As I walk in the small Sunday School room on a Wednesday night, ten young children sit at a table ready to be thrilled by God in his Word. I ask the question that I ask every time we meet:
“What is Christianity all about?”
In unison, they reply, “Jesus took my place.”
“Yes!” I reply. “High fives all around!”
The atonement of Christ is the central doctrine of Christianity. Volumes upon volumes of theological works are dedicated to this doctrine. Heart-wrenching and worship-inducing sermons and hymns have been written, preached, and sung by believers throughout the centuries. And while there are multiple legitimate theories of the atonement, essentially there are only two responses to the atonement that truly matter: either delight or disgust.
The fact that God the Son bears the wrath of God the Father for the justification of humans who have incurred the wrath of this holy God is mind-blowing and awesome. In fact, it is the highest act of love, grace, and mercy. “[B]ut God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Sinners are saved because a sinless Savior was judged in our place.
Good news, right? No, GREAT news!
Well, not for everyone. It is understandable that non-Christians, religious or otherwise, take issue with the atonement.
They may reject its truth. “Jesus did not actually die on a cross or rise from the dead.”
They may reject its message. “It just can’t be that sinners are saved by the work of another and no work of their own is the basis of salvation.”
However, I have discovered that some deny, reject, and repel the most precious doctrine of Christianity on the basis of its morality. In other words, some people reject the atonement of Jesus as being immoral of evil. This is surprising, shocking, and even dumbfounding for the Christian. How could anyone call what we view as the greatest act of love as immoral? Immorality and evil most certainly do not coincide with love. At the very least, this is a very serious accusation.
In Norman Geisler and Daniel McCoy’s recently released book, The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw: Exposing Conflicting Beliefs, the authors engage with multiple atheistic God-in-the-Dock arguments against the existence of God. In chapter six, the authors show how atheists argue against the existence of the Christian God by showing his pardon of sinners to be immoral. After explaining how the atheist takes issue with God’s justice and wrath against sin and sinners, he shows the atheist’s inconsistency. Not only do atheists despise God’s punishment of sinners, but they also despise God’s pardon of sinners. While it seems immeasurably good news for God to “take all that wrath, every bit of it, and ingest it back into himself,” the atheist responds to such news by saying “Thanks, but no thanks” (89). God bears the wrath that sinners deserve to bear, and at this prospect, the atheist replies, “Ugh! Farewell, God!”
Geisler and McCoy then move to show six reasons why the atheist believes the cross is “unacceptable, even revolting.” While these reasons given by the atheist may be alarming to the Christian, it is important to see that not everyone approaches our most precious doctrine with the same gratitude and delight. Each reason given is unconvincing, but they are very enlightening and helpful when it comes to understanding how atheists view the atonement. If you ever plan to share the gospel with an atheist, you would do well to know what many of them believe about the cross of Christ. As a Christian, if your heart doesn’t break when reading these reasons, you need to check your pulse.
6 Reasons the Atonement is “Repulsive” (pp. 89-91 of The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw)
The following are the six primary reasons why atheists (obviously not all atheists. This mainly refers to those atheists who put God on trial for contradicting his own nature) reject the atonement of Jesus.
1. Christ’s Redemption is Barbaric
Sam Harris: “The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a ‘loving’ God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the superstitious bloodletting that has plagued bewildered people throughout history.”
2. Christ’s Redemption is Incoherent
Baptist-turned-atheist, Ken Pulliam asks why only the Father “needed to be propitiated when the three persons of the Godhead are allegedly equal. Moreover, did Jesus’s atonement temporarily sever the unity of the Godhead, which is impossible?”
3. Christ’s Redemption is Impossible
Christopher Hitchens: “We cannot, like fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat and then drive the hapless animal into the desert.”
Ken Pulliam: “[I]t is logically impossible to punish an innocent person.”
4. Christ’s Redemption is Unnecessary
Dan Barker: “It does no good to say that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. I don’t have any sins, but if I did, I wouldn’t want Jesus to die for my sins. I would say, ‘No, thanks. I will take responsibility for my own actions.'”
5. Christ’s Redemption is Obnoxious
Richard Dawkins: “[Redemption] is a repellant doctrine.” Dawkins has also said the atonement of Christ is “almost as morally obnoxious as the story of Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac, which it resembles.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Sacrifice for sin, and in its most obnoxious and barbarous form: sacrifice of the innocent for the sins of the guilty!”
6. Christ’s Redemption is Immoral
Christopher Hitchens: “I can pay your debt…But I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept.”
Elizabeth Anderson: “The practice of scapegoating contradicts the whole moral principle of personal responsibility. It also contradicts any moral idea of God.”
Dan Barker: “I do understand what love is, and that is one of the reasons I can never again be a Christian. Love is not self-denial. Love is not blood and suffering. Love is not murdering your son to appease your own vanity.”
There is No Middle Ground
The God of Christianity causes many problems for humans. Atheists reject God and his intervention to save humans because of what it says about them–namely that they are reduced to sinful beings, while God reigns as a supreme holy being. Atheists have a major problem with the first question/answer of the Baptist Catechism: “God is the first and best of beings.”
These statements from the atheists themselves leaves me with a two-fold feeling. Firstly, I cringe at the obvious and unapologetic blasphemy. Secondly, however, I am deeply saddened by these various positions on the atonement. Spiritual blindness abounds in such distaste for the bloodshed love of Christ.
I am sympathetic to these reasons for disregarding the atonement, even though I disagree with each of them. I always appreciate the brutal honesty of most atheists. Only from honest positions can any measure of discussion be held. If you find agreement or sympathies with any of these reasons or if you hold any of these atheistic beliefs concerning the atonement, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section. Decisions made on the atonement of Christ may be the most important decision you will ever make. One thing is clear from this post: Either total delight or total disgust comes from Christ’s cross. There is no middle ground.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.