William Lane Craig vs. Chris Date (Sort Of): WLC Botches the Atonement in a Question of the Week

Here at Rethinking Hell, we’ve been interacting with relevant comments by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, and trying to enter into dialogue with him, since nearly the beginning of the ministry. In our very first episode of Rethinking Hell Live in 2019, I critique statements made by Craig in several clips. One of our oldest videos on YouTube is Glenn Peoples’s 2013 review of a clip I filmed at an Apologetics Canada conference, in which Craig mangles 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Joey Dear, in a 2020 blog article, debunks the way Craig often leverages the distinction between the Greek words bios and zōē (as I do below). As we’re both prolific debaters, I dream of debating Craig on the nature and duration of hell. I’ve personally reached out to him on several occasions—a half dozen times or so in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019—inviting him to be interviewed, speak at conferences, and engage with us in other ways. Sadly, Craig declined each such invitation and has thus far chosen not to interact with any of our work, let alone me, specifically.

Until now.

Well, sort of.

In a recent installment of his Question of the Week series, Craig published a post answering a question by a supporter named John, who cites my work.1Craig’s answer was shortly thereafter featured at Biola University’s The Good Book Blog, at https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2024/christ-s-passion-and-atonement. “I was listening to Chris Date’s views on conditional immortality,” John writes, “and one point stuck out as particularly difficult as a challenge to the traditional view of hell.” He explains,

[Chris] said that annihilationism, and specially conditional immorality [sic], do a better job at handling the atonement. He pointed out that the fulfillment of the atonement is through Christ’s death, not His suffering. When Jesus paid for our sins, He died. However, for the damned to pay for their sins, the traditionalist view says we must suffer eternally. When coming at the atonement from a perspective of eternal conscious torment, how do you understand the reasoning behind the necessity of Christ’s death as a payment, and why the damned’s payment seems so different from what Christ did?2William Lane Craig, “#882 Christ’s Passion and Atonement,” Reasonable Faith with William Lane Craig [website], April 07, 2024.

Craig goes on in his response to mention me by name, making it the closest anyone is likely to come to seeing a debate between William Lane Craig and Chris Date. Unfortunately—if not unsurprisingly (to conditionalists familiar with Craig’s statements on the topic)—Craig’s response dodges the real question, repeats his debunked distinction between the Greek words bios and zōē, and feeds readers a red herring to distract from the implications of Christ’s death when it comes to the intramural Christian hell debate. I continue to wish Craig would dialogue with me directly, but for now, I’ll take what I can get, debunking his careless response here.

Dodging the Question of Jesus’ Atoning Death

One thing is critically missing from Craig’s response to John: a clear answer to his question. As context for it, John observes that, “When Jesus paid for our sins, he died,” but in the doctrine of eternal torment, the risen lost will never die, instead suffering alive eternally.3If you doubt that the doctrine of eternal torment has always entailed the embodied life and immortality of the risen lost in hell, see Chris Date, “Obfuscating Traditionalism: No Eternal Life in Hell?Rethinking Hell [blog], October 12, 2013. John asks Craig, as someone who believes the risen lost will never die, how he explains “why the damned’s payment”—undying life in torment—seems so different from what Christ did—die for our sins. It’s a great question, and Craig never appears to answer it.

Craig’s response to John can be outlined according to its four paragraphs, as follows:

  1. Spiritual death (loss of zōē), rather than physical death (loss of bios), is the more profound meaning of death as the wages of sin: miserable alienation from God.
  2. On the cross, Christ experienced the equivalent of an eternity of that sense of death—miserable alienation from God—in his brief time on the cross.4If Craig, like traditionalists through history, believes the risen lost will never die, then by offering this explanation he comes dangerously close to heresy, negating the role of Christ’s physical death in the atonement. See Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death, and the Fate of the Wicked,” Rethinking Hell [blog], August 12, 2012.
  3. Christ’s “death”—Craig doesn’t specify whether physical or spiritual—is a vicarious punishment, borne in our place, freeing us from our liability to punishment.
  4. There’s more to Christ’s atoning work than his “death”—again, it’s not clear what Craig means.

