Christianity is based on the unusual idea of sacrificial punishment. The atonement has been interpreted in different ways, but the explanation stemming from some of the more vocal apologists is that of substitution. Jesus suffered God’s righteous indignation instead of sinners, substituting for those who deserve punishment. Curious concepts are employed to make sense of the central idea of substitutive sacrifice, which in turn is an explanation for the brutal fact of Jesus’ violent execution. An anomaly, a grossly unfair event–from one widespread perception, at least–in the ancient past has come to necessitate peculiar explanations to make sense of it. Original sin was conceived, skeptics contend, to provide everyone with the disease for which the proselytizer claims God has the cure. And the sacrifice is said to work in terms of a “transference” of moral debt. When examined, these explanations turn out to be incoherent, a fact which casts doubt on the truth of Christianity’s central concept, that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice.
Original sin means that the human species is innately depraved, a global consequence of which is the punishment of physical death for everyone. We are “guilty” of original sin just by being born human. This involves a curious misuse of “guilty,” because someone can be guilty only of choosing to commit a particular criminal act. No one chooses to be born a human, with an allegedly corrupt, incorrigible “nature.” Therefore original sin cannot be something we’re “guilty” of and “deserve” punishment for. We deserve punishment only for the crimes we choose to commit. Otherwise, “guilty” and “deserving (of punishment)” are weasel words, empty constructions for accommodating contrary evidence, such as the ordinary practice of treating anything destructive yet not chosen by a moral agent subject to judgment as an unpleasant feature of nature, or an “Act of God.” Moral evils are those committed by a morally responsible agent for which she might be punished. Natural evils (diseases, earth quakes, floods) are brought about by randomness, accident, indifferent forces of nature, or perhaps an angry deity, but not by ordinary human decision. Human “nature” has evolved over thousands of years, and whatever inborn potential to commit misdeeds we might have would seem based on the fittest characteristics our ancestors could evolve to survive in an unforgiving, hostile environment.
Christianity can be summarized as the worship of a saviour-God who washes away our worries and deadly sins in the blood he shed on our behalf. But it’s clear that some people’s particular sins far outnumber those of other people. The genius of Paul was in conceiving universal sin, giving everyone without exception a necessary reason to pay special attention to Jesus’ death.
Yet if we can deserve punishment only for our actual sins, “original sin” is a misnomer. No one deserves punishment for existing in a certain state or for having a tendency to sin, only for the actual immoral choices we make. It may or may not be true that we have an inborn tendency to lie, steal, rape and kill. This may be a fact about human nature. However, this tendency can be called only an original inclination to sin, not a sin in itself. We are not responsible for having this tendency, especially given evolutionary theory as to when and how this tendency probably first developed, long ago before we could be called human. Even if the sins of past generations helped shape our social environment and biological impulses which compel us to sin, again no single person or group of persons is responsible for creating this environment. And even if we negatively impact the environment with our particular sins, each of us is already born into such an environment, complete with the genetic makeup of human “nature.” Yet “guilt” applies to someone for the misdeeds she carries out, not for the material cause of these misdeeds, such as a depraved will present from birth and an imperfect, preoccupied nature. So long as we can be guilty only of our crimes, the destructive choices that we personally make, “original sin” is a verbal trick used to justify the Christian concepts of the universal need for salvation and the legitimacy of Jesus’ substitutive death.
One of the most obscene consequences of the doctrine of original sin is its explanation of the death of infants, as offered, for example, in regard to the story of the Amalekite slaughter (1 Sam.15). Because of “original sin” infants not only deserve to die, but indeed God would be justified in killing them violently like any criminal guilty of a capital offense. Commitment to much of the New Testament and especially Paul’s writings leads to the belief that fundamentally the human species is worthless, depraved, incompetent, infinitely guilty and deserving of ultimate condemnation. And more, that even an apparently innocent infant is likewise “guilty” and “selfish,” deserving of punishment. But not just any punishment: violent execution, the death penalty for those who are too young to make any real choices at all let alone rational ones for which they could be held accountable. Imagine building a tiny electric chair and knitting a baby-sized black mask to go over the infant’s barely developed face as she cries and cries for her mother, absolutely ignorant of what is happening to her and why; she is carried to the chair, strapped in, and electrocuted. Capital punishment for an infant carried out at God’s discretion, because of “original sin,” a word game that confuses having an innate tendency to sin and a sin itself.
