Why Penal Substitution and a Historical Fall are Necessary for Atonement Theology


In this article, I will be interacting with the previous posts of Joseph Bankard, Celia Deane-Drummond, and George Murphy. All three see biological evolution raising significant questions about various aspects of atonement theology.  As Deane-Drummond puts it, “The evolutionary story as we have come to understand it raises important questions about the scope of atonement and redemption.” Murphy asks, “What meaning can concepts of original sin have if, as genetic studies now indicate, present day humanity has not descended from a single male-female couple?” Bankard argues that “macroevolution calls the Fall and the doctrine of original sin into question” and thus “poses a significant challenge to substitutionary atonement.”

I will be offering some responses as an evangelical theologian, taking as my primary and normative source the Scriptures. However, I also accept the natural world as God’s “Second Book”, and affirm with BioLogos the value of seeing “the harmony between science and biblical faith.” For the purposes of these posts, I will respond within the framework of evolutionary creationism. I do so, not as one who affirms evolutionary creationism; I lack the scientific expertise to evaluate the evidence and neither affirm or deny its interpretation of the natural world. But I do believe it possible to affirm at least some understandings of evolutionary creationism and still see harmony between it and biblical teaching, including teaching on the atonement and associated topics.

The limited length of these posts prevents me from interacting with all the issues raised by their insightful, provocative, and stimulating comments. In this first post, I want to deal with some of their questions concerning the Fall and original sin; and then in the second post, I will address issues connected to the atonement, especially its nature and scope.

The Fall and Original Sin

All three of my conversation partners see evolution as raising numerous questions about traditional understandings of a historical fall and original sin. Rather than review their questions and interact with them one by one, in view of the limits of this post, I will offer an alternative understanding of the Fall and original sin, suggesting along the way where it posits a response to some of the questions raised.

First, I do regard the reality of a historical Fall as an essential element of biblical teaching. It is true that the event of the Fall is mentioned explicitly in Scripture relatively few times (Gen. 3, Rom. 5, I Tim. 2), but Henri Blocher argues that there are “echoes throughout Scripture” and “many relevant passages.”1 Even more impressive to me than the direct biblical support are the questions left unanswered in the absence of a historical Fall. Most would agree that humans today manifest an amazing proclivity to doing things they themselves would say are wrong. Moreover, while it certainly varies in degree, this proclivity does seem to be universal. Such a situation cries out for an explanation. Why are we all this way? Did God create us with such a bent? If so, how can acting out our created nature be wrong or sinful in any meaningful way? Why does Scripture see humans as in need of being made anew (John 3:3; II Cor. 5:17), or the image of God in us in need of renewal (Col. 3:10), or our final state as one in which our spirits are perfected (Heb. 12:23)?

The positing of a historical Fall also seems linked to the evil and suffering in the natural world, noted especially by Celia Deane-Drummond. The cursing of the ground in Genesis 3:17 is connected to the Fall of Adam; the liberation of creation from its subjugation to “frustration” is connected to the redemption of humans (Rom. 8:19-24).

Thus, a historical Fall seems to be the assumption of the whole of Scripture. If we had no account of such an event, we would need to postulate one to make sense of the biblical narrative. But can such a historical Fall be understood in a way that is consistent with evolutionary creationism? I think so.

Answering Objections

First of all, a historical Fall does not require a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. As Blocher helpfully puts it, “The real issue when we try to interpret Genesis 2-3 is not whether we have a historical account of the Fall, but whether or not we may read it as the account of a historical Fall.”2 In other words, Genesis 2-3 may not conform to modern western notions of historical writing; it is, after all, an ancient Near Eastern account and may bear the marks of its time and culture. But that does not mean it cannot convey a true account of a historical event. And if, as argued above, there are cogent reasons for seeing the notion of a historical Fall as explicit in numerous other places in Scripture—as implicit in the whole of Scripture—and necessary to make theological sense of numerous questions, it seems unnecessary to disallow a historical Fall because we cannot affirm a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. The one does not require the other.

