Greg talks to philosopher William Lane Craig about his newest book, Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration.
Greg Koukl: At this particular podcast, I stand to reason for classical Christianity and for classical Christian values.
And that’s what we’re all about here, a mere Christianity approach. And also, take your calls, answer questions that you have, make commentary on the culture and the things that you face as a follower of Christ to help encourage you as a follower of Christ, and also equip you to Stand to Reason for classical Christianity and classical Christian values. Normally, you could call in, 855-243-9975. Don’t do that now. Just for the record, 855-243-9975, and get in the queue, and chat with me.
Today though, whenever I have an interview discussion with a colleague or an author that has something to add for you, I don’t take callers, because I want my guest all to myself as it were. But sometimes, people ask me what I listened to in the way of podcasts or in the way of blogs, what I go to and I read. And when it comes to podcasts, my answer is always the same, not much. Just because I’m not one of those internet guys that’s surfing all over and listening on stuff.
I got other things to do, which is to make things for you, produce some stuff that will help you through Stand to Reason. But I do have a very short list, and there’s only two podcasts. Many of you know I listen to Dennis Prager, there’s one. But the other one is William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith Podcast. And I also read his weekly update piece, which you could subscribe to and get in your internet or your email as well. And I love listening to the podcasts and also reading the weekly update for a good reason.
And that is that both give me insight and often help me solve theological questions or answer challenges that I’ve been stumped on or I’m not entirely clear on. And they do so in a way that gives me a good tutorial and clear thinking, and you know at Stand to Reason, this is what we’re about, us, kind of a subtitle handle for STR, is clear thinking Christianity. And so, if I drink from the Reasonable Faith well on a regular basis, it keeps my mind sharp.
And I think there’s an elegance that I experience in Bill Craig’s thinking that just has served me well over the years. And even when I disagree with it, which is on occasion, but not today, because we’re going to be talking about his new book, Atonement and the Death of Christ. Here it is right here for those viewing on video. And the author, of course, William Lane Craig, my guest. And Bill, it’s been quite a while since I’ve had you on the show. And I’m thrilled to have you back. Welcome.
William Lane Craig: Thank you, Greg. It’s great to be with you. We are definitely friends with Stand to Reason and so appreciative of the ministry you’ve had now for so many years.
Greg Koukl: It’s been great too to learn from you even from the earliest times when you were teaching and I was an MA student at.... I won’t mention the C that I got in your class. But other than that, we’ve had a great thing going on, I know. Thank you so much for your contribution, the many times you’ve been on the program here. And just as a little aside, when I went online and looked up your book on Amazon, this particular book, there’s a little biographical thing there that...and it says here that...let’s see.
Greg Koukl: At the age of 16 as a junior in high school, you first heard the message of the Christian gospel and yielded your life to Christ. I was just curious, am I to understand that very quickly after you heard the gospel for the first time, that you embraced it and became a follower of Christ? Or was there a season of back and forth and questioning, and that kind of thing for you?
William Lane Craig: There was a season of about six months of the most intense soul-searching I have ever been through in my life, real agony. And during those six months, I read the New Testament from cover to cover. I was introduced other Christians in the high school. People like this I’d never met before, I went to Christian meetings. I read Christian books. It was a very, very deep search for God that finally ended in my conversion experience.
Greg Koukl: Would you say there’s one particular thing that...well, I mean, made the difference that was the game-changer for you? Is it just a collection of things all amassed together?
William Lane Craig: Well, I think it was the overpowering realization that God loved me as an individual. I’ve always been an aficionado of science. And I understood the modern scientific view of the world, of the size of the universe, the destiny of mankind, and the idea that the creator, God of the universe, could love me, just overwhelmed and staggered me. Because I realized that if this were really the truth, that this is the greatest news ever announced.
And I could do nothing less than devote my entire life, to sharing this good news with mankind. So, for me, my conversion was simultaneous with a full-time call to vocational Christian ministry.
Greg Koukl: Well, and that’s a call you pursued pretty aggressively over the years. And that passion that you just described you have then, it’s obviously you still have now. And it comes out in your presentations, your many debates, that I’m sure many of our listeners and your viewers have participated and watched, gone to benefited from. And plus, you your website, just to mention this for everybody else, reasonablefaith.org, reasonablefaith.org has a massive amount of information on it.
And we like to encourage people to go to str.org to check out if they have questions about things. But Reasonable Faith is another place, you can just type into the search box. And there are all kinds of stuff there that will help you, as I said, delivered in a very elegant way. Frankly, Bill, I don’t know how you can keep up with all of this stuff. How much volume you produce is just absolutely beyond me.
