Atonement and the Death of Christ

An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration

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William Lane Craig
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical and Philosophical Exploration by William Lane Craig presents a compelling case for the penal substitutionary theory of atonement of Jesus Christ. In fact, Craig states that the basis of his argument is to “articulate the core of an atonement theory which is both biblically and philosophically coherent” (viii).

According to Craig, the central question that he addresses in the text is, “How did [Jesus’] death on the cross overcome estrangement and condemnation of sinners before a holy God, so as to reconcile them to Him?” (6). Initially, Craig begins his examination by asserting that scholars need to address (or be cognizant) of the confusion concerning the definition of the concept of atonement. Does atonement mean to “cleanse from sin” or does it mean “reconciliation” (1–3)? Craig asserts that Christ’s death does both—provides a cleansing from sin and reconciliation to God (5). Related to the problem of defining the term “atonement,” Craig further argues that attempts by Christian philosophers to develop a theory of the atonement “has been largely uninformed by biblical exegesis,” which has resulted in a theory not aligned with the biblical text (8).

To construct a multifaceted and coherent penal substitutionary theory of atonement, Craig states there are certain motifs that such theory must examine, which include: sacrifice, Christ the suffering servant, divine justice, and representation and redemption (88). This foundational information comprises most of the first section of the text.

In the second section of the text, Craig presents a review of the bewildering variety of theories of atonement, beginning with the patristic and medieval theories, and ending with Reformation and post-Reformation theories. Craig notes that many of these foundational perspectives have been misrepresented in the secondary literature (142–143). Noting this, Craig asserts that his interest for the current examination is centered upon “building upon the foundation of traditional atonement theories in line with biblical parameters” (144).

In the third section of the text, Craig presents a case for the coherence of the penal substitutionary theory. He argues that “no atonement theory that neglects penal substitution can hope to account for the biblical data surveyed and the motif of Isaiah 53 and its NT employment” (147). Craig further states that part of the debate within those who support penal substitution is whether Christ was “punished for our sins” or did Christ voluntary endure the suffering that we deserved as punishment for our sins (147–149). Craig cites 1 Peter 2:24 in support of his argument that Christ was “liable to punishment or endured punishment” in our place (266–267).

Therefore, in order to address the central question mentioned earlier and the debate previously mentioned above, Craig incorporates a philosophy of law perspective (jurisprudential) concerning the topics of punishment, strict/vicarious liability, pardons and legal fiction in support of his argument for seeing Christ’s atonement through the perspective of penal substitution. Craig argues that God is not a private party to personal disputes, but should be viewed biblically as the lawgiver, judge, and ruler, and that “God alone determines what satisfies the demand for divine justice” (206). Craig acknowledges that Christ is God and that “the Suffering Son in his human nature is ample to satisfy justice’s demands for all of humanity.” Accordingly, for humanity to benefit from this divine redemptive act, Craig asserts that one “must avail themselves to it” (214).

According to Craig, a coherent theory of atonement such as the penal substitutionary perspective, is also robust enough to incorporate redemption (e.g., Christus Victor) through divine pardon since God is the lawgiver, judge, and ruler who presides over divine system of justice. The pardon is granted on the conditions of faith and repentance (256–257).

In summation, Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical and Philosophical Exploration presents a well-researched and persuasive case in support of the penal substitutionary theory of Christ’s atonement at calvary. I mentioned the word, “case” because in my opinion, perhaps the subtitle of the text should have included the word “legal” or “jurisprudential,” as the third section of the text presents a wealth of legal cases and arguments in defense of Craig’s perspective. If you are familiar with arguments from the philosophy of law concerning crime and punishment, and legal reasoning including constitutional issues, then this text will appeal to your insights on such matters as they relate to arguments in support of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

A word to the wise: the content of the text is not something that one can just “breeze through” unless you are very familiar with the arguments as presented. In fact, if you are familiar with historiography, expect to see the extensive use of footnoting (which Craig uses). Footnotes are always beneficial, but reading them can affect the pace of reading (this is not a criticism).

Finally, whether you are familiar with the arguments or theories of atonement, or are a casual reader of the same, in my opinion, the value-added sections of the text are the inclusion of the examination of the Levitical sacrificial system in the first section of the text and the jurisprudential reasoning and cases in the third section of the text in support of the penal substitutionary theory as presented by William Lane Craig. Biblical scholars and lay persons interested in Christology in general, and soteriology (the atonement) in particular, that are grounded in biblical exegesis, should have this text on your reading list.   

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph A. Deering is adjunct associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Global Campus and a licensed minister.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Lane Craig is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University, the author or editor of over 40 books, including The Kalam" Cosmological Argument; Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of JesusDivine Foreknowledge and Human FreedomGod, Time, and Eternity; and God and Abstract Objects.


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