Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why I Am Not an Evangelical, Part I

American culture has proved fertile soil for a form of conservative Christianity that calls itself 'Evangelicalism'. As my readers (you brave few) know well, I am no Christian (though I find myself strongly attracted to Christianity). Perhaps I will become Christian some day. I find peace and enlightenment at Catholic mass. Among the priests I know are men of great wisdom and spiritual depth. Perhaps a day will come when they will convince me of what they preach. But I cannot imagine that I will ever become an Evangelical. Its errors are multifarious and manifest. I do hope that its influence wanes in the decades to come, for it is both culturally and religiously corrosive.

In this post and ones to follow, I explain why I take such a critical view of Evangelicalism. This is the first of seven posts. In each, I explain why I reject some central doctrine or stance of contemporary Evangelical Christianity.

Let's first have a list of them. After I'll turn to the first deadly sin.

1. The Doctrine of Substitutionary Attonement
2. The Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy
3. The Doctrine of Sola Fide (Salvation by Faith Alone)
4. The Viciousness of the Evangelical God
5. Evangelical Disdain for Science
6. Evangelical Alliance with the Republican Party
7. Sexism of Evangelicals (Extraordinarily, both men and women evangelicals!)

Before I begin, let me say that not all Evangelicals are guilty of each of these sins. Do not suppose that "Evangelicalism" has a precise definition captured by some or all of the sins on my list. Rather each sin is characteristic of Evangelicalism. Exceptions can be found, but they are just that - exceptions (quite rare exceptions, I am sure).

Let us turn, then, to the first of the deadly sins.

First Fault: The Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement

First let's have a statement of the doctrine (hereafter SA). After I'll attack it.

The doctrine concerns the death of Christ. It is an answer to the question, What was the point of His death? The answer that SA gives is multipart. (i) We are all sinners. (ii) We ourselves cannot remove the taint of that sin. We ourselves cannot atone for it. (iii) Christ, since perfect, could pay the price of our sins. He, since perfect, could atone for them by His death. Indeed in His death He did precisely this. (iv) Thus in His death Christ justifies us before God. In His death, he makes possible the forgiveness of our sins and a life eternal in God's bosom.

Thus we come to understand why 'Substitutionary Attonement' is the proper name of this doctrine. Christ, in His death, substitutes for us and bears the penalty of our sins; and in this way is atonement made for our sins.

(Of course most Evangelicals will add that our sins are forgiven only if we put our trust in Christ and ask His forgiveness. But strictly that is not part of SA, so let's say no more about it here. But I will take up the issue when I turn to the topic of The Viciousness of the Evangelical God.)

The Attack

1. No atonement is necessary for forgiveness. I can forgive you the wrongs you've done to me even if you do nothing to atone for those wrongs, even if you do not ask forgiveness. This makes Christ's death unnecessary for the forgiveness that God gives. If the only point that Christ's death can have is that it made possible forgiveness of sins, His death was pointless.

2. But my opponent might dig in her heels. She might say some such thing as this:

God's justice cannot be trumped by His mercy. Rather His justice requires that a price be paid for human sin.

My reply is two-part. (i) To suppose that a price must be paid for sin is to make God a hostage to His justice. Is to make Him unable to forgive if the price of sin is not paid. But any such limitation is inimical to God's nature. God can do as He pleases (so long as what He does involves no absolute impossibility - not even God can square the circle). But to forgive when the price of sin has not been paid is surely possible. Thus God can do it. (ii) God is a merciful god. But if of necessity the price of sin must be paid to God before He can forgive, He never extends His grace to us. To extend grace is to forgive, is to treat as righteous, when the price has not been payed. Thus the supposition that God is a god of mercy contradicts SA.

3. As said, no atonement is necessary for forgiveness. But that of course does not imply that atonement is not sufficient for forgiveness. So let us then suppose that it is sufficient.

But now let us ask whether another can atone for my sins. The answer is clear. My sins are mine alone. Only I can atone for them. You can of course help to alleviate the harm that I did when I sinned. But you do not thereby atone for my sin.