William Lane Craig: Well, Jan and I have a method. We call it the turtle method, after the tortoise and the hare, the famous fable. And we really believe that if you just take little steps, day by day, relentlessly, ploddingly, steadily, it’s amazing. You look back, and you say, “How did we accomplish so much?” But it’s just that slow, steady progress that is so productive.
Greg Koukl: Well, that’s good counsel. So, I don’t know if that was how your latest book, Atonement and the Death of Christ, subtitled An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration, came to be the tortoise method, little by little here. But let’s talk about this because you opened the book with these words. This is a book about the relationship between the death of Christ and the atonement for sin. Its controlling question is, how is it that Christ’s death atones for our sins?
And so, maybe it would be good to start out with just the meaning of the word, atonement. And I think most of the people that are listening to either of our shows, broadly an evangelical audience, have a sense that, well, this is easy. Jesus died for our sins. He paid for me, and that’s the basis of God’s forgiveness of me, the work of Christ. But that isn’t the only way people have understood atonement down through the ages.
So, let’s just start with a definition in general of the word, atonement. And then, we’ll look at some other options.
William Lane Craig: One of the insights that came to me during the course of this research that I never realized before was that the word, atonement, has two very different meanings. One would be the etymological meaning that is deriving from its original root. It comes from the Old English expression, at-one-ment. Meaning, a state of harmony or unification. And atonement in this sense would be closest to the New Testament word, reconciliation.
We’re reconciled to God through the death of Christ. But interestingly enough, Greg, that is not the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible that are usually translated to atone or atonement. The Hebrew word is Kippur, which most of us know from the Hebrew festival, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And what Kippur means is to purify or cleanse, and it takes us its object, impurity or sin.
And so, the fundamental meaning of atonement is that Christ’s death in some way purifies or cleanses us of our sins, and the result of that then will be reconciliation to God. And this is important because most contemporary theories of the atonement are about reconciliation, but they leave out atonement in the biblical sense of the word. So, they are theories of atonement without atonement, paradoxically.
Greg Koukl: In other words, no purification, no cleansing, at least with regards to the way the Hebrew words are used. You mentioned the Greek as well. So, how does the Greek characterize this notion?
William Lane Craig: Exiléosi is the Greek word, and this is used several places in the New Testament. And it’s the same basic meaning. It means, to cleanse or to purify of sin or impurity.
Greg Koukl: So, we have—
William Lane Craig: That word is also used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Greg Koukl: So, we got the similar meanings from both the Old and the New Testament. And I have heard the at-one-ment way of describing atonement. It’s actually easy to remember for your folks and your audience or your church. But you’re suggesting that at-one-ment is really a consequence, if I understand you of atonement, reconciliation, and not the nature of atonement itself?
William Lane Craig: That’s exactly right, Greg. And that for me was a major insight.
Greg Koukl: So, I know that there are four or five different ways that people theologically have characterized atonement. One of them entails the notion...well, maybe more than one. You defend a particular view in this book, and we’re going to get in detail to that. But why don’t you talk about some of the ways historically that Christians committed to Scripture, have characterized the atoning work of Christ on the cross?
William Lane Craig: Sure. I think it’s good to distinguish between what I call the doctrine of the atonement and theories of the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement is very simply that Christ died for our sins. And thereby, reconciled us to God. But theories of the atonement, down through history, have been very different. For example, there’s the so-called Christus Victor model of the atonement, which thinks of Christ’s work in terms of His victory over Satan, who had held us bondage, and over the consequences of sin, mortality, death and hell.
And Christ rescued the hostages held by Satan. Thereby, breaking his power, and setting us free from the consequences of death and mortality, and hell. That’s one theory. Another one would be the satisfaction theory of the atonement, which says that as a result of our sin, we owed to God a debt of infinite magnitude that we cannot repay. And so, what God does is He becomes incarnate in Christ. And since he had no sin, He had no debt to pay.
And therefore, He could give His life on our behalf to pay our debt that we owe to God. That’s the satisfaction theory.
Greg Koukl: As I recall, was that one of Anselm’s contribution to the discussion?
William Lane Craig: Yes.
Greg Koukl: Okay, satisfaction. Okay.
