One of the core doctrines in Christianity is the notion that Jesus died for our sins. Muslims most commonly point out that this doctrine is unjust, however there are at least two other problems with this doctrine, which are not very often pointed out clearly by Muslims: 1) The Atonement Invalidates The True Concept of Forgiveness & 2) Jesus’ Vicarious Death Causes Problems For The Trinity (which is supposedly a description of God’s Holy Nature)
Let’s try to explore how serious all three of these problems are in a little more detail.
Argument no. 1: It is Unjust, Hence Compromising God’s Holy Attribute of Justice
Both Islam in Surah 91:8 and Christianity in Romans 2:14-15 teach that human beings are naturally inspired with certain moral intuitions. We all acknowledge the universally recognized moral principle that it is criminals who deserve to be punished for their crimes and not innocents. Even if an innocent person volunteers to suffer for the crime of a criminal resulting in the criminal avoiding the penalty of the crime we still recognize that JUSTICE has not been served, despite the innocent person doing a noble act of sacrifice voluntarily.
We often hear Christians say: “God leaves no sin unpunished”? What does that even mean?
Sin is not a tangible matter nor is it a liquid that is injectable into the body. Sin is either a thought or an action. You can’t punish crime without punishing the criminal. Sin is what a sinner does and it is the sinner who deserves the punishment. God doesn’t punish murder, theft and fornication, rather He punishes murderers, thieves and fornicators. We shouldn’t be treating sin as some type of abstract thing.
If one wants to clarify “well what we mean is that all sin must be accounted for and it was accounted for in punishing Jesus”. But Jesus was innocent and sinless according to Christian theology, hence how could he be “punished”? How could an innocent person be “punished” when the very word “punished” itself denotes that one is suffering a penalty for an offense that he committed? Innocents are not “punished”, rather they are made to suffer at times, but never “punished”.
But one may reply that Jesus was treated as if he was guilty even though in reality he wasn’t. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Jesus being treated as something that he really wasn’t is nothing more than fiction. Calling this a “fiction” is not from me, but the words of John Nevin, a 19th century Reformed theologian who is said to have been one of the best students who studied at Princeton during his time. He wrote:
The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God. (The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, pp. 190-91 cited in by Mark Horne, Real Union or Legal Fiction).
Those worthy and deserving of punishment must be treated accordingly and those not worthy and deserving of punishment must be treated accordingly. You cannot have the penal consequences of sins if you are not guilty of those sins. Also, if Jesus wasn’t TRULY guilty of the sins he was “punished” for, then that means that the guilt of the sinners weren’t TRULY transferred to him and hence we still have guilty people not being judged the way justice demands that they should. And if Jesus is TRULY guilty of the sins that he was “punished” for, then you have a sinful savior and God resulting in the destruction of his holiness.
One may say “Bassam, don’t confuse laws that are binding upon us human beings with laws that are binding upon God, for there are no laws binding upon God” I have two responses to that. First, the idea of holding a specific person accountable and guilty for his sins and not transferring the guilt to someone innocent is in and of itself a Biblical motif. Ezekiel 18:19-20 states:
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Secondly, it is true that God is not judged by laws but that doesn’t mean that He isn’t necessarily good by nature. If he wasn’t then God would be able to turn all good into evil and if He could go that far then why not simply forgive all sin and hold no one accountable? Punishing the guilty and sparing the innocent is more than just a law, it’s a moral principle.
It is also fruitless to explain the problem away by saying that some good has come out of Jesus’ alleged sacrificial death, for just because something good might come about from an unjust act that does not make the act itself just.
1 Timothy 2:5 states: “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.
The task of a mediator is usually to bring two sides together and take charge of the interests of both the offended and the offender. He doesn’t take upon himself the guilt of the offender nor the wrath and fury of the offended, for he is to be the one seeking to reconcile between both parties as a third party member. But apparently that isn’t the case in light of the atonement.
Argument no. 2: The Atonement Invalidates The True Concept of Forgiveness
What does forgiveness mean? We read the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15
“This, then, is how you should pray:
” ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.[a]‘ 14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
So according to the Lord’s Prayer we are to ask God to “forgive us” our debts as “we also forgive our debtors”. We are to forgive men their sins if we are to see the Father forgive us of our sins.
