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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mark Murphy's View of the Atonement

This post appeared yesterday on Luke's CommonSenseAtheism blog.

Mark Murphy is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in 1993. He has written a very interesting article on the atonement utilizing the methodology of philosophical theology. The article is entitled, "Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment," in Faith and Philosophy, 26:3 [2009]: 253-73).

Murphy begins by showing that the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement is "incoherent." In other words, it does not meet the criterion that is required for genuine punishment. He writes:

The objections to the doctrine of penal substitution are familiar. On one hand, the objection is pressed that it is wrong to subject someone to hard treatment for the wrongs done by another. On the other hand, the objection is pressed that even if it were not morally abhorrent to punish someone for another’s wrongs, it would nevertheless constitute a failure with respect to punishment’s retributive aims if someone other than the evildoer were punished for the wrongful deed. Retribution, a legitimate and desirable aim of punishment, is unrealized if the wrongdoer is not him- or herself subjected to suffering on account of the wrongful deed; and a sinner’s ill-desert remains if he or she does not bear the punishment for his or her sin (p. 254).

He continues:

[P]unishment expresses condemnation of the person punished. And if that is right, then punishment will be non-transferrable: one cannot express condemnation via hard treatment of someone who one does not take to be worthy of condemnation. Or, perhaps, one can, but then the punishing act will be defective—and it will not do for the penal substitution account to hold not merely that the penal substitution was unusual, or nonstandard (we all knew that already), but that it was a defective case of punishing (p. 256).

So, according to Murphy, affliction of hard treatment upon an innocent person cannot properly be called "punishment," instead he terms it, "defective punishment." This is one of the points that I have stressed over and over again. Punishment only makes sense if it is the guilty person who is punished, otherwise it is illogical (see Penal Substitution is an Oxymoron). He says that this problem cannot be resolved by trying to separate the guilt from the sin and have Christ bear the former but not the latter. He states:
[W]e have no experience of guilt as such, cut off from its sources; one is always guilty for something done or undone, or some state of affairs realized or unrealized. We can use the words ‘the guilt itself is transferred,’ but again this will shed no light (p. 259).
Again, as I have stated repeatedly, guilt cannot be detached from the sin that causes the guilt in any coherent manner. Guilt only makes sense if there is something for which to be guilty.

Having established the incoherence of the PST, Murphy now offers an alternative theory which he calls "vicarious punishment." He explains the difference:
[I]n cases of penal substitution ... A deserves to be punished; but B is punished in A’s place; and so A no longer deserves to be punished. A’s ill-desert is removed by B’s penally substituting for A. This, however, is incoherent. Consider, by contrast, vicarious punishment. A deserves to be punished; B undergoes hard treatment, which hard treatment constitutes A’s being punished; and so A no longer deserves to be punished (p. 260).

In other words, a person whom the criminal loves suffers hard treatment in place of the criminal and the hard treatment of his loved one is actually a punishment of the criminal. The criminal is punished vicariously. His punishment is watching his loved one suffer hard treatment. Murphy illustrates his theory:
Suppose that under a legal system one who murders someone who is married is to be punished, if possible, by having one’s own spouse killed. The idea is not that the spouse is being punished in one’s place, a la penal substitution. Rather, the idea is that the criminal is punished by having his or her spouse killed (p. 260).

This is a clever theory but I think it is also very problematic. What are the problems with vicarious punishment?

1. It is still unjust.

There is a biblical example of vicarious punishment. David is punished for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba by having the child born to them die (2 Sam. 12:14-15). But is this justice? Is it fair to the child who must die for something it did not do?

Murphy anticipates this objection. He writes:
My answer to the charge that vicarious punishment is unjust is a simple one. It is possible for there to be a scheme of vicarious punishment to which all of the potential suffering innocents freely and informedly consent. A practice by which one party subjects another to some deprivation may no doubt be morally objectionable even if the parties involved freely and informedly consent, but the species of wrongness will not be that of injustice; volenti non fit iniuria. If the state, or whatever form of legal authority is in place, has instituted and is employing vicarious punishment for some crimes, the consent of all potential suffering innocents is sufficient to preclude the charge that if someone is made to suffer in order to punish a wrongdoer, then he or she is being treated unjustly (p. 261).
I think Murphy is confusing legality with justice. Yes, if the law stated that one would be punished for a crime by having a loved one suffer hard treatment, then it would not be illegal to do so but it would still be unjust. But what if the loved one consented to suffering so as to punish the guilty party? It seems to me that it is still an act of injustice.  My consenting to an unjust act does not transform the act into a just act. It is still unjust; I have merely consented to it. It does not change the fact that to inflict hard treatment intentionally on one for another's crime is unjust. The only way it can be just is if the suffering  person bears some culpability for the crime. 

Punishment or infliction of harm or hard treatment or whatever one wishes to call it, is only justified if the person receiving the hard treatment deserves it. That is the essence of the retributive theory of justice and I cannot make myself deserve it by simply volunteering to receive it.  As C. S. Lewis said: "the concept of desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice" (God in the Dock, p. 288).

2. It inflicts harm on other undeserving parties.

For example, in the illustration provided by Murphy of the spouse being put to death for what her husband did, the parents of the spouse would suffer hard treatment unnecessarily and undeservedly.  They are made to suffer the loss of their daughter for something that their son-in-law did.

3. It treats persons as things.

Murphy's theory might work if we were not talking about persons. In other words, a child might be punished for wrong-doing by destroying his favorite model airplane or some other beloved possession. However, to inflict suffering on a person for what someone else did is to treat that person as a thing and not a person. It is to treat that person as a means to an end. It considers only the importance of the criminal and not the worth and value of the loved one who is suffering harm.

4. It is not biblical.

Murphy admits: I cannot deny, of course, that there are texts that suggest that Christ was literally punished: that he was chastised, or made sin, or cursed (p. 266). The Bible nowhere presents the atonement as the sinner being punished by the fact that Jesus died. The simple truth is that few people will experience any kind of punishment by thinking that Jesus suffered in their place. Many don't even know of Jesus, and for many others, he is just a person in a book. It is hard to see how any real punishment is inflicted on people by being told that Jesus suffered because of them.

So, Murphy's theory of the atonement suffers from fatal flaws not the same ones as the PST but fatal nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. This does present people's children or spouses as things that can be harmed, punished, killed for some reason related to the person who did wrong. Like Job losing wife and family-then getting a new family. And David's child-the child is not valued as a separate person-the only value is how it affects David. These disposable people are not really people-they are objects owned by the important person.

    We see people today as individuals with worth and standing of their very own.

    Re Jesus's death. I used to try to manufacture some kind of feeling about it that I was supposed to be having. Ofcourse, his crucifixtion was barbaric and awful, but I didn't feel the required guilt re it that I thought I was supposed to feel.