William Lane Craig: That’s right. This is Saint Anselm’s theory, and it sounds misleadingly like the Reformers’ theory, but it’s actually very different. The Protestant Reformers instead held that as a result of our sin, we stand under a legal verdict of condemnation before the bar of God’s justice. We are like criminals who have incurred a capital offense. And therefore, deserve to die. But what God did to save us was become incarnate in the person of Christ.
And on the cross, He bore the suffering or the penalty that we deserved as the punishment for our sin. Thereby, freeing us from liability to punishments so that we could be pardoned and reconciled to God. Those are just three of many, many different theories of the atonement that have been offered historically.
Greg Koukl: Now, this third one sounds to be like the substitution, the penal substitution view that you’re defending in your book.
William Lane Craig: That’s right. Yes.
Greg Koukl: And it’s the one I think that a lot of us Christians, when I say, us, I mean, evangelicals, of people who are listening to our programs, are probably most familiar with in my own work and trying to make some of this clear to a popular audience. The Story of Reality is the title of the book. I cite the Reformers’ phrase, the marvelous exchange, because there is this exchange, 2 Corinthians 5:21, you cite that in your book that He receives our guild, and we receive His righteousness.
So, there’s that two-fold element in it that amounts to justification. It’s all tied in there. So, this would be at the core of the penal substitution view. Can you give a little bit—
William Lane Craig: That’s right.
Greg Koukl: Yeah. Can you give a little more detail of the calculus so to speak of the penal substitution view?
William Lane Craig: Yes. It’s very closely connected to the reformers doctrine of justification. In contrast to Catholic theology, the reformers did not think of justification as God’s infusing into us moral virtue that turns us into morally virtuous people, rather they think of justification as a legal declaration of righteousness. On God’s part, he has credited to our account Christ’s righteousness, and he has credited to Christ our sin and condemnation.
And therefore, God offers a legal declaration of righteousness on the basis of the satisfaction of divine justice by Christ’s substitutionary punishment.
Greg Koukl: So, in the infusion view, that would be the Roman Catholic view. One is progressively justified, if I understand it correctly.
William Lane Craig: Right. That’s right.
Greg Koukl: Which strikes me as a conflation of using more Protestant ideas, a conflation of sanctification with justification. Would that be fair way of putting it?
William Lane Craig: Oh, I think so. I was talking with the Christian philosopher, Frank Beckwith, who is a Catholic about these issues—
Greg Koukl: And who has been on this show on team gazillion times. We wrote a book together, of course, over 20 years ago, and Frank is a good, a dear friend.
William Lane Craig: Yes. Well, Frank remarked to me that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement fits much better with a Protestant view of justification than it does with a Catholic view, precisely for the reasons you just mentioned. On the Protestant view, when God declares you justified or righteous in Christ, it is complete, it is finished, it is forever. And although you grow in sanctification, nevertheless, your justification is complete, and entire and finished.
Greg Koukl: So, this explains something. By the way, Frank endorsed your book. I sat there on the flap there, it’s a very sweet endorsement. But it explained something, because I was raised Roman Catholic. In the Vatican I tradition, I left mid-60s, when things were getting kinder and gentler, so to speak. But theologically, it seems more distant from Scripture in a number of ways. But then, that’s a separate topic.
What you just described, this difference between declaration and imputed righteousness of the penal substitution view, the Protestant view, and the infusion view, which is the Roman Catholic view, helps explain why evangelicals claim confidence in their salvation because of Christ. And Roman Catholics refuse to claim that confidence precisely because it sounds arrogant to claim you have had enough infusion of grace to be justified by God. Is that fair?
William Lane Craig: Yes. I have performed sufficient meritorious works in order to merit eternal life. And yes, that sounds arrogant. Whereas, Protestant Christians just glory in the righteousness of Christ that is credited to them without any merit on their part.
Greg Koukl: It’s funny, a number of years ago, I was on a radio show where there was a Roman Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi and a Jewish talk show host. This was with Dennis Prager back in the ‘80s. And religion on the line, I was the Protestant. And I was making the case that Jesus was the only way of salvation. And I was accused of being self-righteous at that moment. And the irony I told them is that, “I am the only person on this panel who does not think my righteousness is going to get me into heaven. Yet, I’m the one who has been accused of self-righteousness.” It’s ironic.
William Lane Craig: How ironic.
Greg Koukl: Yes. And it’s tied to this broader question. Okay. Now, there’s quite a bit of controversy about this view, the penal substitution, understanding Jesus died in our place. He took our punishment. And because he did that, then, we can take his righteousness. We’re clean before God. And in fact, more than clean. We are holy. Sharing in Christ’s holiness, as a quick summary there. But part of the concern though, I mean, even somebody as Augustus, C.S. Lewis has been, it seems to me dismissive of the distinctions here.
