Questions Theists Can’t Answer, the Atonement

I was recently directed to a Reddit thread where the atheists were proposing questions that theists can’t answer. Surprise, surprise, we can answer them, and in many cases have answered them (just not the satisfaction of the atheist). Of course, personal satisfaction isn’t a prerequisite for truth.

That said, what follows are questions from that thread that center on the Atonement.

If Jesus really died for our sins, then why are all of us condemned to hell unless we believe in him? What did he really die for, then?

This is a fair question.  But a misguided one.  If simple belief is all that is required, then the devil is saved.  Yet we know that’s not the case.  The real issue here isn’t knowing, assenting, or believing.  It’s having faith.  And not some sort of passive recognition of the Atonement (which would still be the mere assent I just dismissed), but an active faith.  One that changes your life, and has you working to better the lives of everyone around you.  Not out of fear, but because it’s the right thing to do.

On a deeper level, to theologically understand the Atonement, we have to dip a little bit into typology.  The sacrificial Passover lamb is typified in Jesus’ atoning death.  The Passover lamb was slain, and its blood sprinkled over the doorposts to cover the sins of the members of that household.  This is exactly the sort of imagery we see in Revelation regarding the faithful, who become like the family during Passover.  “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).

Understanding the typifying fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy rather than as a prediction coming true goes a long way toward eliminating the objection, “Matthew misused the Old Testament!”  In this way, prophecy is cyclical rather than predictive.

Second question:

If Jesus died in the cross to save us from sin, why are we still born with original sin?

Jesus’ death saves us from sin, but it doesn’t reach back in time and undo the consequences of every sin.  Original sin, the inborn propensity toward sin and rebellion, are the consequences of the Fall.

Think of it like this.  If I punched you in the face and broke your nose, but sincerely apologized and you forgave me, does your nose automatically heal and all of the blood disappear?  I think not.  This is the same thing.  We still must suffer the consequences of past actions.

Third question:

Regarding the civilizations that existed prior to Jesus and could not learn the Word, where did those people go when they died? If they went straight to heaven, why they had this privilege? If they went to hell, why they were condemned if they didn’t get to know the proper way? If they went to somewhere else, where is this place described in the Bible?

I wish people would actually read the Bible before criticizing it.  Paul dispenses this objection in his letter to the Romans.  He makes the point that salvation is open to all, and says that the good news is delivered by those who preach it:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:14-17)

He’s gearing Christians up to go out and preach the Word.  Because no one has heard it, right?  Not exactly.  Paul actually makes the point that everyone has already heard from God:

But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”

But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”

Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Rom 10:18-21)

So, God has chased after other nations and some have followed him, some have even followed him that he wasn’t chasing.  Yet Israel, who knew him and witnessed his miracles, rejects him and stays obstinate.  This solidifies my reply to why God doesn’t make personal appearances: it really doesn’t make a difference.

The point is that God is out there to be found, and those who are honestly seeking him will find him.  Those that God helps and blesses with every advantage to know him are always the first ones to reject him.  Here in the United States, a very Christianized nation, almost everyone learns Christianity from a young age or at very least knows quite a bit about it.  I know from personal engagement with atheists: even the most nonreligious ones growing up still had a ton of exposure to Christianity.  All good blessings come from above, so the wealth and prosperity of this country are God’s blessings and workings.

Yet, what happens?  Are we seeing people convert in droves?  Negative–we are seeing the opposite.  There is an extremely high rate of de-conversion, and that number will likely grow in the coming years.  Another Bible verse fulfilled.

Last question:

If in the comunion you are actually ingesting Jesus’ flesh, how does it not make you a cannibal?

The eating of Jesus’ flesh is a symbolic action, done in remembrance of the Lord’s crucifixion and Atonement for our sins.

In Jewish Wisdom literature, the eating of bread was likened to reading and memorizing the Torah, the Mosaic Law.  Jesus is saying that those who did this still die.  However, those that eat his flesh will have eternal life.  That is, those who internalize him and his teachings will have eternal life.

The Lord promises that the bread we eat will be his body, and the wine we drink will be his blood.  So we have to realize that celebrating the Lord’s Supper produces a deep and spiritual connection to Jesus.  He has promised that his presence is there, and that partaking of this Supper will lead to eternal life.  Partaking of the manna, the Mosaic Law, doesn’t.  It leads to death.

So what we have here is an indictment of the Law as salvation.  Jesus is encouraging people to internalize him, not the Law.  Only then do we have the eternal life promised us by God.

