PRESUMPTIVE OBJECTIONS TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE ATONEMENT
THE difficulties which exist in regard to the Christian religion do not pertain so much to the system of morals which it inculcates, or to the kind of life which it requires, or to the character of its Author, or to the measures which he adopted for the propagation of his religion, or to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul which it discloses, and its description of the future state, as to the fact that men are to be saved by the sufferings of the Author of the system as a sacrifice for human guilt. The character of the Author of the system is admitted to have been perfect; the system of morals which he taught is conceded to have been of the purest character; the manner of life which he required in his followers, it is not denied, is such as is best adapted to secure the happiness of the individual and the progress of society; the general influence of his system of religion has been such undoubtedly as to promote the welfare of mankind; and the hopes which Christianity inspires are such as men must feel that it is desirable that they should cherish; but the grand difficulty in the system is, that it inculcates the idea that an atonement has been made through substituted suffering for human guilt, and that somehow the salvation of the soul is regarded as connected with the death of the Author of the system considered as a sacrifice or expiation for crime. What is meant by this sacrifice? To whom was it made? What ends does it accomplish in a system of religion? Why is not such a device found in human governments? How does it affect the divine character? And how does it make the pardon of sinners more proper than it would otherwise be? What was there to prevent the exercise of mercy on the part of God which has been removed by the atonement? How is pardon more consistent now that an atonement has been made than it otherwise would have been?
These difficulties, if drawn out in detail, would be expressed in some such specifications as the following, embodying thoughts which often pass through the minds of men when the doctrine of the atonement is suggested, though not often expressed in words:
1. The device of an atonement has not been introduced into any human government; nor has it been found necessary to resort to it. Amidst all the methods of disposing of crime and of the criminal which have been suggested, it has never occurred to any legislator to substitute the sufferings of the innocent in the place of the guilty. The principle has never been suggested as one to be acted on, and would never have been admitted if suggested, that the innocent should be punished for the guilty, or that the sufferings of the innocent could accomplish the purpose contemplated by the punishment of crime. In the numerous methods proposed for the maintenance of law; in the plans that have been suggested for the prevention of crime or for the reformation of the criminal, it has never been suggested as a practicable scheme in accomplishing these ends, that the sufferings of the innocent could be substituted for the punishment due to guilt. Even if innocent persons could be found who would be willing to take the place of the guilty--if there were those of exalted rank and character who would consent to take the place of the murderer or the traitor, the law would not admit the substitution, nor would it be supposed that the interests of justice could be secured by such a substitution. Law is direct, earnest, personal: it deals with the guilty, not with the innocent. It has demands on the offender against justice, not on the guiltless. It denounces the criminal, and inflicts punishment on him: it knows nothing of substituted suffering or of vicarious punishment. It recognizes no transfer of criminality, and, consequently, no transfer of punishment. The man who is guilty of arson or forgery is imprisoned; the traitor or the murderer dies. No one can be required to be imprisoned or put to death in their place; nor would any voluntary submission of the innocent to the sufferings appointed as the penalty of law be accepted in the place of the punishment of the offender himself. If the law in its operations is too severe; if there are mitigating circumstances in the case of which the law in its regular operations cannot take cognizance; or if the offender manifest such a spirit of penitence that the interests of justice will not suffer by his release, and that he may be safely restored to the bosom of the community, a 'pardon' is granted, and the offender is discharged. In the act of granting such a pardon, however, no substituted sufferings in the place of the guilty would be allowed to constitute an argument why the pardon should be granted. It is, and it must be, in human governments, wholly on other considerations. But if there are no mitigating circumstances in the case; if the trial has been just and fair; if there is nothing in the character or deportment of the offender to justify the interposition of mercy, the law is allowed to take its course, and the offender languishes in prison or dies. All the arrangements of human governments are based on this; all that is done to maintain the honour of the law is concentrated on this; all that there is to satisfy the demands of justice is founded on this. No attempt to introduce substituted sufferings as a method of meeting the demand of law is made; none would be tolerated; none would be practicable.
