Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why did God kill Himself?

Within Evangelical theology, Jesus did not merely choose to die for Christians' sins. The wages of sin is death, and someone had to pay that penalty. Jesus had to die, or else everyone would go to hell.

This fundamental belief is not merely unsupported by evidence, which goes without saying in theology. There are also three fairly obvious problems with the basic idea.

The first problem is that it portrays God as a judge who is in the unpleasant position of having to uphold a law that calls for mandatory sentencing. Sin calls for death, so God's hands are tied. The obvious flaw here is that the reason sin calls for death is because God chose for that to be the penalty. Or perhaps rather than the penalty being the result of God's choice, it's due to God's nature, God's will, or God's character. I don't care in the slightest which aspect of God is to blame for this.

The second problem is that the punishment is set up as something that's transferable. Punishments aren't like that. I can't go to prison in someone else's place. I can't have points put on my driving record in place of someone else. I can't die in the place of someone on death row, even if I and the criminal agree. If any of these happened, it would be called “corruption.”

A monetary debt analogy is often used to explain how someone could “pay” a penalty for someone else. However, the analogy is flawed at precisely the point that the analogy is designed to make. With a monetary debt, it's not that the debtor has to pay, the point of the agreement is that the creditor needs their money back. Someone else can pay the debt, just as someone else can give money to the debtor who can then give it to the creditor. This isn't some special exception; it simply follows naturally from the fact that wealth is transferable. Non-monetary penalties aren't like that. The point is not that the victim of a crime needs someone, anyone, to serve 20 years for them. The point is that the criminal needs to serve 20 years. Either the criminal “pays” the “price” himself or it goes unpaid.

The third problem is that Jesus didn't pay the penalty for sin. Precisely what are the wages of sin? Death is a fairly clear answer in ordinary language, but theology has a way of mincing even the clearest of words. Death could mean the destruction of the body, death could mean eternal separation from God, death could mean an eternity in hell, or it could be some combination of these.

Here's the key question: do the wages of sin include an eternity in hell? Certainly, the answer must be yes or no, although multiple positions are encompassed by either answer. If no, then what's the point of hell? God just keeps a torture chamber around not because it's demanded by justice, but simply because he's the sort of being who wants hell to exist. Furthermore, if the wages of sin do not include hell, the fact that Christians still physically die means that Jesus' death didn't take away the penalty. If yes, then Jesus didn't pay the penalty for sin. The penalty for sin includes hell, and Jesus certainly didn't go to hell for eternity.

Furthermore, Jesus' only paid the penalty of physical death in a legalistic sense. Suppose a judge sentences a convict to be executed, legally declared dead, and then revived afterward. Assuming everything goes as planned, this is not capital punishment. There is no real difference between sentencing someone to death followed by resurrection and sentencing someone to a painful experience. So it's not even clear that Jesus paid the penalty of “death” in any sense of the word.

Using clear language, here's a fairly common Evangelical position:
An eternity in hell is the penalty for sin. Jesus paid this penalty by temporarily dying. Notice how different this sounds when you use “death” to equivocate between literal death and hell: “The wages of sin is death. But Christians don't have to pay the penalty, because Jesus' paid the penalty of death.” “Death” is one of the many weasel words concealing flaws in Christians beliefs that become crystal clear whenever the beliefs are stated clearly.

Were I engaging a position that gives more than lip service to reason, I would expect the usual response to this to at least have the general form of “here's why the substitutionary atonement makes sense.” But rebuttals to reasoning about theology are usually of the form “even though it doesn't make sense, here's why you should believe it anyway.” For instance, it is suggested that we shouldn't expect the mysteries of God to make sense to our minds. More educated Christians are likely to give a very long and drawn out analysis of first century culture and Jewish sacrificial traditions, and buried within the explanation will be the assertion that we have no right to question God's plan.

But notice that Christians never object to reasoning about the things of God when it is used to support their ideas. Jesus had to die because someone had to pay the penalty of death. The reason that someone had to pay the death penalty is because people sin. The penalty for sin is infinite because the sin is against an infinite God. If Christians really don't think that the things of God can be reasoned about, Christians need to stop giving the impression that they are intending to have a coherent position.

The real reason that Christians object to skeptics' reasoning about God is that the conclusions of reason differ very sharply from Christian beliefs, and so they wish to downplay the role of thinking. It is absolutely vital to the Christian faith to have the word “mystery” and other synonyms available to serve as blank checks to wish away all ways in which faith clashes with reality. What could hold together an obviously false belief more securely than a justification for believing even in the teeth of the realization that Christian beliefs do not hold together? As Mark Twain put it, “faith is believing what you know ain't so.”