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. Yesterday and today, 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.
My previous post centered on several critiques aimed at substitutionary atonement. To review briefly, substitutionary atonement argues that humans are sinful and God is Holy. Because of sin, God cannot be in right relationship with humanity or creation. As a solution, Jesus plays the role of mediator between humanity and God. Jesus becomes the perfect sacrifice for human sin. His blood covers our iniquities and because of his death, humans can be forgiven.
The focal point of the substitutionary view is the cross of Christ. We are forgiven and saved through Jesus’ blood and sacrifice. In what follows, I will argue that emphasizing Jesus’ death is the wrong way to approach the atonement. Instead, I suggest that any discussion concerning Christian atonement would be better served focusing on the incarnation.
Why the incarnation? What is the reason for the incarnation? Why does God choose to take on flesh and bone and live with the people of Palestine and Galilee? What is the significance of God choosing to become human? The substitutionary view often argues that the primary reason for the incarnation is the cross. That is, God becomes human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth with the sole purpose of dying for humanity's sin. I argue that this view of the incarnation is somewhat limited. Jesus doesn’t become human to die. Jesus takes on flesh and bone to show us how to really live, how to be fully human. In what follows, I will focus on two reasons for the incarnation and subsequent atonement: Revelation and Inspiration. It is important to note that these do not represent an exhaustive list. There is much more to the incarnation and atonement than can be written here. But I do believe that revelation and inspiration get to the heart of the Gospel message of hope, transformation, and salvation.
God is revealed in many ways. Scripture, the sacraments, creation, and human love represent some of the most common things associated with God’s revelation. But nothing reveals the nature and character of God more fully or more clearly than the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”(John 14:8-11) Anyone who has seen Jesus has also seen God. How wonderful! If we want to know what God is like, all we need to do is look at the person of Jesus. In this way, the incarnation gives humanity its clearest glimpse of the Divine. Now, when there are disputes about God’s character, God’s nature, or God’s love, we can look to Jesus to provide clarity.
What is more, Jesus also reveals the true nature of humanity. That is, Christ shows us what it means to be fully human. Scripture suggests that in the end, God’s kingdom will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven. Christ’s birth represents the inauguration of this kingdom. The incarnation begins God’s reign on earth that will come to final fruition when Christ returns. As Christians, we are called to live as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom in a world that opposes it. Thus, we live in anticipation of the day when Christ returns and God’s kingdom is established in full. In the meantime, Jesus shows us what kingdom living really looks like. Unfortunately, this kind of kingdom living often creates enemies of those who live according to the logic of the world. In many respects, this is why Jesus finds himself hanging on the cross.
In the life of Jesus, we see the way of our salvation. Earlier in John, Jesus responds to Thomas saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 4:6-7) God sees humanity lost, isolated, and desperate. But God does not leave humanity to languish in sin and sorrow. Instead, God chooses to become human, to become mortal, to become flesh and bone. God chooses to be present to humanity in a new and powerful way, a way that requires God to become vulnerable, broken, and isolated. But this love, this presence, this compassion is the way of Christ. It can be seen throughout Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus shows us the way, but revelation is not enough. We are also called to imitate Christ, to follow his way of living and loving, to participate in the abundant life. Believing and following the way of Christ is the heart of atonement. But no one can imitate Christ on one’s own. Hard work and willpower are not enough. Fortunately, through God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we are inspired and equipped to actually live the way of Christ. This is the method and the means of our salvation. In this way, salvation is not something that happens when I die. Salvation is something I participate in today, right now. As I pursue the way of Christ, I am saved from the selfish, lazy, prideful person I was without Christ. And this isn’t done alone. We do this in community as the church. The more the church imitates Christ, the more we image God to the world. In this way, the church participates in God’s redemptive work that will only come to fruition when Christ returns. But to choose the way of Christ is to choose the way of love, service, and suffering. The same love that took Christ to the cross should lead us to work and to sacrifice for the redemption and salvation of the world.
How does the view I’ve sketched differ from substitutionary atonement? First, the incarnation is not primarily about the cross. God does not send Jesus to die. God does not require Jesus’ death in order to forgive humanity’s sin. As a result, God is not motivated by retribution or righteous anger. Instead, the incarnation is motivated by love. God wanted humanity to know him in a new and robust way. God wanted to be present to humanity in the midst of its sin and isolation. God desires right relationship. As a demonstration of God’s immense love and compassion, God takes on flesh and bone. He becomes a vulnerable child relying on humans for his every need. He learns what it is to hunger and thirst. He experiences torture, humiliation, and isolation on the cross. In the end, Jesus experiences death. And in so doing, Christ connects to humanity in a new and powerful way. His compassion both shows us the way of our salvation (revelation) and inspires us to follow after him.
I argue that God did not will the cross. An angry crowd, a prideful group of the religious elite, and a cowardly Roman prefect, put a perfectly innocent man to death. They willed the cross. And I believe this act is an example of sin. But God is holy, loving, and just. Thus, God cannot will or condone sin. Instead, I argue that the incarnation is about life, revelation, and inspiration—not death. I believe that God knew Jesus would be killed. That’s what happens when the kingdom of God collides with the kingdom of this world. But Christ’s death was not part of God’s divine plan. It was the tragic result of human sin. But as horrific as the cross was, God’s love extends beyond and redeems it. In spite of the anger, hatred, and violence displayed during the crucifixion, Jesus still calls out for God to forgive the crowd. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) God’s love is greater than human sin. And the redemption promised in the coming Kingdom of God is revealed most clearly in the resurrection that occurs three days later. What sin and violence destroyed, God’s love redeemed. This is a vision of the eschaton; it is a vision of our atonement. God promises to absorb violence and death and replace it with reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. This revelation, this vision, is the reason for the incarnation. It is the power behind the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And it is the method and the means of our atonement and ultimate salvation.
This view of the atonement is important for several reasons. First, it doesn’t require, though would be compatible with, a historical Adam and Eve and a traditional view of original sin. The substitutionary view argues that Jesus’ death redeems the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the garden. To adopt this view, one must read Genesis 1-3 more literally. At times, this kind of biblical hermeneutic may run counter to evolutionary theory. The view sketched above does not require a historical Adam and Eve or a traditional concept of original sin, making it more compatible with evolution. Additionally, my view of atonement argues that Christ’s death was not part of God’s plan. This helps preserve God’s power (God can forgive in many ways, he doesn’t require blood) and God’s goodness (God doesn’t will the cross).