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 this and my previous post, I am interacting with earlier posts by Joseph Bankard, Celia Deane-Drummond, and George Murphy, in which they raise questions about aspects of atonement theology raised for them by an espousal of evolutionary creationism. My first response dealt with the notion that evolutionary creationism requires a denial of a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall and original sin, requiring significant adjustments to traditional atonement theology. In that post, I sought to show cogent ways of holding to a historical Adam and Eve, a historical Fall, and original sin, within a framework of evolutionary creationism.
I addressed the questions about the Fall and original sin first, for they set the stage for the atonement proper—which is the way God chose to deal with all the results of the Fall. The discussion in this post revolves around the nature and scope of the atonement. The questions raised by Bankard and Murphy on the nature of the atonement arise not so much from scientific factors as from their perspective on a number of biblical and theological issues. Deane-Drummond shares some of their concerns about the nature of the atonement but seems more concerned in her posts to develop a theology of the atonement that deals with the evil and suffering in the non-human world—evil and suffering she sees as highlighted by the evolutionary story, and thus her questions are about the scope of the atonement.
The Nature of the Atonement
Joseph Bankard, to a greater degree, and George Murphy, to a lesser degree, offer a critique of traditional and especially evangelical views of the nature of the atonement, which have emphasized the idea of penal substitution. That is, on the cross Jesus pays the penalty for our sin, as our substitute. Bankard says such a view of the atonement makes God seem “either severely limited in power or unnecessarily cruel.” He cites some who say such a view “makes God look like an abusive father.” Thus he concludes “God did not will the cross.” For him, atonement theology should focus on the incarnation and how Jesus reveals God and inspires us to follow him.
Along similar but slightly different lines, Murphy complains that traditional models of the atonement, such as Anselm’s, do not show how atonement brings about faith. He explains, “what is needed for atonement to take place is elimination of trust in false gods and creation of trust in the true God.” He calls for an understanding of the atonement that shows how it is designed to change us, and calls on us to add a proper emphasis on Easter (the Resurrection) alongside the cross, another thing he sees traditional models of the atonement failing to do.
My first thought upon reading their critiques was that they are joining in an ongoing controversy over the traditional penal-substitutionary model of the atonement. The complaints of Bankard and Murphy are found in fuller form in books like Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, by Mark Baker and Joel Green; they are debated in books like The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement; and they are critiqued in books like Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach. Thus, in responding to the issues raised by Bankard and Murphy, I will be going beyond the topic of questions raised for atonement theology by evolutionary creationism, to questions raised by numerous theologians who think that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is problematic in a number of ways.
To the charge that penal substitution makes God an abusive and cruel father, the simple answer seems to be that Jesus clearly says that going to the cross is his choice. Of his life, he states, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). In biblical teaching, the idea that Jesus on the cross satisfied the wrath of God is seen, not as reflecting cruelty or a lack of power, but as reflecting God’s love: “This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:10).
I think the root problem in the view of Bankard and Murphy is an incomplete idea of what is required for atonement. Bankard asks, “Why is sacrifice the only way God can forgive?” Murphy’s claim that atonement has to do with creating faith in us has the same incompleteness. Both seem to miss the need for God to save us in a way that does not compromise his justice. God had said that the penalty for sin would be death. Some may feel that is far too harsh, but I would submit that making such a judgment is way above my pay grade. After all, sin is against God and wrecked his good world. He is the proper one to pronounce what the just punishment of sin must be.
Sin creates a barrier, both on our side and on God’s side. Atonement is not just about creating faith in us; it is the way that God can pronounce manifestly guilty sinners as “not guilty” without compromising his own holy justice (see Rom. 3:25-26). He deals with the barrier on his side by making just payment for sin; his holy and righteous wrath is satisfied. He can now accept any who come to him in penitent faith.