And here’s what he says.... I’d like to hear your response. And Mere Christianity of all places, which is a fabulous book. And both of us, I’m sure, highly recommend it. But he writes, “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that his death has washed out our sins, and that by dying, he disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That it is what has to believe to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all of this are, in my view, secondary.”
Now, that flies in the face a little bit of the thrust of your book, which is that, “Jesus is not just Christus Victor. And there’s not just a satisfaction that’s been done. But at the Foundation, the table, so to speak of the doctrine, is penal substitution.” You see that as much more essential understanding of the work of the cross in that way than certainly C.S. Lewis did.
William Lane Craig: Yes. I certainly do think that it’s true for someone to be saved to be a beneficiary of Christ’s atoning death, without having an understanding of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. But nevertheless, I do think that this aspect of atonement theory is firmly grounded in Scripture so that any biblically adequate doctrine of the atonement has to include penal substitution as an essential element.
Greg Koukl: Yeah. Maybe it’s because I was raised the way I was, with this doctrine solidly in place for me, that I was quite surprised to see Lewis argue that this isn’t really a detail of mere Christianity. What mere Christianity is what he just described and certainly, as you pointed out. That’s really what people need to believe to be regenerated and reconciled to the Father. But it also surprises me that so many are, they find this controversial and even offensive. And particularly now, in more progressive circles. So, what is going on there?
I mean, why is this such a hard thing for people to embrace when...? And we’ll get to this in a moment, the biblical, especially the New Testament support seems to be so overwhelming.
William Lane Craig: Historically speaking, what happened was that, in the late 1600s, there was a Unitarian theologian named Faustus Socinus, who wrote a blistering attack upon penal substitutionary and satisfaction theories of the atonement. And it was a brilliant piece of work. I think the objections to the atonement have never been stated more powerfully than did Socinus. And that even contemporary critics don’t hold a candle to Socinus. And that work was very, very influential in the history of theology.
And I think that when you look at the objections of contemporary theologians to the penal substitutionary element of the atonement, they tend almost all to be neo-Socinian objections. They are just warmed over versions of the objections that Socinus launched against the reformers.
Greg Koukl: Well, here’s what I like to do in terms of moving forward. I’d like to look at the New Testament evidence. And I also want to talk about Isaiah 53, which is really...maybe it’d be better to start there, because Isaiah comes before the New Testament and so much of the New Testament material trades on Isaiah 53. And then, we’ll look at some of the objections as well, that people bring up today, which I suspect are basically the same ones Socinus brought up hundreds of years ago.
I read over this Isaiah 53 section, and it’s actually a portion of 52 and much of 53 that cover this material. And to be honest with you, Bill, when I read over this, these verses resonates so soundly with my understanding of Jesus as my substitute, who was punished by God for my sins so that I could be made righteous and stand righteously before the Father, even though I’m not righteous in myself. I can’t imagine how somebody can read Isaiah 53 and not come to the same conclusion.
William Lane Craig: Yes. For any of our listeners that aren’t familiar with this chapter of Scripture, what Isaiah describes here is this very enigmatic figure called, the servant of the Lord. And this righteous servant of Yahweh is described as being punished as bearing the sins of the people, and thereby making them righteous before God by bearing their sin in his own suffering and death. But commentators on Isaiah 53 will say, “The central message of this chapter is the notion of vicarious punishment or penal substitution.”
And what happens in the New Testament, Greg, is that New Testament authors...and I believe Jesus himself pick up on this figure of the righteous servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53. And they say, “That’s Jesus.” They identify that figure with Jesus. And at his arrest and last supper, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53. He says, “If I do not die,” he said, “how will the Scripture being fulfilled?” “And he was numbered with the transgressors.”
A quotation from this servant of the Lord passage in Isaiah 53. And then, at the Last Supper, as he describes the elements of the Passover, he says, “This cup is my blood which is poured out for many.” Again, alluding to the language of Isaiah 53. And then, authors of the New Testament identify Jesus himself with this suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who is substitutionarily punished for the sins of the people, thereby making us righteous.
Greg Koukl: You mentioned, by the way, in your book, and you also make the same point with I think some things that Peter says, and connecting his statements with this passage. So, Jesus statement and also in 1 Peter, and there are other places, but you make the point that these are statements that could not be applied to any other passage in the Old Testament. This is the only place with a language that we see from Jesus at the last supper, and I think it’s 1 Peter, matches as an Old Testament prophecy related to Messiah.