It is not unnatural that these views should influence men's minds when they come to the consideration of the divine administration, and that what would be regarded as unnecessary or unjust in a human government should be considered as equally unnecessary or unjust when applied to the govern-ment of God. Why, it would be asked, since his law is more perfect than any human law, and since he is himself more perfect than any human legislator or judge--why, since the penalties of his laws can be adjusted more accurately and inflicted more perfectly than is possible under a human administration--why, since it is possible for him to extend pardon without any bias on his part, and without any danger of error, only in those cases where it ought to be extended, and in all cases where it should be, why, since, under his administration, every necessary precaution can be taken to prevent any evil from the exercise of the pardoning power, should a device like that of the atonement be regarded as necessary? Since such an arrangement has never been found necessary in a human administration, the question may be asked with fairness, why, in a system absolutely perfect, as the divine government is alleged to be, and under the administration of one infinitely wise and just, should it be found necessary to resort to a device which has not been found needful under any form of human administration? And if such an arrangement as that of an atonement by the substituted sufferings of the innocent in place of the guilty would be impracticable in a human government, and would violate some of the plainest and most obvious principles of justice, how can it be introduced into the divine administration? Is that just in God which would be unjust in man? Is that desirable in the divine government which would be undesirable in the best form of human government? Is that needful under a perfect form of administration which has not been required even in the confessedly imperfect administration of human law?
2. It would be regarded as an objection to the doctrine of the atonement that nothing like this is found in the actual administration of the affairs of the world under the divine government, or that, in the actual course of events, there is no such substitution of the suffering of the innocent for the guilty as is contemplated in the atonement. There is evidently, under the divine government, some system pertaining to the treatment of sin. Sin has been in the world as far back as any historical records go, except the single record that the first man was sinless at first, though of his conduct while sinless we have almost no record; and there has been, under the divine administration, what may be regarded as a course of events in respect to the transgression of law. There are sufficient intimations that there is a divine plan in regard to the treatment of sinners. In other words, there are certain results which, under the divine administration, will follow the commission of crime. No one could deny that various methods have been resorted to express the divine feelings in respect to sin, and designed to check its career; but in the actual administration of human affairs, apart from revelation, there has been no device discernible by which it is contemplated to meet the consequences of sin by the, substituted sufferings of the innocent considered as an expiation for guilt.
The actual government of God in the world proceeds on the supposition that the guilty only are to be punished. The penalty of the law has reference only to them. Its threatenings rest on them alone. It has no denunciations for the innocent. The evils resulting from intemperance as a penalty of law do not pertain to the sober; the results of avarice belong to the covetous; the consequences of licentiousness descend on those who violate the laws of chastity, and not on the pure. No other system, it would be said, would answer the purpose of a moral administration. In no other mode could we learn from the actual course of events what is the character of the moral Governor of the universe. No other system would fairly interpret his character; under no other system could we learn what he is. The stability of his administration, and its influence as a moral system, both depend on the principle that his creatures shall be treated as they deserve, and that guilt and innocence shall not be transferred at pleasure; or, which is the same thing in effect, that the results of guilt and innocence shall not be made to change places by an arbitrary purpose. It would be unjust, it would be said, in a righteous system of administration, to treat the guilty as if they were innocent, and equally unjust to treat the innocent as if they were guilty. The objects of a just moral administration are to save the innocent from the penalties which come upon the guilty and to punish the guilty, and thus to maintain the principles of law; not to transfer responsibilities, penalties, and rewards from one to the other. The stability of the divine administration depends on the steadiness with which this principle is pursued, and on the amount of certainty which can be secured, by a steady administration of the principle, that this may always be expected to be so.
The essential idea of an atonement, it would be alleged, is a violation of this principle. Contrary to all the well-understood arrangements of law and justice--arrangements so essential to the stability of the moral administration of the universe--it represents the punishment of the sins of the world as passing over from the guilty to the innocent. It transfers the entire penalty of the law, in relation to the race, from the actual violators of the law to one who never violated it in any respect. It arrests and changes the regular course of justice, introducing an entirely new principle, and one at variance with the settled course of things, by transferring the entire guilt of the world to the head of the only perfectly innocent being who ever dwelt upon the earth.
3. A third difficulty in the atonement considered in reference to the administration of the affairs of the world is, that it seems to be based on a view of the divine character which is unamiable, severe, harsh, stern. The doctrine of the atonement, it is said, represents God as not disposed to show mercy until it is procured by the blood of the innocent; as unwilling to pardon on the manifestation of repentance and reformation, unless the shedding of innocent blood shall have intervened; as demanding that the exact and the utmost penalty of the law shall be inflicted either on the guilty or on a substitute; as, in fact, so intent on the infliction of the penalty of law that there is in no case a remission of the penalty, but merely a transfer of it from the guilty to the innocent. According to the representations in the plan of the atonement, it would seem that no mercy is manifested toward the guilty which is not the result of purchase; that none are in fact forgiven in reference to whom the whole penalty of the law has not been borne by a substitute; that when God seems to forgive it is in appearance only; or that he has been changed by the atonement from a stern and inexorable being to a being who is mild and forgiving, and that, after all, even this is in appearance only, since he forgives only when pardon has been purchased by so much suffering for so much guilt, and since, if the atonement had not been made, mercy would no more have been manifested to man than to rebel angels.
