The Atonement by William Lane Craig

I became interested in the Christian theologian William Lane Craig after reading Jacobus Erasmus’s The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, a 2018 book that reconsiders Craig’s views on this argument for God’s existence and tries to strengthen it. I was surprised by just how strong this argument is, although it does not reach the level of “proof”. A true proof is one that all rational people can accept. But no argument for God’s existence reaches this level–there is always room for some doubt, there is always a “leap of faith” necessary in order to accept the argument. As the Christian theologian recently stated on Twitter:

Alister McGrath’s statement applies very well to the The Kalām Cosmological Argument. As a faithful person who has already made the leap of faith, it further convinces me just how incredibly unwise it is to doubt God’s existence. But I admit that a dedicated atheist can question it.

I decided to embark on a journey to read most of Craig’s books starting with his newest, which was The Atonement. This is as part of my efforts to familiarize myself with Christian theology. The studying of Christianity by Muslims is sometimes framed under the unfortunate rhetoric of “knowing the enemy”. That attitude will hopefully go away as Muslims interact more with Christians and recognize the need to see Christians as fellow humans and persons doing their best to serve God as they understand Him. Of course many Christians also have a similarly unfortunate attitude toward the study of Islam. But when interacting with a non-Muslim group, the proper way is to focus on the best and most humane among them and treat them as they like to be treated, rather than focusing on the worst and using this to justify bad treatment.

The Atonement is a short defense of the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement on both theological and legal grounds. An interesting aspect of the book is the author’s use of modern legal theory. The book is a good representative of what we might call the cutting-edge of Western theological and legal thought. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement attempts to justify how the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ (something Islam denies but Christianity considers foundational to its theology) leads to the salvation of Christians. How does the torture and death of an innocent person lead to forgiveness and salvation for others?

Some Christian theologians, similar to the Muslim Muʿtazilites, had the “cosmic justice machine” view of God. According to them God is forced to be just in all things, which means that He is prevented from forgiving sins unless there is a good and just reason for this forgiveness.

William Lane Craig

As a non-Muʿtazilite, I naturally find that view of God highly unsatisfactory. God has many attributes and He is not forced to act by any one of them. He is forgiving, He is just, and He is avenging. And He is free according to which attribute He should treat a particular person or group of persons. He can forgive someone even if our idea of justice requires the person to be punished, because this is the essence of forgiveness: to choose not to do some injury to someone despite the fact that they justly deserve it. My view of God as freely choosing to act according to whichever attribute He prefers is also why I reject the Sufi view that loving God is better than fearing Him (as discussed here). Loving God pleases God’s attribute of the Loving, while fearing Him pleases His attribute of the Mighty (among others). Who are we to choose whether pleasing one of His attributes is better than pleasing another? The proper, God-fearing view in my opinion is to respect all of God’s attributes equally. This means that serving God out of fear and desire is just as good as serving God out of love. Ideally, of course, we should serve God out of fear, love and desire, and out of the intellectual recognition of the fact that God is One who deserves to be worshiped, not out of fear, love or desire, but because that is something He simply deserves. The love and appreciation of all of His attributes should be the foundation of our worship of God.

According to the cosmic justice machine theory (to which Craig subscribes to some degree), therefore, the Atonement was necessary because God could not justly forgive humanity without first demanding that a sacrifice or offering should be made to Him, or demanding that a particular person be punished as a substitute and representative of humanity.

An alternative theory to that is the moral influence theory, according to which the Atonement was meant as an example to humanity rather than as an offering for sin. Other arguments are also mentioned but I will not go into the details here.

An important problem with all doctrines of Atonement is the issue of imputation. How is it rational that a particular person be held responsible for the sins of all others? Various responses to this problem are mentioned in the book. For example it is mentioned that God, as Supreme Ruler, has the right to punish a person for the sins of another. Just because we cannot easily envision how this can be just or rational does not mean that it is not.