William Lane Craig: That’s right. Or even take the very simple statement that we’ve all heard in 1 Corinthians 15. That Christ, that is Messiah. That Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. Now, what Scriptures? What is Paul talking about that? When you’ve column the Old Testament, there is no other passage in the Old Testament that is even remotely about Messiah dying for our sins apart from Isaiah 53.
Greg Koukl: What is Peter saying?
William Lane Craig: He says, “For He Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” Using the language of sin bearing that is from Isaiah 53. And then, he says that, “Through His stripes we are healed. Through his wounds, we are healed.”
Greg Koukl: Right. I also cite a passage. I’ve been in the 1 Peter a lot lately, partly because of the direction that the culture is going. And 1 Peter is written as a number of New Testament books explicitly to suffering Christian. So, I think there’s a lot in there, but for us now. But he also says, “Just as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves for the same purpose.” Now, I guess that’s not necessarily an explicit reference to Isaiah 53.
But it does identify what’s going on in there. And then, of course, Jesus experienced, it makes application to us as Christians to expect the same treatment.
William Lane Craig: Yes. I think that the key language here is the phrase that I quoted about bearing our sin. Because this notion of sin bearing is a common Hebrew idiom. That means to be punished, or to be held liable to punishment. And so, this is a phrase that is pregnant with meaning.
Greg Koukl: So, when you say liable to punish, the way it’s used in the Hebrew is, it’s used characteristically of guilty people who bear the guilt. And therefore, bear the punishment. Is that fair?
William Lane Craig: Yes, that’s right. So, a sinner, he shall bear his guilt. The Scripture says over and over again. Meaning, he will be held liable for punishment. The only exception is that, sometimes the priests who make atonement for the people in the tabernacle in the temple are said to bear the sins of the people by making atonement for them. And there, it’s not their own sins that are being borne. The priests are making substitutionary atonement for the people by offering sacrifice.
And, of course, this whole rich sacrificial system described in Leviticus and carried out for centuries in the tabernacle in the temple is a metaphor, a type of the sacrificial self-offering of Jesus on the cross.
Greg Koukl: Yeah. And in that regard, you make an interesting comparison between the...let me see where my notes are on this, a discussion about the relationship of the Lamb that was slain and the in sacrifice and then the laying of hands on the other goat, the escape goat, which is released. You identify two aspects of what’s going on there that are captured in the work of Christ. We’ll talk about that.
William Lane Craig: Right. What you’re referring to there is the sacrifice of Yom Kippur that we were talking about earlier, the Day of Atonement. And this was an annual festival in Israel in which all of the transgressions sins and iniquities of Israel were cleansed and taken away. And it featured this extraordinary ceremony with two goats that are a unit. They’re like two sides of the same coin. And one of the goats is killed as a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people.
And the other one then, the priest lays hands on the goat, and places on the goat the sins of the people symbolically. And then, it’s driven out into the wilderness, symbolizing that their sins now have been decisively removed and taken away. And so, these two sides of the atonement are beautifully symbolized in this dual sacrifice.
Greg Koukl: What’s interesting about Yom Kippur as I was reading through material...and if you just read through Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, this really can be a confusing mess. Just for the casual reader. I could never make sense out of it in any particular way.
William Lane Craig: A bloody mess.
Greg Koukl: Yes, a bloody mess. But I appreciate that as you’re resolving this issue of atonement and trying to apply the Old Testament passages in an appropriate way to the work of Christ, you make these distinctions. This is one of the things I have appreciated about you, Bill, is these kinds of distinctions that are really helpful. And you just mentioned one of them. It’s only on Yom Kippur that all of the sins are carried away.
All the other sacrifices are for particular kinds of sins that individual sacrifice for themselves. And there are some sins for which there was no sacrifice.
William Lane Craig: Yes, that’s exactly right. Oddly enough, that sins committed with a high hand, as the Old Testament puts it, weren’t covered by these sacrificial offerings. They were too serious. But on Yom Kippur, all of the transgressions and equities and sins are taken away.
Greg Koukl: Well, the reason I think this is significant is because Jesus sacrifice is meant to reflect the sacrifice on Yom Kippur, not the sacrifices, the incidental sacrifices that we said. This is a piece of information that never really occurred to me. And now, it’s coming more into focus.
