Tomorrow Adrian wrote (! – yes, I am responding to a post dated tomorrow, and we are in the same time zone)
Justification is no mere legal fiction, for when God declares something to be the case, He also causes it to become the case.
For once the point I want to make in response to Adrian is not really to do with the atonement, although there is a link. For Adrian’s assertion here raises serious philosophical issues. I am not thinking of the superficial breach of causality involved in me responding now to something apparently written in the future, although sentences like “Tomorrow Adrian wrote …” are of great interest to grammarians. The real issue is, when God declares us to be justified, that is, not to have sinned, does he change history?
So, when we are declared as not being sinners, does God cause it to become the case that our sinful acts have not actually happened? Well, certainly not in a simplistic way. If someone murders another person and then becomes a Christian, the victim doesn’t suddenly come back to life. So it is hard to claim that God not only counts as not having sinned but actually causes us to be people who have not sinned. The only way to rescue this teaching is to claim that God somehow makes Jesus into a murderer, guilty of the murder because in the rewritten history he actually did it – or, more generally, that God changes the past so that the sins which we seemed to have committed were in fact done by Jesus with our hands.
There are of course severe philosophical problems here, which are only partly lessened if the understanding is that there is no change in outward physical events, but only in how they were caused and who is responsible for them. For a start, there can only be no physical consequences at all if this change of responsibility takes place in some metaphysical realm entirely separate from the physical brain, which begs a lot of complex questions about the relationship between the human brain, mind and soul.
But there is also an issue of whether it is actually a meaningful thing to say that something in the past has changed. I think most philosophers would hold that an event is an event in a timeless and absolute sense and cannot be changed – at least after it has happened. It is another question whether in some sense it exists unchangeably even before it has happened. From the scientific perspective of relativity theory this would also be true of events, which are at a fixed point in space-time and cannot change with space or time.
In a recent comment at A Brick in the Valley, Jeremy Pierce wrote that there are many things which God cannot do because they are logically impossible. I would suggest that changing the past, so that we did not commit our past sins but Jesus did, is one of those things which even God cannot do. So, Adrian, try again!