Inconsistent Critiques of Christianity

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In a discussion I was in recently, someone made the common claim that it would be morally abominable for God to have the ability to save all people but only in fact save some. If God has a plan of providence, as Christianity traditionally has said, and that plan includes exactly what will happen down to the level of what sparrows will eat on any given day (as Jesus seems to me to state in the sermon on the mount), what evil kings will do in their pride in order to punish God's people (as the prophets seem to me to state), and which people will be counted among those who believe (as the book of Acts seems to me to state), then if it also includes which people won't believe Christian thinks God is morally abominable, whether that leads to an eternal hell or just annihilation. The claim is something like that, anyway.

There's a lot that could be said about this claim, and I don't have the time to treat it comprehensively, but I find the move to be interesting given another common philosophical claim that I've seen made against the most common Christian view historically on the atonement, i.e. penal substitution. The claim is often made that it would be wrong for God to use Jesus, an innocent, to take the sins of humanity, because then we're not really being atoned for. It's true that someone is dying for our sins, but it's not justice according to this objection, because no one is getting what they deserve. Jesus is wrongly killed, and we're unjustly not getting what we deserve. How could a just God allow that?

What's interesting about these two objections to what I consider to be standard Christian views is that they can't both be right. If it's wrong to allow Jesus to die for people and thus have the people not get what they deserve, then it can't be wrong to allow people to go to hell when they could be saved. If it's wrong to allow people to go to hell when they can be saved, then it can't be wrong to allow Jesus to die in the place of sinners who would otherwise deserve to suffer eternally in hell. Those who find themselves attracted to both objections face a serious inconsistency. I can't even imagine how the same motivational structure could produce both objections unless they stem just from the motivation just to undermine Christianity at whatever cost, even if it's the cost of inconsistency.

Now I haven't said anything against either objection. As I said, I don't have the time to work up a careful response right now. It just occurred to me that these are both extremely common criticisms of Christian views that I find among philosophers, and they seem to assume contradictory intuitions about the relation of justice to people's deserving punishment.

I also want to point out that there are other arguments against substitutionary atonement that focus on the mere substitution element but retain the penal element (see Wink's post on that), and there is at least one I know of that focuses on a different aspect of the penal element, namely that it would be wrong to kill an innocent Jesus, but I'm just thinking of one common argument the penal element of the atonement that I think can't be maintained together with the criticism of hell that I started this post with. I see both sorts of arguments from philosophers in the current climate, and I don't think the two could very easily be made consistent. It seems to me that you can't say that penal substitution is philosophically untenable because it makes God unjust for allowing some to be saved who deserve punishment they never get and then to go on and say that God is immoral for allowing any not to be saved. I'd be very surprised if there aren't people who say both things, but I don't see how both can be maintained.

25 Comments

These arguments about God being immoral are flawed because they ignore some important details.

First, when someone willingly dies to save others it is called a sacrifice, an act of heroism. This is a completely separate case from one where an innocent is wrongly sentenced to death. How is it different? It is a matter of the will and purpose of the accused. Part of the confusion I think is with treating Christ as just a man and not the Son of God who chose to come and give his life. If he was just a man, then he was powerless to do anything to prevent an unjust system from exacting death upon him. But as one who is in every way considered equal with God...

Second, the plan of providence has been set up with a provision. Namely, you must accept Christ's sacrifice for atonement of sins. So the responsibility of morality is then transferred to the individual who has the choice to either choose salvation for himself or not.

Side note: God is the author of morality, so is it even possible for him to be immoral by definition? No, unless morality exists independently. This is probably a discussion for another time, but one that is interesting nonetheless.

Regarding the side note: I don't think the objector is saying that God is immoral. The objector is saying that it's inconsistent to believe in a perfect being who yet does these things that are immoral. The conclusion wouldn't be "God exists but is immoral". It would be "either God doesn't exist or isn't like that (i.e. doesn't do the things said to be immoral)".

The side note about morality is really saying that the objections cannot be immoral if God is the one doing them by definition (since nothing he does is/can be immoral since he defines morality).

There is a third possibility for the objector: that even if these "objections" turn out to be consistent/true then that's not the kind of God that should be believed/followed (using their own code of morality versus the standard as defined by God).

I think what makes me hesitate on this is that I don't think God just decides what's morally right in some arbitrary way. I think of morality as based on God's perfect nature, which necessarily has to be what it is because God is a necessary being. God acts, speaks, and thinks based on a nature that is already fully perfect in every way, and moral truths depend on that. So I do think morality has its origin in God, but it's not from God's arbitrary choices, as if God could have decided that torturing infants for the fun of it would be morally wonderful.

