Friday, August 25, 2017

Two sources of discomfort with substitutionary views of atonement

On one family of theories of the atonement, the harsh treatment that justice called for in the light of our sins is imposed on Christ and thereby satisfies retributive justice. Pretty much everybody who thinks about this is at least a little bit uncomfortable with it—some uncomfortable to the point of moral outrage.

It’s useful, I think, to make explicit two primary sources of discomfort:

  1. It seems unjust to Christ that he bear the pain that our sins deserve.

  2. It seems unjust that we are left unpunished.

And it’s also useful to note that these two sources of discomfort are largely independent of one another.

I think that those who are uncomfortable to the point of moral outrage are likely to focus on (1). But it is not hard to resolve (1) given orthodox Christology and Trinitarianism. The burden imposed on Christ is imposed by the will of the Father. But the will of the Father in orthodox theology is numerically identical with the will of the Son. Thus, the burden is imposed on Christ by his own divine will, which he then obeys in his own human will. It is thus technically a burden coming from Christ’s own will, and a burden coming from one’s own will for the sake of others does not threaten injustice.

While (2) is also a source of discomfort, I think it is less commonly a discomfort that rises to the level of moral outrage. Maybe some people do feel outrage at the idea that a mass murderer could be left unpunished if she repentantly accepted Christ into her life and were baptised. But I think it tends to be a moral fault if one feels much outrage at leniency shown to a repentant malefactor.

I also think (2) is the much harder problem. Note, for instance, that the considerations of consent that dissolve (1) seem to do little to help with (2). Imagine that I was a filthy rich CEO of a corporation that was knowingly dumping effluent that caused the deaths of dozens of people and I was justly sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. It would clearly be a failure of justice if I were permitted to find someone else and pay her a hundred million dollars to go to prison in place—even though there would no doubt be a number of people who would be very eager, of their own free will, to do that for the price.

It would be nice if I could now go on to solve (2). But my main point was to separate out the two sources of discomfort and note their independence.

That said, I did just now have a thought about (2) while talking to a student. Suppose that you do me a very good turn. I say: “How can I ever repay you?” And you say: “Pass it on. Maybe one day you’ll have a chance to do this for someone else. That will be repayment enough.” If I one day pass on the blessing that I’ve received from you, justice has been done to you. The beneficiary of my passing on the blessing rightly substitutes for you. Maybe there is a mirror version of this on the side of punishment?

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