The Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement

This article is on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which of course, is absolutely crucial to the Christian religion. In simple terms, it is the claim that one man’s sacrifice paid the price for the sins of many and satisfied the judgment and justice of God. But, is this doctrine actually true, does it make sense and, separated from its religious context, how should it be viewed by modern 21st Century people?

I firmly believed for 15 years of my life that Jesus Christ had paid the penalty for my sins against God when he died on the cross some 2000 year ago. And, of course, I believed that his resurrection assured me of an eternal life in Heaven with him. I accepted this Christian “history” as factual for many years, but by the time I reached the age of 34 in late 1999, I had many doubts and many questions about my faith that I could no longer conveniently write off as coming from the devil. I got on the Net as it was in early 2000 and went looking for information critical of the Bible and the Christian religion. I was on an honest search for answers, since what I was hearing from the popular Christian apologists of the day wasn’t satisfying me at all. I came across sites such as and and, of course, The rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t long before I was free of the fundamentalist Christian cult, but I was left with psychological and emotional baggage that would take years to process and work through.

I have had fourteen years to think about and learn about the Christian religion and Christian doctrine from a non-believing atheist perspective, but it has only been recently that I have really seriously thought about the central Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement. My conclusions are that it is a barbaric doctrine by today’s moral standards, and that in addition to that, it doesn’t make logical, rational sense.

Christians believe that there is one God who expresses himself in three separate but equally divine Persons — the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. This attribute of God is commonly known as the doctrine of the Trinity, but even it doesn’t make rational sense and is difficult for Christians to explain, except through bad and very loose analogies such as the three physical states of water. As they explain it liquid water, steam, and ice are all water though they exist as water in different forms. In the same way, the three members of the Trinity are all God, in different forms.

But, at any rate, the reasons that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement no longer makes sense to me are that is barbaric, it doesn’t make sense that the death of one man can pay the penalty for the wrongdoing (sin) of another, and the doctrine of the Trinity — which is absurd in and of itself — makes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement absurd.

Let’s consider the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made in light of modern standards of morality. According to the Christian story, Jesus was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 1:14), and he came to this earth to teach us who God is and then, as Christians believe was prophesied centuries earlier in the Old Testament starting with Genesis 3:15, he was beaten and died an excruciatingly painful death on a Roman cross. This act, supposedly, was to pay the penalty for the sins of all of mankind and to satisfy the judgment and justice of God. This all sounded wonderful beyond measure to me for many years. I was awed that Jesus loved me so much that he was willing to go through the kind of pain and suffering that he is depicted as enduring in the Gospels and to die for me. The thought that “I am so bad and so evil and so depraved that I killed Jesus” never once crossed my mind. I was just awed by what I saw at the time as an incredibly amazing act of divine love. But now… I see it as simply barbaric. Consider the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus as it is so graphically depicted in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ.

According to the Christian story, Jesus was beaten and crucified to pay the penalty for our sins, and at least in churches that I attended, we were made to believe that Jesus had us personally in mind when he endured this brutal suffering and death 2000 years ago. But… it is an act of brutal barbarism that no longer makes sense to me. Supposedly, Jesus was God in the flesh, so God was sacrificing Himself to Himself to save us from Himself. The absurdity of that reality aside for the moment, how does the brutal beating and death of one man, Jesus Christ, 2000 years ago have any bearing on any of us living today? What meaning did it really have for those living even at that time? It no longer makes sense to me that one man can pay the penalty for the wrongdoing (sin) of another. And really, for an all-loving and all-knowing God, is the brutal beating and crucifixion and sacrifice of Himself to Himself as his one and only begotten Son the best way he could think of to deal with the problem of sin and to absolve us of them? This doctrine may have made perfect sense to the Bronze Age minds of men living 2000 years ago in a world much more brutal than our own, but to the modern 21st Century mind, when it is stripped of its religious context, it is simply brutal, and it makes no rational sense.