I didn't really want to get into the exact nature of the origin of morality here, but it is very interesting. Would you consider this a topic for a full post at some point? Maybe covering some common philosophies of morality including relativism versus absolute standards in the process. It is so relevant to society and what's happening today as well as how we view the past within its historical context.

I think I've already written about this before a little bit (or at least posted some of my class handouts on it), but it does happen to be the next topic in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. I haven't had the time to put the next post together, because this one isn't going to be as easy to come right out of a class handout as some of them have.

I guess I can wait. But I remember when taking that class discussing this on the side with Seth in respect to the existence of God. His argument (or the one he presented) was something like "Morality exists independently of God so morality does not need the existence of God to explain its origin." The basic idea here is that you can be a "good" person by following moral truths and still be an atheist. Absolute moral truth does not need God to be true. I'm sure you've heard these arguments.

This is flawed because in this philosophy it is impossible to determine what these "absolutes" are and where they came from. Without knowing what they are, then how can we live by them? Enforce them? Hold others accountable? Or know that they exist at all? It just comes down to each person's own code of ethics. Let's say a madman entered a pacifist's home. The madman believes in "survival of the fittest." The pacifist believes in nonresistance. The madman eliminates the pacifist. But the pacifist has to accept that this man was just following his moral convictions when he broke into his home. Sorry buddy. In this country, we call that murder and put people behind bars. The only way to say that this is absolutely wrong though is to say there are absolute standards (if there are no absolutes, then this was not wrong). So again, where do these absolutes come from?

The basis of law today comes from the ethics and morality layed out by God in the Bible. There is a movement to undo these ties, but what then would be used for substitute? Evolving standards? The whims of unelected judges holding the majority of constituents hostage with pretentious and extreme rulings. This will lead into "might makes right" which historically has been the case in so many societies (and even today in many parts of the world).

If you want a glimpse into what happens when moral standards are erased, then go watch "The Killing Fields" where in Cambodia millions were killed by the Kmer Rouge, a militia of children run by cult leaders.

I think you mean objective moral truth rather than absolutes. Absolutes are rigid rules that never have exceptions. Objective truths are truths independent of our own preferences or views.

I think there are several different questions to separate out. One is what makes moral statements true (God's choice, God's nature, something independent of God). Another is how we know them (moral intuition, reason on the basis of something else we know, divine revelation). A third is whether you can live in a moral way if you don't believe in God (and this comes in multiple levels, e.g. whether it's possible to do any right at all, whether it's possible to have a life that on the whole is good, whether it's possible to have a perfect life). There are lots of combinations to how you answer those questions.

I might have more to say, but I need to go.

Your counterargument proceeds from the assumption that the necessity of penal substitution is some kind of natural law that God couldn't alter. If God is omniscient, he could clapped his hands and saved everyone, rather than Jesus. Once that hidden presupposition is made overt, I don't see any inconsistency.

"Without knowing what they are, then how can we live by them? Enforce them?"

It's really not that hard: we agree to enshrine some principles as law, and then enforce them through the state's police power. Not so tough, really. The only way your concern becomes a viable arugment is in certain border cases, when we're unable to reach consensus. In that case, we all - Christian, atheist, etc - sit down and argue.

"f God is omniscient, he could clapped his hands and saved everyone"

*smacks head*

Omnipotent, not omniscient

So how does God clapping his hands satisfy justice? Omnipotence doesn't allow God to make square circles or to be immoral while being perfectly good. Why should it allow God to satisfy justice while doing something utterly unconnected to justice?

It seems to me you're saying that sacrificing Jesus satisfies the requirements of justice in some way that clapping hands doesn't. Assuming I'm reading you right, the connection between sacrifice & justice strikes me (and presumably your hypothetical critiquer) as pretty arbitrary. If God could substitute Jesus, why couldn't he substitute clapping?

The tradional conception has an easy explanation why it can't be satisfied by hand-clapping. If the punishment is a debt, as Paul often conceives of it, then the punishment is about paying that debt. The debt must be paid. It can be paid by someone's paying it for me, or I can pay it myself. But it doesn't get paid with hand-clapping if the debt is forfeiture of life. If you think of it as Jesus did, then it's a ransom that can be paid either by the person dying or by someone else dying to buy back the people who would otherwise have died. Hand-clapping doesn't satisfy the ransom or debt that requires taking a life. Dying does, but it has to be the death of someone who doesn't have the same debt to pay already, so it must be an innocent. It also must be someone divine in order to pay the debts or ransoms of many people, and it must be someone human to be paying the same kind of debt. That's why it must be the divine-human Son of God.

