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Libertarian Free Will and the Atonement

Here’s a worry. The claim that “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3) is something on which virtually all Christians agree. Many think this claim is at the heart of the Christian faith. Suppose you think that Jesus died for your particular sins, which seems to be a fairly popular pre-theoretical view. Then, we might wonder how we can avoid (in a strong, libertarian sense) doing those specific sins. If we cannot, then it would seem that (one aspect of) the atonement rules out our having libertarian free will. Of course, this wouldn’t deal a knockout blow to the conjunction of Christianity and libertarian free will. It would mean, however, that Christians who affirm libertarian free will could not affirm that Jesus died for our particular sins. But, not only does it seem possible that Jesus did indeed die for our particular sins (and holding to libertarian free will would commit you to its necessary falsehood (in saying this I am assuming some modal moves that I don’t spell out here)), rejecting such a notion means rejecting what I take to be a fairly common and wide-spread belief, one which many Christians who hold to libertarian free will have also held. This would be, if not ad hoc, at least a previously unnoticed cost of “free will theism.” Let me flesh this out a bit.

1. Preliminaries

The view that Christ died for our specific sins is an interesting question; namely, because while it is (I say) a fairly popular, pre-reflective commitment on the part of not only the Christian in the pew, but Christian scholars too, it is not a view that (really) is directly discussed by the Church’s theologians. This in itself points up a lacuna that may be interesting to explore in more detail, but that is going to be beyond the scope of this post. From now on I will refer to the view that Christ died for our particular sins uninterestingly as, the view.

At present, I will merely provide a few of the reasons that might be taken to offer prima facie support for the view. One such reason might be the fact that many ordinary Christians hold the view. For example, we might go up to a random Christian and ask them to pick one sin they’ve done, and then ask, “Did Christ die for that sin?”. I think a sizable portion would answer, “Yes.” That the view is fairly widespread among the laity is merely a hunch I have, I have not conducted any formal survey. However, I did consult a handful of respected theologians and philosophers, each of them agreed that the view was widely held by the laity. More than that, though, more than half reported that they, pre-reflectively, also held to the view. Of those who don’t hold to the view, a percentage suggested that they could hold to the view. Only two specifically told me that they didn’t and couldn’t hold to the view.

Another reason is that the view seems at least to be tacitly affirmed by many respected theologians. For example, it is not uncommon to read (philosophical-) theologians say things like “Christ died for our sins.” The fact that they say sins (plural) is significant for motivating the claim that, at least tacitly, they are affirming the view. For example, I. Howard Marshall writes, “we are saved from our sins solely by grace through faith on the grounds that God sent his Son to die in our place and for our sins.” Or take John Owen, who wrote “That our sins were transferred unto Christ and made his, that thereon he underwent the punishment that was due unto us for them” (Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Kindle Locations 3691-3693)). Or, as A. A. Hodge put it, “the sin of one is laid upon or borne by another” (Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 408).

We might wonder if our claim that, prima facie, sophisticated theologians held to the view can only be found in the writings of those theologians who hold to penal substitution, for that is what Marshall, Owen, and Hodge hold (held) to. Consider Aquinas’ satisfaction theory. In his commentary on John, Aquinas writes, “Or takes away, i.e., he takes upon himself the sins of the whole world, as is said, ‘He bore our sins in his own body’ (1 Pt 2:24); ‘It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured,’ as we read in Isaiah (53:4).” Next, consider John McLeod Campbell’s non-penal substitutionary view. On this view, Christ offers up perfect repentance for our sins. Campbell describes Christ’s confession thus: “Without the assumption of an imputation of guilt, and in perfect harmony with the unbroken consciousness of personal separation from our sins, the Son of God, bearing us and our sins on His heart before the Father, must needs respond to the Father’s judgment on our sins, with that confession of their evil and of the righteousness of the wrath of God against them, and holy sorrow because of them. . .” (Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, p. 139).

These theologians merely repeated what they found in Scripture. I turn there next. Scripture also offers prima facie support for the view when it speaks of atonement for sins (plural), and not “sin” in some abstract sense. We might here think of the Levitical sacrifices, Isaiah 53, John 1:29, I Corinthians 15:3, Galatians 3:13, Hebrews (passim), and 1 Peter 2:24 & 3:18, etc. I will briefly elaborate on one of these. The connection between Christ’s atonement and the Old Testament sacrifices are well known. I am thinking here specifically of the Day of Atonement and the scapegoat. In Leviticus 16:21-22 we read,

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

The second goat—the sin offering—also appears to be connected to specific sins, just as with the scapegoat,

15 Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.