When I hear the story of the brutal beating and crucifixion of Jesus now, I no longer feel awe or thankfulness or even guilt or shame. All I feel, quite honestly, is horror and disgust that such a brutal and barbaric doctrine is at the heart of an ancient religion that still dominates Western thought and culture in our modern 21st Century world.

Relevant resources:

Christopher Hitchens on the subject of Vicarious Redemption

My friend Richard shares his thoughts on the subject of the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made:

From Atheism to Christianity – A Review – Part 2

This glorious post is a continuation of an article review than begins with Part 1 here.

It is inevitably self-destructive not only because it results in death, but also because it is destructive of freedom. Apart from God, we lack the inner strength to resist the downward pull of our fallen natures. Without His help, we cannot overcome all the temptations we face to give in to our lowest impulses and pursue our own interests at the expense of others. And if, in addition, this diminution of our inner freedom is accompanied, as in so many lives, by positive disbelief in God, a new danger arises. We lose our sense of accountability and belief in moral absolutes because we no longer believe that there is a Divine Judge to whom we are ultimately responsible. That is one of the reasons why militantly atheistic socialist regimes have produced the bloodiest tyrannies in history, slaughtering 100 million people in internal repression during the 20th century. It also helps to explain the growth of crime, delinquency and sexual immorality in post-Christian secularised Western societies.

What an utter load of absolute bullshit this entire paragraph is!

Atheists and agnostics do just fine without God, thanks. And, the more free societies become from religion, the better off and more peaceful they become. We do not possess “fallen” natures. That is a religious concept with no discernible basis in reality.

We lose our sense of accountability and belief in moral absolutes because we no longer believe that there is a Divine Judge to whom we are ultimately responsible.

How many times over the last fourteen years have I seen this nonsensical line of thinking from Christian theists? They obviously believe that without some invisible magical cosmic judge living in the sky eagerly waiting to punish us if we do wrong, that we all may as well all be murderers and rapists, or something… not a very positive view of human nature. But, then, the Bible does claim that our righteousness acts are as filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).

I have been on this earth for 48 years now and yes, I have met some very evil people in my time. But, they are an exception to the rule. Most people I have had the pleasure of meeting during my almost half century of life have been kind, decent, caring, loving individuals — good people, and that leads me to conclude that, despite a relatively few outliers (criminals, assholes, terrorists, etc.), human nature is basically good.

That is one of the reasons why militantly atheistic socialist regimes have produced the bloodiest tyrannies in history, slaughtering 100 million people in internal repression during the 20th century. It also helps to explain the growth of crime, delinquency and sexual immorality in post-Christian secularised Western societies.

Really? How about the millions of people Christians have tortured and killed over the last 2000 years? Christianity has left a stain of blood across the pages of history that is 2000 years long now. Can you say “crusades” and “inquisitions” and “burning at the stake”? Christianity was directly responsible for the Dark Ages during which time we “enjoyed” several centuries of religion-based glorious scientific ignorance, and Christians have a very long history of stifling social and scientific progress. Even now, here in America, conservative Republican Christian politicians regularly discriminate and legislate against women, homosexuals, veterans, the disabled, and the poor.

The bloodiest tyrannies in history have not existed because of atheism. Atheism, again, is quite simply the lack of belief in a god or gods. Atheism has absolutely nothing to do with politics or any form of government. Tyrannies have existed because evil men who just happened to be atheists achieved political power and chose to oppress their people. And, let’s not forget Hitler. He murdered approximately six million Jews during World War II, and he was a professing Catholic who plainly stated that he believed that he was doing the Lord’s work. And, let’s not forget God! According to the Bible, he repeatedly ordered mass murder and genocide, which included the slaughter of men, women, children, infants, and animals. Glory! So, given that fact, who is the greatest tyrant and who is responsible for more deaths — man or God? Here’s an informative and glorious graphic for you which illustrates how many people God killed in the Bible vs. Satan.


If the God of the Bible were real, he would be the greatest mass murderer in history! He makes Hitler look like a great guy in comparison. Glory!

