Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2)

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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.

In yesterday’s post I discussed the difficulties of finding a way of expressing the atonement that both deals adequately with the need for reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humanity, as well as the need to redeem all those ills characteristic of the evolutionary world and even perhaps inklings of moral ill in some social animals. Moreover, how can God be thought of as holy, exercising justice, while refraining from dualistic approaches that seem to pitch evil against God, even in the work on the cross? Are such dualistic tendencies in evidence in Luther’s portrait of the cross as some kind of ‘mighty duel’ with human sin, death and hell, through which Christ ends up as victor in the struggle?

Hans urs von Balthasar takes up the Reformed tradition as represented in the work of the Lutheran Gustaf Aulen in order to develop his portrait of Christ’s dramatic struggle at the heart of atonement. I find this a promising approach, though there are still difficulties with the way Balthasar conceives the event of the cross.

Aulen recognised that the idea of an alien evil in the world is harder to accept today, but even if accepted, God cannot defeat such an evil by an external power. Instead, God’s opposition must be carried out from within, rather than outside, world history. Yet such opposition should not be thought of in dualistic ways, rather, ‘even hostile powers must finally serve his all embracing design for the world’, so that we can think of this as an inner conflict between wrath and love in God, where love is always deeper than wrath. The significance of Aulen for Balthasar is that he believes that the conflict between God and evil needs to be expressed in such a way that it is neither monistic, nor dualistic, but dramatic. For Balthasar, this ‘dramatic’ dimension is key, so that in ‘Christ, God personally steps onto the stage, to engage in “close combat” and vanquish powers that enslave man’. [1]

In the fourth volume of Theo-Drama Balthasar’s discussion of the atonement comes out most clearly. Here he finds the struggle on the cross that Luther speaks about formulated in paradoxical ways. But he finds the absoluteness of Luther’s concept of ‘exchange’ troubling, for sola fides is not consistent with the idea of Christ as effecting an objective exchange with sinful humanity, and seems more like a human achievement. He is particularly critical of Luther’s ‘union of opposites’ as that which ‘affects his entire theology’. Balthasar says there is a struggle between opposites even within God, so that on the cross grace is embroiled with sin, and sin imbibed with grace.

For Balthasar the illogical nature of the notion of ‘exchange’ comes to the surface, since the act of faith is not synchronous with Christ’s act, and the only synchronous event is objective change in status for humanity. Luther’s ‘first righteousness’ won through faith only finds its expression through opposites. Hence, grace only appears in wrath, heaven is only reached by going through hell, and so on. Luther’s so called ‘second righteousness’ is that which follows the call of the believer to holiness in response to the ongoing sin found in the world.

Yet there is a tension here that Balthasar does not really fully address. For on the one hand if the cross is the initiative of God, then it implies a God who is vindictive, and Balthasar has been criticised for portraying God in such terms. On the other hand if the cross is an outcome of human sin, it implies human initiative. In this respect it is perhaps more reasonable to suggest that more anthropological interpretations represent a genuine interpretation.

The most significant aspect of Balthasar’s dramatic theory of the atonement is that not only does it attempt to reclaim the importance of consideration of the holiness of God, it also seeks to give due weight to human responsiveness, or as I might suggest, creaturely responsiveness in kinship with other creatures.

The importance of this crucifixion scene in the drama for Balthasar is essential, for him, ‘God’s entire world drama hinges on this scene. This is the theo-drama into which the world and God have their ultimate input; here absolute freedom enters into created freedom, interacts with created freedom and acts as created freedom’. [2]

Balthasar develops a view of the immanent Trinity that allows an eternal, absolute self-surrender that in turn explains God’s self giving to the world as love, without suggesting that God somehow needed either the world process or the cross in order to become God. He suggests, therefore, that the Trinity exists in self-surrender in the generation of the Son in an initial kenosis within the Godhead that underpins all other kenosis. Balthasar therefore rejects the idea that God suffers in the manner of creaturely suffering, but also recognises that God grounds the possibility of that suffering, and ‘something happens in God that not only justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world but also justifies God’s sharing in the latter, in which he goes to the length of vicariously taking on man’s God-lessness’. [3] While he recognises that this means ‘to walk on a knife edge’, his concept of suffering that is in solidarity without identity is, I believe, convincing – at least to some extent. Of course, Jesus, in his God-humanity, is also one who would share fully in human suffering to the extent that we may be able to say rather more as to what that solidarity with suffering implies. 