Both substitutionary and penal atonement theories are false for these concepts have the flaw of assuming that a human sacrificed by bloodshed "in place of" is without a residual moral complication. However Jesus' statement in Jn. 16:8, in order to be factual, must have a fact of prior conspicuousness relative to a disobedience of God's law for the issue of guilt relative to sin to continue to be outstanding AFTER his crucifixion. This particular statement by Jesus wipes out all validity of the theories of substitutionary and penal atonement. For if these assumptions were true there cannot be any residual issue of guilt relative to sin remaining AFTER Jesus was crucified, but there is a residual. For whenever any male human's life is taken by bloodshed God requires a direct accounting to be made to him. Gen. 9:5b NIV. In order to truthfully understand the reason for Jesus' crucifixion it is the "and from each man too I will demand an accounting for the life of your fellow man." that Jesus' crucifixion has put into effect for ALL men. The only possible Way any man can comply with the demand of God regarding the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, is by the faith of REPENTING of the one sin of Jesus' murder for the forgiveness of ALL sins. Jesus' crucifixion has perfected the only Way any man by the faith to obey his command given through the apostles, for the only Way God's demand from each man too can be complied with is by apologizing for Jesus' crucifixion.

Every person who is relying on the false assumption of substitutionary or penal atonement theories is not able to obtain any knowledge of God of the only possible Way the Acts 2:38 command can be obeyed. Jesus willingly complied with his father's will to be crucified so the sin of his murder caused by bloodshed would perfect the only acceptable Way for God to demand the same exact accounting from each man too. Otherwise God would be required to respect persons. There is no other morally correct explanation for the reason of Jesus' crucifixion for any other explanation has the moral complication of lying. There is no allowable lawful direct benefit that can be obtained from the sin of murder caused by bloodshed as the theories of substitutionary and penal atonement allow, but only in the case of Jesus' crucifixion, regarding the fact that his life was taken by bloodshed, he became the only sin for each man to repent of to save himself by. Each man too has been given the grace to come to repentance of that sin, but he needs to hear why he must.

Any refute or comment? or so be it.
Theodore A. Jones

Theodore, I put lots of time into responding to you last time. I didn't get the sense that you were recognizing anything I said then. Given how you closed off the discussion the way you did, I don't see any reason to continue this off-topic discussion now on yet another discussion thread.

For anyone who hasn't seen my discussions with Theodore before, you can find them here and a little bit more here.

Pierce, after reading the two comments prior to mine and you not expressing any objection to them perhaps it is you that has misunderstood the topic. I have fully recognized what you have said but I also fully disagree with your conjectures and by reasonable supportive counter. My comment posted yesterday was respondent to the question "If God could substitute Jesus, why couldn't he substitute hand-clapping?" Isn't this the question you responded too? So is your complaint to me relative to a superior counter I've stated or is it for telling you the truth about one of your last days? At least I can say that what I have said to you is not a tradition of men nor do I imply that the thinking of Jesus is confined to the traditions of men as you have assumed by your statement yesterday. A conjecture is a conjecture but never is any assumption or religious practice of men not reproved by God. For the word of God is first and foremost a reproof and it cannot be changed to fit tradition without running a foul of "Do not make my words mean less than what I meant by saying them." The traditional conjecture of men are conjectures that exceed this statutory limit. Now what exactly is your complaint?

I'm not sure what two comments you're talking about. If you're talking about the two comments prior to your comment yesterday on this post, one is mine, and it's a reply to the immediately prior comment. So your claim is just false. I did respond to the hand-clapping argument. My last comment on this post before you commented yesterday was my objection to the comment before it.

As for your comment yesterday, if I can't figure out what your argument is even supposed to be, then I can't very well say anything in response to it. I have no idea what "a fact of prior conspicuousness relative to a disobedience of God's law" is supposed to mean. I can't begin to think about what that has to do with John 16:8 until I have some idea what it even means. I certainly don't see how any of it has to do with the hand-clapping issue.

The rest of your comment seems to be mere assertion of things we've already discussed before.