It also helps to explain the growth of crime, delinquency and sexual immorality in post-Christian secularised Western societies.

You need to check reliable news sources and other reliable sources of information, educate yourself, and get your facts straight. Crime, actually, has declined in recent years in the developed world, and that has occurred as those societies have become more secular and less religious. Sweden, I believe, is a prime example of a European country that is quite secular and quite peaceful. And, what is true for Sweden generally holds true for the rest of the world. The more secular the society, the more peaceful and prosperous it is.

If by “sexual immorality” you mean homosexuality, sorry, my Christian friend. Homosexuality is now recognized as having a strong genetic basis, and it exists not only in humans, but throughout the animal kingdom. Homosexuals are a minority compared to heterosexuals, but their expression of sexuality is perfectly normal and not the slightest bit immoral. Your ancient holy book is dead wrong about a great many things (which is to be expected of a book written thousands of years ago by men with little in the way of scientific knowledge), and unsurprisingly, it is dead wrong about homosexuality.

If the human race has cut itself off from God through sin, what has been God’s response? Has he abandoned us, and all His creation, to corruption and death? On the contrary. The whole of the rest of the Bible after the third chapter of Genesis describes God’s rescue plan. And at the heart of that rescue plan is the greatest and most extraordinary event in history: the incredible but true story of God coming down into our world to live and walk among us as a human being – as a first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, called Jesus.

There is no God to be cut off from, and sin is a religious concept with no discernible basis in reality. The third chapter of Genesis contains a ridiculous story involving two obviously mythical people, a talking snake, magic trees and magic fruit, and it takes place in an obviously mythical place called the Garden of Eden. But yes, it does offer God’s absurd rescue plan (sacrificing Himself to Himself to save us from Himself), which Christians believe involves the promise of a Savior named Jesus who will kick the Talking Snake’s ass and magically repair the damage done due to the magic fruit incident.

The story of Jesus is “incredible but true”? Sorry, my Christian friend, but it’s actually mythological nonsense. The only sources we have for the supposed life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are four anonymously written gospels, all of which were written decades after the death of Jesus. They absolutely are not eyewitness accounts. The Jesus of the Gospels (all four of which present him quite differently) is a myth. So much myth and legendary development has occurred in the gospels that little, if anything, can now be known with any certainty about the real historical Jesus, if indeed he did live in history. The Jesus of the Gospels ranks very high on Lord Raglan’s Hero Scale, which demonstrates rather decisively that his life, death, and resurrection as presented in the Gospels is little more than myth:

Dr. Richard Carrier has produced a video which is freely available on YouTube which demonstrates decisively that the Gospels are myth and nothing more.

The Gospels are not only myth, they differ significantly in reporting the details of the most important myth in the Christian religion! Relevant link:

The Bible, which is mostly ancient myth and legend, is so contradictory that it can’t even accurately report the details of the most important myth contained within its pages!

Before I started reading C.S. Lewis, I dismissed this whole idea as an absurd fable. Even if Jesus had really existed, how could one believe that he had performed all those miracles recorded of Him in the New Testament? Hadn’t the advance of science revealed that our universe is a beautifully ordered cosmos governed by physical laws which cannot be broken, but which can be described in the precise language of mathematics? Didn’t the laws of physics and chemistry rule out the possibility of a man walking on water or rising from the dead, as Jesus was said to have done? And how could one believe that Jesus had once turned several jars of water into wine at a wedding feast, or fed five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish? You could only believe such stories, I thought, if you were scientifically illiterate, as everyone clearly was in ancient times. Furthermore, I asked myself, how on earth could Jesus’ death on a Roman cross ‘save’ us from our sins and reconcile us to God? No-one had ever explained this mystery to me!

You were correct in dismissing the story of Jesus as an absurd fable (or myth), because that is exactly what it is! Not everyone in ancient times was scientifically illiterate, though it is true that most people were. Ancient Greece, I happen to know, produced a number of scientific geniuses that we still celebrate today, before the Christian Church plunged us into the centuries-long miserable period of religious ignorance known as the Dark Ages. As I have already pointed out, the Gospel stories are myths, and that certainly includes the alleged miracles that Jesus allegedly performed.

