The authority of God and the meaning of the atonement
The 2014 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize was recently awarded to two co-winners: Daniel Kodaj, of the Central European University and Ryan W. Davis of Harvard University. In this blogpost, Ryan Davis provides a summary of his essay ‘The authority of God and the meaning of the atonement.’
Many Christians believe that the death of Jesus is importantly connected to the possibility for human salvation. But why did Jesus have to die in order for salvation to be possible? Why couldn’t God extend salvation without having a perfect person suffer a horrible death? Although Jesus predicted his death, he left to his followers the task of making sense of it. Beginning with the writings of Paul and the gospels, many different explanations have been suggested.
My own essay tries to speak to this long standing puzzle. I forward two claims. First, I offer a reason to be skeptical of satisfaction and substitution theories of the atonement. Roughly speaking, satisfaction theories hold that Jesus’s death provided payment for sin, while substitution theories hold that Jesus provided retribution for sin. Both theories require the premise that God could not (or, would not) forgive sin without exacting something in return. But we imperfect humans can forgive each other without requiring payment or suffering, so why couldn’t a morally perfect God? Some believe that payment or suffering is needed in order to take sin seriously, but I try to illustrate that this is not so. Forgiveness can be freely extended without trivializing sin.
My second claim is a positive proposal. I argue that the suffering of Jesus helps establish the authority of God. Consider the authority of a friend. When our friends ask something of us, we find that we have reason to do as they request—simply because of their request. God offers us friendship as well, and I suggest that the atonement gives everyone a reason to accept God’s offer. You might ask, why wouldn’t we want to be friends with a perfect being, even without an atonement? After all, God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Remarkably, this is not enough. We want to be friends with those with whom we have something in common. In the absence of shared understanding, moral excellence can leave us cold, or even be off-putting. In his suffering and death, Jesus shares in the worst of human experience, giving him authority to extend friendship with God to everyone (see John 15:10-14).
Of course, it is difficult to say anything new about such an old and oft-considered problem. But I am grateful to have had my essay selected for the Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize.
A blogpost by Daniel Kodaj about his essay ‘The problem of religious evil’ can be read here.