people will believe that the Bible is inerrant until kingdom come.

    However, when you can dissect the theological under pinnings of PST what else is there left?

    As it is written, "If the foundation's be destroyed what can the righteous do"?

  2. That's it? That's all you have? Remember that righteousness is not defined by man or any human legal system but by God Himself. When God voluntarily sacrifices Himself (yes His Son, but the unifying essence of the Trinity would allow us to communicate it this way), He is acting voluntarily and righteously.

  3. Ken,

    Im afraid this whole thing may be bigger than anything you might be able to reason thru. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross happened and it is the only hope for salvation. This is not a legal argument that you can de-construct. Rather it is a divine act that you have to stand in awe of and accept (or reject) by faith.

    By the way, it would not be surprising that Satan would appeal to our reason to lead us to disbelief. But reason is not the way to salvation.

    We must be humble and accept Christ and hope that the Holy Spirit reveals Himself to us as we serve Him and dwell in His Word. I know I don't always act as I ought to, but it is only by surrendering and listening to and obeying God that I find true peace and wisdom. It may sound cliche, but it is the truth.

  4. The mystical union with Christ answers this objection. The mystical union is such that we are in Christ and He is in us. We are one with Christ. This is how our sins are imputed to Him. They become His. When He is punished we are punished. He dies and is raised again.

  5. I think the bigger question is, having committed an unjust act by killing his one good kid for the sins of his millions of brats, did god send himself to hell?

  6. James 2:10 is proof that Christianity is an unjust system and if real its god would certainly be an unjust monster. I blogged about this recently.

  7. Ah, Lady Atheist, I'd never thought of it in those terms. Excellent.

  8. Most Christians will be unaffected by Ken's excellent deconstruction of the PST. The Christians that I interact with daily get their beliefs more from their church than a careful study of the bible(and my friends are Protestant). If their church says it, they believe it, and that settles it!

  9. Walter,

    That's apparently because Ken has not deconstructed the argument well enough as of yet.

  10. I think Ken has done an excellent job of showing that the Penal Sub. Theory does not hold water. It is just that most Christians are trained to accept Jesus' death as their ticket to the afterlife, so they will chalk it up as a mystery that must be believed.

  11. John,

    Adherents of the PST do present the atonement as a legal matter and they find their impetus to do so with Paul. My series is designed to show that the PST fails to accomplish its task. Thus, evangelicals should reject it (and in my opinion reject Christianity altogether).

    Your position is that: "well it makes no sense but we ought to just believe it anyway." With that mentality, one could believe any religion

  12. Ray,

    if our sins are really Christ's due to a mystical union, then Christ is really a sinner. How can the God-man be a sinner? In addition, since according to the theory man's sins are removed by Christ's death, then why is man still a sinner?

    The fact is that something that is "mystical" is not real. It is an abstract invention but expresses no reality.

  13. Anon: When God voluntarily sacrifices Himself (yes His Son, but the unifying essence of the Trinity would allow us to communicate it this way), He is acting voluntarily and righteously.

    I'm assuming you're not aware of this, but the doctrine of the Trinity did not come in to being until the First Council of Constantinople under Theodosius I in 381. The idea that the son was an equal part of the Trinity really didn't come along until the insertion of the Filioque in to the Nicene Creed by the western part of the Church in 589 (the original Nicene Creed, still spoken in the Eastern Orthodox Church, said that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The change was an addition of one Latin word that translates in English to "and the Son"). And this idea was, in fact, rejected by the Eastern half of the Church and would ultimately be one of the major parts of the Great Schism that separated Roman Catholic from Eastern Orthodox.

    In the absence of a true triune god, there is no possibility for Jesus to be a willing participant in the sacrifice. This doesn't negate the concept of PST, but it does negate your argument for why it's justified.

    Also, it helps to realize that the narrative pushed by Biblical fundamentalists today that the Bible is the inerrant word of god and that some form of obvious Christianity sprung forth is a whole lot of bunkum. The canon wasn't settled until several centuries after the time of Jesus. Even at that the doctrines have changed in ways subtle and drastic since then. The narrative that gets pushed by the "Biblical inerrancy" crowd is founded on an intentional misunderstanding of the formation of the canon and quote-mining from early Church fathers (Augustine, Eusebius, Origen, etc.) to make it seem like there's a harmonious concept that's been passed down through the ages.

    In truth it's nothing so simple as that.

  14. Ken,

    Our sins become His by imputation because of our union with Him. It's like wearing a robe. The robe Christ wears when He is punnished is sin. The robe we wear is a robe of righteousness. It's extrinsic not intrinsic. We continue to sin but we are covered in His righteousness.

  15. Ken,

    You say:
    Adherents of the PST do present the atonement as a legal matter and they find their impetus to do so with Paul.

    Could you please elaborate more? I am interested in how they are doing so? I went to BJU, as you know and heard about these ideas but nothing in terms of defending them legally. Would you have any reference? Or maybe you could elaborate yourself. Thank you.