Let's make the point in another way. Defenders of SA often say that Christ bore the burden of our sins and by his death pays the penalty for them. But now we must ask a question like the one asked before. Can another pay the penalty of my sins? The answer is clear. Let us say that I've killed a man in a jealous rage. I am tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. Now, what would we say if someone were to offer to do my time? Might the price of my sin by thereby paid? Of course not. If I were let go free, that would be one injustice. If another innocent man were imprisoned in my place, that would be a second injustice. My sin, my crime demands that I and I alone suffer the penalty of its commission. If we suppose that Christ, when nailed to the cross, did so to pay the price of our sins, we suppose a double injustice. The first is that we, the guilty ones, did not suffer as we ought. The second is that an innocent suffered for a crime He did not commit.

But SA, we know, supposes that substitutionary atonement is possible; it supposes that another can suffer and thereby atone for sins that I've committed. Thus we must conclude that the Doctrine of Substitutionary Attonement is at bottom conceptually incoherent. It betrays a deep error about the nature of sin and its atonement. Whatever account we give of the point of Christ's death, it cannot be that of SA.


Theodore A. Jones said...

You are correct. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is a self contradiction. Any human sacrifice which causes death by blood shed also causes the act of sacrifice to become an answerable offense directly to God. ref. Gen 9:5b NIV. In the case of the crucifixion of Jesus it is the sin of murder caused by blood shed. ref, Acts 7:52 But since the crucifixion of Jesus is a sin that was caused by blood shed which requires a direct answer to God; Jesus by his command given through the apostles requires each man to repent of the one sin of his murder for the forgiveness of all sins. The only sin which can be repented of to obey the Acts 2:38 command is the sin of Jesus' murder. This is the small narrow gate into the kingdom of God perfected by the crucifixion of Jesus.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you please find and read "The Urantia Book" which is the most unbelievable and comprehensive revelation of truth on this planet thus far. Check out the sites "" and "The Urantia Foundation". There is info about the error of the atonement doctrine in section 4, The Life and Teachings of Jesus".

John said...

I composed a similar list of reasons of why I broke from evangelicalism (not in my blog). I was happy to stumble across your blog. I am on the prowl for ideas that can give relative structure to my new position.

Theodore A. Jones said...

I think the phrase "atonement for sin" in the conceptual construct of the substitutionary atonement view is a twist of logic. Since Heb. 7:12 notes that a change to God's law has been made. it makes better sense to believe that the crucifixion of Jesus' must have an exponential feature only related to the particular sin of his crucifixion. Hence it is by his crucifixion causing the loss of his life by bloodshed is actually an atonement for a reasonable basis to change the law of God. Adding a law relative to "the law was given to make sins accountable" Jesus was crucified to add a law "fulfill the law" only relevant to salvation.
"It is not those who hear the law
who are righteous in God's sight
but, it is those who obey the law
that will be declared righteous."
Rom. 2:13.
Rom. 2:13 can only make sense by understanding "the law" is singular and compliments Rom.5:20.
"The law (Repent) was added to
so that the trespass (of his crucifixion)
might increase."

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CATEGORY said...

I think you are missing an important concept here. Atonement and forgiveness are not the same thing. As you so well noted, forgiveness comes from the offended party and is for the benefit of the offended. Atonement, however, is about the offender and restoring the offender to status within him/herself. Having committed an evil which cannot be undone, how do I restore my own dignity to myself and other? It is a common part of all religions and is an important part of the psychology in human relationships.

In discussing forgiveness and atonement, there are two different words. One is "propitiation (turning away God's wrath)," the other is "expiation (making atonement)." The bible does NOT use the word "propitiation" of sin because what Christ did on the cross was not about God. God's forgiveness is not at issue. As you said, God doesn't need anything to forgive. Rather, the word used is "expiation." The crucifixion is about us. Christ is communicating the forgiveness of God to us and offering a means to atone for our sin, to restore our status before God in our own mind, for our own benefit.

Mr V--