Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where analogies break down with the atonement

Many analogies have been proposed for the atonement of Christ to help us understand exactly what happened when Jesus died for us.

One analogy about the atonement in particular gets criticised a lot for not making sense, and the criticisms do have a point. This is the analogy where the atonement is likened to an innocent person volunteering to be punished in a guilty person's place in a local court. When you think about it, this implies that the sacrifice doesn't change the guilty person, who is now free, and so maybe he/she wants to go out and commit some more crimes.

There's one thing that this analogy gets really right, which is that the innocent position the guilty person is in afterwards is like the position we are in as Christians. For God considers Jesus to have 'paid' for our sins on our behalf. After accepting Christ people will certainly keep sinning (1 John 1:8), but as long as Christ is accepted, then all of our sins are dealt with. Thankfully, Christians won't abuse this system because genuinely believing that Jesus dealt with our sins necessitates that we will care about what God wants (Rom 6:1-2).

I think the biggest problem with this analogy is that no one would ever support a system for everyday life where an innocent person could walk into a courtroom and take the punishment meant for a guilty person. This is partly because 1) then the guilty person is free to threaten the community, and, 2) they have, e.g. murderous, intentions that need to be changed.

The Bible says something interesting about this analogy in Colossians:

Col 2:13-14: "You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross."

Note how Jesus taking our punishment is combined with our sinful nature being cut away.

As Col 2:13-14 illustrates, when Jesus died for us it was not like an innocent person going to a court and saying, "Put me in prison instead of this murderer". Because when Jesus died for us, Jesus' act of taking our sins into Himself actually cut away our sinful nature.

This does not mean that Christians are perfect; 1 John 1:8 says that "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." But it does mean that something has happened that has dealt with our sinful nature but which which is not 'fully manifested' or 'fully shown' in this life (Eph 4:30).

A modified analogy that better fits with what the Bible teaches (but which also has problems) would be that an innocent person and a murderer volunteered for a strange procedure. The innocent person will be punished in the place of the murderer, but the punishment does something very weird. In the punishment all the guilt and badness of the murderer will be transferred to the innocent person. As a result the murderer will become no different from an average, law-abiding citizen who has never murdered anyone. And they get off scot free because their past self, which committed the murder, is no more. They are fundamentally not a murderer.

This would fit with our sinful nature getting cut away by Christ's death for us, which also we and Christ are happy to have happen.

One conclusion from this is that Christ's atonement for us is not like anything we have experience of in this world. No human process can accomplish this or reflect it accurately. The second is that one analogy that gets criticised a lot by skeptics of Christianity is not actually accurate.

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