Dawkins’ dilemma: how God forgives sin
In The God Delusion, author Richard Dawkins asks: “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment … ?”1
The answer depends on three things: What is sin? Why does God oppose it? How can God justly forgive it?
Note: Dawkins begins with the axiom2 that God does not exist. We shall begin with the axiom that God does exist and the Bible is His written Word.
1. What is sin?
When God created Adam and Eve, He made human beings who were not only dependent on Him for existence and life, but who He intended to enjoy a relationship with Him of sharing in His life and love. Sin, in essence, is the desire of mankind to be free from this dependence on God, and indeed from any relationship with God at all.3
When Satan4 tempted Eve to disobey God, the ‘bait’ he used was the assertion “you will be like God”.5 Thus, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God had forbidden them, they were defying God, repudiating His authority over them, and elevating their own wills above God’s will.
Sin does not primarily refer to isolated acts (sins), for they are only the outworking of human self-will. It refers primarily to the rebellion of men and women against God, which may range all the way from careless indifference to the hell-bent hostility of which Dawkins’ posturing is an extreme example. Since sin is defined by this opposition to God and his standards, if God doesn’t exist, then the concept of sin becomes meaningless.
2. Why does God oppose sin?
The Creator God of the Bible (Elohim in Genesis chapter 1) is the great “I am who I am” (Yahweh in Exodus 3:14), who claims to be the one and only holy, true, and loving God, whose word and authority are binding on us all absolutely. Cf. “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2, 3).
Sin an attack on the ‘Godness’ of God
Sin opposes God’s holiness, repudiates His authority, and rejects His self-giving in love. God remains God whatever happens, and so by His very ‘Godness’, i.e. His eternal will as God to be who He is, God must and does oppose sin. If He did not, He would not be God, and there would be no ultimate difference between God’s will and the sinner’s will, or between good and evil. Hence sin merits God’s ‘curse’ (Genesis 3:14–19) and God’s wrath.
God’s wrath is not petulance, but is His holy anger against man’s rejection of the truth about Him (Romans 1:18). It is a measure of the gravity of sin. Inasmuch as sin opposes God’s infinite holiness, God’s perfect justice requires the exercise of His holy wrath. Otherwise He would cease to be God.
Nothing trivial about sin
When we see sin as deliberate rebellion against an infinitely holy and loving God, it is obvious that God cannot “just forgive” it, as Dawkins naïvely suggests. Sin is not just a matter of things we have done, but of what we are in our attitude to God in the light of His perfect holiness, i.e. our polarization against Him. Dawkins’ ‘wave-of-the-hand forgiveness’ implies that all this is so trivial that it doesn’t really matter. Such indifference on God’s part would only encourage us to continue in our rebellion against God, confident that we could do so with impunity.
One result of Adam and Eve’s sin was that they produced offspring with a tendency to sin. We have all been born with a sinful nature—so sin belongs irrevocably to the nature of mankind (Romans 5:12).6 And as long as we are in this condition, God can no longer admit any of us to His presence, apart from judgment.
3. How can God justly forgive sin?
Christ the Son of God
Since the whole of the human race is under God’s condemnation, we can’t initiate reconciliation; it must come from God. And, in His love for us and His grace, He has done just that. His plan to redeem us involved God Himself, in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ,7 entering our humanity in order to deliver us from our captivity to sin.
The deity of Jesus Christ is essential for our salvation, for unless salvation is an act of God it would be worthless. Furthermore, our Redeemer must be fully divine to endure God’s infinite wrath. A mere creature could not withstand it, and the death of anyone else would have no redeeming value. If Jesus is not God, then there is no Gospel.
Christ our substitute
Christ also needed to be ‘one of us’—fully human, yet without sin, a descendant of the first Adam (Genesis 3:20) via Mary; hence He is called “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Thus, in addition to His divinity, He is a blood relative of every human who has ever lived (and so is qualified to be the “kinsman-redeemer” prophesied in Isaiah 59:20). Because of His life of perfect holiness and obedience to God whereby sin had no power over Him, He was uniquely qualified to be the substitute for all humanity. He is not like the priests of Israel who first had to offer sacrifices for their own sins (Hebrews 7:27).
This necessary dual nature of the Redeemer fits perfectly with 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” An effective mediator between two groups should ideally be a member of both. Jesus is such a mediator, because He is the only member of both groups: ‘God’ and ‘man’.