In fact, the sins cleansed on the Day of Atonement were those, which had been confessed, repented of, and forgiven prior to that day. So, the view is not a view pulled from thin air and lacking amy support. I’ve offered a prima facie case for both its wide acceptance and theological orthodoxy.

Finally, let me say what I am not doing. I am not assuming any particular theory of the atonement. As shown above, we found evidence that prima facie supports the view among a wide range of atonement theories. The argument given below will, I say, go through whether we think Christ was punished for our specific sins, whether he suffered for our particular sins, whether he made satisfaction for our specific sins, whether he offered perfect repentance for our specific sins, etc. Moreover, I am not claiming that Christ’s dying for our specific sins is all there is to the doctrine of the atonement, or even the most central or profound feature of the doctrine of the atonement. I am also not claiming that only one “metaphor” or “picture” captures the doctrine of the atonement. It may be that many of the extant theories capture some deep perspective of the atonement. In fact, what I have called the view may be the smallest and most insignificant feature of the atonement, for the purposes of the argument that follows. Hence, I aim to be fairly ecumenical in what follows.

2. The Argument

Let me state the argument simply. I will pick an arbitrary person, Cuthbert, and an arbitrary sin, Cuthbert spits in Mathilda’s milk (out of spite). This should generalize to all persons and all sins, at least post-crucifixion. When I say “Christ dies for sin S,” I mean, in part, “Christ was punished for, suffered for, made satisfaction for, perfectly repented for, etc., S.” Let three moments of time be ordered such that t1 < t2 < t3.

1. Necessarily, if Christ dies at t1 for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk at t3, then Cuthbert will spit in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

2. At t2, it is now-unpreventable that Christ died at t1 for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

3. At t2, it is now-unpreventable that Cuthbert will spit in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

Since I chose Cuthbert and his sin arbitrarily, we can conclude that all of every (post-crucifixion) person’s sins are unpreventable; that is, unavoidable. Clearly, this result is troubling for the vast majority of libertarian free will theories.

It should be clear that this argument mirrors arguments for the incompatibility of (libertarian) free will and foreknowledge. It makes uses of a transfer principle, the notion of accidental necessity, and it concludes that Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk is not a (libertarian) free act (on the assumption that a libertarian free or morally responsible action requires that the agent whose action it is be able to avoid doing that action. Those libertarians who deny that this is a general condition but rather one that applies to what we call non-derivatively free or responsible actions are invited to view Cuthbert’s action as a non-derivatively free/responsible one.)

Nonetheless, this argument has some obvious merits not shared with foreknowledge arguments. For example, advocates of Boethianism deny the truth of the premise that says, “If God infallibly believes p at t, then p,” by responding that God is timeless, and thus doesn’t know truths at times. This move is unavailable when the above argument from Christ’s death is considered. Another merit is that some people respond to foreknowledge arguments by claiming that God’s beliefs are soft facts about the past, and thus we don’t hold his beliefs “fixed” when considering what the agent does from world to world. However, while it may be hard to swallow that God’s beliefs are not hard facts about the past, it seems very hard to claim that Jesus’ suffering on the cross is anything but a hard fact about the past. I realize that I am bypassing a discussion about hard and soft facts, but my point here is merely that the crucial move of placing God’s past beliefs in the category of soft facts is otiose for purposes of responding to this argument.

2.1 The Argument Made Within An Atonement Theory

I’m going to flesh this argument out a bit more and respond to some objections. I will do this within the context of a theory of the atonement, specifically, the penal substitution (PSA) view. As I indicated above, I believe the argument can be run on many models of the atonement, but using the PSA model will be beneficial for at least two reasons: (1) the PSA is still a very popular view of the atonement and (2) it is perhaps the easiest way to draw out the salient points of the broader argument.

On the PSA model, we will say that Christ was punished on the cross for our specific sins. Jacob Arminius held to the PSA. I’ll go with some of his statements on Christ’s death. In his sacrifice, Arminius explains, Christ “pa[id] the price of redemption for our sins by suffering the punishment due to them” (Oration IV, “The Priesthood of Christ,” 1.419). This was because God, in his love for us, required of Christ “that he should pay the price of redemption for the sins and the captivity of the human race” (Oration IV, “On the Priesthood of Christ,” 1.46). And in Public Disputation 14, “On the Offices of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Arminius says, “All these blessings really flow from the sacerdotal functions of Christ; because he hath offered to God the true price of redemption for us, by which He has satisfied Divine justice, and interposed himself between us and the Father, who was justly angry on account of our sins.” Based on these brief quotes, we have prima facie justification for the claim that Arminius held to the view.