If someone owes you a thousand dollars and you wanted to “forgive this debt” that would mean that you would have to forgo the thousand dollars and absorb your losses. If Kevin owes you a thousand dollars and then you tell Kevin you don’t have to pay it anymore and that John could pay it instead, that doesn’t mean that you have truly forgiven Kevin’s debt. Kevin’s debt is still there even though it’s not Kevin paying it anymore. The only way for you to TRULY forgive Kevin’s debt is for you to absorb your losses. Similarly, the only way for God to TRULY forgive us our debt is to let go of the debt all together. Now we don’t say that God “absorbs His losses” because God is independent of all creatures and has no “losses”, but the logic is the same in that God would have to forgo the debt all together in order to TRULY forgive us our debts. However, in Christianity we don’t see that because Jesus takes the debt and pays it.
In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus gives an example of true forgiveness. Focusing on verses 41-43 he says:
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
True forgiveness is a virtuous act of letting go of a wrong without exacting any form of payment or punishment in return. But Christianity teaches that Jesus bore the punishment of sinners on the cross fully paying off the debt. In that case there is nothing to forgive. Yes, only those who accept what Jesus has done for them will receive the benefits of his alleged sacrificial death for Christianity does not teach universalism, but in REALITY their debt to God wasn’t TRULY forgiven.
Argument no. 3: Jesus’ Vicarious Death Causes Problems For The Trinity (which is supposedly a description of God’s Holy Nature)
Romans 6:23 states that the wages of sin is death. Death here referring to a spiritual death. A spiritual death (unlike a physical death which is a separation of the soul from the body) entails the soul being separate from the presence of God. as one could see in Genesis 2:17 where God said that Adam would “surely die” for eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life.
Now most mainstream Christians are of the view that all the three persons in the Godhead and not only the Father required propitiation (that is they required to be satisfied from the problem of sin) because if it was only the Father then the Son and Holy Spirit wouldn’t be as Holy as the Father, which would be problematic.
Now since all three persons required propitiation and since the wages of sin is spiritual death, how exactly did Jesus propitiate himself? He is supposed to be both the subject and object of propitiation. How does one satisfy his own wrath by punishing himself? Also, if Jesus is God and he must spiritually die and become separated from God, how does he become separated from himself? Despite having two separate natures he is still one person according to orthodox and mainstream Christianity. So how did he separate from himself? It appears that Christians say that he was separated from God the Father and that would count as a spiritual death. I’ll go with that idea for the sake of argument.
John Calvin and other reformed scholars such as Charles Hodge, John MacArthur, RC Sproul, John Piper and others insist that mere corporeal death wouldn’t have been sufficient, but that Jesus during his hours on the cross must have truly been separate from God the Father and that his soul endured such trauma.
But if Jesus were truly separate from God the Father for those few hours then doesn’t that mean that there was a temporary break and disconnect in the Trinity? Didn’t that intercommunion in the Godhead temporarily stop? Isn’t that a change in God, which Malachi 3:6 says cannot happen since God does not change?
Also, doesn’t Jesus dying and suffering for us mean that he is more worthy of honor and praise than the Father who only sent him? Does the commander who sends his soldier to die in a mission that saved the lives of millions deserve and get the same level of honor as the soldier sent to die? Surely not! The one who does the dirty work is at a much higher level in terms of praise and honour than the one who sent him to do the dirty work. Surely the Son feels a bit closer to us than the Father while the Father feels a bit more transcendent than the Son? So COULD (not should, but COULD) we honestly we love the Father AS MUCH as the son? Doesn’t the atonement raise problematic concerns for God’s supposedly Holy Triune nature?
In a nutshell, we could see just how really problematic the doctrine of the Atonement really is for Christians. If you would like more, then please watch my debate last year on this topic over here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKH6tm_Gaz8.
P.S As I have publicly stated before, much thanks is due to the late Dr. Ken Pulliam, for his research on this topic assisted me very much.