There is no mystery to the mythical story of Jesus, and of course his alleged death on a Roman cross and alleged Magical Undeadening (resurrection) cannot save anyone from anything, including the mythical religious concept of sin. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is barbaric by today’s standards and that is plain to see if it is removed from the religious context of being something beautiful and holy. And, the doctrine itself is absurd. Jesus supposedly was God, so the message of salvation for all of mankind is that God sacrificed Himself to Himself to save us from Himself. That is absurd, and as Voltaire correctly observed centuries ago, those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. And, sure enough, the history of the Christian Church is a bloody one littered with atrocities.

While we are on the subject of the Gospels, my favorite absurd tale from them is found in Matthew 27 — the Biblical zombie apocalypse! Matthew 27:52-53 claims that the dead bodies of many saints rose from the dead at the time of Jesus’s Magical Undeadening and roamed the streets of Jerusalem. If that were actually true, I’m sure they scared the shit out of the folks inhabiting Jerusalem at that time! Glory!

Once again, however, Lewis’s writings forced me to re-examine my objections to Christianity and the historical claims about Jesus on which it is based. As he points out in his brilliant book, Miracles, you cannot rule out the supernatural on scientific grounds without first begging the question of God’s existence. Atheism denies the supernatural by definition, but if atheism is false and God exists, who is to say that God is not able to intervene in His creation? If a human author can change the ending of one of her plays or novels at the stroke of a keyboard, then surely the Creator in whose image we are made can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of a disease, or conquer death in ways we consider ‘miraculous’.

If atheism is false and God exists, then why has he never intervened in this world in any discernible way in the course of human history? Of course, if God exists, then he could certainly intervene any time he wanted to and make his presence known and influence events in our world. But, so far in the course of human history, he has never intervened except in ancient stories that can easily be dismissed as the myths that they clearly are. There isn’t the slightest shred of credible evidence that any sort of supernatural realm actually exists or that a God of any kind actually exists. It’s all quite clearly the stuff of ancient myth and legend! Theologians have been trying for centuries to come up with an argument for the existence of God that cannot be refuted, and thus far they have utterly failed to do so. Of course, if God exists, he could alter the natural environment or cure a disease, or conquer death, but thus far none of those events has ever occurred except in mythical stories or anecdotal accounts from religious believers who desperately want to believe that their imaginary God has miraculously cured them of some illness.

Let’s discuss the issue of divine healing for a minute here. If such a thing is true and divine healing is for real, then why are people like Benny Hinn not flooding our hospitals, healing people by the thousands, if not by the millions? If divine healing is for real, then why do the prayers of sincere Christians and other religious believers for healing always go unanswered? The harsh reality is that there is no God and not a single person in the course of human history has ever experienced a healing that was supernatural in origin. God never heals anyone of cancer or AIDS or Ebola or ALS or any other serious or even minor illness, and the reason for that fact is glaringly obvious. God does not exist!

We lost a relative to breast cancer a few years ago, and she was only 34 years old when she died. She suffered much, with her body eaten up by cancer. She died horribly in the hospital when both of her lungs collapsed and she suffocated to death. I am quite sure that she had several Christian family members and friends diligently praying for her with great hope for a miracle cure, but of course, no miracle was forthcoming. God did not do a damn thing to save or ease the suffering of our relative, and the reason why is crystal clear. He does not exist to be able to intervene if he wanted to! One of my very religious relatives lost her young husband several years ago to cancer as well. If memory serves correctly, he was 27 years old at the time. I have no doubt that his very religious wife and his very religious family and friends were praying hard for his survival. But, no miracle cure or easing of his suffering was forthcoming from their “loving” God. Their prayers went 100% unanswered, and this man died at the young age of 27 from a terrible disease.

This concludes Part 2 of my response. Part 3 is coming soon! Glory!