These are themes unpopular in contemporary culture, but too deeply embedded in biblical teaching to ignore. That is why they have become traditional aspects of an evangelical understanding of the atonement. At the same time, I would agree that penal substitution is not by itself a complete description of the nature of the atonement. There are other aspects found within biblical teaching. I think the atonement does change us; I think it does vanquish our enemies. But when the substitutionary idea is omitted, a difficult question remains unanswered: Why was it necessary for Christ to die? Surely infinite power and love could have found other ways to spark faith in us, and conquer our foes. Isaiah 53:10 says of the suffering servant, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Lest we object that the suffering servant is someone other than Christ, Acts 2:23 confirms that Christ was handed over to his enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” The act of crucifying Christ was done “with the help of wicked men,” but also within the plan of God. This is not the whole of the atonement, but it is a necessary part of atonement.
Once we see the death of Christ as the way that God removes his hostility toward our sin, it does show the greatness of his love and thus should create faith in us. While the so called moral influence theory is not an aspect of the atonement typically championed by Evangelicals, the love Christ shows in dying for sinners is designed to awaken a responding love in us. John says, “We love because he first loved us” (I John 4:19), and the prime example of God’s love for us is sending his Son to die for us (John 3:16). Paul adds, “Christ’s love compels us” (II Cor. 5:14). Murphy and Bankard want to emphasize a model of the atonement that focuses on how it is designed to change us; this is not so much wrong as it is incomplete.
The Scope of the Atonement
Deane-Drummond also sees some “difficulties in envisaging atonement if it means satisfaction of the wrath of a vengeful God,” but her major interest is in the scope of the atonement. Was the atonement made only for the sins of humans, or does it extend in some way to include “sin more generally associated with creaturely being”? Here we are dealing with a question given some consideration by theologians, but connected for Deane-Drummond, with science and evolution. Deane-Drummond says, “The evolutionary story as we have come to understand it raises important questions about the scope of atonement and redemption.” On the one hand, she acknowledges that sin, if seen as “self-conscious turning away from God . . . could only apply to humans.” Yet she is also seeking for a way of understanding the atonement that includes redemption of “all those evils of the evolutionary world and even perhaps inklings of moral ill in some social animals.”
To my thinking, biblical teaching concerning a wider, perhaps even cosmic, scope to the atonement is scant but suggestive. I mentioned in my previous post that the Fall of humanity seems to have been linked to a larger “fall” in the natural order. This is seen in the cursing of the ground in Gen. 3:17 and creation’s hope for liberation one day (Rom. 8:20-21). And while there are different interpretations of this text, some would see Isaiah 11:6-9 as a picture of the final, redeemed state of the created order, with wolf and lamb, and leopard and goat, lying down together; with the lion eating straw like the ox. Isaiah affirms, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).
The other suggestive text for a wider, cosmic scope of the atonement is Col. 1:20, which affirms that the cross of Christ has as its design, the reconciliation to God of “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” The limited length of this post does not allow for a full explanation of all the possible ramifications of this verse, but I can affirm the summary statement offered by Christopher Wright:
Ultimately, all that will be there in the new, redeemed creation will be there because of the cross. And conversely, all that will not be there (suffering, tears, sin, sickness, oppression, corruption, decay and death) will not be there because they will have been defeated and destroyed by the cross.
That is the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s idea of redemption. It is exceedingly good news. Exactly what that will mean for the world and social animals is not spelled out, but I think it does give good reason for hope that Christ’s atonement has power to deal with all evil and all its effects, throughout God’s creation.
To summarize, in my first post I argued that a historical fall is an essential element of biblical teaching and can be understood in ways compatible with evolutionary creationism, for it does not require a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3, and does not demand that humans originated solely with one male-female couple. In this second post, I have argued, first, that our understanding of the nature of the atonement must include the idea of penal substitution. I do not find the objections against it to be persuasive, and find the biblical and theological support for it to be strong. Second, I have argued that there is suggestive evidence in Scripture for a wider scope to the atonement, indeed a cosmic scope, such that what Christ accomplished on the cross has ramifications for all the effects of evil, including those in the natural order.
For a fuller discussion of these issues than the limited length of this post, see the books cited in the paragraph above, which are just a sample of the literature being generated by this debate.
For more on the idea of a cosmic scope to the atonement, see John S. Hammett, “A Multiple-Intentions View of the Atonement,” in Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015).
Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2006), 315; emphasis in original.