Dr. Murphy's new scholarly essay, "Human Evolution in Theological Context", can be found here.
Our estrangement from God began when early humans disobeyed God’s will and took a path leading away from God. Genes and culture contribute to a sinful world in which all people are born and nurtured, and our impact on our environment distorts the terrestrial creation.
God’s definitive answer is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. There has not, however, been agreement on how this reconciles us to God. I suggest that we think of Christ’s work as new creation, a reorientation of the trajectory of creation.
The approach of Gerhard Forde1 is helpful here. He focused on what actually brings reconciliation: the event of the cross, not satisfaction of some theoretical requirement. The point is that that God brings about faith in himself, something neglected in other views of atonement.
Sin is basically failure to trust in the true God above all else and (as in Romans 1) relying on idols. God had to correct that in order to reconcile humanity with himself by turning the course of history back to its goal. Idolatrous faith must be destroyed and true faith created.
In scripture that begins with God’s call of Abraham and creation of Israel as his people. People are always tempted to emulate Eve and Adam and wander off, so the prophets urge them to “Return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:13). Finally God himself becomes a participant in our story. Jesus proclaims the nearness of God’s reign and personifies God’s will for healing, peace and justice. He condemns injustice and failure to trust God, but welcomes those estranged from God and their fellows and freely forgives sins.
And we can’t have that! Forgiving sinners freely and welcoming them challenges established religion and morality. Talk about the reign of God implies that Caesar won’t be king. Good news to the poor can be bad news for the rich. The God Jesus represents threatens our interests so, through our representatives Pilate and Caiaphas, we kill him. Jesus is nailed to a cross, a warning to anyone else who might mess with our idols.
Then he comes back and says, “Peace be with you.”
The resurrection vindicates Jesus’ claim to speak for God. He is God’s Word, God himself, and our sin brought death upon our creator. The idols we depended on for life brought death, and in a real sense we die.
But if the God revealed in this event still offers peace, real faith in our creator becomes possible. God and sinners are reconciled. Atonement has been made – for the original meaning of “at-one-ment” is reconciliation.
The work of Christ has sometimes been seen as “moral influence,” the love shown on the cross evoking love for God from us. But morality doesn’t save us. Atonement is fiducial influence because through the cross and resurrection God creates fiducia -- trust -- the essential aspect of faith.
The cross has drawing power (John 12:32), so that Christ is not a mere passive example but an active “influence.” Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, not something we develop ourselves. It is, in Paul’s words, new creation. Sinners don’t immediately become perfect, and continue to struggle with sin. Just as God’s initial creation of the universe is followed by his ongoing creative work, God’s initial work of raising sinners from spiritual death is followed by sanctification as lives are turned back toward God.
This happens when people are confronted with the event of the cross, which happens when Christ is proclaimed. Reorientation of creation takes place in the course of history in and through the Christian community.
According to the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, the cross reconciles “all things” to God. We see the beginning of wider reconciliation in a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden. We can only speculate about extraterrestrial effects of the cross, for scripture says virtually nothing about this. But what has been sketched here does suggest a way to begin thinking about salvation that makes contact with scientific knowledge of the world.
1. Gerhard Forde, “The Work of Christ” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (ed.), Christian Dogmatics, Vol.2 (Fortress,1984).