The idea of original sin can be modified to avoid these problems. Instead of considering human nature as something “sinful” and deserving of punishment (such as physical death), our depravity together with its “punishment” could instead be analyzed in terms of an amoral necessary relationship between cause and effect. Human nature becomes naturally not morally evil. God is perfect, and we are imperfect which God can’t tolerate. Therefore we must be separated from God, the result of which is death for us, because life comes only from harmony with God. No universal “sin” or “guilt,” just a disastrous consequence of being human.
The problem with this interpretation of original sin is that it shifts responsibility for death on to God, who must have assigned physical death as a side effect of the human form. This in turn detracts from the need of salvation through Jesus’ sacrificial punishment. If we were created imperfect and therefore to be apart from God, there would be no sense in punishing us for either our corrupt nature or the particular sins we commit as a direct result of this nature. Once original sin is naturalized the “punishment” must be as well, whether this be physical death for universal sin, hell for the sins we commit as so many expressions of our inner depravity, or indeed the gospel’s centerpiece, Jesus’ sacrificial crucifixion. All of these would lose their force as meritorious features of a system of justice, were original sin attributed to God’s Design or Predestination of our species (as in Calvinism, for example) rather than to human responsibility.
As a result of original sin we cannot pay for our crimes and survive the process, which is to say that we deserve hell for our corruption and disobedience. Fortunately, Jesus ‘bore the sins of the whole world on the cross.’ A sinless person was allowed to undergo the (spiritual) death penalty that we deserve for our sins. This despite the fact that a moral debt, unlike an abstract monetary one, can’t be transferred. There are two conceivable parts of a monetary debt: the money owed, and the moral obligation the debtor might feel that would turn to guilt were the debtor incapable of paying the money and to suffer a conscientious reaction. In a sense, a debtor who finds herself incapable of returning the money owes both money and guilt, a kind of psychological recognition of fault. Were a debtor to find herself broke, and to fail to produce both the money and the consequent guilt the creditor would feel doubly cheated: first for the lack of the proper monetary payment, and second for the lack of the proper emotional response to the debtor’s fault. A debtor might try to substitute for the money owed a recognition of fault with overflowing guilt.
Imagine a wealthy and selfless replacement debtor (RD) who offers to pay what a destitute debtor owes. The RD could conceivably offer to supply both the money and the guilt. The creditor would have no trouble accepting the money, as long as the money were legally obtained. Money, after all, is abstract: the value attached to a hundred dollar bill has nothing to do with any qualitative superiority of the bill over a mere one dollar bill. The value of money is fixed in abstraction. But would the creditor accept the RD’s display of guilt on behalf of the poor debtor? The moral value of guilt, unlike the value of money, is fixed by the context in which the guilt is expressed. Imagine a hero who after saving twenty children from a burning building responds to her own heroism with a heart-aching display of guilt. Since guilt would be a misplaced emotion under these circumstances, the guilt would have no moral value. On the contrary this “guilt” would be evidence of a disturbed mind. The moral value of guilt, like any emotion, depends on the circumstances under which it’s displayed.
The primary condition of the moral value of guilt is that the person who displays it must be the same person who owes it. To test this, imagine the RD producing a fine torrent of guilt, complete with tearful eyes and a shame-faced apology, all on behalf of the real debtor, the one who entered into a contract to return a sum of money, who shook hands with the creditor, taking on a personal as well as a legal responsibility. What value could the creditor place on this display of guilt, even if it appeared genuine and heartfelt, so long as it issued, as it were, from the wrong heart? The reason the RD’s guilt would be morally worthless is that guilt is the recognition of one’s own wrongdoing. A thousand other people could be well aware of the debtor’s fault, but only the debtor’s own sorrowful self-acknowledgement would be properly called “guilt.” The notion of stand-in guilt is incoherent. Such guilt could at best be a simulation, at worst a fraud, a bogus, superficial display.
Likewise the value of punishment, again unlike monetary value, depends fundamentally on the identity of the punishment’s recipient. A replacement convict might offer to undergo the criminal’s punishment, and might succeed in producing genuine suffering. But this suffering would have no moral value, because the fundamental point of punishment is to pay back to the criminal what she is owed. This is the element of retaliation at the heart of all punishment, even of the sort that may serve other functions, such as rehabilitation, vindication of the law or the appeasement of a watchful deity. Retaliation is central to many Christian theories of the atonement. Instead of repaying sinners the harm we have caused with our disobedience, a substitute is produced who offers to accept our ‘sin debt,’ ‘bear our guilt,’ and fulfil our responsibility with his own life. Jesus’ death was God’s payback for our sin, and that’s why the atonement took the form of a violent execution: the misery our sin causes is returned to the sin bearer. Even granting that Jesus was innocent, produced genuine suffering, and died, there is still the problem of the uselessness of his whole endeavour. What is the moral value of a replacement punishment, inflicted not on the offender but on someone who has nothing to do with the crime and who is in fact guiltless? Again, the notion of substitutive punishment is incoherent because punishment, even as defined by many Christian theories of the atonement, involves repayment, which means returning to the offender what is owed her. The “re” in “repayment” and “retaliation” refers to the aiming of punishment towards the offender, the one to whom punishment is owed. Hence the concept of substitutive retaliation is incoherent.
