An argument one sometimes comes across for the idea that Jesus, a man, is somehow also actually God as well is this:
Only God can atone for sins; ergo Jesus, who atoned for sins, must, in addition to being a man, also be God.
I do not find this argument compelling for a number of reasons.
The main reason I do not find this argument compelling is due to what philosophers call background knowledge. In this case, my background knowledge primarily amounts to all the reasons I have for thinking that Jesus is a man, and only a man. Those reasons are many and strong. They include most basically,
1. It seems to me literally non-sensical (i.e. it makes no sense) to say that a man is also God, or God is also a man. This makes no sense to me, and I don’t think it makes sense to anyone else either. Those who believe Jesus is a man as well as God may think it makes sense to them, but that does not mean it really does. If Jesus is a man, then he can’t be God. If he is God, then he can’t be a man. Just as if “Buddy” is a dog, then he can’t be a cat; or if Buddy is a cat, then he can’t be a dog. What could be more obvious?
2. Both reason and revelation point to God being one and to the being to whom Jesus referred to as Father as being God. But if God is one, and the being to whom Jesus referred to as Father is God, then Jesus can’t be God. Put differently, both reason and revelation point to monotheism being true and to the being to whom Jesus referred to as Father as being the one God. But the idea that Jesus is God, and the being to whom Jesus referred to as Father is God, seems obviously to contradict this. It amounts to a bi-theism where there are two Gods: Jesus and the being to whom he referred to as Father. Add the Holy Spirit as another one who is God, but is not the Father to whom Jesus referred to as God and is not Jesus (who is also allegedly God), and that’s tri-theism. In short, all my reasons for thinking monotheism are true, and that the being to whom Jesus referred to as Father is God, are reasons for thinking Jesus is not God.
3. It seems obvious to me from the writings of the New Testament (despite the usually un-critically-examined assumptions of trinitarian Christians with respect to the meaning of these writings) that Jesus did not believe or teach he was God, and it seems obvious to me as well from these writings that his earliest followers, including those whom Jesus authorized to speak for him, namely, his apostles, did not believe or teach that Jesus is God. But if Jesus were God, then surely both he and his earliest followers would have believed and taught this.
4. Finally, it seems most implausible to me that the doctrine that Jesus is God would have come about the way it came about if Jesus really were God. This point goes hand in hand with the last. If Jesus were God, then this would surely be something that God would wish for human beings to know, since it would be such an important truth about God. And God, I believe, had already gone to great lengths to clearly reveal the most important truths about himself (in his revelations to the Jews). So why would God have not gone through the same lengths to clearly reveal that Jesus is God? In short, if Jesus were God, then surely God would have revealed that so clearly that no one privy to the revelation (either directly or indirectly through records of it) could doubt that this was the content of the revelation. But when even those who believe Jesus is God cannot agree on a single text of recorded revelation as revealing that Jesus is God (i.e. on a single text of scripture), which they can’t, then clearly it is not the case that God has clearly revealed that Jesus is God.
Another element of background knowledge that impinges on my assessment of the argument at hand is my belief that most likely sin against God has been atoned for (really atoned for, not just symbolically or typologically) by persons and things other than Jesus. I am not as confident about this as I am that Jesus is not God (for basically the reasons given above), but despite the beliefs of most Christians, based largely on the arguments of the Book of Hebrews (which I do not take as revelation from God or even as written by an apostle of Jesus), I think it is at least more likely than not that the sacrifices and other acts (like Phinehas’s act; see Number 25:13) said in the Old Testament to have atoned for sins against God did really atone for sins. But if this is true, then clearly it is not true that only God can atone for sins, unless one is prepared to argue that the lambs and bulls were God, that Phinehas was God, etc. - something, of course, that no one is prepared to argue.
So this is the first, and main reason, I do not find compelling the argument at hand: my background knowledge strongly militates against it. In fact, it decisively militates against it. That is to say, my background knowledge constitutes reason enough for me to know that the argument in question is not sound. I simply have too many reasons for thinking Jesus is not God for the argument in question to be compelling. Moreover, it seems more likely than not to me that atonement for sin against God has been made by animals and human beings other than Jesus-animals and human beings that obviously are not God.
But even bracketing out this background knowledge, I still do not find the argument at hand compelling. The reason is that I do not find the premise, “Only God can atone for sins”, compelling. What reasons are there for thinking this premise is true? Merely asserting it is true: “Only God can atone for sins. Fact”, is just an argument from assertion. But just asserting something is the case does not make it so. Perhaps one could argue that it is intuitively the case that only God can atone for sins. But I don’t find this intuitive, and frankly, I do not see why anyone would have an intuition that only God can atone for sins.
So, again, why think only God can atone for sins? One argument for this premise I recently heard (indirectly) is that if God does not atone for sins, or more precisely, if God did not die on the cross in atonement for sins but instead let/had someone else do so (Jesus), then God is a “coward”. But I don’t see how that is the case. Why is God a coward if he did not die on the cross in atonement for sins? The only way this could even possibly be true (and I stress, possibly) is if God could die, but God cannot die. In other words, if God could die, then perhaps it would be cowardly of God not to die to atone for sins and instead let/have someone else - Jesus - do so. Perhaps this would be true, but I still don’t think so. But it seems to me a moot point altogether, since God cannot die. We can’t question God for not doing something he cannot do, in other words. And it should be pointed out that the premise that God cannot die is not idiosyncratic to me. Rather, virtually all theologians agree God cannot die. In fact, according even to “orthodox” trinitarianism, God the Son did not die on the cross when Jesus died, which means that if it were the case that God is a coward if he did not die on the cross for sins but let/had someone else - Jesus - do so, then even on orthodox trinitarianism God would be a coward. In other words, this is an argument that even orthodox trinitarians should avoid.
What about this argument for the premise: “Only God can atone for sins”:
Sin against God is an infinite debt because committed against God who is a being of infinite value.
Therefore an atonement for this infinite debt must be of infinite value.
The only thing of infinite value is God.
Therefore, if Jesus atoned for sin, he must, in addition to being a man, somehow actually be God as well.
This argument has an air of sophistication to it, but is it a good argument for the premise: “Only God can atone for sins”? I do not think so. It seems to me to be an example of arguing for a dubious premise (“Only God can atone for sins”) with another dubious premise (sin against God is an infinite debt because committed against God who is a being of infinite value). I do not see any good reason for thinking that because God is of infinite value, therefore sin against him incurs an infinite debt. The only thing that could incur an infinite debt, it seems to me, would be a sin of infinite duration. But the sins atoned for by Jesus are not sins of infinite duration. They are sins of quite finite duration, no longer any of them than the span of several years.
So I do not see any good reason for thinking the premise is true that only God can atone for sins. This, in addition to all my reasons for thinking Jesus is not God, as well as my reasons for thinking it more likely than not that atonement for sin against God has been made by animals and human beings other than Jesus-animals and human beings that obviously are not God-is why I do not find compelling the argument we have been examining (Only God can atone for sins; ergo Jesus, who atoned for sins, must, in addition to being a man, also be God).
There is one more thing I might point out about this argument in concluding this post, namely, that this is not an argument one finds in any of the writings that comprise the Bible, whether the Eastern Orthodox Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Protestant Bible, or the Bibles of other Christian bodies, like the Church of the East or the Ethiopian Church. In other words, the argument we have been examining is a piece of philosophy, or philosophical theology. It is not an argument that has been revealed by God. I point this out for the sake of my Evangelical readers who pride themselves on the central place that revelation, and more specifically, the (Protestant) Bible, which they regard as, cover to cover, even word for word, revelation, plays in their thinking about God and Jesus.