That being said, there are some things I really like about Western Christian thought. First, I do love the systematic nature of it. While it is dangerous to invoke mystery too infrequently, systematic theology relentlessly seeks to dig into the truth of God and the knowledge of him. It condenses concepts and sets them up in a coherent framework which allows us to more easily explore who God is and what he has done. I also love systematic theology because it is vulnerable. I know that sounds like a bad thing, but I think it's a very good thing. In research, the researcher actually proves their hypothesis right by trying to prove it wrong (the null hypothesis). If the hypothesis stands up to rigorous scrutiny, only then is it deemed worthy. The hypothesis is made vulnerable to assault and is only accepted if it survives. So whereas the humility to invoke mystery is important, mystery can all too easily be a bulletproof vest. It can give the user invulnerability from intellectual assault. Systematic theology, however, puts all its cards on the table and attempts to make a stand against logical scrutiny. I love that because it means we can test ideas and use the minds God gave us. In that light, today I want to do some testing.
The idea I want to test today is the transactional nature of the atonement. I was listening to a debate the other week about conditional immortality (e.g. annihilationism) vs. universalism, both of which despise the idea of the eternal conscious torment of sinners in hell. Much of the discussion hinged around the idea of God's justice. Is it really just for God to torture people for all eternity due to their sin? Neither the annihilationist nor the universalist thought such a thing was just, and they were trying to hash out whether justice was meted out through a finite punishment of conscious torment leading to ultimate salvation after purification, or to finite conscious torment leading to the eternal punishment of annihilation.
In this article, my goal will be first to assess the current view of many Evangelicals in regard to God's justice and the atonement. I want to test whether the transactional view of justice as many Evangelicals believe - especially the ECT crowd - holds up to logical scrutiny. My second goal will be to extend this application to critique the annihilationist and universalist theories of hell given a transactional view of justice.
Let's start with the common narrative of the fall of humanity and God's justice as explained in many Evangelical circles. Humanity was created perfect along with the rest of creation. However, they eventually sinned, corrupting their beings and separating themselves from a holy God. This separation will be eternal, as God's perfect holiness, goodness, and justice cannot stand to be in the presence of sin. Because of God's justice, he cannot allow humanity's sin to go unpunished, and must require adequate payment. Since the sin of a human against God is an infinite one, an eternal punishment is necessary for God to maintain his justice.
A common retort to this concept is that God would be unjust to send someone to hell for eternity because the duration and severity of the punishment is not concomitant with the crime. How is an eternity in a torturous lake of fire a just response to telling a lie of minor consequence? The response to this would be that crimes are punished not in accord with how long they take to commit, but by who is being offended. As an imperfect example, if I kill a cockroach in my home there is no punishment, while killing a dog may give me more punishment, a dolphin even more, and a human the most. It may take me one second to shoot and kill a human, but I might spend years or even life in prison for that crime. Punishment is related not only to the severity of the act (e.g. killing), but to who is offended (e.g. a human). So for a human to sin against God in any way whatsoever is to create an offense of infinite size and severity, since God is presumed to be infinitely more valuable than a human..
Taking this common notion of God's justice and the punishment of hell, I want to look at what I believe are, at the least, some significant questions that have to be answered, and at most, internal inconsistencies which should make us think twice about how we view hell, God's justice, and the atonement.
Are Humans Infinitely Less Valuable than God?
One huge assumption on the ECT view is that humans are infinitely less valuable than God. This is required in order to prop up an idea of an infinite offense which feeds a fire of infinite, yet just duration. While it's clear that God is infinite in comparison to us in terms of his knowledge and power, I don't think the case for the value difference is as strong. Though the Bible often talks about God's prerogative to move history and humanity as he wills (e.g. we are the potter and he is the clay), the Bible doesn't talk about humanity as being disposable. In fact, much of it shows a high valuation of man to the infinite God himself, as the blood of the slain cries out to God, the cries of the oppressed reach God, and God even reaches down himself in the person of Jesus to save fallen humanity. God's valuation of humanity is pretty high, and it makes sense that it would be because he branded us and instilled us with his invaluable image.
While humanity is a creation and we are to submit to God, it doesn't necessarily follow that we are infinitely less valuable. I'm not sure how to quantify value and I'm not saying we're necessarily as valuable as God. But God values us and he instills us with value, and this infinite chasm of value many ECT proponents propose seems like something which should be evaluated.
Are All Sins the Same?
There are two views related to the punishment of hell on ECT. The first sees hell as a place where everyone receives the same punishment of duration and severity. The other view is that while all in hell will receive the same duration, there will be different gradations of severity. Some will experience far more pain than others. Punishment, then, recognizes both duration and severity as contributing to just punishment.
The first position seems to pose a significant problem to ECT's internal consistency. If all sins are infinitely damnable and someone commits a hundred more sins than I do, they have a hundred infinities worth of punishment due them. And yes, some infinities are larger than others. A hell of equal duration and severity for all would mean that some persons are actually being punished disproportionately.