Second, does a historical Fall demand that humans originated solely with one male-female couple and that all persons have inherited from them an original sin that is the reason for the atonement? In short, no. This question really is two.  The first is that of an original couple; the second is the transmission of their sin to their descendants. As to the idea that humanity originated from one couple, Murphy does seem to express a growing view that studies in genetics indicate that humanity began with a population numbering perhaps in the thousands, rather than a single couple. Murphy also notes some proposals that God could have chosen one couple from that group, “endowing them with souls and original righteousness to make them the ancestors of humanity.” He allows that such a solution “gives the appearance of accepting an evolutionary picture but voids it of any theological significance.” I am not so sure that he is accurate here.

On the one hand, I find the idea of a historical Adam and Eve another essential element of biblical teaching. I understand that some evolutionary creation advocates, such as Denis Lamoureux, disagree with me on this point, but I see nothing in evolutionary creation per se that requires the denial of a historical Adam and Eve and see much in Scripture that demands it.3 Perhaps the mention of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 does not settle matters; I have allowed above that those chapters may not be historical, as modern Westerners understand it. Some would argue that the Hebrew word adam in Genesis is used in a collective or representative sense. Carl Henry would affirm these two senses, but also an individual sense.4 But aside from Genesis, we have Adam referenced in genealogies, in both the Old Testament (I Chron. 1:1) and New Testament (Luke 3:38), where anything other than a historical individual seems hard to understand. Further, Paul refers to Adam in ways that some would say require him to be historical (Rom. 5:12-21 and I Cor. 15:45-49); and Paul refers to the sin of Adam and Eve in a way that assumes both their existence and the order of their sinning to be historical (I Tim. 2:13-14).

But a historical Adam and Eve do not require that humanity originate solely from them. Long before geneticists were arguing for an original group, there were suggestions that Adam and Eve may not have been alone. In 1967, Derek Kidner suggested that Adam could have been shaped by the process of evolution, and became “the first true man”: when God breathed human life into him. He would have had “as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world,” and genetically, they would be “of a single stock.” Kidner does affirm the special creation of Eve, but says that afterward, “God may have conferred His image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being.” He concludes, “Adam’s ‘federal’ headship of humanity extended . . . outward to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.”5 More recently, John Collins has affirmed a very similar view, specifically in response to the claims of geneticists.6

Still another challenge to such an understanding of the Fall and original sin from evolution could be that we find no evidence in the evolutionary record of an abrupt Fall, with cataclysmic effects on the natural order. George Murphy argues that the idea that “the first humans were without sin or tendencies to sin . . . clashes both with what we can infer theoretically about tendencies resulting from evolution through natural selection and with observations of our closest surviving primate relatives.” But the evolutionary record concerning natural selection and our primate relatives do not relate to sin, as the Bible understands it, for sin is possible only for image-bearers of God, and the creatures prior to and apart from Adam were not human in that sense. As the first ones granted the image of God, Adam and Even lived for a time in innocence, if not actual righteousness. But how long that lasted we are not told. And if Adam and Eve were part of a larger population, they may very well have lived apart from them during that time. It would have been after their sin that the image of God was conferred on Adam and Eve’s contemporaries. But by that time, the sin of Adam and Eve had been imputed to all humanity. Those others would never experience a time as human image bearers of God when they were without sin or tendencies to sin. Thus, I am not sure we should look for evidence of original sin in the evolutionary record.

Finally, Deane-Drummond is troubled by the long record of evil and suffering in the evolutionary record. Animals may not exactly sin, but she sees the depth and extent of suffering in the natural world as raising questions for the traditional view of the Fall and original sin. She says, “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.” But how can this be, if the Fall is identified with the sin of a historical Adam that came relatively late in evolutionary history? William Dembski has suggested what I see as a cogent possibility. He argues that, just as the death of Christ applies forward to all who are to come and backward to all who lived before him, so the effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve extended backward before them as well as forward after them.7 Thus, all the ‘natural’ suffering and evil in the world, from the beginning, results from the Fall. The question of whether or not the atonement of Christ is intended to heal all the effects of the Fall in the non-human world leads into the question of the scope of the atonement, which is one of the questions I will address next.

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.8

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,9 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.10 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.

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About the Author

John Hammett

Dr. John Hammett is Professor of Systematic Theology and Associate Dean of Theological Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.