I’m taking a break from my hobby of debating atheists to return to my main area of study, that of discussing modern theological topics from a systematic perspective in dialog with the ancient church. Way simpler than showing skeptics that their epistemological position is self contradictory, right? So let’s get into it.
The general view of the atonement (that process by which humans are brought back into right relationship with God) inherited from the Reformation and preached in many modern American Evangelical Churches, goes something like this: God made people, people did bad things, and that made God angry. Now God is an infinite God, and if God gets angry, God gets infinitely angry. And God is a just God, and thus infinitely Just. Now an infinitely Just and Angry God is not a God you want on your case. So, humanity is in something of a pickle. We might try to appease God, but we’ve made the terrible mistake, being finite beings, of angering an infinite being. No matter what we do, we can’t get out of this mess.
In pops Jesus, who knows how to appease God, being one of the persons of the three-person God. Jesus tells us that we’ve got to love each other, obey his commandments, and generally be willing to put up with a lot of crap because we follow him. But then, of course, none of that matters because the big bad enemy of humanity, God, is out to get us and there’s no getting around Him by being nice and doing good, and loving our neighbor. Instead, Jesus has got to take on the infinite wrath and justice of God so that we don’t have to. Jesus is also God, and therefore infinitely able to suffer, which pleases the Father, the first person of the Trinity, because now he’s got a worthwhile target for his wrath who is both human (and therefore the just target of wrath) and God (and therefore able to infinitely suffer). For God had a problem. If God was infinitely angry and infinitely just, how would he manage to extract infinite punishment from finite creatures? Well, the answer was going to be “let them suffer…forever.”
And despite there being literally dozens of problems with this model of God, Jesus, Sin, and Judgment, here is where the traditional model meets what appears to be an insurmountable problem. For if human beings are to suffer forever, God’s wrath will never be satisfied. For, if God’s wrath is infinite, it takes infinite justice to appease it. Now, in the case of the “Jesus Shield” model (where Jesus stands in front of us and takes the brunt of God’s wrath) instead of us, Jesus, being infinite, can “take” the infinite wrath of God in a satisfactory way (hence the name “Satisfaction theory”). God is satisfied in that His Wrath and Judgment have met an appropriate target. But with the rest of humanity, if God is pouring out His infinite wrath, that wrath can never be satisfied.
There might be some nodding their heads and saying “yes, that’s why they will burn FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!” But this leaves God in a sticky position. For if God’s wrath is not satisfied, does that not place God in a position of lack? Does God not then depend on humanity in order for His wrath to be satisfied? And, that’s one hell of a dependence, because it can never be fulfilled. For no matter how long a finite human burns in hell, infinite satisfaction can never be achieved. (This is one part of what we call the Kalam argument “An actual infinity cannot be achieved by incremental addition.” (The other part of that argument isn’t relevant here). We use this argument against an infinite regress of time. Well, it also works on an infinite progress of suffering. No matter how long a finite number of humans suffer, that suffering will never reach infinity.)
While the human side of this has been focused on to show why hell must be forever, the divine side of this has not been realized in the theory. God has nothing like the right material to work out God’s wrath or justice on. One would need an actual infinitude of human beings (which is ostensibly impossible) or an actual infinitude of time in which to punish a finite number of humans (also impossible, as shown above).
Thus we find that God must be a very frustrated God. We are also left with some questions.
1. If Jesus takes all the wrath for humanity, why is there still some left over for those burning in Hell?
2. If God’s wrath is never to be appeased, why not let everyone but one guy go, to burn forever? For burning billions for finite amount of time, no matter how big that finite amount of time can be (which must be the state of any temporal reality in hell, that of the incremental addition of instants), can no more satisfy God’s wrath than the burning of one person…or no people. For a finite set taken from an infinitude does not lessen the infinitude. But if we insist on a single person, well, there’s always that Jesus fellow who took all that suffering before. Again, why does his suffering not suffice for everyone? And if it does, how can there be any left over for all those people who didn’t accept him?
3. If God is eternal and unchanging, is not this wrath which must be appeased somehow eternally part of God? But if it is dependent on our sin, did we change God? If not, and God is eternally wrathful, doesn’t that take away God’s ability to be called “All Good and loving?” since God is wrathful logically prior to the creation of humanity who deserves the wrath?
4. Why isn’t Jesus wrathful with us? If He is the perfect image of the Father, why does there seem to be a difference between the Son, who wants to make nice, and the Father who wants to burn us all alive? Doesn’t this seem in contradiction to the scriptural statement that God does not desire the death of a sinner?
5. If the answer to all of this is “Jesus DID do enough, we just need to accept it” in what way do those two things connect logically? If what is being dealt with is a legal element, there is never any question that the victim must accept his pardon. He cannot make the headsman chop his head off, or the guards strap him into the chair and pull the switch. He may insist over and over that they don’t exist, or that they have no authority, or that their authority is a sham and a miscarriage of justice. But there is no instance in which a legal decision made by a court is somehow dependent on the acquitted man agreeing that he is acquitted. The acceptance of Jesus’ life giving work does not fit in this model when we consider it. It does in another model, one put forward by the ancient church, and for understandable reasons. But not this one.
One sees the problem. The traditional narrative of Substitution or Satisfaction atonement is fraught with dozens of problems. This isn’t the largest, this is merely a funny little piece of a much larger picture of all sorts of things wrong with an interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that divorces itself from the first millennium of the Church’s understanding.
We should instead take some cues from the early church in understanding how the reconciliation between humanity and God works, and I’ll touch on that in my next post on the restoration of humanity.