It would be further said on this point, on the one hand, that among men there is no characteristic more amiable or more universally commended than that which prompts to the forgiveness of offenses, and, on the other, that there is none more unamiable than that which never forgives; that no government is more stern, harsh, and severe than that where the pardon of the guilty is never contemplated, and where no provision is made for it; that in ordinary life we have constant occasion either to manifest the spirit of forgiveness toward others or to avail ourselves of it in their forgiving us; that there is nothing that marks a more elevated state of social life than that in which this disposition prevails, and none that has more decisively the characteristic of a state of barbarism than that in which this disposition does not exist; and that the real progress of society is more distinctly marked by the disposition to forgive offenders, and to lay aside the spirit of revenge, than by almost any other advance which society makes. And it would be further added that in the gospel itself there is no spirit that is more frequently commended, and no duty that is more constantly enjoined, than that of forgiveness; and that there is none that is more frequently spoken of with entire disapprobation than the opposite. Everywhere, and at all times, we are required to manifest a spirit of forgiveness toward our fellowmen, no matter how often they offend and no matter how aggravated may be the offence. It would be said, moreover, that in the precepts which enjoin forgiveness we are constantly referred to the example of God himself as a reason why we should forgive, and, is showing the manner in which we are to forgive those who offend us. And yet it would be asked, perhaps with no spirit of humility or reverence, but it would be asked as indicating what is felt by many minds in regard to this subject, "What would be the spirit which would be manifested among men in this respect if they were to imitate God according to the representations in the atonement?" That is, if they were never to forgive unless an expiation or an atonement had been made for the offence; if they were to insist that a full equivalent should be paid for all the wrong done them, either by the offenders themselves or by a substitute; if they never pardoned unless in cases where the innocent had been made to suffer for the guilty; or even if they should admit the sufferings of the innocent at all as a reason why the guilty should go unpunished. Could the principle implied in the atonement be introduced into the common transactions between man and man? Could the example of God in this respect, supposing that he regards it as necessary in order to a reconciliation between him and those who offend against him that an atonement should be made, he held up to man for imitation? Could it be made a virtue of a high order, or a virtue at all, to imitate the example? Does not God, in fact, in the New Testament, require us to act on a different principle from that on which it is alleged that he acts, enjoining it on us to forgive those who offend against us freely, fully, frankly? Does he not everywhere in the New Testament commend a spirit entirely different from that which is necessarily implied in demanding an atonement? And can we believe that he would commend a spirit that should be based on the same principle as his own conduct in requiring an atonement as an indispensable condition of restoration to favour? What would be the condition of the world if, in every case where an offence is committed between man and man, neighbour and neighbour, parent and child, a full equivalent for the wrong done should be demanded before the offence could be forgiven? If there should be the utmost exaction of justice before mercy could be proffered? And if, when this could not be rendered by the, offender himself, it should be required that an innocent being should pay the penalty in order that there might be a willingness to forgive? Two neighbours are at variance. What would be the effect of introducing a principle like the atonement into their quarrel? In default of the offender being able to make an expiation, or to satisfy the demands of the injured one, what would be the effect of requiring that an innocent third person should be made to suffer all that the offender ought himself in justice to endure? A child violates the command of his father and exposes himself to punishment by his offence. What would be the effect in the family if the father should refuse to forgive him until an innocent brother had manifested a willingness to endure, and had actually endured, all that was due to the offender himself? These illustrations may seem harsh as in any way applicable to the divine arrangement of the atonement, and they are not intended to be in any proper sense an illustration of the real nature of that doctrine; but they are designed to illustrate what is often passing through the minds of men when this subject is suggested, and to show the nature of one of the obstacles--though it may not be often stated in this form--to the reception of the doctrine of the atonement by large classes of men.
It is not improbable, also, that the common representations of the atonement are often regarded as but a modification of an idea in the ancient system of Paganism, the idea of appeasing angry gods by sacrifice. The essential idea in those sacrifices undoubtedly was that of turning away the anger of the gods, of doing something to mitigate their wrath, of presenting a reason why they should not take vengeance, or satiate their indignation in the punishment of men. The reason or the consideration in the case was supposed to lie in the fact that what was implied in the idea of wrath or vengeance had been fully met by the blood and sufferings of the innocent victim, and that, therefore, that wrath or vengeance was fully appeased or satisfied. The sacrifice of an animal, or of a prisoner taken in battle, or of an innocent child, might, it was supposed, satisfy the thirst for blood on the part of the offended deity and render him propitious; that is, so appease his, wrath as to make him willing to show mercy, or to release the offender as if he had himself borne the full penalty of the law. This idea, as it lies in the minds of many persons, cannot be better expressed, perhaps, than in the following words, copied from a popular work of the present time: "On one side is an offended God, a somewhat grander Jupiter, with all his thunderbolts suspended over us, and his arm raised to exterminate the world. On the other side, sullen, gloomy, half terrified, half defiant, trying hard to buy him off, are we, his revolted subjects; and midway between stands a grand, unexplainable Personage, whom we by some unexplainable means, have persuaded to conspire with us to buy a reluctant pardon from an angry Jove above."