I’ll dig into Craig’s first and second points below, but notice first how this response seems to leave John’s question unanswered. In his first paragraph, Craig insists death is most profoundly “separation from God,” which “presupposes that the damned continue to exist”; and in his second paragraph, Craig says Jesus suffered that sense of death, “that sense of abandonment by God.” Then, in his third paragraph, Craig says, “Christ’s death” is “the punishment for sin that we deserve” and Jesus bore it “vicariously,” but Craig doesn’t specify what kind of death he has in mind. Since he’s just affirmed that Jesus suffered spiritual death, Craig presumably means Christ’s spiritual death is what he vicariously bore in our place. But if that’s the case, then Craig never explains why Jesus physically died in our place, when we would have otherwise suffered alive forever in hell, as the risen lost will do. That’s the question John asked.

Craig’s response likewise dodges John’s question if, in his third and fourth paragraphs, Craig has Christ’s physical death in mind. Craig writes that Jesus’s “death is primarily, as I say, the punishment for sin that we deserve. By bearing our punishment vicariously, Christ frees us from our liability to punishment.” If Craig is talking here about Christ’s physical death, every Christian can and should say “Amen!” But historically, believers in eternal torment have insisted that the resurrected lost will be given immortal bodies and will live forever in hell. If that’s what faces those who refuse Christ’s atoning work, then how is his physical death vicarious? To suffer a punishment vicariously is to suffer it in the place of others who merited it, but on the traditional view of eternal torment, the risen lost will never physically die. So, if Craig is talking (at least) about the physical death of Jesus here, then he affirms only that it was vicarious without explaining how—again, the very question John asked.

There is one way to read Craig as sort of answering John’s question, but if it’s what Craig believes, then he has abandoned all historical footing for his view, whatsoever. If he believes the risen lost will physically die in hell, albeit to suffer forever thereafter as disembodied souls, well then he could say Christ’s physical death was vicarious: Jesus died, because those for whom he died would have otherwise died in hell. Craig’s first paragraph contains a hint that perhaps this is what he believes; in hell, he writes, “the damned continue to exist, even if they are not alive.” One problem for Craig (among many), if this is his view, is that every noteworthy Christian in history would disagree.5Joey Dear identifies additional problems with this modern novelty in “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 3),” Rethinking Hell [blog], October 3, 2020. Every such Christian would be either an annihilationist, who believes the souls of the lost will be annihilated in hell (and not only their bodies), or a traditionalist or universalist, who believes the risen lost will never physically die. This parting ways with the whole of the Christian tradition is a high cost to pay for reconciling eternal torment with the substitutionary death of Jesus; Craig would do better to simply embrace conditional immortality.

Trotting Out the Bios vs. Zōē Canard

Either way—whether Craig leaves John’s question unanswered or abandons the entirety of the Christian tradition—he completely misrepresents the distinction he tries to leverage between the Greek words bios and zōē. “Death in the Bible,” Craig writes, “is not merely physical death (loss of biological life or bios) but more profoundly spiritual death (loss of spiritual life or zōē).” He defines the latter as “a state of alienation from God,” enabling him to say Christ bore that kind of death as our substitute, since we would have suffered that kind of death in hell. But this distinction is entirely a figment of Craig’s imagination.

As anyone who spends just a few minutes fact-checking Craig’s claim will see, the Greek word zōē very often refers to ordinary embodied life. In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man clearly lacks spiritual life; he ignores the plight of the impoverished Lazarus in life, and he suffers misery in death. Nevertheless, Abraham tells him, “you in your lifetime [zōē] received your good things” (Luke 16:25; emphasis added), referring to the embodied life of the rich man prior to dying. Later, an Ethiopian eunuch reads Isaiah 53:8 from the Septuagint, which says the Messiah’s “life [zōē] is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:33; emphasis added). This, again, is a simple reference to life as ordinarily understood, the Hebrew original predicting the Messiah would be “cut off out of the land of the living.” And at the Areopagus, Paul says God “gives to all mankind life [zōē] and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25; emphasis added), an affirmation of humankind’s universal dependence on God for (physical) life and being. Indeed, it’s not merely living human beings who have zōē; all breathing animals breathe “the breath of life [zōē]” (Gen 1:30, LXX) breathed by living humans (Gen 2:7, LXX). Craig has no grounds, whatsoever, for the distinction he offers, and thus his whole argument collapses like a house of cards.

