The Theological Theory of Atonement by Divine Existential Debt

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Keith A. Needham said:

[Your post does require a thoughtful reply. So let me frame my reply in the form of questions: If the atonement implies a payment of some sort to another entity, when did God become indebted to humans?

The Scriptures states that in the beginning God made them male and female and that all of his creation was very good. I don’t think this implies moral perfection, but rather innocence. There was no tendency toward evil. The tendency we currently have toward evil is a result of the fall; Adam and Eve could have chosen obedience equally as well as disobedience. Therefore, in our sinning, how or why does God incur a debt that he would have to pay in the first place?]

The debt is an existential debt. We suffer because of sin. We suffer because we don’t have eternal life, we don’t have an idealistic existence in the “Garden” with God. We suffer physical ailments and death. Nature itself is now predatory, because of the fall. But God created us, and we didn’t ask him to. God forced us into existence against our will and put us in a situation where we could fall.

So, the debt is an existential debt that says: You forced me into an existence where I will suffer. Moreover, you knew, at least on some level, that I would suffer, but you put me here anyway.

Now, with that in mind, consider the #1 verse about salvation, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Who did God give his Son to? He gave him to us, and in our depraved state of sin, we nailed him to the cross. Yet it was sin that God allowed in His creation; it was sin he allowed us to fall into, and just look at how we killed his Son!

So, now the scales are even. And where we couldn’t have the Tree of Life before in the Garden of Eden, we can now have eternal life by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. That is, if we choose to die with Christ and be born again (resurrected with him), then we are a new creation, and we are no longer in sin.

[Is there even so much as a shred of Biblical evidence that God would have paid a ransom to us? I cannot think of even so much as one passage offhand. ]

Then who was the ransom paid to? Satan? Satan is an angel of God, maybe even something more, but very much a creation of God’s.

[There was a ransom paid for us as we are the redeemed, and those purchased to (or for?) God by the blood of Jesus. But that we are the recipients of that payment is certainly foreign to Scripture.]

I’m not sure it’s foreign to scripture. I think it may be a different way of looking at scripture, and we are free to do that because there is no settled theory of atonement–unless one is simply going to close their mind to any other theory but the one espoused by their particular denomination. Nevertheless, I admit more biblical research must be done to support this theory.

[If God is required to pay a ransom to us, or is indebted to us somehow because we were allowed to sin, then why is faith in Christ necessary for salvation? Where would personal faith come into the equation? God has then, in Christ, paid off his debt to us. We would own him nothing in return, at least not that I can think of. Therefore, we would all be redeemed, and it would not make a hill of beans of difference whether or not we accept it, or what we do with it afterward. ]

No, that’s just it, it only makes us even. Atonement only makes us even. You’re  talking about salvation now, and that’s different. 

Look at it like this: In the past, God forced us into existing, and then he left us to die (spiritually and physically). However, when Jesus came to Earth, we (humanity) had an opportunity to make him our king and walk with him in the Kingdom of God on earth that he would have established. It would have been like the Garden of Eden all over again, but this time with Jesus Christ, who presumably would have lived forever, and presumably given us eternal life as well in order to live with him (After all, he raised Lazarus, and Jairus’ daughter from the dead.) Instead, however, we killed him horribly on a cross. So now, it’s even. What God did to us vs. what we did to God. The score is even. That’s atonement.

Now, living in a post-crucifixion world, we are metaphorically back at the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and we can choose. Are we on the side of Christ, or are we on the side of those who killed him? Just like the two theives on either side of Jesus when he was crucified. We can choose what we will do in regards to believing in Christ–that choosing is salvation.

Atonement makes salvation possible.

[God never required anything of us, no requirement to live by commandments, or to be holy or anything. The requirement, actually, would go the other way, for apparently our sinful condition would have mandated God to act; God would have to repent and make restitution to us, not us to God.]

After the fall, and before Jesus Christ, a man was born, he lived his life in toil, suffering, and loss, and there was nothing after. He died, and he ceased to exist. His memory just rolled back up into the mind of God. That was the world after the fall.

But we never asked for that. I know I didn’t, and I know you didn’t. Neither did Adam have any say in it, nor Eve. We were forced into existence, and we were innocent and ignorant, and highly capable of being decieved, and God knew it. Nevertheless, we had free will, and still do. If in nothing else, we can choose to eat the apple or not. We can choose to believe in the Son of God.

God owed us an existential debt. But he paid it with Jesus Christ.