Thanks for the reply Pierce maybe there's some hope.
The statement "a fact of prior conspicuousness relative to a disobedience of God's law" means that the crucifixion had to have been a historistocial fact of actual infraction of God's law(s) prior to establishing this new covenant perfected by Jesus' having been crucified. Gal. 5:11 clearly states "offense of the cross." This word, offense, is a reference to the fact that the crucifixon of Jesus is truthfully the sin of murder Acts 7:52, with the additional contributary factor of root cause that Jesus life was lost by bloodshed. Now. AFTER Jesus had been crucified he says, meaning that facts, prima facia evidence, are in place for the purpose of convicting the whole world of sin i.e. a sin. Jn. 16:8
The major problem in your answer is the false assumption of religating the crucifixion of Jesus to the confine of the temple's cerimonal processes. Hasn't it been clearly stated in Heb. that these types of sacrifices are not worth a tinker's dam for removing the weight of sin's penalty? Your position of assuming that Jesus by crucifixion is a substitute is clearly a demarktation from his thinking that his crucifixion is prima facia for CONVICTING the whole world of guilt relative to the fact of his crucifixion. Therefore it is impossible for you to construct any correct answer of why clapping hands is not common to the false assumption of substitutionary atonement being true. For if Jesus' crucifixion by your thinking has paid your debit for sin why does he emphatically state that the whole world, including you, been convicted of guilt in regard to sin, but AFTER his crucifixion? I don't think you have the slighest idea of Jesus' thinking, which is what you have admitted, by asking me what Jesus statement meant in Jn. 16:8. As for your complaing about spending a lot of your time responding to me last time. I am teching you it is not the other way around as you are thinking. Time is not on your side son since every tick of the clock is a measure of what is lost. You can reject what I've said to you but we will all get to the other side .You had better hope that these traditions you trust in are sancified by God's word as true. For if not a fellow is in one hell of a mess. I've spent some of my time responding to you also but I have no expectation of my ears getting scratched.

The issue of Jesus' crucifixion being a sin is not under debate. I never disagreed with you that it was a sin to kill Jesus.

Now what I'm not seeing is what John 16:8 has to do with anything. He says that the Holy Spirit will come to convict the world of sin. This is something that he says will happen after the crucifixion. So what? People do sin after the crucifixion, and they need to be convicted of it if they are to repent. They will not be able to receive the work of Christ on the cross unless they do repent. Therefore, their guilt remains until they do so. I'm not seeing your problem with this.

What Hebrews says is that the blood of bulls and goats does not remove sin. My sin can be taken care of by my own eternal death, however, or it can be done away with by a death of eternal quality. The problem isn't that sacrifices can't do away with sin. It's that bulls and goats are insufficient for human sin and thus were symbols and shadows of a sacrifice to come, just as the whole temple setup was a symbol and shadow of a heavenly reality.

Indicating that I have no idea what you mean by John 16:8 does not constitute admitting that I don't myself know what I think it means. I know full well what I think it means. I just wanted to know how you were taking it and what that could possibly have to do with this issue.

Thanks for your reply. I am going to have to leave after this comment and will be away for about two weeks. After this things can soak but that clock will continue to tick. Time is not on your side.
Let me ask, wasn't Jesus crucified at Passover and is Passover a temple ceremony? There is a little used rule for interpreting that is a summary of three individual commands. 1 Cor. 4:6 says "Do not go beyond what is written." corresponding to the commands "Do not add to my words", "Do not subtract from my words" and "Do not diminish what my words mean." In no case has any person obtained an exemption from these rules has he? So then since Jesus has been crucified at Passover and it is the Lord's Passover and specific to Passover are also rules of limit. What are these rules?
Now there is a philosophical problem in your last response. Philosophical meaning a belief about self. Son if you by eternal death can take care of your sin(s) God has no problem convincing you that your sin(s) haven't been taken of by the proof of eternal death. I am sure that you have the same texts of the Bible as I do and they all have the exact same rule for discovering what is true. "Continue in my words." Put this rule into practice.
"Come now" God says "let us reason together" for what I want from you is why God has the viewpoint that your sins are those particular colors and how did they get that way? The next time you are at the Lord's table look in the cup held by your hand. What are the colors that you see?

Jesus was crucified during the overall Passover festival, but it wasn't Passover night. It was the following night. He ate Passover with his disciples on Passover night.

I have no idea what you're getting at with this Passover, rules of limit, and "do not add to my words" stuff.

I also have no idea what this is supposed to mean: "if you by eternal death can take care of your sin(s) God has no problem convincing you that your sin(s) haven't been taken of by the proof of eternal death."

Theodore wrote here "whenever any male human's life is taken by bloodshed God requires a direct accounting to be made to him. Gen. 9:5b NIV". And he wrote much the same in a comment at 42. But of course this verse is not about male humans. I responded to him both there and at Better Bibles Blog.

At 42 he also wrote "What I've said to you is the only correct understanding of Jesus' crucifixion." I don't see much point in continuing discussions with someone with this attitude.

If he presents real arguments in a clear enough manner for me to understand them, I'll respond. But I've indicated my displeasure with his bad manners, and it isn't going to take as much to cut it off as it usually does. He's gone for a while now, and when he comes back it will most likely be on some other post he hasn't commented on. If his arguments are relevant to the post and clear enough for me to understand, as it turned out they were relevant (and eventually became clearer until this last one), then I don't see why I shouldn't respond.

Pierce the command of the Lord thy God is "Love your enemy." It is not me that owes you.

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