If the above examples weren’t enough to debunk Craig’s argument from bios and zōē, it’s also worth observing that scholarly lexicons disagree with him. BDAG, the gold standard in biblical studies, lists as its first definition of zōē, “life in the physical sense.”6BDAG, s.v., “ζωή, ῆς, ἠ.” Louw and Nida define it merely as “life” and acknowledge its use in describing “any living creature, whether animal or human.”7Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (eds.), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, Introduction and Domains, 2nd ed. (United Bible Societies, 1989), 260; 36. Bloomfield defines zōē as, firstly, “physical life or existence.”8S. T. Bloomfield, A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament (London, 1840), 171. Even the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, where one might expect to find a more theologically motivated definition, says of zōē that it “is first used of the natural life of man.”9Rudolf Bultmann, “ζάω, ζωή (βιόω, βίος), ἀναζάω, ζῷον, ζωογονέω, ζωοποιέω,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, 10 vols. (Eerdmans, 1933–79), 2:861. One is hard-pressed to find any scholarly support for Craig’s oft repeated distinction between bios and zōē.10Joey Dear debunks this bios vs. zōē argument in greater length at “A Word About Life: The Zōē vs. Bios Canard,” Rethinking Hell [blog], November 6, 2020.

Of course, what might motivate Craig is obvious: if there’s no reason for thinking zōē means anything relevantly distinct from ordinary embodied life, traditionalists must search (in vain) for some way to reconcile their belief in eternal torment with the biblical promise of “eternal life [zōē]” to the saved alone. Daniel and Jesus, speaking of resurrected humanity, warn that only “some,” “the righteous,” will rise to “everlasting life [zōē]” (Dan 12:2, LXX; Matt 25:46). Comparing himself to Moses’ bronze statue that literally saved the lives of snake-bitten Israelites (Num 21:9; cf. John 3:14–15), Jesus says it is “whoever believes in him” who will receive “eternal life [zōē]” (John 3:16). If there were any doubt as to his meaning, he later says Israel’s patriarchs “ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died,” but the one who comes to Jesus will “not die” (John 6:49–50; emphasis added). The meaning of these and countless other texts is clear: the risen saved will thereafter never die, while the risen lost will die a second time—contrary to the doctrine of eternal torment.

Feeding Readers a Red Herring: What’s Relevant in the Atonement

Finally, Craig distracts readers from the matter at hand with a red herring. Seizing on John’s formulation of my argument as being that “the fulfillment of the atonement is through Christ’s death, not His suffering,” Craig rightly identifies this as “too narrow an understanding of the doctrine of atonement.”11My argument hinges on the substitutionary work of Jesus on the cross, specifically, and not the entirety of what might be considered his atoning work. Moreover, it identifies his death as that in which his substitutionary work primarily consists, without precluding that his agony played a role. For a fuller and more accurate understanding of my argument from the atonement, see Christopher M. Date, “The Righteous for the Unrighteous: Conditional Immortality and the Substitutionary Death of Jesus,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 18 (2016–2017): 69–92. However, what’s relevant in this debate is specifically how Christ substituted for those who embrace him, bearing the consequences of sin in their place.

Rightly likening the atoning work of Jesus to a multi-faceted jewel whose central facet is his role as substitute, Craig highlights its life-changing moral influence as one example of other important aspects of the atonement, but these have nothing whatsoever to do with the hell debate. Neither traditionalists nor annihilationists argue that other aspects of the atonement, besides his substitutionary work on the cross, illuminate a proper understanding of what awaits the lost in hell. Rather, the atonement’s relevance to the hell debate is limited to how Christ bore the consequences of sin as a substitute for sinners. Traditionalist Robert Peterson writes, “The cross sheds light on the fate of the wicked, because on the cross the sinless Son of God suffered that fate.”12Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (P&R, 1995), 216. He puts it in more punitive terms with co-traditionalist Christopher Morgan: “all sin will ultimately be punished either via Christ the substitute or by the sinner in hell.”13Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, “Conclusion,” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 239. Conditionalists agree. As Edward Fudge writes, “The death that Jesus died was the death required by the sinner’s sin. It was the death we all would have died, had Jesus not come as our representative, to live and to die in our name and in our stead.”14Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2014), 170. Sin has dire consequences, all parties agree, and either Jesus bears those consequences on the cross as the sinner’s substitute, or the sinner bears them himself. This, Jesus’ bearing the consequence of sin as substitute, is what is relevant to the hell debate, for it should tell us what that consequence is. Whatever else we might glean from the atonement has nothing to do with what is coming in hell to those who reject it.