But if we believe in a hell of equal duration and differing severity, we potentially run into another problem. Granted, working with the concept of infinity is crazy and prone to issues, but I think it's good to at least bring up an objection here. The first objection above was that if everyone receives the same duration and severity in hell, then that isn't just, as some sin more and to a greater degree. Therefore, a distinction in severity seems warranted since duration can't be touched on ECT. That means many who hold to ECT believe that everyone will be in hell for an infinite amount of time, but some will endure a pain level of X, others Y, and yet others Z.
A question then arises out of this. If punishment is composed of both duration and severity, and one can be infinite while the other not, what would prevent a good God from causing the punishment to be of infinite severity while the duration was kept finite? Before you go saying we just can't know this and I'm offering pure speculation (which may be mostly true), the transactional view of justice relies on this concept when it looks to the atonement. Jesus's payment was not infinite in duration exactly because (on this view) the severity of punishment was infinite (the holy Son of God tasted the fruits of sin in death).
Does God Never Achieve Justice?
Even if one doesn't think God's goodness would drive him to create a hell of finite duration, the ECT fixation on justice balancing the scales should drive them towards desiring a finite duration for hell. I remember listening to James White arguing for election back before I was Reformed. He argued that God's special love for the elect must be true because are we to think that God is unsatisfied for all eternity, as the damned are those he dearly loves and will burn for all eternity? No, God will achieve his goal, and those he love will be with him for eternity. It was inconceivable to White that God would have creatures he loves burning in hell for eternity because God's final state after judgment will be one in which he is satisfied in achieving all he desired to achieve.
Whatever you think about White's argument in regard to God's love and the elect, the argument for God's justice which I will invoke here runs in the same vein. If God's holiness and justice are such that God must see them achieved - and since he can't merely forgive without payment, and he will right all wrongs - then what are we to think of ECT? On ECT, God's justice will never be achieved. The unredeemed will never reach the fulness of their punishment. If they did, ECT wouldn't exist, but rather only CT for some finite period of time. And if ECT did exist beyond a point where God's justice was satisfied, then God would become unjust, as he punished those who had already paid their dues.
So on ECT, it seems that justice is never achieved, or that God becomes unjust in distributing a punishment which goes beyond the cost of the crime.
Is God Unjust?
Finally, we get to what I think may be the biggest issue for a transactional ECT view. The crux of this view is that because God is just, he cannot simply forgive sins. The ledger of each human being is in debt, and the scales of morality are unbalanced. The only way to resolve this problem is that appropriate payment be made.
The Reformed Protestants perhaps saw the upcoming issue with the transactional view most clearly, which may be part of the reason the doctrine of limited atonement was created. John Owens in his amazing work, "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ," argues beautifully for limited atonement. It was this work which drove me to become a five point Calvinist rather than a four. Owens recognizes that if Jesus paid for all the debt of all sinners, then the ledger of all would be wiped clean and the cosmic scales of justice would be balanced. But since some humans still wind up in hell, that would tip the scales once again into injustice. This "double punishment" would leave God unjust. Universalism or Limited Atonement seem the only two options, then, if you're going to argue for a transactional view. Even if you believe that Jesus paid all the debts except that of the unfaithfulness of the damned (which may resolve one of our previous problems, namely the issue of equal punishment in hell), this still winds up being a form of limited atonement, as there is a group of people for whom Christ did not die for some of their sins. If one clings to a transactional view of the atonement without advancing limited atonement or universalism, it's hard for me to see how God's justice is maintained.
But Owens and other adherents to limited atonement run into another problem related to God's justice. While Owens deals with the issue of double punishment and prevents Jesus for dying in excess of the number of those to be saved, he fails to see that Jesus's death could be overpaid in a different sense, and a sense in which the injustice is compounded infinitely. Let me flesh this out.
Because any sin by a human is viewed as a transgression of infinite weight, since it was committed against an infinitely valuable God, the consequences are thus deemed infinite. To pay for an infinite cost, you need an infinite payment, and therefore Jesus steps in. When he dies on the cross his payment is of infinite value. Great, an infinite cancels out an infinite. But hold on! Jesus's death does more than that. His death cancels out the debt of billions of infinites - whatever the number of all the redeemed throughout human history. So the infinite of Jesus's death is actually a larger infinite than the infinite of human sin debt.
With that in view, we can start probing even more. If one more elect were to be added, would they be able to be saved by Christ's sacrifice, or would he have to die again? Even if you are Reformed and believe in limited atonement, your answer is likely that Jesus's sacrifice would already be able to cover the newly elect. A common saying we have in regard to limited atonement is that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect. That just means that the payment was so gigantic it would cover everyone, but, as Owens argues, it is only put into effect by Jesus, our high priest, who applies the sacrifice. So Jesus's sacrifice is sufficient to cover an infinite amount of infinite debts.
