Punished Twice Over?

Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.

Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement.  Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death.  He offers an illustration:

Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries.  The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled.  Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again.  The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed.  Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it.  Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).

Of course, the gift of atonement must be accepted by faith, but the problem with the illustration is that it proves insufficiently analogous when it comes to the day of judgment and to the doctrine of eternal punishment in Scripture (assuming one still holds this doctrine, as Horton and Olson both do).  It is not just that those who do not receive Christ experience a negative consequence (i.e., that they do not experience the blessings of salvation) but that they also experience a positive (in the technical sense) consequence (i.e., that they face condemnation and eternal suffering as the wages of their rebellion against God).  Thus, a more adequate analogy for unlimited penal substitutionary atonement without universal salvation would require that the government sign off on the pardon, leave it up to those pardoned to return and enjoy the benefits, and then also in the end still actively impose a penalty on such ones (whether it be a fine, time in jail, or something else).  In other words, it would involve a reneging on the part of the government, just as, it seems, penal substitutionary atonement for all persons without exception would involve a reneging on the part of God whenever someone who rejects Christ should face divine judgment and be cast into hell.

However, Olson anticipates this sort of response and writes that the same sin can be punished twice:

‘Imagine a person who is fined by a court $1,000 for a misdemeanor and someone else steps in and pays the fine.  What if the fined person declines to accept that payment and insists on paying the fine himself or herself?  Will the court automatically refund the first $1,000?  Probably not.  It’s the risk the first person takes in paying a friend’s fine.  In such a case, the same punishment would be paid twice.  It is not that God exacts the same punishment twice; it is that the sinner who refused the free offer of salvation by default subjects himself or herself to the punishment that has already been suffered for him or her.  As noted above, that’s what makes hell so terribly tragic’ (pp. 149-50).  

Of course, that anyone should experience hell is unfathomably tragic.  Yet the illustration suggests (1) that the person assuming the penalty for another is, though a friend, somewhat haphazardly intervening and (2) that the acceptability of the intervention depends on the perspective of the original offender rather than the judge.  However, in Scripture, the acceptability of Christ’s substitutionary death rests with God, not with us, and the person (Christ) serving as the substitute was appointed out of love by the Judge himself to be the representative of those for whom he is the substitute (e.g., Rom. 5:12-21).  To sharpen (and at the same time destabilize) the analogy, then, one would have to envision a judge proactively appointing a representative to pay the fine on behalf of the offender, accepting that payment as adequate, and then still permitting (even requiring, if God is actively involved in condemning sin) the offender himself or herself to pay the fine.  In brief, the two illustrations, retooled by a second look at some biblical themes, suggest that penal substitutionary atonement without either particular redemption or universal salvation does involve a double punishment on the part of God and therefore does raise significant questions about the righteousness (and wisdom) of God.

Obviously, this is not a full-fledged critique of Arminian atonement theology, but it does hint that proponents of ‘unlimited atonement’ who affirm penal substitutionary atonement and deny universal salvation may have a more difficult task than one might initially think in holding these commitments together.

Thoughts on this?

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4 thoughts on “Punished Twice Over?

  1. Hi Steve,
    My thought is that the problem with all the analogies you are quoting is that they are all looking for some full-proof legal system in order to make their case. Perhaps that is the limitation of any penal substitutionary theory – the exclusion of the personal. Yet to the extent that anyone tries to offer a version of atonement that by-passes the personal encounter of God and the creature, that theory will be untrue. Talk about governments ‘reneging’ just because the person rejects the pardon ignores the significance of the relational side of the gospel and of the God-human relation.
    Geordie

  2. Hi Geordie,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m responding late here, but I do agree that it would be a seriously liability for any reading of the atonement to eradicate its personal character. I just don’t see how the penal substitutionary reading actually would do that. First, it doesn’t necessarily exclude any other vital dimensions of the atonement. Second, it is itself a personal reading of the atonement with one of the persons of the Godhead taking on flesh and representing other human persons, bearing their guilt to reconcile (personal, again) them to God. In other words, I think one would be hard-pressed to argue successfully that legal is the opposite of personal.

    • I’m not saying that legal is the opposite of personal, though I can see how I gave that impression. What I am saying is that when legal tries to be the organizing centre of how we understand the atonement, then we run into problems – just as presenting an ontological version or a cultic version of the atonement without including the legal would also be problematic. Scripture speaks of each of these, and each must have its proper place.

      So my point is that when a ‘penal substitutionary reading’ of the atonement is offered that does not situate itself alongside these other readings, what we are left with is a view of God and God’s relation to the world in which God is a subject of ‘the law’. I would argue that the law is GOD’S law, and as such, it is the law of his love – so that his wrath is not to be contrasted with or opposed to his love; rather, it is the expression of his love.

      So in your post, you rightly critique Olsen’s anticipation of the response to his argument for the necessity of ‘subjective appropriation’ and the necessity of not only passive but also active judgment. You then point out that “in Scripture, the acceptability of Christ’s substitutionary death rests with God, not with us, and the person (Christ) serving as the substitute was appointed out of love by the Judge himself to be the representative of those for whom he is the substitute (e.g., Rom. 5:12-21).” And then you conclude: “penal substitutionary atonement without either particular redemption or universal salvation does involve a double punishment on the part of God and therefore does raise significant questions about the righteousness (and wisdom) of God.”

      I think your conclusion perfectly illustrates my point that the legal on its own leads to ‘significant questions about’ the character of God. What is missing i believe is embedding the legal into a fuller understanding of Christ’s incarnation in which his whole life obedience and relationship with the Father is our offering of atonement, and through union with him, we share in that. From this reading, union with Christ can be viewed as both ontologically objective (Christ united himself to our humanity for us) and as such legally and culticly satisfying, yet all this without suppressing the necessity of the ‘subjective appropriation’ by the individual (through which by the Spirit we are subjectively united to Christ). This is what i mean by ‘personal’ – that our personal response to God matters.

      T.F. Torrance (see his Mediation of Christ) is very helpful on this matter of refusing to let one ‘theory’ of atonement take the centre away from the incarnate Christ himself.

  3. Pingback: On the atonement « The Molinist

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