Still Thinking about the Atonement

Over the last several weeks we sponsored reflections by several theologians on the atonement.  I found Joseph Bankard’s questions about forgiveness to be provocative.  Celia Deane-Drummond’s reflection on natural evil and the necessary expansion of the scope of atonement to animals was illuminating.  And I was particularly struck by George Murphy’s explanation of how “sin is not, first of all, doing bad things but failure to trust in God”; any theory of atonement, then, must show how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection make it possible for us to trust in God.  I appreciated John Hammett’s work to situate the substitutionary theory of the atonement within these confines, and it got me thinking more about the substitution view.  I’ll work back to that eventually. 

One of the most common criticisms of evolutionary science that we hear at BioLogos actually has nothing to do with science.  Many of our critics claim that if Christians accept evolution, then they have to get rid of Adam and Eve, and if they do that there is no original sin, and if there’s no original sin then there is no point in Christ dying on the cross — one point slides right to the next.  One way to respond to this is with the joke, “Once you accept one slippery slope argument, you have to accept them all!”  Jokes aside, labeling something a “slippery slope” doesn’t demonstrate that it really is one.  But of course we need to acknowledge the real concerns expressed in this argument.

There is no question that there are serious Christian thinkers who dig in their heels and stop at each of the points on the purported slope: some accept evolution but affirm a historical Adam and Eve; some reject a historical Adam and Eve but affirm the doctrine of original sin; and some reject the doctrine of original sin but don’t think that means Christ’s death is unnecessary.  Others, though, argue that logic requires each point to follow from the next, citing biblical texts in support, in a slippery continuous slope. I’d suggest, however, that their theological convictions are not driven primarily by straight exegesis of the text, but by the positions they bring to the text, resulting in elaborations of Scripture.  That doesn’t mean that such theological positions are wrong, merely that those positions are not necessitated by the text itself.  That is to say, there may be other ways of interpreting Scripture without doing disservice to it.  And too often interpretations are taken to be the substance of Scripture itself. 

For example, Young Earth Creationists claim evolution is invalidated because there could not have been any death before the Fall.  They appeal to Romans 5:12 which says that death entered the world because of sin, and they take that to mean (here’s the elaboration) that no animals could have died before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden.  Of course the Bible doesn’t say it like that, and I’d even point out that it seems more consistent with the passage to see Paul referring to humanity alone in that passage.  But the YEC interpretation of that verse has become the lens through which many people read other passages and ultimately through which they view the natural world.

Another of those lenses is the substitutionary theory of the atonement, which seems to be the dominant view among more conservative Christians today.  I’d suggest this interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement plays a crucial role as the “grease” in the slippery slope argument I gave.  Many people seem to feel that Adam and Eve, original sin, and Christ’s death are linked together by the theological claim that Christ’s death is necessary to appease God’s wrath against us for the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve.  However, I claimed in my introduction to the series that there has not been just one accepted theory of the atonement through church history.  The substitutionary view was developed primarily by Anselm in the eleventh century.  The church operated for 1000 years without this particular doctrine that is now thought to be so crucial!  Of course its late development doesn’t make it wrong—the church survived a few centuries without a doctrine of the Trinity, which most take as a test of orthodoxy—but it should at least cause us to question whether it is essential.  It may be that there are other ways of reading Scripture faithfully.

Despite my misgivings, I confess that, like Hammett, I do see substitution reflected in Scripture.  The Jewish culture in which Christianity was born was saturated with the necessity of sacrifice, and it seems obvious to me that Christ would be seen as the ultimate sacrifice in that environment.  And though substitution may be assumed in the slippery slope argument, I don’t think the science of evolution causes any particular problem for this view.

But I also see other images of atonement (Hammett acknowledges this too). That makes me wonder whether these aren’t meant to be literal descriptions but rather suggestive metaphors.  Previously at BioLogos, James K.A. Smith said that we find in Scripture multiple word pictures or metaphors for the atonement because “it is a mysterious work of grace that we cannot possibly probe… The multiple theories or models of the atonement are not different views on whether the cross accomplishes the forgiveness of sins but how.”  It’s as though the biblical writers were trying to come to grips with the unexpected event of Christ’s death and fit it into the broader narrative of God’s saving his people.  One would say (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), “here’s a way we might think about this” and another would offer a different way of thinking about it.  This multiplicity of views should certainly cause us to reflect further and do our best to give coherent descriptions of this foundational theological doctrine.  But more than that it should cause us to fall on our knees and worship God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–for creating, redeeming, and empowering us.   

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:

as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Dear BioLogos reader ...

In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.

If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.

But in these polarized times, science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others.

Science alone can’t give us hope. Faith can. Join BioLogos today in reaching a world desperate for hope. Your tax-deductible donation will be the difference between someone encountering misinformation, or a thoughtful, truthful, and hopeful Christian perspective that shows faith and science working hand in hand.

Give Now

Jim Stump
About the Author

Jim Stump

Jim Stump is Vice President of Programs at BioLogos. He oversees the editorial team, participates in strategic planning, and hosts the podcast, Language of God. Jim also writes and speaks on behalf of BioLogos. He has a PhD in philosophy and was formerly a professor and academic administrator. His books include, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design; Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues; How I Changed My Mind about Evolution; and The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. You can email Jim Stump at or follow him on Twitter.