Craig could agree and argue that the consequence of sin, borne by Jesus on the cross, is primarily torturous alienation from God, but the Bible instead emphasizes his death. It says Christ came “to give his life as a ransom for sinners” (Matt 20:28; cf. Mark 10:45); that he “has died for all” (2 Cor 5:14); that the “Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11); and that the greatest act of love is “that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Paul tells the Romans, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The author of Hebrews says Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9). If there were any doubt that these and countless other texts have the physical death of Jesus in mind (death as ordinarily understood), Peter says Christ brings us close to God “being put to death in the flesh” (1 Pet 3:18; emphasis added), and the author of Hebrews says “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10; emphasis added). It is Christ’s death that ransoms us; the Shepherd’s greatest act of love for his sheep was to die in our place; it was his death that prompted his being crowned with glory and honor; it is his death that brings us close to God and sanctifies us. Therefore, it was primarily in his death, not primarily his agony, that he bore what was coming to us in our place as the consequence of sin.

Craig is such an able defender of the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection, that his ministry can only be enhanced if he would cease taking the focus off Christ’s death when it comes to atonement. We deserved to die, so Jesus died in our place, that we may instead live. This much is true and clear, whatever else we might rightly say about the atonement. But if the ultimate consequence of sin is death, and if the risen lost have not embraced Christ’s vicarious suffering of that consequence in place of sinners, then they must bear that consequence themselves. The risen lost will indeed literally die a second time in hell, not live there forever, embodied and immortal.

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References
1 Craig’s answer was shortly thereafter featured at Biola University’s The Good Book Blog, at https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2024/christ-s-passion-and-atonement.
2 William Lane Craig, “#882 Christ’s Passion and Atonement,” Reasonable Faith with William Lane Craig [website], April 07, 2024.
3 If you doubt that the doctrine of eternal torment has always entailed the embodied life and immortality of the risen lost in hell, see Chris Date, “Obfuscating Traditionalism: No Eternal Life in Hell?Rethinking Hell [blog], October 12, 2013.
4 If Craig, like traditionalists through history, believes the risen lost will never die, then by offering this explanation he comes dangerously close to heresy, negating the role of Christ’s physical death in the atonement. See Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death, and the Fate of the Wicked,” Rethinking Hell [blog], August 12, 2012.
5 Joey Dear identifies additional problems with this modern novelty in “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 3),” Rethinking Hell [blog], October 3, 2020.
6 BDAG, s.v., “ζωή, ῆς, ἠ.”
7 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (eds.), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, Introduction and Domains, 2nd ed. (United Bible Societies, 1989), 260; 36.
8 S. T. Bloomfield, A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament (London, 1840), 171.
9 Rudolf Bultmann, “ζάω, ζωή (βιόω, βίος), ἀναζάω, ζῷον, ζωογονέω, ζωοποιέω,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, 10 vols. (Eerdmans, 1933–79), 2:861.
10 Joey Dear debunks this bios vs. zōē argument in greater length at “A Word About Life: The Zōē vs. Bios Canard,” Rethinking Hell [blog], November 6, 2020.
11 My argument hinges on the substitutionary work of Jesus on the cross, specifically, and not the entirety of what might be considered his atoning work. Moreover, it identifies his death as that in which his substitutionary work primarily consists, without precluding that his agony played a role. For a fuller and more accurate understanding of my argument from the atonement, see Christopher M. Date, “The Righteous for the Unrighteous: Conditional Immortality and the Substitutionary Death of Jesus,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 18 (2016–2017): 69–92.
12 Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (P&R, 1995), 216.
13 Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, “Conclusion,” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 239.
14 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2014), 170.