This post is part of a series of perspectives on how to understand the atoning work of Christ in light of evolutionary science. Readers are encouraged to browse the series introduction by Jim Stump for an explanation of how BioLogos approaches these sorts of issues. Today and tomorrow, we feature the thoughts of theologian Joseph Bankard. We want to encourage our readers to approach his ideas with an open mind, and even if you disagree with him, we hope it stimulates you to think more deeply about how to integrate science and Scripture in a faithful way. Next Monday, we will publish a different perspective on this difficult topic.
Growing up in a Christian home, I never questioned the validity of Substitutionary Atonement. I was raised to believe that humans were sinful and God was Holy. Because of sin, God could not be in right relationship with creation. As a solution, Jesus played the role of mediator between humanity and God. Jesus served as a perfect sacrifice for human sin. His blood covers our iniquities, and because of his death, humans can be forgiven.
As a young adult, this view made sense to me. I knew I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. It seemed reasonable that God would use Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for human sin. But over time, I began to question the logical and moral merits of such a view. I can still remember the first time I began to question this interpretation of the cross. I was in a Good Friday service surrounded by Christians celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus. Far from the solemn tone of a Catholic mass or tenebrae service, this worship experience was filled with upbeat music, raised hands, and prayers of thanksgiving. At this moment, I began to ask several questions. Was Jesus’ humiliation and torture really something to celebrate? Shouldn’t we be mourning the death of Jesus instead? Wasn’t the crucifixion of Jesus an example of selfishness and sin by those responsible for his death? If Jesus’ execution was an example of sin, then how could God will it?
These questions still haunt me. They’ve caused me to reevaluate the meaning and significance of the cross and of Christian atonement. They’ve led me to study and discuss these issues with Christians I trust and respect. In what follows, I will attempt to outline some of my thoughts on Christian Atonement. I don’t claim to have all the answers. What you will read below is nothing more than the theological journey I’ve taken over the past few years. The issues covered are sufficiently complex. Because of this, I hope the Christian church can learn to embrace those who accept substitutionary atonement as well as those who interpret the cross differently.
To begin, I will briefly sketch a generic version of Substitutionary Atonement. Of key importance are the nature of God, the cause of humanity’s separation from God, and the role of the cross.
God created the world and humanity in a state of perfection (Garden of Eden).
God was in right relationship with creation.
Adam and Eve freely and willfully disobeyed God. As a result, sin entered the world.
Because of the original sin, the world is fallen. Every descendent of the original couple will now inherit a sinful nature.
God is a Holy God. God cannot relate to sin. Because of humanity’s sinful nature, God is no longer in right relationship with humanity.
God is just. Thus, sin must be punished.
God is also love. Therefore, God does not want to punish humanity, but desires right relationship instead.
In order to punish humanity’s sin, God sends Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin once and for all. Jesus takes our place on the cross. In this way, Jesus functions as a substitute for humanity.
Now that sin has been punished, humanity can be forgiven. The chasm between humanity and God has been bridged. We can now be in right relationship with God (salvation).
Some Potential Problems
From my perspective, Substitutionary Atonement creates two potential problems for Christian theology. It seems that if substitutionary atonement is true, then God is either severely limited in power or unnecessarily cruel. If the only way God can forgive or reconcile is through blood and sacrifice, then God’s power is limited. Why is sacrifice the only way God can forgive? If God is all powerful, then there should be a number of ways to reestablish right relationship with humanity. If God can’t forgive without blood and sacrifice, then God is limited in power.
On the other hand, if God can forgive humanity in many ways and simply chooses to use blood as God’s means of forgiveness, then God seems unnecessarily cruel. Why would God will the torture, humiliation, and death of his son, if there were other ways to redeem humanity? One could even argue, as Gregory Love does in his book Love, Violence, and the Cross, that substitutionary atonement makes God look like an abusive father. This raises an important question. Does substitutionary atonement give an accurate portrayal of the God of Scripture, and the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ? I would argue that it does not. And such a view appears to box God into a corner. If God can’t forgive without blood, then God is severely limited in power. On the other hand, if God can forgive in many ways, then Jesus’ death on the cross looks unnecessarily cruel.
Furthermore, I would argue that Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of human sin. How else should we label the execution of an innocent man? This is problematic because substitutionary atonement argues that God willed the death of Jesus as part of a divine plan to reconcile humanity and the world. If the crucifixion of Jesus was sinful and God willed this death, then God willed sin. This contradicts a God whose nature is holy, loving, and just.
My second critique comes from the world of science. In my estimation, substitutionary atonement does not fit well with the theory of evolution. Similar to my experience with substitutionary atonement, I didn’t start questioning the accuracy of a literal six-day creation until I was a young adult. I remember being deeply troubled by the divergent creation stories found in Genesis 1 and 2. In chapter 1 the first humans are created after the sun, moon, stars, earth, animals, and vegetation; but in chapter 2 Adam is created before vegetation. Which order of creation is true? Furthermore, did the word “day” really refer to a literal 24-hour time period? How could there be a day before the sun was created? More troubling questions arose concerning Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel he travels to the land of Nod, but where on earth did all the people in Nod come from? Questions like these led me away from a literal historical interpretation of the early Genesis narratives.
However, if macroevolution is true and humans are the result of billions of years of natural selection, then several important theological questions emerge. First, what happens to the doctrine of the Fall of humanity in light of evolution? If evolution is true, then the universe is very old, humans evolved from primates, and the historical accuracy (but not the truth) of the Genesis narratives is called into question. Because of this, many who support a version of theistic evolution argue for a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3. In this view, the Fall is not a historical event. But now the questions really start to mount. Substitutionary atonement argues that Jesus was crucified in order to restore humanity’s relationship with God. Sin created a divide between God and creation. Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to bridge this gap. However, if denying the historical Fall calls into question the doctrine of original sin, then it also calls into question the role of the cross of Christ within substitutionary atonement. If Jesus didn’t die in order to overcome humanity’s original sin, then why did Jesus die? What is Jesus, the second Adam, attempting to restore with the cross, if not the sin of the first Adam? Substitutionary atonement sees original sin as a major reason for Christ’s death. But macroevolution calls the Fall and the doctrine of original sin into question. Thus, evolution poses a significant challenge to substitutionary atonement.
These critiques levied against the substitution view are not intended to be the final word on the atonement. They merely represent the major reasons for my own transition away from substitutionary atonement. In what follows, I intend to sketch an alternative view of the cross; one that preserves God’s goodness and God’s justice. A view that identifies the crucifixion of Jesus as sinful, and thus, in opposition to the will of God. A theory more compatible with the best evolutionary science.
 I use the term Substitutionary Atonement, but many use the term Penal Substitution instead. I think of these terms as interchangeable with one another.
 There are many nuanced views regarding Substitutionary Atonement. My goal is to sketch a version that identifies the core tenets held in common by most of these perspectives.
 Gregory Anderson Love, Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ (Cascade Books: 2010), chapter 1.
 It is possible to endorse macroevolution and support the existence of a literal Adam and Eve. In this view, evolution was responsible for producing the first two humans. Once large frontal lobes evolved, these first humans would have heightened autonomy, moral awareness, an ability to connect to the divine in deep ways, and so forth. These first humans used their newfound autonomy to rebel against God. While this view is a definite possibility, I don’t see much strong evidence from evolutionary biology or from literature written by experts who exegete Genesis to support this view.