At this point, I will restate the argument given in §2 according to its PSA instance,

Let three moments of time be ordered such that t1 < t2 < t3, then

1′. Necessarily, if Christ is punished at t1 for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk at t3, then Cuthbert will spit in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

2′. At t2, it is now-unpreventable that Christ was punished at t1 for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

3′. At t2, it is now-unpreventable that Cuthbert will spit in Mathilda’s milk at t3.

This punishment includes whippings, nails in hands, the actual loss of many temporal goods, screaming in agony, being put on a cross, etc. When you see “Jesus was punished,” think of all of this (and obviously more).

How might Arminius respond? Timelessness is out. Well, here’s one answer:1

Whereas Jesus was punished at t1 for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk at t3, and Cuthbert at t3 has no choice about that, he does have a choice about something, namely, whether Christ’s punishment was just or not. Now, of course, in a sense Christ’s punishment was not just. But I mean it in the sense that God the father punished (or allowed to be punished) Christ for a specific sin that no one committed. I take it that this is necessarily false. So this answer is out.

A second answer is this: Cuthbert could make it so that whatever Christ was doing, it wasn’t a punishment. So, Christ was whipped, beaten, spat on, mocked, hung on a cross, etc., and none of this was a punishment. This seems absurd. One might hold to it if one thinks that innocent people can’t be punished, whatever else is done to them. But that seems patently false, for we know that people have been punished for crimes they didn’t commit.

A third answer is that Cuthbert can make it that Christ was never punished in the sense that he wasn’t whipped, spat on, put on a cross, etc. Now, there’s some difficulty because Christ didn’t just die for Cuthbert. To make the point easier to get, let’s assume that Cuthbert is the only human and his only sin is eating an apple at t3. This answer seems implausible. How can Cuthbert at t3 have any choice at t3, about whether Christ was whipped, spat on, put on a cross, etc., at t1? (Who did these things to Christ? There’s only Cuthbert. Well, indulge me for the sake of the argument. Maybe it was robots created ex nihilo.) Those things seem now totally beyond his control. Such is as hard and settled a fact about the past as anything.

Another objection, not in the same vein as the above, is that it might be responded that Christ died for specific sin types, not tokens. So, he doesn’t die for Cuthbert’s spitting in Mathilda’s milk, he dies for something like, say, not loving his neighbor. But, Cuthbert didn’t love his neighbor at t3. So, to say that Cuthbert could do something otherwise than spit in Mathilda’s milk at t3, but whatever Cuthbert does it must be a token of the type “not loving your neighbor at t3,” then this is the conclusion of classic fatalism.

3. Conclusion

I’ve argued that from the popular and widespread view that Christ dies for the specific sins we have committed, we can get a conclusion hostile to libertarian free will. Indeed, the view has Arminian unfriendly results. For example, consider this sin: “Finally and completely rejecting God.” If Christ died for that, and the above argument is correct, then by dying for this sinner Christ seals his fate, as it were. I then made a specific application of the argument where we assumed PSA. We saw that Arminius held to PSA and plausibly the view too. I would wager that many Arminians currently hold to a similar conjunction. This throws a kink into the works. For Arminians have gone to great pains to show that Arminianism is consistent with popular evangelical views on the atonement. But I’ve argued that certain popular evangelical views on the atonement are at odds with key tenets of Arminianism, most notably, libertarian free will. Moreover, my argument goes through absent PSA. For, say, repenting-at-t is just as hard a fact about the past at times prior to t as is being-punished-at-t.

Now, I do not think this argument delivers a knock-out blow to Arminianism (and other libertarian free will Christian theisms). They can, for example, hold to views of the atonement previously considered evangelically gauche. They can also drop what I have claimed is the popular and widely held view that Christ died for our specific sins. This is an interesting theological discussion in itself. Aside from Arminians needing to jettison a view they previously thought was perfectly compatible with their having libertarian free will, they exegetical case for the view is underdetermined. It does have some solid prima facie justification, in terms of theological pedigree and biblical support. At this stage, the Calvinist position is comfortable with the truth or falsity of the view. Arminianism requires that the view be false. But it may not be. When I spoke to a philosophical theologian about how many Arminians hold to the view, and whether he thinks it’s true, he said in one sense the question is uninteresting, since if Christ died for all men and all their sins, then he died for all men’s sins. At the very least, I hope to have shown that it is an interesting questions Arminian need to address.