A strong argument in favor of the imputation of humanity’s sins to Christ is the concept of vicarious liability. This legal concept refers to the fact that, for example, an employer can be punished for crimes committed by his employees. Even though he himself has committed no fault, the employee’s fault can legally fall upon the employer. Similarly, Christ can be considered the master of mankind and therefore any sins committed by his underlings can be in some way imputed to him. The fact that he accepts this responsibility and imputation willingly makes its justice even stronger.

Another defense is that God’s punishment of Christ, even though on the face of it unjust, helped prevent a greater harm, which was the destruction of all of humanity for their sins.

Defining guilt and pardon

Craig analyses the concept of guilt and rejects the definition that guilt is simply the fact of having committed a crime or sin. Guilt, instead, is a person’s liability for punishment.

According to this view, pardon is the act of taking away a person’s liability for punishment without implying that the person did not commit the crime. The commitment of the crime is acknowledged, but the act of pardon takes away all guilt. Craig says:

A person who has served his sentence has paid his debt to society, and so is now no longer guilty; that is to say, no longer liable to punishment. Similarly, a person who has been pardoned is by all accounts no longer liable to punishment for the crime he committed.

Since Craig to some degree believes in the cosmic justice machine theory, he concludes that God’s pardon of our sins could only be justly accomplished if someone was punished for them. There is a contradiction between pardon and justice that can only be resolved if the pardon only takes place when some punishment has taken place (in this case the punishment that Christ bore willingly for the sake of humanity). Thus God is powerless to pardon without punishment since that would be unjust.

As should be clear from what I said earlier, I find Craig’s final solution to the contradiction between justice and pardon unsatisfactory. My solution would be that God is free when it comes to which one of His attributes He acts according to. He can act according to His attribute of Mercy regardless of what His attribute of Justice demands. There is no contradiction here because there is no higher power forcing God to act according to one attribute and not another.

He will not be questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned.

The Quran, verse 21:23.

One argument against my view would be that it suggests that God could just as easily be cruel as He can be kind. But that argument is preempted by the following Quranic verse:

Say, “To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has prescribed for Himself mercy. He will gather you to the Day of Resurrection, in which there is no doubt. Those who lost their souls do not believe.

The Quran, verse 6:12.

God has freely chosen His attribute of Mercy as an overruling attribute, which is likely why in Islam His two major names by which we call Him are al-raḥmān al-rahīm (“The Most Mercifully Gracious”, “The Most Mercifully Compassionate”). Both names come from the RḤM root (“mercy”, “kindness”, “womb”).

Of course my solution would likely not work for a Christian since it would invalidate the commonly accepted versions of the Doctrine of the Atonement. If God could have forgiven us anyway, there would not have been a need for Christs’ suffering, or his suffering would have only served the purpose of a reminder and example to humanity.

In the last paragraph of the book, Craig states:

As mentioned earlier, it is not at all implausible that only in a world that includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. God’s wisdom, not only His love and holiness, is thus manifest in the atoning death of Christ.

In conclusion, The Atonement is a good defense of Christian doctrine and contains some ideas that Muslim thinkers can benefit from. The analyses of the concepts of guilt and pardon are especially worthy.

2 thoughts on “The Atonement by William Lane Craig

  1. Omer

    Salam Ikram,

    I greatly benefit from reading your articles.

    However, I think you were a little too kind to Craig in this book review.

    I find the idea of vicarious atonement to be infinite injustice.

    God is perfect. I find it infinitely unjust for God to suffer to guilty people.

    On a side note, the whole idea of mainline Christian ideas of atonement is built upon another unjust idea (at least among Protestants and perhaps all Christians) of all people being condemned to hell because they are not perfect like God. That is absurd because it is not just to expect us to be perfect like God.

    Brother Ikram,

    Please continue to write book reviews of key books…you have been blessed with intelligence….may many benefit from your analyses and insights.



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