Does Subsitutionary Atonement Make Sense?
It is not uncommon for unbelievers and even some Christians to object to subsitutionary atonement on the grounds that it doesn’t make any sense. The whole concept of Jesus dying on the cross and thereby absolving evil doers of their evil deeds seems a rather obscure concept. How is it that God can forgive me or anyone by punishing Jesus Christ? How is justice done at the cross?
I like what William Lane Craig said about this theory of the atonement. He wrote “It seems to me, however, that in other aspects of human life we do recognize this practice. I remember once sharing the Gospel with a businessman. When I explained that Christ had died to pay the penalty for our sins, he responded, “Oh, yes, that’s imputation.” I was stunned, as I never expected this theological concept to be familiar to this non-Christian businessman. When I asked him how he came to be familiar with this idea, he replied, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance business.” He explained to me that certain sorts of insurance policy are written so that, for example, if someone else drives my car and gets in an accident, the responsibility is imputed to me rather than to the driver. Even though the driver behaved recklessly, I am the one held liable; it is just as if I had done it. Now this is parallel to substitutionary atonement. Normally I would be liable for the misdeeds I have done. But through my faith in Christ, I am, as it were, covered by his divine insurance policy, whereby he assumes the liability for my actions. My sin is imputed to him, and he pays its penalty. The demands of justice are fulfilled, just as they are in mundane affairs in which someone pays the penalty for something imputed to him. This is as literal a transaction as those that transpire regularly in the insurance industry.”
So apparently substitution atonement does make sense to at least some people. Now, if it makes sense in the insurance industry, perhaps it could or should make sense in the business of salvation as well.
Nevertheless, even if this comparison doesn’t help you make sense of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, I think it’s important that we realize that we don’t need to have every answer to every theological issue. There are some things we may never come to understand this side of the grave. Just as there are some unsolved issues in science, there are also unsolved issues in theology. We may not come to know how exactly Jesus “took upon the sin of the world” (John 1:21), but if we come to believe the evidence is in favor of Christianity’s overall truthfulness, a few unanswered questions here and there shouldn’t be an insuperable barrier to placing saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Even in some legal verdicts, there are questions about the verdict that go unanswered. However, a person can still be convicted in spite of a couple unanswered questions because the evidence overwhelmingly points in favor of that person’s guilt. Even though there may be some answered questions, the evidence indicates that the verdict is still more likely to be true than false.
Now, whether there is enough evidence to warrant the conclusion that Christianity is true rather than any other worldview or religion is the next issue. I happen to think there is. If you’re interested in investigating the evidence for the Christian worldview, I advise you to check out these articles I have written.
The bare minimum you need is the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. If you’ve got those two things, Christianity is true. Even if we don’t have all mysteries solved. Still, we should pursue rational answers for all of our questions to the best of our ability. Theology used to be considered a science, in fact it was considered to be the mother of all sciences. What scientist do you know who wouldn't try to figure things out that he doesn't understand?