God’s provision for our salvation had to pay the price for our transgression of His law. So Christ, the sinless Son of God, had to die on the Cross as our substitute (His life for ours), to pay the just penalty for our sin.8 The Son of God took our curse upon Himself.9 There was no mitigation (lessening) of judgment, because any such would have meant that God had not really opposed sin, and that sin had not been totally dealt with. So, because our judgment has been paid in full, God can justly forgive all those who exercise faith and repentance,10 and we can know that we are truly forgiven.
Atonement is the divine work of covering and putting away sin, thus creating reconciliation between God and us.11 The Bible says: “God … loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Greek word translated “propitiation” in the KJV, NASB and ESV, and “expiation” in the RSV, is rendered “atoning sacrifice” in the NIV. It means that when the Lord Jesus died by shedding His blood on the Cross, He was the means whereby the cost of our reconciliation with God was fully met (expiated), and God’s wrath upon us by reason of our sin was turned away (propitiated).
Note that the Bible does not say that Jesus propitiated God, or that Jesus somehow persuaded a reluctant God to forgive us. It was God in His love who supplied the atoning sacrifice, i.e. Jesus Himself is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2). So it is God who performs the act of propitiation, expiation, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation, and removal of sin (cf. Isaiah 43:11).12
The importance of the Resurrection of Jesus
The Cross was no mere act of amnesty,13 but an action in which our sins are utterly dealt with, overcome, and undone. Unless salvation vindicates God’s holiness, righteousness and justice, as well as His love, mercy and grace, it would not be valid. Romans 3:25 tells us: “This was to show God’s righteousness” cf. “ … to demonstrate His justice” (NIV). Furthermore this was ratified by God through the resurrection of Jesus, “who was … raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
Dawkins wonders why Christ had to die. In addition to all the above, one further reason was so that He could overcome death by rising from the dead (before ascending into Heaven). Thus the overcoming/undoing of sin in atonement was confirmed by the overcoming/undoing of death (sin’s consequence) in the resurrection of Jesus. As theologian Thomas Torrance explains: “If death is not actually overcome, then the act of forgiveness has not ultimately touched sin at its very root and undone it.”14
Dawkins would also do well to ponder the fact that the Bible says the resurrection of Jesus is proof that there is a coming Day of Judgment of the living and the dead, at which Christ will be the Judge (Acts 17:31, 10:42).15 And, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
- Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, W.F. Howes edition, Leicester, UK, 2006, p. 373 Return to text.
- An axiom is a self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument. Return to text.
- Animals do not sin because they were not created to have a relationship with their Creator, which is a fundamental disconnect between humans and animals. Return to text.
- See Grigg, R., Who was the serpent?, Creation 13:4, 36–38; creation.com/who-was-the-serpent. Return to text.
- Genesis 3:5. The Hebrew word for God used here is Elohim, the same word as is used for God the Creator in Genesis 1. Return to text.
- “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Return to text.
- “Jesus Christ is the full reality of God and the full reality of man in one person, in such a way that his divinity and humanity cannot be divided or separated from one another, but each remain fully what they are without any change or confusion with the other.” Torrance, T., Atonement: The person and Work of Christ, IVP Academic, Illinois, 2009, p. lxxiii. Return to text.
- “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18); cf. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Return to text.
- “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Return to text.
- Note the word “just” in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Return to text.
- The word “atonement” was introduced by William Tyndale (from “at-one-ment”) in his 1526 new Testament translation of the Greek words katallassō (καταλλάσσω) and katalagē (καταλλαγή), rendered “reconcile” and “reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:18–19 (KJV). See Gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/2008/12/william-tyndales-atonement. This is reflected in the Anglican Homily for Good Friday which reads: “Without payment God the Father would never be at one with us.” Return to text.
- “I, even I, am the Lord: and besides me there is no Saviour.” So calling Jesus ‘Saviour’ is logically calling Him YHWH (Yahweh) since YHWH is the only Saviour. No wonder that the great Trinitarian Church Father Athanasius (c. 293–373) noted: “Those who maintain ‘There was a time when the Son was not’ [i.e. was only a created being] rob God of his Word, like plunderers.” Return to text.
- A period during which a law is suspended to allow offenders to admit their crimes without fear of prosecution. Return to text.
- Torrance, T., ref. 7, p. xlix. Return to text.
- “God … commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). “He [Jesus Christ] is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42b). Return to text.