Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation

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

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’. 3

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’. 4

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’. 5 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’.6

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.

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