We are currently running a series featuring different perspectives on how to integrate Christian theology with evolutionary science—particularly in regards to the doctrine of the "atonement." As Jim Stump expressed in the introductory post to the series, we are trying to feature a wide diversity of approaches to evolution and the atonement. Just as Christian tradition reveals a rich dialogue about the meaning of the atonement, BioLogos also wants to foster constructive dialogue about these important matters; especially seen in light of natural revelation. The theological questions stimulated by modern scientific discoveries are complex and difficult, and as we like to say, the Church deserves a robust, diverse debate on how faith and science can together be integrated and understood.
Evolution has shown an extent and depth of natural evil that is shocking for theologians and philosophers alike. It also shows human connectedness to the rest of animal life, and as such raises questions about the origins of sin and scope necessary for atonement. I’ll offer some thoughts on these issues in posts today and tomorrow. Ultimately I’ll claim that the redemption of nature (human and non-human) with its emphasis on resurrection promise makes most sense once we allow the dark side of nature in the first place to cast its shadow on theological discussion. It is here that we understand the full meaning of redemption, what humanity and all creation is saved from, or perhaps more accurately, through.1
Morality and sin in the non-human world?
The evolutionary story as we have come to understand it raises important questions about the scope of atonement and redemption. Some evolutionary biologists argue that human behavioral tendencies that are destructive in contemporary society may have evolved to be advantageous in the past history of human evolution. Such theories amount to a secularized atonement theory—they allow present human beings to project onto far-flung ancestors tendencies that account for and allow us to come to terms with present destruction.
But evidence from evolutionary psychology is largely speculative as to how far and to what extent particular behaviors have clear evolutionary roots or a biological basis in adaptations. I am therefore more cautious than some scholars, such as Frans de Waal, who wants to build a tower of morality with its roots in animal behavior. There may well be connections, but that is hard to prove definitively since humans and our nearest cousins, chimpanzees, split apart in an evolutionary sense between five and seven million years ago!
Even medieval observers like Albertus Magnus recognised that humans were not alone in experiencing basic emotions that were positive and negative, so joy, happiness, fear, anger, grief, jealousy, resentment and embarrassment, as well as, importantly, an ability to show empathy. The extent to which advanced social animals might or might not show a theory of mind is contested; but in as much as they are capable of knowing what they do, then some form of deliberative act is feasible at last to consider. So, with this insight, is there a sense in which dolphins, for example, could ‘sin’ in as much as they fail to realise their flourishing, becoming addicted to destructive behaviour patterns, rejecting their responsibilities as parents and so on? This is certainly not equivalent to human sin, but related to their moral capacity in their own worlds.
Considering the possibility of animal morality is not equivalent to reading into animal behavior vice and ‘beastly’ patterns that humans would wish to shed from their own terms of reference. The distinctiveness of animal social life needs to be stressed, but that does not mean that we exclude the idea of morality from other animals. If we are prepared to widen the definition of what morality is, then other animals can be included, and that means, therefore, that the possibility of immorality is there also. I claim that to the degree we find a morality and immorality (both latent and specific to animals) in non-humans, so the human capacity for sin is embedded in animal behavior, and therefore this behavior also stands in need of redemption.
The depth and extent of suffering in the natural world throughout the history of life on the planet also calls into question traditional theological models of Fall and redemption that are focused entirely on human history. There are various ways through this account. One is to scrap the traditional account of the Fall viewed as a human fall into depravity based on Original Sin, and focus instead on humanity as in some sense unfinished, in need of further development and maturity. The ‘fall’ is then viewed in terms of growth of human potential and self-consciousness.
I suggest, though, that while the idea of a ‘fall upwards’ posits humanity as continuous with the created order, it does not seem to do justice to the radical depth of evil found in human history or deal adequately with the question and extent of what might be termed evolutionary evil. Evolutionary evil includes immorality (latent and non-latent) in social species other than humans, as well as what is commonly called ‘natural evil’, which has more in common with those processes in nature that are perceived as automatic and inevitable consequences of life.
I’m not concerned here with how far and to what extent such moral or immoral capacity emerges in biological continuity with our primate cousins, or whether it is simply the indirect outcome of greater evolved intelligence in humans. The point is that the ‘Fall’ reaches backward into the evolutionary history of the world, as well as pointing forward as a shadow on human history. Yet if, with Paul, we speak of Christ as a second Adam, what does this mean in evolutionary terms? What do we do with non-human creatures that share some capacity for morality, even if the biological or psychological basis for that potentiality is different from that in humans?
The Atonement of All Nature
Different models of atonement deal with ‘sin’ on the assumption that the only recipients of the benefits of the atonement are human subjects. The point here is that there is an unacknowledged disjunction between cosmic models of Christology that stress cosmic redemption, and narrow versions of atonement that confine Christ’s atoning work to human beneficiaries, whether in the broad objective sense, or narrow subjective sense.
In many classic theological accounts of the atonement, there is an uncomfortable undertow that God somehow needs legal satisfaction for sin. The difficulty remains in how to continue to affirm the holiness of God, while avoiding images that seem to present God as vengeful and demanding violence as payment for violence though a particular penal system. Even contemporary scholars who have welcomed an understanding of God as primarily a God of love find difficulties in expressing an adequate portrait of the atonement. For example, in Moltmann’s earlier account of the crucified God he envisages Christ as one who represents the human community in an objective way substituting for human beings, through ‘taking our place.'
The cross of Christ needs to be seen in the first place as the result of human sinful tendencies, and only in the second place as the action of God in making right and reconciling the evils of the world. What elements can be retained, and how might subjective elements of the atonement be married to more objective interpretations that, arguably, are more promising in their potential capacity for extension to non-human creatures? And in what sense can atonement be broadened to include all creatures, not just those with moral capacities?
Of course, we are bedevilled once again by the question of definitions. If we define atonement as at-one-ment with God in the sense that there has been a deliberate turning away from purposes intended by God, then deliberateness implies a sense of freedom, which can only reasonably be found in an exhaustive sense in humans and in a more limited sense in some animals. If we define atonement strictly in terms of ‘sin’, understood as self-conscious turning away from God, then it could only apply to humans. More broadly still, if we define at-one-ment simply in terms of the hoped for freedom from pain and unity with God in heaven, then atonement becomes virtually equivalent to redemption.
There are undoubted difficulties in envisaging atonement if it means satisfaction of the wrath of a vengeful God. This may be one reason why many theologians prefer not to use the language of atonement at all when speaking about the non-human world, but instead rely on the language of redemption. This is certainly a more comfortable position to adopt in many respects: after all, redemption in its breadth of transformation can take up natural as well as moral evil, indeed, all the ills of the world in its scope. It is much easier to avoid the more uncomfortable notion of atonement altogether, and speak simply of the cross of Christ as the means for the redemption of the earth. The question then returns, how and in what sense might the cross be salvific for all creation, and are atonement theories rendered redundant?
Jürgen Moltmann has, especially in his later work, more explicitly widened the scope of Christ’s action on the cross as inclusive of non-human creation. He suggests that: ‘If Christ is the first-born of the dead, then he cannot be merely “the new Adam” of a new humanity. He must also be understood as the firstborn of the whole creation. He is present not only in the human victims of world history, but in victimized nature too.’2
Next, I’ll consider an understanding of the atonement that makes the most sense of these demands.