The payment Jesus made on the cross, then, seems to be of an infinitely greater value than the debt of an infinite amount of sinners with an infinite amount of sin. One might try to argue that God altered the amount of torture Jesus experienced based on the sins he was dying for, but that would once again leave many who are against limited atonement having to accept this, and those who argue for ECT trying to explain why God doesn't make hell more intense with a shorter duration, thus being more loving and more just, by shortening torment and by eventually realizing full justice. If God can alter the severity for Jesus to experience a finite punishment yet produce an infinite payment, so it seems he could do that for the hell bound.
What About Annihilationism and Universalism?
I understand that this article focused mostly on ECT, but the point isn't so much to discredit ECT, but rather to get us thinking about the coherence of our transactional model of justice and the atonement. So I'm not only throwing ECT under the bus, let's look at the transactional view's implications for annihilationism and universalism, since Western Christians who hold to these views may still employ a transactional model.
Annihilationism tends to resolve the problem of our debts having infinite cost. Annihilationists don't have to view God as infinitely more valuable (though I suppose they still could), they don't have to believe a loving God unnecessarily requires an infinite duration of conscious punishment, and their ultimate punishment still seems to fit the biblical notion of ultimate punishment in that annihilation is eternal. However, while the transaction of hell and its punishment is cleared up, the atonement is still very muddied. Jesus's death is still usually viewed as sufficient for all, meaning his payment was infinite. Annihilation would also still be faced with Owens's argument of double punishment, pushing them towards accepting either limited atonement or inconsistency.
Universalists who believe that there will be some punishment prior to ultimate salvation run into the same issue in regard to the sacrifice of Jesus, though they don't have to deal with limited atonement.
An Alternative View?
If my hole poking turns out to hold up, we're left asking whether these problems can be resolved. If they can't, it means we may have to discard a transactional view of the atonement which sees our sins and Christ's death as essentially quantitatively measurable in the justice system of God. But before throwing it out, it may also be good to explore other types of transaction systems, as the Bible does use a lot of transactional descriptors for justice and atonement.
One route we might take would be to view the transaction less as quantitative and more as qualitative. A great example of this would be adoption. Due to my status as a citizen in good standing and with appropriate qualifications, I can confer the status of sonship or daughtership on one child, or a number of children. I don't lose any fatherliness for each child I adopt. It's a quality I distribute without any loss. One can think of a number of examples of this sort of thing. The beautiful thing about a transaction of status is that the Bible seems to talk a lot about this, not only in terms of adoption, but also in terms of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us. If we view this righteousness less as a quantity of good works and more as a declaration of status, it may help to salvage through reframing some sort of transactional aspect of the atonement.
If status were at issue here, then ECT could make a lot of sense. God would be punishing us not for a certain quantity of unrighteousness, but rather due to our status as the wicked. That punishment could be eternal and just were our status not to change. Likewise, Jesus's death on the cross would be the obtaining of a particular status (God and man, conqueror of death, wholly righteous) he can then confer to as many or as few as he likes. Jesus's death, then, doesn't merely tip the scales of justice towards injustice in the opposite direction in overpayment. The beauty of this view is that both Arminians and Calvinists could be right about Limited Atonement. Jesus could have come to die so that all could be saved, while, as Owens argues, he only fulfills the role of high priest in the application of the sacrifice for the elect. While this would undermine Owens's argument that Jesus obtains all he seeks to obtain, it could allow for Arminians and Calvinists to actually both be right about the scope of the atonement. It was for all, yet only for some.
Of course there would still be some lingering questions, like how could a God of justice remain unsatisfied for all eternity knowing he didn't eradicate evil and balance everything, for the wicked still exist for eternity? Nevertheless, a transaction of status seems more workable for the ECT view. The other issue I would foresee is that everyone with the status of wicked would receive the same punishment, which seems intuitively wrong. That means Hitler and a kindly Jew he executed, neither of whom made Christ their Lord, would experience the same punishment.
Annihilationism would of course resolve this problem of God balancing the scales, as the wicked would eventually be annihilated. However, the fact that many annihilationists believe in some form of torment prior to annihilation seems problematic. A finite punishment for sins brings back the idea that there is a quantitative element to justice, which in turn leaves us with all the problems we've identified in this article. Universalists who keep this quantitative transaction would run into the same issues.
Annihilationists who believe that annihilation comes immediately at the resurrection of the dead seem to have a good leg to stand on, as they don't face the transactional problems mentioned in this article, their form of punishment is still eternal, as the Bible declares, and God's justice is completely satisfied as evil is wiped out of existence. Universalists who believe that salvation is immediate may avoid the problems posed by a quantitatively transactional view of things as well, but it is my opinion that they run into a number of other significant issues in regard to how the Bible depicts the fate of the wicked as being an everlasting punishment.
This is a very interesting, yet complex topic, and I know I've only scratched the surface. I think taking a look at internal consistency is really important for ideas and systems, and hopefully this article helps stimulate discussion. I didn't give any/many answers here because I don't have them. All I have at the moment are questions. I would love for those questions to spur others on to answers, and those answers to point us to God in worship.