William Lane Craig: That’s the burden of the Book of Hebrews. If our listeners will read the Book of Hebrews, they’ll find repeated references to this sacrifice of Yom Kippur and the taking away of our sins. And the author there reflects that, really, in fact, it’s impossible that the blood of sacrificial animals could take away sins, but the blood of God’s own son is of such worth that it cleanses and for eternity.
Greg Koukl: So, it alerts us then that the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was not efficacious on its own. Like it might have been—
William Lane Craig: Right. It was provisional.
Greg Koukl: ...in pagan religions. But it prefigured or looked forward. I like to think of it like you’re using a credit card, the bill gets paid later, but the effects of that are experienced in the moment. Would that be fair in putting—
William Lane Craig: Oh, I love that analogy, Greg. That’s very good, I think.
Greg Koukl: We’re translators. We take the smart guys. And all the good things you say, we try to throw the ball so people can catch it. I want to read just a couple of the lines here from Isaiah 53, just to emphasize how clearly it seems to me that this substitution is in view by Isaiah in this passage. Verse five, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” Verse six, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Verse eight, “For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Later to verse 10, “He gave his life as an offering for sin.” Verse 11, “The righteous one, my servants shall make many righteous and he shall bear their iniquities.” Verse 12, “Yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.” And we see a reference to Jesus high priestly role that is also repeated there in the book of Hebrews.
Again, I find myself...it’s unbelievable to me that people don’t...let me put it this way. You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to see Jesus here in this passage. And, in fact, I’ve been told that when people read this passage to others, even Jews, and they ask, “Who is this describing?” they always say Jesus. Because it seems to fit so clearly what Jesus work on the cross.
William Lane Craig: Yes. I don’t understand how people can say that penal substitution is not an essential aspect of atonement in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.
Greg Koukl: Well, you also notice it mentioned here. And then, you have one whole chapter devoted to Isaiah 53. And incidentally, folks, just so you know, this is a very thorough treatment. It’s exegetical, its historical, and philosophical and forensic too. There’s a lot of how the legal things work together in a very balanced way that Bill has worked out. And that’s beyond my can. Frankly, I’m more interested and certainly, and for the sake of our discussion on the biblical material.
But I just want them to know that in your book that we’re talking about right now, Atonement and the Death of Christ, there is a lot more material that he deals with, and he’s looking historically and forensically looking at how laws work in common government experience and how there’s a fit here with many of the concepts that we see here in justification by Christ through his substitutionary atonement.
But back to some of the contrary...oh, by the way, my take, I mean, my understanding is, maybe you have something to say about this, is Isaiah 53, when Jews read it, say, “Well, the suffering servant, is this real?” and it’s almost with a wave of hand that they seem to just dismiss this passage. Do you know of any other more cogent explanations they might have for this passage?
William Lane Craig: I’ve heard some say that it might be Isaiah himself. But that strikes me as implausible. I want though to emphasize, Greg, that the burden of my extra Jesus is not to try to prove that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus. Rather, what I’m trying to show is that in this Old Testament book, the idea of vicarious substitutionary punishment of the servant of the Lord is clearly taught. And then, you go to the New Testament.
And New Testament authors and Jesus Himself identify the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 with Jesus. So, any Christian, who believes in the teaching of the New Testament is committed to that identification.
Greg Koukl: Right. I read that particular portion that you mentioned there just now. And just to underscore it, your initial examination of Isaiah 53 is merely to see that whoever is being described here is one who is suffering vicariously, as you mentioned, for the sins of others. That penal substitution is in view here. We don’t even have to ask, who satisfies this? Who did this at this point? Actually, in Isaiah, nobody knew then the foundation was being laid for the one who would do what Isaiah describes. Fair enough?
William Lane Craig: Yeah. Right.
Greg Koukl: And then, we see as you document here...and I actually never realized, frankly, Bill, until I read your book here that there were so many, either direct or indirect references to Isaiah 53. You’ve already mentioned a few of them.
William Lane Craig: Yes, it permeates the New Testament.
Greg Koukl: So, here, let’s talk about some objections. Because I think that the some of the objections are understandable. Okay. And one wonders, I think some of the objections are coming from critics who are meant to discredit the Bible. In other words, they say, “I can see that’s what it teaches, but what it teaches is bizarre.”
William Lane Craig: Yes, right.
Greg Koukl: And I think this is the reason some Christians might reject it as well. So, they might think the notion of, for example, “Satisfying divine justice is just plain crude.” Okay. “So, God wants to forgive, why doesn’t he forgive? Why does he just let people go? Why does he got to beat somebody up in this bloody abusive way in order to accomplish the forgiveness that it seems that he’s fully capable of doing by an act of will?”