In the crucifixion, Christ carries the load of the world’s No to God, that is, an existential acceptance by Christ, rather than being imposed from the outside, so that there is ‘an inner appropriation of what is ungodly and hostile to God, and identification with that darkness of alienation from God into which the sinner falls as a result of his No’.[4]

Yet it is also equally possible to extend the existential burden that Christ understood as including not just human sin in isolation, but also the cumulative and negative weight of evils of evolved creaturely being as such. Without such extension the death of Christ becomes expressed just in terms of human weakness and human reconciliation with God. While the latter should not be minimised, I am arguing here for a more thoroughgoing compass to the scope of the atoning work of Christ, such that it takes up and includes the voice of all creaturely Nos, including and especially that of humankind.

Concluding remarks

The evolution of sin presents serious challenges to those who want to restrict considerations of the atoning work of the cross to human activities in isolation from human evolutionary history. While I am critical of the narratives employed by evolutionary psychologists, this does not mean that human persons are to be viewed simply as detached cultural units, sheared from their grounding in natural history. Rather, the implication is the opposite. Tendencies found in the human world are also characteristic of social animals more generally. Further, once we view animals as having in some sense moral agency, then theories of atonement need to be widened and stretched to include creaturely ills. How far atonement also encompasses evolutionary ills that arise out of the processes of natural selection is a matter for some debate, though I suggest that objective as well as subjective accounts of the atonement need to be held together.

Moreover, in as much as the future hope is one that includes freedom of the non-human world from these ills, then it is also appropriate to consider that the significance of Christ’s cross and resurrection also extends in a mysterious way to include such evolutionary suffering. The qualifications associated with distinctions between moral and amoral suffering, and moral and natural evils, alongside what I have termed communal anthropogenic sin mediated through natural impacts, such as environmental harms, need to be born in mind in making the case for the atoning significance of the cross. Drawing on ethological studies, the distinctions commonly set up between humans and higher primates are artificial in their construal of human uniqueness. I am not advocating a theory of no distinction; rather, humanity is perhaps best thought of as unique in its extent of various capacities, so that the depth of sin and betrayal possible in the human community far exceeds that in the non-human world.

We are left with a discussion of which theories of atonement, if any, are useful in such an analysis. In as much as theories of the atonement have either tried to lay the blame for casting the burden of evils onto Christ by a wrathful God or by accidents of human history, they have failed to convince. Avoiding the issue entirely by speaking simply of Christ’s redemption without reconciliation is also not a convincing strategy, as it seems to leave intact the underlying problem associated with combining the justice and holiness of God with God’s love. Drawing particularly on Balthasar, in dialogue with other Lutheran theories, I have argued for the primacy of love in any considerations of the atonement, especially that which relates to the self-giving of the inner kenotic movement of the Trinity, rather than kenosis as understood in a primary sense as that between Creator and creation. I have also extended Balthasar’s theo-drama in the life of Christ as one who chose to take on the sins of the world, by suggesting that this choice also embraced not just the negativity of human sin, but also sin more generally associated with creaturely being.




Deane-Drummond, Celia. "Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2)"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 30 Jun. 2015. Web. 21 January 2019.


Deane-Drummond, C. (2015, June 30). Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2)
Retrieved January 21, 2019, from /blogs/archive/evolution-atonement-and-the-redemption-of-all-creation-part-2

References & Credits

  1. Hans urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Volume 2, tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 161.. See B. Quash, Theology and the Drama of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 156-7.
  2. Balthasar, TD4, 318.
  3. Balthasar, TD4, 324.
  4. Balthasar, TD4, 334-5.

About the Author

Celia Deane-Drummond

Celia Deane-Drummond is currently full Professor in Theology at the University of Notre Dame, IN, USA and Director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing ratified in 2015. She holds a masters degree in natural science, a doctorate in plant physiology (Reading), an honors degree in theology and a second doctorate in systematic theology (Manchester). Her research interests are in the engagement of theology and natural science, including specifically evolution, ecology, animal behavior and anthropology. She was Professor in Theology and the Biosciences at the University of Chester from 2000-2011 and Director of the Center for Religion and the Biosciences. She has published over thirty papers in internationally recognized scientific journals and over twenty books, either edited or as sole author. She is joint editor of Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences. Recent books include Wonder and Wisdom (DLT, 2006); Genetics and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2006); Future Perfect, ed. with Peter Scott (Continuum, 2006, 2010), Ecotheology (DLT, 2008), Christ and Evolution (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), Creaturely Theology ed. with David Clough (SCM Press, 2009) Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere, ed. with Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (Continuum, 2011), Animals as Religious Subjects, ed. with Rebecca Artinian Kaiser and David Clough (T & T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2013), The Wisdom of the Liminal (Eerdmans, 2014); ReImaging the Divine Image (Pandora Press, 2014); Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred, ed. with Bronislaw Szerszynski and Sigurd Bergmann (Ashgate, 2015).

More posts by Celia Deane-Drummond