Monday, July 14, 2008


According to substitutionary views of the atonement, Christ suffered a suffering that was due to us for our sins. Substitutionary views come in two varieties: (1) penal substitution views hold that Christ's suffering was a punishment of Christ for our sins; (2) non-penal substitution views hold that Christ was not punished but that nonetheless somehow his suffering was a substitute for our suffering. Penal substitution views are, arguably, incoherent: y can only punish x for what y believes x to have done; anything else is an imposition of suffering, just or unjust, but not a penalty. It is difficult to figure out exactly how a non-penal substitution views would work, but there has been some recent work on this (Adam Pelser had some interesting ideas in a paper he presented at a recent SCP meeting, and I have recently read some good in-progress work from someone else).

In this post, I want to discuss how one can respond to a criticism (not an original one) that would apply equally to penal and non-penal substitutionary views. The criticism is that according to Christian doctrine, Christ's suffering redeemed us from eternal damnation. In other words, Christ's suffering must have been a sufficient substitute for eternal damnation. But while dying on the cross is very painful, people have suffered worse, and it seems likely that on orthodox views of hell as involving eternal physical pain, dying on the cross, even when one adds severe flogging beforehand, is not a sufficient substitute for an eternity in hell. And even if one adds the psychological suffering of being abandoned by most of one's friends, and maybe even bereft of God, to feel that suffering for less than twenty-four hours is not a sufficient substitute for an eternity of psychological suffering in hell—for, after all, orthodoxy holds that hell involves non-physical suffering as well. This is the "Insufficiency Criticism" (IC)—Christ didn't suffer enough for his suffering to substitute for our punishment.

One answer to this is to allow that the total suffering in hell is only finite, and that Christ's suffering during his passion might in fact have matched the greatest degree of deserved suffering in hell. But while it is possible for eternal suffering to be finite, it still seems likely, given what the Christian tradition has said about hell, that the suffering is very, very great in total, this is probably not the best response.

In response to the IC, I want to offer first a partial theory as to one aspect of Christ's spiritual suffering on the cross. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person enjoys doing virtuous activity. A virtuous person's emotions correctly track the truth of the matter: the virtuous person feels good about virtue and bad about vice. Now, I want to say something odd: if a perfectly virtuous person were to engage in a gravely vicious activity, she would find such engagement more spiritually painful than just about anything else that could happen. Of course, this is a per impossibile counterfactual. But I can justify it by pointing to three genuine possibilities. First, suppose that a presently virtuous person contemplates a past grave evil that she did and which evil has not yet been mended. This contemplation gives her great pain. Second, suppose that a presently virtuous person contemplates the fact that some presently virtuous people go on to become quite wicked over the years, and hence that she herself might do so. To the extent that she takes this thought emotionally seriously, she is deeply pained by the possibility of future vicious action. Third, recall that Aristotle says that a virtuous person enjoys the virtuous deeds of a friend, in a friendship of the best sort, as if they were her own, because the friend is another self. Now Aristotle thought one could only be a friend, in the best sense, of a virtuous person. Be that as it may, what he says about friendship can be said about love more generally, and it is possible to love a vicious person. And if a virtuous person loves a vicious, then the deeds of the vicious beloved can give the lover the kind of pain that they should give the beloved. These three cases should make clear the magnitude of spiritual pain it would be appropriate to feel at an evil action while one were committing it. After all, what would we not give not to be someone who had committed a murder, say?

Now, let us suppose that on the cross Christ, being not only a perfectly virtuous man but also God, is aware of all the evils ever done, fully understands the evil in its interpersonal and theological significance, and yet loves the evildoers. This makes it possible for him to feel the spiritual pain at the evil which the evildoer did not fully feel while doing the deed, a spiritual pain of immense magnitude. The offense was against the infinite God. Christ on the cross, on this theory, experiences that offense in its immense magnitude, and this suffering, though concentrated in time, is a sufficient substitution.

A difficulty with this theory is that one wonders why this substitutionary suffering had to be on the cross. After all, wouldn't Christ have felt the same spiritual pain earlier in his life, say while sipping wine at the end of a hard week's work and reflecting on the magnitude of evil? This theory does not do justice to the importance of the cross.

But I think we can bring the cross back to it. For Aristotle is not actually right in thinking that the virtuous person's emotions always correctly track reality. Emotions come and go. No matter how virtuous a person is, if she has been deprived of sleep for too many hours, whether by torturers or by parenthood, she will not have much in the way of appropriate emotions. She will, if she remains virtuous, act rightly, but may feel simply numb. A virtuous person's emotions correctly track reality only in circumstances which are appropriate for this tracking of reality. A virtuous person knows that parenting is a good, but she does not feel the warm glow of it except in appropriate observing conditions, typically ones incompatible with sleep deprivation, just as an art expert may not recognize the fake Rembrandt except in good light.