William Lane Craig: Yes. One thing that surprised me during the course of this research is that historically, Christians have actually differed on this very question. A good number of the church fathers, as well as Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, who was a brilliant penal substitutionary theorist, agree that God could have simply chosen to forgive us without demanding the satisfaction of divine justice. But all of those thinkers will say that God chose to do it through the incarnation and passion of Christ because he had good reasons to do it that way.
What Aquinas and Grotius both say is that, “The passion of Christ illustrates two truths about God in a way that is so graphic and powerful, but nothing else could have done it.” And that is, it shows the holiness of God, his hatred of sin and evil. In that, he places upon Christ the penalty of sin that we deserve. The other thing that it shows is the inexhaustible love of God for sinners. In that, God himself would take on human form, and in the person of Christ, give his own life to satisfy the demands that his own justice had exacted.
And so, in the passion of Christ, we see the holiness and the love of God powerfully, powerfully demonstrated much more so than if he had just said, “Okay, I’ll forgive you all,” which might have taken on the appearance of cheap grace. And certainly, Greg, I think you would agree with me that historically, the passion of Christ, the image of the cross, in literature, in art, in film, has proved so powerful in drawing people to faith in Christ even more than the teachings of Jesus. It is his suffering and death that have powerfully drawn people to repentance and faith in him.
And so, even though these thinkers say, “God could have done it that other way,” he chose to do it this way because he had good reasons. Well, if I might say quickly, the other response by many of the reformers is to say, “No, divine justice had to be satisfied because this is an essential attribute of God, just as much as the love of God is essential to his nature and therefore cannot be compromised. So, the justice of God is essential to his nature and therefore cannot be compromised.”
And so, God had to find a means of reconciling us to himself, that compromise neither his love nor his justice. And he did it through the self-sacrificial offering of Christ who paid the demands of divine justice that were our justice are, and thereby shows his tremendous love and forgiveness. So, there are those two options that are available in dealing with this question.
Greg Koukl: So, to me, that’s part of the elegance of the cross that you have this apparent contradiction, the love of God so wonderfully expressed in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, “For God so loved in this way, love the world, that He gave His Son.” And the sacrifice that God Himself made on our behalf.... I mean, God the Father made through giving his son. Jesus was the one who suffered and died, it was the second person, but it was a sacrifice for the Father, in a sense, to give. And he expresses his love that way.
The question that comes up at this particular point is.... I’m just thinking of it. I cover what I wanted to cover here. Yeah. Is that, this then, if God did this, the father did this to his son. This is an example of what some will characterize as divine or cosmic child abuse, which is in my view, a grotesque disparagement on this work of God. But how would you...this phrase has come up, especially with the progressive church.
William Lane Craig: Yeah. think this is so gross caricature, Greg, that it hardly deserves refutation. What the doctrine of the incarnation and atonement state is that Christ voluntarily took on a human nature and gave his life for us in an act of supreme self-sacrifice. So, far from being child abuse, this is a wonderful demonstration of God’s love for us, that he would condescend to take on our fallen human nature and give his life to redeem us to himself.
Greg Koukl: It strikes me as a low Christology too because what’s lost in that claim of divine child abuse is that the child that is allegedly being abused is not only doing it by his own voluntary, a willingness, but the child is God Himself.
William Lane Craig: Right. Exactly.
Greg Koukl: And so, the punishment is, God is taking on His own punishment on Himself in the person of the word who became flesh in the person of Christ.
William Lane Craig: Yeah. And I think what that will alert us to is, when we hear theologians, caricaturing the atonement that way, we ought to probe more deeply into their doctrine of Christ, because it may well be that for them Christ is purely human rather than the second person of the Trinity.
Greg Koukl: Now, when I summed this up in the story of reality, I made a comment that it turned out to be very, very controversial. And then, I’ve had some people really push back hard, “I like your response to it.” But I said is that Jesus came to save us. And to save means to rescue from imminent danger. What is the danger? And the danger is the Father. And that’s the whole notion of propitiation, that Jesus said, “Don’t fear Him who can kill the body and not the soul. But fear rather Him who can throw both body and soul in hell,” in Matthew 10.
