More problems with “Atonement”December 12, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing yesterday’s train of thought, I’ve been thinking more about the Atonement and what a truly confused and messed up concept it really is, particularly in its concepts of “transferable punishments.” Everyone knows that two wrongs don’t make a right, but apparently Christians would have us believe that, when it comes to salvation, they do make a right.
First, let’s consider what punishment is. Why do we punish wrongdoing? One obvious purpose of punishment is to deter future crimes. By making criminals suffer for their crimes, we ensure (or try to ensure) that the costs of committing crime outweigh the profits. The criminal, remembering how unhappy he was with the results of his last crime, will (hopefully) be less likely to repeat the experience, and thus the crime rate will go down.
A second purpose of punishment is retribution. When people harm us (i.e. hurt us physically or emotionally, or deprive us of our possessions, etc), it makes us angry. It makes us want to hurt them back. Why? Well, for one thing, we don’t like the pain, and we want to prevent it from happening again. If one person harms us and gets away with it, other people might be tempted to take advantage of our weakness as well. Retribution tells people that they don’t want to mess with us. So retribution, again, boils down to deterrence. But there’s another side of retribution: it helps us deal with the fear we feel when we’re victimized. We’re afraid of being weak, of being helpless. Wreaking vengeance helps us feel like we’re a force to be reckoned with, a fighter, a dangerous foe, and not a wimp and a pushover.
Thirdly, punishment very often serves to remove the threat to our well-being. We put criminals in jail to “get them off the streets.” Prison programs have a not-so-hot record of reforming criminals and turning them into decent citizens, and in fact many offenders become worse after being forcibly associated with the career criminals and sociopaths they meet during their prison term. But we keep imprisoning lawbreakers because we feel safer knowing that the killers and rapists and so on are safely locked away where they can’t get to us.
Fourthly, punishment sometimes involves making restitution to the victim, if appropriate. For example, thieves must return the stolen goods, and possibly pay a punitive penalty in the form of a cash payment to the victim to make up for hardship and suffering caused by the theft.
Now let’s consider justice. Justice is the art of making sure that everyone who does wrong receives a punishment appropriate to his or her offense, and that victims receive suitable compensation, where appropriate. Justice deters crime, in the immediate sense by imprisoning the offender and thus making it impossible for him or her to victimize society, and in the future sense by making an example of the offender. It also compensates the victim by direct payment from the criminal to the victim, and/or by making the victim officially victorious in his/her conflict against the criminal.
Given this ethical, moral, and practical basis for punishment and justice, what shall we say about “transferable punishment”? Two words: incurably corrupt. Transferable punishment responds to an offense by imposing a penalty on the innocent, and allowing the guilty to get away with the crime. Recently there was international outrage over the Saudi court that sentenced a rape victim to 19 lashes. Punish the victim? Absurd! Offensive! Immoral! But at least the Saudis also punished the offenders. Imagine if they had imposed the lashes and the prison sentences entirely and exclusively on the victim, and had let the rapists go without so much as a harsh word. Would that be justice? Hardly.
But that’s the sort of thing that “transferable punishment” does. It puts the state in the morally repugnant position of blindly punishing the wicked and letting the guilty go unpunished. It provides no deterrence, either by imprisoning the offender or by making an example of him/her. It gives no compensation to the victim. At best, it leaves the offender and the victim at a legal draw, since neither side actually prevails against the other. And the punishment of the innocent is entirely irrelevant, morally, ethically, and judicially, to the crime committed by the offender.
Let’s imagine a case where one of two identical twins commits a crime. The criminal twin is tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. But the innocent brother loves his felonious sibling, and bribes the judge to arrange a secret switch. The innocent twin voluntarily reports to prison, pretending to be his brother, while the criminal brother is allowed to go free and unpunished for his crimes. Has justice been served? Someone showed up to endure the prison sentence. It just wasn’t the one who deserved to go to prison. What’s ethical or moral about that?
This is another problem with transferable punishment: it makes justice look not only blind, but stupid as well. Justice, apparently, just wants to make sure that someone suffers. Doesn’t really care who. It’s just a big, dumb robot: you tell it the crime, and it randomly metes out a corresponding punishment, not necessarily to the actual offender. But this is a horrible view of justice! It’s not moral or ethical, it’s just an unhealthy obsession with even numbers: every time one person suffers harm, some other random person must suffer an equal harm, resulting in an even number of injuries received. That’s not justice!
Transferable punishment, the idea that “justice” doesn’t care who gets punished as long as someone suffers, is a truly unhealthy and evil doctrine. In the example above, what would happen if the evil twin was a pedophile? By taking his brother’s prison term, the “good” twin is putting a pedophile back on the streets! Transferable punishment undermines the whole moral, ethical, and practical purpose of having punishments in the first place, because it lets the guilty get off scot free, and imposes an unjust punishment on some third party that does not deserve it.
One could argue that, by taking his brother’s place, the “good” twin is making himself an accessory after the fact by helping his brother to escape justice. In that case, the “innocent” victim is indeed an offender himself, and might possibly deserve to be punished. That, however, is a separate and additional offense, and cannot “atone” for the crime committed by the original offender. So again, “transferable punishment” merely compounds the injustice.
So let’s look at one last point: the possibility that Jesus was “paying restitution” to God by dying on the cross. But that presupposes that God desires suffering and death, i.e. that God sees suffering and death as a kind of valuable coin, suitable for use as a form of God’s wealth, which He wishes to acquire more of. This goes back to the original, primitive view of gods as predators, unreasoning creatures with an appetite for pain and blood and death. But is that the kind of being the Christian God is supposed to be?
Plus, transferable punishment means that even if there were some kind of restitution being paid, it’s not being paid by the offender. That’s the whole point of transferring the punishment to a third party. The offender gets off scot free.
Any way you look at it, the idea of the Atonement is a moral and judicial travesty. It responds to the wrong of the original crime by creating an additional wrong of punishing an innocent party plus the further additional wrong of allowing the offender to get away without being punished. Three wrongs do not make a right. And there are still other problems, such as the fact that only the mortal aspects of Jesus’s nature could physically die, and therefore the most He could offer is one human sacrifice, which in addition was offered before anyone living today could have committed any sins.
Christians revere the Atonement because they are indoctrinated in the idea that God Did It and therefore It Must Be Good. But if Christians didn’t make the claim that the Atonement was a good thing, we’d never be able to reach that conclusion on our own. From the standpoint of morality, ethics, and justice, it’s a sham. And an evil and unjust sham, at that.