Atonement and the Death of Christ – Book Review

by Editor-in-Chief Michael Brooks

The book reviews that I publish are intended to be concise, helpful, and to-the-point. They are divided into three sections: why I read this book, synopsis and structure, agreements/positives, disagreements/negatives, and reasons to read at the end.

Why I Read the Book

I had learned about this book months before it was released and was very excited to read it. I respect William Lane Craig immensely as a Christian thinker and apologist. When I heard that he was going to write the book I was interested. But, I then read that he would not simply detail the biblical material and the historical development of the doctrine of the atonement– but more than that–defend it’s coherence, rationality, and the justness of it. I then became very excited for this book. This particular focus (on the coherence and justice of the atonement) has been desperately needed for the Church and under-addressed in even top-notch theological works on the atonement.

Synopsis and Structure

The book is divided into three major sections. The first is the Biblical material regarding the atonement. This is the section that most resembles a traditional exegetical and theological study of the atonement. He describes the atonement as a multi-faceted jewel where many metaphors and theological ideas are connected to the idea of Jesus’ atonement in Scripture. The second section is a historical overview of how the doctrine developed. The final section is the philosophical defense of the atonement. At the end of the book there is a chapter on the moral influence of the atonement as well. He mixes in how christus victor theories work best with penal substitution. In this way he covers most major understandings of the atonement (even works Governmental into it) and sees value in all as long as penal substitution is at the center.

Dr. Craig describes the ideas of sacrifice and substitution (more specifically representative substitution) as the table of the Jewel. It forms the defining feature that binds together the whole Jewel. Building on that, he sees the doctrine of penal substitution as necessary to any biblical formulation of the atonement. One aspect I appreciated was that he defines penal substitution in a careful but generous way. He does this by defining it in such a way that those that believe: Jesus took on the suffering that was due us because of our sin and those that believe that Jesus took on the punishment/penalty for our sins are both included under the umbrella of penal substitution. I think this is appropriate, careful, charitable, and biblical. From there he traces it historically and defends it philosophically.

Agreements and Positives

This book had too many positives for me to list all of them here but I will highlight just a few. As an endorsement, I found his technical but concise (about 260 pages) work an effective and powerful work on the atonement which should be read by all aspiring teachers and learners of God’s word. I do not believe any student should read a book on the atonement without first reading this work. It forms an incredible foundation for further study of the atonement. Now, to the specifics.

Firstly, his exegetical analysis struck an incredible balance between sufficient detail and technicality to argue his position and a concise nature which made him readable in spite of his technicality. He is very clear in his argumentation and explained well from the Biblical text his conclusions without becoming laborious to read. This section was better than I thought it would be.

Second, his biblical defense of penal substitution was extremely effective and universal. By universal, I mean that he did not simply give one or two responses to a particular challenge to the doctrine. He went at length to show the many varied responses a person could use in dealing with a challenge depending on the theological heritage and commitments you came from. Beyond being so ecumenical, this also gives believers such confidence in the doctrine because of the many layers of defense to the doctrine. No single challenge would be sufficient to tear this doctrine down. It encouraged my faith deeply!

Thirdly, his robust work in the law and legal philosophy gave readers a great introduction to philosophical law as it applies to the doctrine of the atonement. He provides a robust understanding of how the biblical doctrine of the atonement is not a foreign concept or anywhere near unjust even according to our own legal standards. Importantly, he is quick to say that a theology of atonement is not built on human standards of justice, only that the significant parallels that do exist help answer the challenge that we do not see what the Bible teaches anywhere in our own legal system. Another good point that Craig makes is that human systems are constantly adjusting and built to deal with human fallibility. Thus creating systems of justice that may not be entirely satisfactory to us. The Lord is not hindered by such weaknesses which explain a few of the differences between human justice and divine justice.

Fourthly, his conclusions at the end of each chapter are short and immensely helpful. This may seem like a small thing but so helpful when wading through such deep waters. These were especially helpful in the legal and philosophical sections.

These four areas of strength (and more that could not be mentioned) make this book an incredibly important work in the theological explanation and defense of the atonement. I cannot overstate how important and beneficial this work will be. I learned numerous things form this work and I am incredibly thankful for this work. It deeply encouraged me in my walk with Christ.

Disagreements and Negatives

There was very little to complain about in the book but one minor thing did jump out. There were times that Craig became a little round-about in his dealings with certain challenges in the law/philosophical section of the book. He was concise at almost every turn and effective in his communication in almost every way. But, there were a few spots in the last section that I felt could have been better organized or more effectively communicated. This did not ruin the final section, as it was by far the most unique and helpful part of the book, but it did make it a little harder to follow.

This negative is rather minor and is only true in a few spots in the third section but is worth mentioning. Along with that there were times he quoted legal decisions longer than what felt necessary. This seemed out-of-step with the pattern of the book to that point. But, to be fair, he was also defending the doctrine from legal challenges in regards to justice which required some tricky explanation. This meant that he had to dive deeply into this line of argumentation and led to some lengthy explanations. Overall, this was generally understandable and only made certain chapters a little longer than they needed to be.

Reasons to Read

After reading this review I am sure it is obvious why I think you should read this book. This book concisely summarizes the biblical data and creates a thoroughly robust Evangelical doctrine of the atonement centered around (but not limited to) penal substation. He developed well the historical data and even sheds new light on the Church Fathers. Finally, Craig fills a much-needed hole for the Church. He defends the doctrine of the atonement which is at the heart of the issues of the justice of God.

The book is concise and technical, but not overbearing. It is readable and yet challenging. Craig’s accomplishment is superb and should be required reading in every Bible College and Seminary.

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