Now, Christ on the cross was, we might say, in ideal observing conditions in respect of evil. His emotions were genuinely human ones. Suffering has much to teach us experientially, which we may have already known theoretically. On the cross, as the perfectly innocent divine victim, he could humanly experience the fullness of the evils of the world, evils that he already divinely knew, and that he even theoretically already knew as a human being. Moreover, even if his physical pain did not have the same magnitude that the pain of someone being tortured to death over the period of a month might have had, the physical pain he did suffer was of sufficient magnitude to fuel an empathy that would humanly enable him to be spiritually pained at that victim's pain of being tortured over a month—or even at the physical pains of eternity in hell. He suffered, then, not just his own sufferings on the cross, but these sufferings of his own made it possible for him to suffer with the victims of all the past and future crimes he knew of, as well as to suffer, even more profoundly, with the perpetrators of these.

I do not think this exhausts what happened on the cross. In fact, I am very much unsatisfied with what I wrote. I don't even want to say that the theory I offer is true. But the availability of theories like this one shows that the IC should not be as persuasive as it initially seems.


Stephen Davies said...

The explanation I've always heard (can't remember where I first came across this; it's possible I made it up) is that Christ, being divine, is infinite, whereas we humans are finite. This has two implications:

1. Christ is of infinite worth. In chess, a knight is worth three pawns; in the Civil War, General Lee was certainly thought to be as "valuable" as many privates; and metaphysically, the Son of God is of infinite value. To the Father, He is a possession more treasured than all the finite humans put together. Therefore, His death, though lasting a finite amount of time, was more than enough to appease the Father's wrath. A chess player would be delighted to sacrifice a bishop or two if he could capture the opponent's queen in exchange.

2. Christ has the capacity for infinite suffering. I squashed a little green beetle as a child, and ran to my mother with tears of remorse. She consoled me by assuring me that a little big wasn't able to feel very much. I believe this is accurate. A cow, say, with a very small brain, simply can't experience as much pain (or pleasure) as a human being. The Son of God, being infinite, has/had the capacity to suffer far, far more than any finite mortal like ourselves. And so the time it took for the crucifixion is really beside the point: Christ's suffering occurred on another dimension altogether, and to a far greater degree than we can comprehend.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for the intriguing suggestions.

Four thoughts:

1. I don't like appeasement theories of atonement. That's not really an argument...

2. Christ is of infinite worth qua God. But he did not die qua God, but qua man. Indeed, even while he was dead qua man, he was alive qua God (otherwise God would be a Binity then).

3. I think there is something to the infinite capacity for suffering idea. But here is my worry. If the infinite capacity comes from Christ's humanity, then one wonders why we, who are equally human, do not have it as well. But if it comes from Christ's divinity, then what is the point of the incarnation and crucifixion--why can't he as God simply suffer spiritually infinitely at the evils people have done, without an incarnation? This isn't really an objection, as much as an invitation to say something about the way the capacity for suffering arises somehow out of the combination of humanity and divinity.

4. I worry that the kind of infinity that Christ is going to have on this theory will be of a higher order than the infinity of the sufferings of the damned over time, since in the case of Christ the infinity presumably comes from his Godhead. But then his suffering seems to be too great, contrary to justice.

Jarrod Lee said...

Hi Alex once again,

I was asked the question of what was the point of Christ's suffering by an old French priest this year in March (Holy Week I believe) and since it was such a simple answer, and knowing that it was probably not meant to be a simple question, hesitated but still gave the supposed textbook answer - He died for our sins so that we might have life, life to the full etc etc.

