May 21, 2009

Substitutionary Atonement and the Analogy to the Courtroom

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Law tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:05 am by Andrew

The Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement is often explained by an analogy to the courtroom: sinners stand before a judge (God) and are properly adjudicated guilty and deserve punishment, but that fine can in turn be paid by someone else (Christ). I imagine most of us have heard this analogy. (If you haven’t, or if you want to delve into it more deeply, you might enjoy this article by J.I. Packer, “The Logic of Penal Substitution.”) In any event, I think I’m representing this view fairly, and I’m sure my commenters will correct me if not.

If so, then I have to say that from the perspective of a lawyer, the analogy makes absolutely no sense. The law can be thought of as roughly dividing into two spheres, civil and criminal. Civil law focuses on recompensing the victim; if I steal $100 from you, you sue me for the $100 in order to be rendered whole. That kind of debt can be paid by someone else, but only because civil contract law is wholly unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of the actor. To put it another way: our civil law setup is such that we neither encourage nor discourage people from breaking contracts; we just require that if you do break a contract, you (or someone else) has to render the contractee whole. Even if you break a contract maliciously, civil law doesn’t really care and doesn’t impose any kind of penalty on you to stop you from breaking contracts again in the future. It isn’t “justice” in the colloquial sense of the word (and in the sense that Christians are invoking the concept when they draw the penal analogy).

Criminal law, on the other hand, has an entirely different focus. It is concerned with the goodness or rightness of the actor, and it is wholly unconcerned with recompensing the victim; that’s usually what we think of with the word “justice.” Thus, criminal convictions impose a public penalty in order to punish the wrongdoer and deter him and others from committing the same offense against society in the future.

It would make no sense in the criminal scheme to allow someone else to serve out a convicted criminal’s sentence (or pay his fine, or whatever). The point isn’t to get the money; it’s to impose a hardship on someone who’s a danger to society and deter others from following in his shoes. So that’s why the penal substitution analogy doesn’t work; if a penalty can be paid by someone else and you can go scot free, it isn’t “justice” — at least, not in the way we humans understand it.

This is so readily apparent to anyone (even nonlawyers) who think about it that it surprises me that the analogy and argument continue to be so popular (e.g. Todd Friel and the Way of the Master crowd).

April 19, 2009

Rick Warren’s “Jack Tripper” Problem

Posted in Atheism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:58 pm by Andrew

If it combines Pastor Rick Warren and “Three’s Company,” you know Fred Clark must be behind it.

Notwithstanding the terrific humor value, I think Clark is dead on here. Just as with his inaugural invocation (to say nothing of the recent controversy over Prop 8), Warren is trying to pretend as though his theology and politics are much more mainstream than they really are.

The (predictable) result seems to be that he’s losing his natural allies among the Way-of-the-Master crowd without gaining any support from liberal evangelicals like Fred Clark (let alone atheists like me).

A Slight Twist on the Way of the Master “Good Person Test”

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism tagged , , , , at 2:07 pm by Andrew

Do you consider yourself to be a Good Person?

HT: Unreasonable Faith.

April 15, 2009

For My Christian Readers

Posted in Atheism, Podcasts tagged , , , , at 1:13 pm by Andrew

Two serious questions. Take a listen to this Wretched Radio (former Way of the Master) segment, which is Todd Friel’s take on expository preaching on Good Friday.

1) Is there anything Todd Friel gets wrong about Christianity in this segment?; and

2) Can you understand why this comes off as, well, a little nuts to those of us who aren’t believers?

If the answer to (1) is “yes,” then I have some follow-up questions.

April 14, 2009

An Appropriate Use of Christopher Hitchens’ Talents

Posted in Atheism, Debates, Questions For Atheists tagged , , , , , , , at 2:28 pm by Andrew

After giving Hitch a bit of a hard time about his debate with William Lane Craig, it’s time to pat him on the back for demolishing Way of the Master alum Todd Friel:

Part 1:

Part 2:

I do view this as a bit of a service to the Christian community, or at least to the handful of folks who still think this is a good script.

HT: Pharyngula, of course.

April 13, 2009

Sam Tyler-Smith vs. Ray Comfort Debate

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism tagged , , , , , , at 3:14 pm by Andrew

While on the subject of debates, I found this exchange between layperson “Sam” and professional Christian debater Ray Comfort.

Part 1 begins here:

HT: The Atheist Experience.

March 23, 2009

The Sad Side of Ray Comfort

Posted in Atheism tagged , , , at 3:13 pm by Andrew

Okay, so making fun of Ray Comfort is kind of a cottage industry for atheists; Richard Dawkins calls him the “Banana Man” for his infamous (and unintentionally hilarious video), and searching for Ray Comfort on YouTube is far more likely to take you to a parody or rebuttal video than to anything from Comfort himself.

But there’s a sad side as well: Comfort’s techniques encourage Christians to evangelize aggressively, confronting strangers in the street shouting a memorized “choose-your-own-adventure” style script that isn’t nearly as clever as Comfort thinks it is. And this sort of thing appears to be on the rise in churches big and small. Last year, in The Great Derangement, Taibbi went undercover at an evangelical megachurch overly fond of Comfort’s “Way of the Master” techniques.

Now, we have a report in Salon from Kevin Roose, who did basically the same thing during Spring Break with his Liberty University classmates. Comfort, it seems, is growing in popularity.

I don’t think Taibbi’s and Roose’s accounts are all that funny. (Well, besides the bit about Richard Simmons.) I find them depressingly sad. I can only imagine the weight on these people’s shoulders as they run out to get rebuffed, over and over again, trying to win converts from a bad script. Here’s the moment I found most poignant:

For these students, the choice is clear: The risk of being loathed and humiliated by strangers is far outweighed by the possibility that even one person will see the light and be saved.

Of course, just because the choice is clear doesn’t mean it’s easy. Tonight, at Razzle’s, I see Valentina, the Italian girl from Manhattan, sitting on a curb with a homeless veteran, her arm slung around his shoulder. It’s pouring rain, a real torrential storm, and both of them are being pounded by the thick drops. After a few minutes, she stops telling the veteran about God’s love and just sits there, holding him. And from across the street, I see her start to cry.

Later, back at the host church, Valentina tells the group about her breakdown.

“I was just sitting there on the curb, and I started thinking about how sad this all is. How sad it is that billions and billions of people are just dying without Christ. I hate that Hell is a real place, and I hate that sin came into the world through Adam, and most of all, I hate thinking about how all we can do — all anyone can do — is try to tell these people that there’s hope out there. They might not want to listen, but we have to keep telling them. For the rest of our lives, guys, we have to keep telling them.”

Every atheist has gotten the “well, what’s the harm if someone wants to be a Christian?” question. Not all Christians are forced to swallow Ray Comfort’s tripe, of course, but this strikes me as a real, psychological harm being inflicted on otherwise decent people.