How extensively this view of the nature of the atonement prevails, it is, of course, impossible to know, for there are deep feelings in the hearts of men which are never expressed in language; but it may be presumed that the thoughts suggested above are far from being uncommon among men, and that many more are cherishing those views than would be willing to avow them. No one can doubt that the thoughts above expressed embody substantially the ideas of the Pagan world in regard to the wrath of the offended gods and the means of appeasing that wrath; and no one need doubt that multitudes are willing to understand the Christian doctrine of the atonement as founded on the same views, and as designed to effect the same object. Nor need it be denied that there have been representations of the atonement by its advocates and friends which would go far to justify this. How far these views are a correct representation of the doctrine will be considered in another part of this work.
4. A similar difficulty in regard to the atonement arises from the idea that it might have been avoided altogether; that God, who has infinite power, could have prevented that state of things which has made such an interposition necessary, if it is necessary at all; that the scheme, in fact, represents God as causing or suffering sin to be introduced into the world with a view to an atonement, or to such a manifestation of his character as would be connected with an atonement; and that the necessity for this would have been avoided if he had prevented the existence of evil. The atonement, it would be said, is designed, according to the usual representations of it, to furnish an exhibition of the character of God such as has been made nowhere else in his dealings with men, or to develop traits of character which could not have developed but for this; and evil was allowed to come into the system in order to furnish a means of the manifestation of the character of God which could not have been otherwise made; as if, it would be said, defects had been purposely allowed in the construction of a machine in order to furnish an occasion to exhibit in a higher degree the skill of the inventor: the existence of the defect, as well as the remedy, both being designed to bring out in its fullness the character of the inventor. In accordance with this view, it would be said that the doctrine of the atonement implies that there are certain attributes of the divine character which could be developed fully in the ordinary works of creation and Providence, but that there are certain others which can be developed only through the medium of sin and misery, and that, as it is desirable that the divine character should be fully displayed, evil has been allowed to come into the system in order to furnish an opportunity for the exhibition of a method of correcting it, thus developing certain attributes of the divine nature which could not otherwise be made known. The idea, according to the doctrine of the atonement, it would be said, seems to be, that there are certain attributes of the divine nature--as power, wisdom, skill--which can be sufficiently manifested in the works of creation contemplated as without sin or suffering; but that there are certain other characteristics of the divine mind which, in order to their being displayed, need the instrumentality of sin and suffering in his creatures, and that the fact that they can be displayed through that medium is a sufficient reason why the race was suffered to fall, and why sin and woe were permitted to spread over the world; or, in other words, that the benefits of such a display of the divine character will be a full equivalent for all the acknowledged evils resulting from the existence of sin, and all the woes that the race will endure. A slight illustration of this idea would be, that it is a sufficient reason why a wasting and painful disease should be suffered to spread through a community, that it gives occasion for the display of skill and benevolence in the healing art; or that, though multitudes suffer and numbers die, still, a sufficient reason for allowing the introduction of the disease would be found in the manifestation of what could not otherwise be known, the benevolence implied in a remedial system. Would not greater benevolence, it would be asked, be shown by preventing the disease altogether? Is not manifest injustice done to the suffering and the dying in bringing these woes upon them in order that there may be a display of the benevolent character of others? Could we vindicate an arrangement by which a pestilential disease should be sent upon a community, sweeping multitudes into the grave, in order that there might be a display of the mercy implied in the healing art? And can we vindicate the arrangement by which it was contemplated that a world should fall into sin, and an entire race of beings otherwise innocent and happy be subjected to the evils of apostasy, and pain and woe spread over the face of a beautiful part of creation, and all forms of crime be committed, and vast numbers perish forever, in order that the character of God might be more fully developed? Is not a grievous wrong thus done to an innocent race? And can there be any equivalent for such a manifest wrong in the fact that the divine character is thus more fully displayed? Could it be an equivalent to the multitudes that should suffer from the plague, or the smallpox, or the cholera, that a remedy was found out which would display in the highest degree the skill of the discoverer, and might in fact save multitudes of others from the ravages of the disease? And can any conceivable exhibition of the divine character, either to this world or to the universe at large, be a sufficient compensation for the introduction of sin into the system, for the wide, deep, and enduring desolations that sin has caused? If the question could have been submitted to the universe of created intelligences, can we suppose that any one race among those created intelligences could have been found who would have seen such manifest good as likely to result from the arrangement, that they would have been willing to be made the subjects of it?