So, the idea that the Father is the one who is being propitiated, that is satisfied, whose anger and wrath is being appeased, is deeply offensive to people. I’m just curious, your comment on the way I characterize that. And—
William Lane Craig: I wouldn’t do that, Greg. I think that’s very dangerous and apt to mislead people into caricatures. I think it’s far better to do what you said earlier about John 3:16, that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish. We need to emphasize that this is a self-giving act of God himself on our behalf, and that it is true that the justice of God must be satisfied. But as you just said a moment ago, it is God Himself who satisfies the demands of His own justice on our behalf.
So, I wouldn’t put it that way. I think it’s too apt to mislead.
Greg Koukl: Well, I violated one of my own rules in taking something out of context. More of what I say in that section is, it is the Father Himself who initiated the plan out of His love to rescue us. But what He’s rescuing us from is the wrath that He has towards sinners, so that both of them are packaged in there. I guess what people were offended by is not this is isolated wrath of God because I didn’t isolate it that way. But the fact that God needed appeasement at all, okay?
William Lane Craig: Yes. Well, now, that gets back to the question that we’ve just been talking about. And as I say, I think there are two different ways that Christians have responded to that. One is to say that it’s not necessary but that He chooses contingently to do this in this way. And the other is to say that justice is an essential attribute of God just as is His love. In the book in the end, I come down in favor of the second option, that justice is an essential attribute of God. And therefore, the demands of justice do need to be satisfied in order for forgiveness of sin to take place.
Greg Koukl: So, would you agree that the notion of propitiation like we see in 1 John, He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, is God word, is Father word, it is a satisfaction of God’s just wrath towards us? Would that be fair?
William Lane Craig: Yes. I think that’s right. But I would say God word rather than Father word.
Greg Koukl: Okay. All right. Fair enough. So, there was an objection. Let me just see if...I’m a little tight on this one. So, I’ll let you respond quickly to it. I actually read it online when I was reading some of the reviews of your book. And this here, the person says...it was I think the only one that gave it a number one. And I always go to the bottom to see what people complain about. And here’s what he says. He said, “Craig begins his biblical review with the skewed emphasis that sacrifice is primarily about God getting something.”
That’s what we were just talking about. “This is plainly wrong because the motif of Jesus as a sacrifice is primarily about God giving.”
William Lane Craig: Oh. Well, I think that that person must not have read my exegesis about the Levitical animal sacrifices in the Old Testament that were offered for the purposes of the expiation of sin and the propitiation of God’s wrath. There is nothing that could be clearer than that purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament. And I quote the greatest Jewish commentators on Leviticus like Jacob Milgrom in support of this understanding of the Levitical sacrifices. Now, the truth of what the reviewer is saying is, indeed, that God Himself provides the sacrifice just as He did for Abraham.
Remember when he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac? And Isaac says, “Where’s the lamb, father?” And He says, “God will provide, my son.” And God does then provide a ram for sacrifice. And similarly, yes, God has provided Christ as our sacrifice for sin. And the purpose of that sacrifice is, again, expiation of sin and propitiation of divine wrath, and satisfaction of justice.
Greg Koukl: A cleansing and a satisfaction in those two things. I read this first, I thought it was just a false dichotomy. It’s not either or. Both things are happening. And I think it was captured in the clarification of my own citation. And that is that God’s love gives, but He gives because something needs to be given back to Him to satisfy justice. Is that a fair way of putting it?
William Lane Craig: Yes.
Greg Koukl: Well, let’s see. I got one left here. I don’t know if you can do justice to this question, and that is human sacrifice. You know what? I’m not going to do this because I’m going to direct people.... I don’t want to crowd you here at the end, because this could take more time than we have. But I do want to say, thank you so much, Bill, for your tremendous contribution to the body of Christ over the many, many, many years that you’ve been doing this, the contribution you’ve made to my own life, and to the many, many, many listeners from Stand to Reason, in addition to the reasonable faith crowd.
And like I mentioned earlier, you’ve been a great tutor for me, theologically, philosophically, and in just the area of clear thinking. And I just want to thank you for that. And thank you for coming on board with me today.
William Lane Craig: Well, it’s been a joy, Greg. And those are very humble remarks that are much appreciated.
Greg Koukl: Yeah. Well, you’re doing a great job. And Dr. Craig is known most I think by many people for his debates with atheists. And if you ever want a tutorial on how to do that, just go to YouTube, and you’ll find the information there. The book once again is Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical and Philosophical Exploration. And the author, Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Greg Koukl for Stand to Reason. I sounded like Porky Pig there.
Stand to Reason or STR, let’s put it that way. Go out and give them heaven this week, friends. Bye-bye now.