And this old French priest asked - then what is so good about our God? Or something to that effect anyhow. His argument was simple - if God is supposedly all-loving and all-powerful, then why should He have to have Christ suffer all that much on the Cross? Yes, He wants justice and yes, that's what the Church teaches, but such a teaching seems to bring across an image of God the Father as first and foremost a God of infinite Justice, not a God of infinite Love, and hence a God who was, as it were, merely waiting behind the clouds that very day for His Son to fully pay off the debt of all our sins. That doesn't seem to cohere very well with the God of unconditional love. While that in itself doesn't necessarily mean that the Christ-died-for-our-sins reason is wrong because God's logic is beyond ours, yet I think that the problem with the Sufficiency theories is that they focus too much on the NEED for the Suffering of Christ for the sake of Justice such that we have to actually debate about whether He suffered enough or not and how that would be possible. Rather, as this old French priest said to me, why not think of Christ's choice to be on the Cross and to STAY on the Cross (for of course He could have simply come off the Cross and through that public spectacular act gain more followers immediately) as an act of Love and Hope? That here is how we overcome Death. Here is how we can overcome all the evil that the world can throw at us, even Death, and still choose to have (eternal) Life by simply choosing to love, even to the very last moment. Understood in this sense, Christ's suffering on the cross, while important for Justice, is more important because it offers us a real way out of the false dichotomy of life on earth and death - eternal life is now an option, and with that option, true hope that can allow us to have that deep undercurrent of joy even when we face the hardest trials and tribulations of our lives. And that's why the Incarnation was so important - that He came down and truly took upon Himself all the evil that we as Man can ever experience, and then show us a way out. I guess the intuition/argument is that the best way is simply to show us to choose in a manner that we can understand, i.e. as Man, either because we are dense or that we can have no real excuse because He did it as one of us too!

If we understand Christ's Suffering in this way, then it seems to me that questions of theology and philosophy, while important for allowing the rational sides of ourselves be satisfied, start to fall away as questions of spirituality start to take hold. And perhaps this is where my own bias for Continental Philosophy comes in as well - I truly think that Continental Philosophy (before all that Postmodern madness anyway) really has something important to contribute to Analytic Philosophy, and not simply as a reason to why we even call it Analytic Philosophy, but that sometimes, knowledge is not as important as wisdom, and wisdom is not necessarily attainable via analysis.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that if we think of Christ as paying a debt to the Father then we do run the danger of making God seem vengeful and all that. It may help, however, to remember that the Christ who pays is consubstantial with the Father who is paid. But that said, it might be best not to look at it in terms of a payment to the Father.

I am inclined to think it is a mistake to think of a punishment as something owed to the victim of a crime. I know people talk that way, but I think it's icky--it smacks of Nietzsche's reading of retributive punishment where the victim is compensated by getting the pleasure of seeing the malefactor suffer. If punishment is owed to anyone, it is owed to the criminal. It is an injustice to the criminal to withhold punishment, just as it is an injustice to a benefactor to withhold thanks.

How to make an atonement story fit with this is a difficult question. There are some ideas in this post. Mark Murphy is also writing a paper that will be very enlightening, though I am not sure he endorses my view of whom punishment is owed to.

I am concerned about views of the cross on which the redemptive power of the cross works by way of example. Here is a simple reason why that can't be the whole story. All human salvation is through the cross. If the redemptive power of the cross works by way of example, then anybody who is redeemed by the power of the cross must have in some way been influenced by the example of the cross. But to be influenced by the example of the cross, one must have either heard of the cross, or have come across the example of someone else who heard of the cross, vel caetera.

Now, we don't want to say, I think, that every person in China in the 7th century BC was damned. Suppose X is a 7th century BC Chinese person who was saved. Then X was saved by the power of the cross. But it is unlikely that X ever heard of the cross (the Israelites may have heard about it through prophecy, but China is far from there) and it is not even all that likely that there was a chain of exemplary behavior leading up to X's salvation, unless one posits some primordial prophecies of the cross available in every culture.

Even more decisively, surely some small infants have been saved. But small infants surely are not influenced by the example of the cross in any personally significant way. They just lack the cognitive skills for that. If they are saved by the cross, this must be through some metaphysical or normative effect of Christ's sacrifice, not through example.

The radical case of this--the ultimate case of salvation by grace alone--is where Mary is redeemed by the power of the cross at the moment of her conception. Since it was at the moment of her conception, surely it was not by any kind of meditation on Christ's example, etc.

That said, there are many dimensions to the sacrifice of the cross. Perhaps infinitely many. So the case of the example of hope, yes, that is one of the dimensions, and I am glad you brought it up. But it cannot be the whole story, or else small infants and ancient Chinese could not be saved.

I also find somewhat morally problematic the idea of enduring death simply as an example for others.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I withdraw the speculation that the pains of hell decrease asymptotically. Such a view has apparently been condemned (non-definitively) by the Holy Office in 1893.

Alexander R Pruss said...

After further research, it's less clear to me what view has exactly been condemned. Mivart wrote an article where he argued that the folks in hell were happy, and even happier than on earth. The article was condemned in general terms as far as I can tell, and I do not know if there were any specifics in regard to the condemnation, so I may have been hasty in my comment.