“The doctrine of the Atonement, the doctrine that God has resolved the problem of moral evil in the world by means of the suffering and death of Christ, is the central doctrine in Christianity; and yet very little attention has been paid to it by contemporary philosophers of religion. There are no doubt many reasons for the neglect; but among them is embarrassment, for many of us know this doctrine only in the version which tends to be promulgated by unreflective believers who are more to be admired for devotion than for philosophical expertise. This unreflective account of the Atonement is often assumed to be just the theory of the Atonement held by Anselm (or Luther, or some other notable philosophical theologian), but careful study of the work of such theologians will show that their theories differ significantly from the unreflective account with which most of us are familiar. That account tends to consist in the following set of claims (or something approximately like it).
(A) Human beings by their evil actions have offended God. This offense against god generates a kind of debt, debt so enormous that human beings by themselves can never repay it. God could, of course, cancel this debt, but God is perfectly just, and it would be a violation of perfect justice simply to cancel a debt without extracting the payment owed. Therefore, God cannot just forgive a person’s sin; as a just judge he must sentence all people to everlasting torment as the punishment for their sin. God is also infinitely mercifully, however; and so he brings it about that he himself pays their debt in full, by assuming human nature as the incarnate Christ and in that nature enduring the penalty which would otherwise have been imposed on human beings. In consequence, the sins of ordinary human beings are forgiven, and by God’s mercy exercised though Christ’s passion, they are saved from sin and hell and brought to heaven.
There are many problems with this version of the doctrine of the Atonement. To begin with, contrary to what it intends, it does not, in fact, present God as forgiving human sin. To forgive a debtor is to fail to exact all that is in justice due. But, according to (A), God does exact every bit of the debt owed him by humans; he allows none of it to go unpaid. As (A) tells the story, God himself fully pays the debt owed him. This part of the story is perplexing; but what it shows is that God himself has arranged that the debt be paid in full, not that he has agreed to overlook any part of the debt.
The proponent of (A) might claim that God’s forgiveness consists precisely in his not requiring that we pay the debt for sin but rather he himself paying it for us in the person of Christ. But it is hard to see what constitutes forgiveness on this claim. Suppose that Daniel owes Susan $1000 and cannot pay it, but Susan’s daughter Maggie, who is Daniel’s good friend, does pay Susan the whole $1000 on Daniel’s behalf. Is there any sense in which Susan can be said to forgive the debt? On the contrary, Susan has been repaid in full and has foregone none of what was owed her.
The proponent of (A) will say that God’s justice precludes his overlooking the debt and that therefore he has shown mercy and forgiveness the only way he can, by he himself paying the debt owed him. And the proponent of (A) might say, surely our intuitions about Susan’s forgiveness would be different if it turned out that although her justice did not allow her to cancel Daniel’s debt, Susan had instructed her daughter to pay the debt. The case for (A) is also strengthened by remembering that, on the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ is one in being with God the Father, so that the one paying the debt is the same as the one to whom the debt is paid.
Apart from the other perplexities raised by this rejoinder, however, it seems not to emphasize God’s justice but to rest on a denial of it. For all the talk of debt is really a metaphor. What (A) is really telling us is that any human being’s sins are so great that it is a violation of justice not to punish that person with damnation. What God does in response, however, is to punish not the sinner but a perfectly innocent person instead (a person who, even on the doctrine of the Trinity, is not identical to the Father, who does the punishing). But how is this just? Suppose that a mother with two sons, one innocent and one very disobedient, inflicted all her disobedient son’s justly deserved punishment on her innocent son, on the grounds that the disobedient one was too little to bear all his punishment and her justice required her to punish someone. We would not praise her justice, but rather condemn her as cruel and barbaric, even if the innocent son has assented to this procedure. If the mother could after all forego punishing the disobedient son, why did she not just do so without inflicting suffering on the other child? And how is justice served by punishing a completely innocent person?
Furthermore, the account give in (A) is inconsistent both with itself and with another fundamental Christian doctrine. In the first place, (A) claims that in his suffering and death on the cross Christ paid the full penalty for all human sin so that humans would not have to pay it. And yet it also claims that the penalty for sin is everlasting damnation; but no matter what sort of agony Christ experience in his crucifixion, it certainly was not (and was not equivalent to) everlasting punishment, if for no other reason than that Christ’s suffering came to an end. Second, (A) maintains that Christ pays the penalty for all sin in full so that humans do not have to do so. But it is a fundamental Christian doctrine that God justly condemns some people to everlasting punishment in hell. If Christ has paid the penalty for sin completely, how is God just in demanding that some people pay the penalty again?
The proponent of (A) may try to answer both these objections by altering his account to say that the penalty Christ pays for humans is his death and suffering. But this answer is no help. On Christian doctrine, the punishment for sin is not just death but hell, so that this alteration of (A) has the infelicitous result that what Christ undergoes in his substitutionary suffering would not remove the penalty from humans since they all suffer death anyway.
Finally, it is not clear what the Atonement accomplishes, on the account given in (A). According to Christian doctrine, the main problem with sin is that it leaves humans alienated from God. Human beings tend to will what they ought not to will, and so their wills are not in conformity with God’s will. Consequently, they do not live in peace with God now, and in that state they cannot be united to God in heaven. According to (A), the Atonement consists in Christ’s paying the penalty for sin. But nothing in (A) suggests in any way that the Atonement alters the human nature and proclivities that were responsible for sin. In (A)’s version of it, the Atonement is efficacious to remove not sin, but only the penalty for sin. In that case, however, the Atonement is not really At-one-ment; for, as (A) tells it, the Atonement leaves humans with just the same tendencies to will what is contrary to God’s will, so that their wills are no more comfortable to God’s will, they are no more tending toward unity with God, than they were before the Atonement.
It seems to me, then, that the version of the Atonement in (A) is really hopeless, so full of philosophical and theological problems as to be irremediable. But often enough when we find a piece of Christian doctrine which looks hopeless in popular theology, it turns out to be a garbled version of an idea which was once presented with philosophical sophistication in the work of Christian theologians.”
—Elenore Stump, “Atonement According to Aquinas,” in Thomas Morris (ed.), Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame, 1988), pp. 61-64.