Dismissing it as cannibalism isn’t thinking deeply enough.  But waving it off as a mere symbol is also not thinking deeply enough.  It is far better to understand what the Supper is pointing us to then to engage in silly debates like this.

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on April 4, 2011, in Apologetics, Bible Thoughts, God, Sin, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. You’re not actually answering the first question, you’re saying that some understanding of the issue and typology is important in understanding the question. But it is still a question left unanswered, and I would love to see a proper response to it. (As to the rest, these are mere theological exercises; ask a Catholic about the Eucharist, and the answer is *very* different)

    • I was too brief in my treatment. I should have spent more time on that question, as the answer is key to understanding Christianity.

      I’ve established that mere assent isn’t what the Bible calls for with the idea of having faith. I’ve established that the death of Jesus typifies the Passover Lamb. From there, I should have gone to the book of James. After explaining that belief alone doesn’t work, as demons believe in God, the brother of our Lord writes:

      Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jms 2:20-24, emphasis added)

      To sum, Jesus’ death secures salvation for those who believe. Mere belief, simple assent, isn’t going to work by itself. That faith must be accompanied by good works, which complete the faith and count as righteousness before God. The necessity of spilling the blood of Christ comes from the Old Covenant, which Christ fulfilled by typifying the Passover Lamb. We complete this by an active faith.

      Hopefully that explains things a little bit better.

      • I disagree.

        “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness‘” (Galatians 3:1–6).

        Check out Galatians 3:10–14 as well.

        “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19).

        “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

  2. Cory Tucholski said: “If in the comunion you are actually ingesting Jesus’ flesh, how does it not make you a cannibal?

    The Lord promises that the bread we eat will be his body, and the wine we drink will be his blood. […] Dismissing it as cannibalism isn’t thinking deeply enough. But waving it off as a mere symbol is also not thinking deeply enough.”

    I haven’t discovered your belief – do you believe that you are eating actual, literal, made-from-cells, blood and flesh, or do you believe that you are eating bread/liquor that is a symbol?

    • I go for the symbol. The items in the Supper are pointing you to a larger reality, so they become more than mere bread and wine, but they aren’t the literal flesh-made-from-cells of Jesus.

      • thanks for the reply, That’s makes the response so much easier!

        Q:If in the comunion you are actually ingesting Jesus’ flesh, how does it not make you a cannibal?

        A: it is not actually Jesus’ flesh.

  3. Boz,

    I have been thinking through the idea that we could eat the literal flesh and blood of Jesus and it still isn’t cannibalism. In Communion, we are partaking of the Resurrected, and thus glorified, body of Christ and not the human flesh. Jesus states that the flesh is of no avail, but the Spirit brings life. Cannibalism would be ingesting the sinful flesh of another human. But Jesus, while fully man, is also fully God. Clearly, in the Supper, we are not ingesting the human flesh. We are only sharing the heavenly, glorified body.

    That is far from developed. It’s only the germ of an idea. I want to look a bit closer at the notion of transubstantiation from the Catholic side and consubstantiation from the Lutheran side. I know that my very Presbyterian flavor of Calvinism only regards the bread and wine as symbols, albeit very sacred symbols worthy or special reverence and treatment.

    Mr. Larsen,

    Then, in your mind, is simple assent enough to save a person? If a person believes with his mind and confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord, then disobeys unrepentantly by lying all the time, racking up 5 marriages during his life, and being a general wank to everyone in his path, does he get the eternal reward of heaven as long as he doesn’t waver from his simple assent to the facts of Jesus’ life and Resurrection?

  4. That is another way to avoid the charge of cannibalism – by asserting that it is not human cells, it is some kind of magical body.

    Of course, i don’t think it is cannibalism either, but for a different reason 🙂

    • I’m pretty sure you deny Real Presence all together for one of two reasons: (1) No such thing as miracles or (2) No such thing as Jesus. Or, perhaps, all of the above. Haven’t figured you out just yet.

      I resent the “magic” implication. Miracles and magic are distinct from one another. An idea I can develop later.

  5. mythical jesus is a very dumb position, it’s almost a conspiracy theory.

    I’m not aware of any sufficiently evidenced miracles that can overcome their low prior probability.

    Your opinions are distinct from you as a person – some of your opinions are very stupid. I’ve noticed that you as an individual are intelligent and a persuasive writer.

    Opinions don’t require respect, individuals do.

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