In chapter 7 of The End of Christianity Ken Pulliam argues for “The Absurdity of the Atonement”. In fact, his essay is focused not on the atonement per se but rather on a penal substitutionary theory of atonement (henceforth PST). This is a crucial distinction to which I shall return.
However, before continuing let me make a personal observation. I communicated with Ken last year for several months via email as we shared our thoughts on atonement. (It was Ken who first pointed out to me the consonance between the film “Gran Torino” and a Girardean theory of atonement.) And so I was shocked and saddened to learn of Ken’s untimely death last October as the result of a heart attack. He was a true gentleman scholar and this essay is a fine parting tribute to Ken’s keen intellect and his devoted search for understanding.
Now down to business. Ken writes that “The cross, and what Christians believe was accomplished there, is the most basic and fundamental of all Christian doctrines.” (181) Surely this is hyperbole: the atonement is not more basic than theism. Regardless, it is justified hyperbole because the atonement clearly is a central Christian doctrine, and thus it makes sense that a book proclaiming the end of Christianity would have at least one of its fourteen essays dedicated to attacking this central doctrine.
Unfortunately for the atheological apologist, Christians have never agreed on how to understand the atonement. So Ken opts to focus on one particular theory of atonement, the PST, because it is “the dominant view today in evangelical Christianity….” (181) This is an important concession for it means that Ken’s argument is focused on a very narrow field. It is tantamount to an essay in a book proclaiming The End of Naturalism which focuses on critiquing functionalist theories of the mind. Nobody reading that book would be under any illusion that the essay was any threat to naturalism per se. Nor should we think that Ken’s essay poses any threat to Christianity per se.
Ken sets up his discussion by quoting six eminent theologians who endorse the importance of PST (182). It is important to note how homogeneous Ken’s group is: every one is a caucasian male representative of conservative North American Reformed theology (though J.I. Packer is a British expatriate and the recently deceased Roger Nicole was a Swiss emigrant). The point, in other words, is that Ken’s impressive choir singing the praise of PST is all from the same neighborhood in a vast Christendom. PST is rejected by Eastern orthodoxy and mainline Protestantism as well as many Catholics and evangelical Arminians. I would note as well that even if PST seems dominant in evangelical popular piety, most evangelicals do not have a clear understanding of the central tenets of PST.
Ken seeks to establish that PST is “illogical, immoral, incoherent and therefore, absurd.” (182) His argument is refreshingly straightforward and clear. But as I said it is no threat to Christianity. In writing it he ironically joins a chorus of Christian theologians who have been lodging serious criticisms against PST for years (centuries in fact). (I have presented my own critique in Faith Lacking Understanding: Theology through a glass darkly (Paternoster, 2008), chapter 5. See also my article “The Death of Jesus, the rape of a woman, and a concept called ‘Imputation’.”)
I don’t see that Ken adds any new criticisms to the long history of Christians critiquing PST. But who cares? Novelty is over-rated. Ken’s essay is a clearly argued presentation of some of the main objections to PST and he is to be commended for it. My one main complaint comes in the conclusion. Although Ken has already conceded that his target is PST, in the conclusion all language of PST drops away and is replaced by references to atonement simpliciter:
“While Tertullian believed the atonement because it was absurd, I reject it because it is absurd. To accept the most fundamental Christain doctrine, namely that Jesus died for your sins, requires one to believe something that is illogical, immoral, and incoherent. In essence, it requires a sacrificium intellectus, the sacrifice of our own intelligence.” (194)
This is what we call in advertising the bait and switch. But once the reader realizes that most theologians (and countless lay Christians) would respond to Ken’s argument with a “Yea and amen! That’s what we’ve been saying for years!” the essay will be placed into its proper, if rather deflationary, context.