1 Here I’m indebted to Patrick Todd’s “Prepunishment and Explanatory Dependence: A New Argument for Incompatibilism About Foreknowledge and Freedom,” The Philosophical Review 122(4) (October 2013): 619 – 639. In fact, Todd’s argument is the inspiration for my entire argument from the atonement, though Todd’s paper doesn’t touch on the atonement.


  1. Surely an Arminian positively should not hold to the view, on pain of universalism? For if they do not believe that Jesus paid only for the sins of the elect, but for the sins of “the world” (as they construe that term), then it follows that every sin ever is paid for — in which case God has no grounds for condemning anyone. This seems to lead logically to everyone being saved, although I suppose you could take a quasi-Wallsian approach and say that while no one is condemned, those not believing in God do not wish to be saved and so are separated from God anyway in a situation that is not actually hell per se (since no judgment is being exacted) but is certainly not heaven either.

    Indeed, I don’t see how this statement doesn’t generate an obvious problem:

    the view has Arminian unfriendly results. For example, consider this sin: “Finally and completely rejecting God.” If Christ died for that, and the above argument is correct, then by dying for this sinner Christ seals his fate, as it were.

    Yet by dying for this sinner Christ paid the penalty of finally and completely rejecting God, and thus “unseals” his fate at the same time! Although he inevitably rejects God finally and completely, God cannot condemn him for doing so since the very action which necessitated this rejection is the same one which paid the penalty for it.

    It seems like the obvious way out is for the Arminian to simply deny “the view”. The fact that Arminius seems to have held to it surely doesn’t require a modern Arminian do so in order to be orthodox? Any more than Calvin not seeming to have held to an Owenic view of limited atonement requires a modern Calvinist to reject that Owenic view in order to be orthodox.

    Btw, although I’m not an Arminian, you can count me among those who positively reject “the view” :) Explication here:

  2. Paul says:

    Well, some of the Arminians I’ve read think they can avoid that charge of universalism, for while Christ did indeed die for everyone’s specific sins, that’s not enough to get one into heaven. One must take advantage of it, or, it must be “subjectively appropriated.” Olson tells this story of our government pardoning people for a specific crime:

    Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries. The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled. Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again. The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed. Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it. Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).

    Now, I’m not taking a stand on whether this response really works. For my purposes, I’m allowing them that it does.

    Also, Shedd advances something like this, and I believe 4-pointers claim him as their own, so I don’t know why a 4-pointer couldn’t, in principle, agree with me.

    I assumed you would reject the view, this just means that (a) my position is logically weaker than yours and so easier to defend and (b) it’s one more argument against LFW and Arminianism that I can you and you can’t. :) I do think, though, a version of the argument could go through even for you. For example, if Jesus believed this: “I am being punished (or whatever term you like) for Bnnon’s spitting in Susie’s milk,” then it could go through. This doesn’t entail that your sin is “imputed” to him, or whatever. So I’m not sure you completely reject the view in all its various permutations.

    And, yes, as I mentioned, the easy way out is to deny the view. But, as I also mentioned, many Arminians—especially some sophisticated philosophical-theologians I surveyed—hold to it and, for those who don’t, they didn’t think it was a problem if they did hold it. I think this points to *costs* for them. If the view isn’t true, that doesn’t affect me; if it is (and it very well may be, for it’d be very hard to argue that it’s an impossible reading of the text), they’re in trouble.

  3. Speaking for myself, if I were an Arminian I should strongly reject Olson’s analogy, since it cuts out at the crucial point. If Carter had:

    1. Declared the penalty for evading the draft to be 10 lashes;
    2. Chosen a willing volunteer to receive 10xn lashes, where n = the number of draft evaders;
    3. Declared that the punishment for draft evasion had been fully paid for every single draft evader;
    4. Then obliged every draft exile to return to America and be tried;
    5. Then punished every exile who refused to accept the substitutionary punishment…

    …that would seem to fix the analogy — with the cost of showing Carter to be unjust, being both a liar, and someone who exacts punishment twice for one crime.