[If this is the case, why has no theologian has put forth this proposition before? ]

I don’t know. I would have thought they would have. It’s interesting to hear you say they haven’t because you are quite learned. So, maybe it is an original idea.

[There have been proposals that the ransom was paid to the devil; but so far as I know, no theologian, until recently, has ever proposed that the payment was made to us. There is something in being the ransomed that makes us the purchased product; how, in that transaction could we be either the buyer or the seller?]

Try this thought experiment. In fact, it comes from a patient I once took care of, a two-year-old.

The mother came into the ER in tears. The child was fine, but she had put her on the bed and left her for a moment. She new the child could crawl, but she left her alone anyway. The child crawled off the edge of the bed, fell and hit her head on the floor.

Who was responsible, the child or the mother? If the child had been brain damaged, who would have been responsible? And if you take it all the way back, the child never asked to be born to begin with. The mother and father forced the child into existence, and then allowed it to suffer a fall.

Now, existence is good. We want it for the most part, so we can’t complain too much. A spoiled existence, however, with pain, loss, and death is not good, but we don’t cause our existence, God does.

So, the Divine existential debt is at least half the equation. Just like with the child on the bed–it crawled off, but the mother let it happen–and the mother is greater than the child. So, the mother is at least half responsible for the fall.

How will the mother then make it right?

[Finally, what form of payment was rendered? How does this transaction work? What are the benefits, if not full, final, and eternal, universal salvation? If they are something different, how are they applied? How do I apprehend the benefits of the transaction? In other words, what’s in it for me?]

God is still God. And he wants you to exist. You don’t get a say in that. He made you to be born with talents that he wanted you to express in his world. You are a slave to God–no getting around that.

But God loves you, too–he loves his slaves. To make amends, to atone, for creating you in a world of suffering, you get a chance at eternal life in paradise. All you have to do is believe in his Son whom he sacrificed to you. That’s the pay off. You are forced to live in sin, but there’s a way out, Jesus Christ, and you get eternal paradise through him. That’s the pay off. That’s atonement.

Thank you, Keith, for allowing me to respond to you on this matter. I’m posting this on my blog.

Rev. Edward J. Gordon, R.N., B.Sc.
Edward J. Gordon Ministries

1 Comment

  1. Some initial thoughts:

    1) Underlying your argument in the idea that the life given to us is forced upon us as if it is a negative thing, a burden to bear, a detriment, and not a blessing. I would argue that we are given the gift of life, that life is a blessing, and not a curse. Life could have been, theoretically, far different than it is now, had humanity chosen differently (assuming your free-will argument stands). This the existential debt is ours to bear, not God’s. We have brought our shame and misery down upon our own heads, and thus despoiled the gift of life originally given. We cannot blame our actions upon God, and there is no courtroom in the entire universe that could make God culpable for our behavior. His foreknowledge of it therefore cannot indict him.

    2) The ransom is paid by God to God. It is an inter-trinitarian transaction. God chooses to enter humanity as a Man to pay the debt himself which humanity is unable to pay of its own accord, out of its own resources. This is why it is imperative that God die; God has to suffer the wages of sin, which is death. Once that debt has been paid, salvation is secured to ask those united to Christ through baptism into his death, burial, and resurrection.

    3) You have created a theology in which the immortal God becomes indebted to the mortal and the creator and ruler of the universe becomes enslaved to the creation. Each of these would necessitate, it would seem, a radical change in the nature and being – not to mention the character and the freedom – of God. Yet God says of himself that he does not change, that he is but beholden or dependent upon the creature; rather we were the dependent creatures, dependent upon him for everything, including the life with carries with it this existential burden.

    4) You say that God has forced us into existence against our will. This cannot be. Prior to our existence we had no will. There was no entity called “us” to will anything. It is not as if we were up in heaven protesting, “God, I don’t want to be born; I refuse to be,” and then by cosmic fiat, God overrules us. This goes back to my argument that life is a gift and a blessing. The “overruling” of our will seems to be the basis of your assumption of an existential debt. If God did not “overrule” us in this manner, it would seem that your existential debt disappears into the stratosphere.

    5) Finally, and I have implied this above, we suffer as a result of our own actions, broadly speaking as humans. We experience the effects and consequences of human sin poured out upon us. God has placed limitations on evil so that no person is as vile and corrupt as they could be. Therefore, once again, God cannot be the source of any existential guilt nor of our existential suffering.

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