To test this conclusion, imagine you are charged with the task of locating a convicted criminal so that punishment might be inflicted on her. The criminal, however, has hid herself in a large crowd of a thousand innocent people who all happen to be perfectly willing to accept the criminal’s liability and undergo her punishment. To get a better view you fly over the crowd in a helicopter. Looking down at the crowd, knowing that all but one of the people below would gladly accept the payment, and that you could swoop down and snatch any of these willing people instead of the criminal, would you not still burn the helicopter’s fuel searching for that one guilty person who actually deserves the punishment? Anyone who would continue the search despite the multitude of would-be lambs of God would seem to believe that punishment is worthwhile only if it’s carried out against the right person, the criminal whose misdeed should be repaid in kind.
Closely related to the idea that a sin debt can be transferred is the idea that God loves sinners but hates sin, and that therefore Jesus ‘bore’ our sin on the cross so that sin’s power over the sinner could be broken. Why the emphasis on sin? Why didn’t Jesus bear sinners on the cross? After all, punishment is normally of sinners and for sin. Sin is just the cause and justification of the punishment, but sinners bear the punishment. A sin, of course, is just an event, a type of choice of a morally responsible agent. In focussing on the presence of our sins on the cross, however, the apologist seems to imply that punishment is of sin and for sinners, making sin the target of God’s wrath rather than that which alone could deserve anger and punishment, the accountable cause of sin, the sinner. The apologist has no trouble claiming that sinners themselves will be condemned on Judgment Day and will descend to hell for their punishment. Here where God’s punishment is direct without any substitutive sacrifice, the sinner is emphasized in the judgment and is the target of God’s wrath. Yet in God’s indirect judgment of sinners through Jesus’ sacrificial death, the focus is on sin, a deadly power binding sinners and enslaving them to demons, which is subjected to God’s wrath on the cross. Sin is condemned on the cross whereas the sinner is condemned in hell.
The reason for this curious reversal seems clear. The very notion of substitutive sacrifice presupposes love for the sinner. Otherwise, there would be no need of a sacrifice and sinners would be punished directly, as will reportedly happen on Judgment Day. A sacrificial punishment is motivated out of love and mercy for sinners, and a desire not to have them punished directly. Wrath can’t be forgotten entirely, though, because there would then be no punishment at all. The wrath is simply redirected away from the sinner as a result of God’s forgiveness. But where could the wrath go? Ordinarily sinners are the ones to blame, and deserve a harsh emotional reaction and punishment since they are culpable for sin. Yet sinners themselves are forgiven, which is why they are spared direct punishment. And yet a punishment is wanted.
It would be absurd to suggest that Jesus bore sinners on the cross, since this would negate the substitution and sinners might well then have been punished directly without the need of Jesus’ representation. Jesus bore our sin on the cross, which becomes the target of God’s wrath even though making a crime the focus of anger is absurd. Hating sin is as absurd as blaming a fig tree for not producing figs out of season (Mark 11:13-14), or indeed as absurd as loving a fig tree for producing figs in season. And yet if God’s wrath for sinners were softened by mercy but not expunged, and a punishment were still desired, a target for the wrath would have to be found.
Since sin is so closely related to the sinner irrational anger might perhaps shift towards the sin, which then becomes the object of the punishment, that which must be broken like a cruel chain, whereas the sinner’s welfare becomes the justification for the punishment: sin is punished to spare the sinner. Whereas normally a punishment is inflicted on the sinner for the sake of condemning sin, substitutive sacrifice involves punishment of the sin for the sake of rescuing the sinner. The distortion of the commonsense definition of the meaning of a moral debt, to include the possibility of such a debt’s transference, is accompanied by a reversal of the commonsense understanding of the relation between sin and sinner. Both distortions are required to allow for and explain the illogic of substitutive sacrifice.