I’ve just been listening to (and enjoying) the August 29th edition of Unbelievable which features a dialogue between Christian theist Andy Bannister and atheist Michael Ruse on the meaning of life. There is a lot to dig into here: both Bannister and Ruse are intelligent and engaging speakers who show charity to the other side. In other words, they represent Unbelievable at its best. Given that there is much here to discuss, I may devote a subsequent article (or two?) to further discussion. But at this point, I wanted to respond to Bannister’s interesting account of human value.
What’s interesting is that Bannister ties human value to the atonement. He begins by saying that for Christians, the value of human beings is “infinite”. How so? Because (if I understand Bannister correctly), value is determined by the marketplace. That is, value is contingent upon the willingness of an agent to pay a price. This is where the atonement becomes important: God was willing to pay an infinite price — the death of his Son — for human beings. This is how Bannister puts it,
“your value is determined by what God was willing to pay for you in the life of Jesus Christ, his Son.”
Now just to make sure you get the fuller picture, I’ve included a 1 1/2 minute clip which culminates in this payment-value schema. After you listen to the clip you can take in my comments below.
I thought this was a really interesting argument. However, I do see several problems with it which I will enumerate now.
To begin with, it would seem to commit one to an atonement theory that construes atonement as some kind of literal economic exchange, perhaps one like Anselm’s satisfaction theory. But many Christians — myself included — are critics of atonement as a literal value-exchange (rather than a metaphorical one) such that sin and/or righteousness can be literally imputed from one party to another. (I have often written about the problems with such theories. For example, see here.) And the prospects of such theories do not seem bright. This in turn calls into question the underlying logic for Bannister’s theory.
Second, since on Bannister’s theory human value is determined by Christ’s atoning death, it would seem to follow that if a particular theory of redemption (i.e. limited atonement) is correct (and many Christians do accept a particular theory that restricts atonement to the elect), then it follows that those humans for whom Christ did not die are without value. And this seems very counterintuitive. (I do not accept a theory of particular redemption. But it seems to me that particular redemption is at least possibly true, and this possibility fits poorly with Bannister’s theory of human value.)
Third, Bannister’s view seems to reduce human value to divine will, and this also seems very implausible. Consider: in world 1 Christ dies for Jones and in world 2 Christ does not die for Jones. On Bannister’s account, Jones could have identical properties in both worlds except that in world 1 he is imputed with infinite value, whereas in world 2 he completely lacks any value. This too seems very implausible.
Fourth, if human beings are imputed with the “infinite” value of Christ (that is, his divine) value, then it seems to follow that in virtue of Christ’s atoning death, human beings are as valuable as God. Not only is that wholly implausible but theologically speaking it is also deeply problematic.
Fifth, and for me this is the kicker, Bannister’s theory seems to have things backwards. We are not valuable because Christ died for us. Rather, Christ died for us because we are valuable. This value consists not in what we do but rather in the kind of beings we are: in the biblical language, we are bearers of the divine image and likeness. In other words, our value is rooted not in soteriology but rather in creation.
In conclusion, I haven’t read Bannister’s book (but from what I’ve heard, it sounds like a great read). So I am not directing these comments at the book which will presumably reflect Bannister’s most careful formulations of his views. Instead, I am simply offering a rejoinder to his brief but provocative (and thought-provoking) treatment of the topic of human value while on Unbelievable.