    (b) it’s one more argument against LFW and Arminianism that I can you and you can’t. :)

    True enough. I guess my concern, and in a sense it is silly, is that this argument will simply drive Arminians to become more consistent Arminians, rather than becoming Calvinists ;)

    For example, if Jesus believed this: “I am being punished (or whatever term you like) for Bnnon’s spitting in Susie’s milk,” then it could go through.

    Tentatively agreed. The issue here is, was Jesus the man omniscient and did he hold this kind of proposition in his mind on the cross for every sin of every person?

  4. Paul says:

    Well, I think you’re assuming a certain view of hell many of them will reject. Carter simply lets them stay in Canada. The “doors of Canada are locked from the inside.” :) They can leave any time they wish.

    My argument doesn’t even presuppose that Christ was punished for our sins, it’s compatible with many atonement views.

    On the final point, I suppose it doesn’t even need to be that. If Jesus were in fact punished (or whatever) for your spitting in Susie’s milk, then it goes through. This does not entail any “imputation.” I can’t see why a 4-pointer must object to this.

  5. Well, I’m willing to let Arminians define hell as they please, of course, but I was of the impression that they held to the biblically orthodox view that hell is a place of positive punishment, not merely self-imposed alienation from God. God actively separating the sheep from the goats and sending them into the river of fire, treating the winepress of his fury, and all those other metaphors, seem to lack anything to glom onto under such an anemic view of hell.

    On the final point, I wonder if the statement that “Jesus was punished for spitting in Susie’s milk” is not confusing because although it is colloquially correct, it is technically false. On a “4-point” view (I dislike the term but let’s use it since we know what it means), to say that Jesus is punished for Susie’s spitting is a sort of shorthand for saying that:

    1. Susie’s spitting accrued guilt to her
    2. Jesus is punished for Susie’s guilt

    I’m not sure whether you can still get accidental necessity out of that. Perhaps you can.

  6. Paul says:

    Jesus wasn’t punished for spitting in Susie’s milk. :) He was punished for Bnnon’s spitting in Susie’s milk.

    Take 2. So, Jesus is punished for Bnnon’s guilt for spitting in Susie’s milk.

    That means, in ≈ 30 A.D. Jesus underwent things like whipping, being spit on, hanging on a cross, having a spear stuck in his side.

    After this occurs, it’s accidentally necessary or, as I’ll prefer, a “hard fact about the past.”

    Consider it this way:

    In 2015 you will sit. This is immoral for some reason. God decides to prepunish you in 2014 for sitting in 2015. So he locks you up in jail. You miss work, are distressed, get in a fight in the yard, eat bland food, etc. These are now hard facts. If this happened to you, how could you avoid sitting in 2015? (I covered some of the answers in the post.) The though is basically the same, but instead of punishing you, God prepunishes Jesus. I cited a paper at the bottom the spells out many of the assumptions I left buried the post.

  7. The problem I see is that under my view there is a distinction between these two facts:

    1. In ≈30 AD Jesus paid the penalty for my guilt
    2. In ≈30 AD Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt

    On my view, the former is strictly false, but the latter is true. To illustrate, I need to expand them a bit:

    1* In ≈30 AD Jesus was treated as if he were me and punished for my guilt
    2* In ≈30 AD Jesus was treated as if he were a sinner and punished for being guilty

    The former is false on my view; the latter is true. Jesus’s guilt wasn’t indexed to any particular sin; he was simply treated as if he were a sinner, in the sense that the Father exacted the punishment of sin upon him (death). And because Jesus federally represents humanity, any guilty human can claim that substitutionary punishment for himself by faith. So, since I am a guilty human, I can colloquially talk about Jesus “taking on my guilt” or “paying for my sins”, but it is a metaphorical way of speaking. It is not true in the literal sense of the words, but rather in the sense that, by faith, I have had both Jesus’s punishment and righteousness imputed to me.

    But this did not happen in ≈30 AD; it happened in 2004 :)

  8. Paul says:

    Yeah, if you generalize it that way, I don’t think the argument works. But I’m going to think about broadening the application more. I think that how you put it is false, though, and at the moment I appeal prima facie readings of the various texts, esp. the Levitical sacrifices. While your “latters” may be true, I don’t think they account for the entire range of expressions applied to what Christ died for. On the face, “he died for our sins” (plural) or “bore our iniquities and transgressions” doesn’t seem to be fully captured by “he died for human guilt” (singular). However, as I say, I am not affected by how it turns out, the Arminian is, and the Arminian has often told us he can accept the view.

  9. […] Here’s a great post on Libertarian Free Will and the Atonement. […]

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February 2014


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