And, in connection with this, it would be said that the whole scheme, even if it could be vindicated, would be but an indirect and `round-about' way of reaching an end wholly unlike what we are accustomed to see in the arrangements which God has made elsewhere. "The thing objected against this scheme of the gospel," says Bishop Butler, "is that it seems to suppose God was reduced to the necessity of a long series of intricate means--in order to accomplish his ends, the recovering and salvation of the world; in like sort as men, for want of understanding or power, not being able to come at their ends directly, are forced to go round-about ways and to make use of many perplexed contrivances to arrive at them." Why, it would be asked, did not God rather prevent the evil altogether, than take such a method to remedy it? Why suffer it to come into the system to be checked, if checked at all, by a slow process extending through many ages, a process, too, which has never yet proved itself to be effectual? And why, since the evil has come into the system, and since men under the system actually become guilty, does not God pardon offenders at once, if penitent, and restore them to his favour? Why, if he is a benevolent being, is there a necessity of some stupendous intermediate work to make even repentance acceptable to God, and to dispose him to the exercise of mercy?
5. It would be said, also, that, after all, we do not understand the nature and the bearing of the proposed remedy. What does it do? To whom is the atonement made? What is its bearing on the character of God? How is it an equivalent for the punishment of the guilty? In what way does it maintain law? In what way does it expiate crime? It is admitted, it would be said, by the advocates of the atonement themselves, that it is impossible to explain its exact relation to the divine character and government, or to show how it facilitates the work of pardon. No one has been able to explain in what way it accomplishes the object contemplated; nor is it pretended that the manner in which it does this is stated in the Bible. It is admitted by its friends, it would be said, to be among those mysteries of the divine administration which God has not thought proper to disclose, or which may be wholly beyond the power of man to comprehend. Though claimed to be among the highest devices of divine wisdom, yet no one understands it; though declared to be expressive of the highest benevolence, yet no one knows how it is so; though said to be an arrangement by which God vindicates his justice and maintains the honour of his law, yet no one is able to show how it does this; and though it is asserted that it meets evils which it has been found impossible to meet in a human administration, yet no one is able to show that it would be proper to introduce such a system into a human administration if it could be done.
Under these circumstances, and with these difficulties of the system full in view, it is asked, how can it be proposed to mankind as an arrangement fitted to meet the evils of sin in the world? So remote does it lie from the ordinary course of things in the divine administration; so unlike is it to what occurs or to what is found necessary under any form of human government; so difficult is it of explanation in its alleged bearing on the divine government and character; so mysterious and incomprehensible is it in respect to the question how it makes it consistent for God to pardon a sinner; so various are the explanations of its relation to the divine character and government by its advocates and friends; and so absurd and contradictory are many of the theories of the atonement, that, although if it be true it is the central doctrine of the system of God's moral administration, it leaves, after all, more questions unanswered and more difficulties unresolved than any other doctrine of natural or revealed religion; and perhaps it would be added that it creates or originates many new perplexities in an ineffectual attempt to explain those previously existing which are so embarrassing to the human mind. The difficulties which are felt in regard to the atonement present perhaps a more real and wide-spread obstacle to the reception of the Christian system than any of the avowed arguments of infidelity, and are operating on large classes of men who would not be influenced by the common objections of infidelity to the authority of the system of revealed truth; men who would not desire to be classed among skeptics, but who see so many difficulties in the whole doctrine of the atonement that they cannot embrace a system of religion which makes that doctrine the basis of all hope of heaven.
It cannot be improper, then, to inquire whether the atonement, as represented in the Bible, does not meet a want which is felt under every form of the administration of law; whether it does not remove difficulties which have everywhere embarrassed the subject of pardon; whether there are not perplexities in administering government everywhere which could be removed by such an arrangement as that of an atonement; whether the doctrine of the atonement has not met a want in the human mind which has never been met under any other proposed arrangement; and whether, in devising such a scheme, a God of infinite wisdom and beneficence has not introduced into his administration that which has been felt everywhere to be necessary, but which has elsewhere been sought in vain. Though there may be depths in regard to it which human wisdom cannot fathom, yet it may be also true that there are difficulties in every system of administering law which could be solved in no way but by such an arrangement as an atonement. To show this will be a leading design of this Essay.