Note: We are currently running a series featuring different perspectives on how to integrate Christian theology with evolutionary science—particularly in regards to the doctrine of the "atonement." As Jim Stump expressed in the introductory post to the series, we are trying to feature a wide diversity of approaches to evolution and the atonement. Just as Christian tradition reveals a rich dialogue about the meaning of the atonement, BioLogos also wants to foster constructive dialogue about these important matters; especially seen in light of natural revelation. The theological questions stimulated by modern scientific discoveries are complex and difficult, and as we like to say, the Church deserves a robust, diverse debate on how faith and science can together be integrated and understood.
Today’s Bifurcated Discussions
From early in the church’s history Christians have discussed “theories of the atonement,” understandings of how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ deal with the problem of human sin and reconcile God and humanity. Numerous models have been proposed—the work of Christ as sacrifice, ransom, victory, satisfaction, payment of a penalty, the supreme example of God’s love, and others.
Atonement is not an isolated topic. Consideration of how the work of Christ solves the problem of sin requires some understanding of sin itself and of ideas labelled “original sin” in particular. Treatment of these topics has always been a task of theologians, but at some times atonement and related matters have become hot topics among them. This is such a time, but discussions are now significantly different from those of the past.
One important difference is that dialogue is taking place on two fronts, with different sets of concerns, and those interested in one set may pay little attention to the other. On the one hand there are theologians who are involved with more or less traditional discussions of atonement, though broadened now by the participation in theological discussions of women and those outside the cultures of Europe and North America. This has brought new insights challenging some conventional ideas about sin and the meaning of the cross.
On the other hand, developments in science, and especially biological evolution, have raised serious questions about issues related to the atonement. 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? How should we speak about sin and salvation in view of the fact that human history, in some ways, seems to be a matter of cultural and ethical improvement instead of reflecting a “fallen” condition? And can we speak meaningfully of Christ’s work being effective not just for humans but for intelligent beings who may have evolved elsewhere in the universe?
In its mission statement, BioLogos “invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation,” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I will address that second area of concern. But it is important to be aware of the wider range of our topics, and of the fact that those participating in one group of discussions sometimes seem unaware of, or unconcerned about, issues debated by the other.
Many theologians dealing with traditional questions realize that there are serious questions about the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, but they may continue to refer to “Adam” and “the Fall.” Their discussions of atonement may make no reference to evolution and the questions it raises. At the same time, those who are trying to deal with challenges presented by scientific developments are sometimes so focused on them that they seem unaware of the broader scope of the theological tradition. They may concentrate entirely on the difficulties involved in making sense of the concept of an historically first sin as if that were all that the term “original sin” referred to.
Sin and Salvation Today
The primitive Christian tradition that Paul received from the Jerusalem disciples and passed on to the Corinthians begins with “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Somehow the death and resurrection of Christ to which this tradition testifies are effective in overcoming the separation between humanity and God brought about by sin. The work of Christ accomplishes the reconciliation between God and humanity that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Or to use a word that Tyndale coined in his 1525 translation of this passage, it was a work of atonement.
That earliest tradition gives no explanation of how the cross and resurrection of Christ bring about reconciliation. In the following centuries theologians developed various theories of the atonement, using passages of Scripture and reasoning that seemed convincing in their cultures, to explain this. These theories provide images that can be effective in communicating the work of Christ. But they can also obscure the fact that what reconciles sinners to God is the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth “under Pontius Pilate” and his resurrection “on the third day.” What we must be concerned with is, in the words of Gerhard Forde, “actual atonement,” not just satisfaction of some theory’s requirements.
In setting out an understanding of atonement I will be guided by Forde’s approach. But first I should take note of the uneasiness that some readers may be feeling. “I thought this was going to deal with the realities of evolution and how they affect our talk about atonement,” you may be thinking. “When do we get to that?”
Because Christians believe that the world which science describes and of which they are part is God’s creation, it is indeed important that theology—the work of “faith in search of understanding”—take seriously what science says about the world. This means that theological statements about human origins should be consistent with what we can infer about those origins from our knowledge of evolution.
But the importance of human origins and whether or not Genesis 1-3 is an accurate account of an historical “Fall” of the first human couple has been greatly exaggerated by some people—both atheists who think that evolution disproves the need for a savior and conservative Christians who think our need for a savior rules out evolution. In spite of the remarkable agreement between those two groups who can’t agree about much else, the argument is really quite silly. From a Christian standpoint, a savior is needed because everyone is a sinner. It’s that simple. When the panicked pagan jailer at Philippi asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” they told him, not about a primordial sin that we all inherit, but about how he should “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).
The fundamental human problem is failure to trust in God above anything else —to obey the First Commandment. Paul sets this out clearly in Romans 1, where refusal to honor and give thanks to God as the Creator—Sin with a capital “S”—has as its consequence all the small “s” sins that corrupt relationships among people. It is idolatry—“worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)—that is the root sin. The apostolic message is that people “should turn from these worthless things”—idols, false gods—“to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).
So what is needed for atonement to take place is elimination of trust in false gods and creation of trust in the true God. That immediately highlights a serious defect of most approaches to atonement. They may speak about Christ’s death as a ransom, as satisfaction of God’s honor, or as payment of a penalty or victory, but say little or nothing about people’s faith being turned from idols to the true God. That happens after the supposed atoning work has taken place. For example Anselm, after describing the way in which he thinks the death of Christ restores God’s honor, pictures God inviting a sinner to accept the benefits of this work by faith. But that work apparently has no role in bringing about such faith.
We should begin by attending to the gospel accounts of the things that Jesus did and said and their consequences. This means starting not with the cross but with what has been called his “active obedience.” We can then begin to see how his life, death, and resurrection were salvific.
In his hometown Jesus described his calling in prophetic terms as “to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind [and] to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). Such language, together with his announcement that the kingdom of God was near, posed a threat to those who held political and social power, starting with the Roman authorities. His announcement of forgiveness to sinners and acceptance of people like tax collectors and prostitutes challenged religious authorities and the self-appointed morality police. A person who tells people to give away their wealth and disrupts a respectable currency exchange is a danger to those with economic interests. Even those without much power or wealth want more security than the promise that “those who lose their life will save it.” Jesus invited people to put complete trust in the God of Israel, the one he called Father. But the sinful human condition is one of trusting in other things—power, wealth, security, pleasure, piety, and legal righteousness. “Mortal,” God told Ezekiel, “These men have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:2).
So our representatives, Pilate and Caiaphas, get rid of him. It is not just “they” who “crucified my Lord” but people very much like ourselves, with the same kinds of desires, goals, and idols. Even Jesus’ closest friends, with their pledges of undying loyalty, run away to save their skins. Our collective idols orchestrate his death.
Then the one who bears the marks of the cross comes back to those who abandoned him and says, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21). If he really is risen beyond the power of death then he indeed speaks for God—and somehow is God. If that is true, then our idolatry has tried to destroy the source of our life. Our false gods are unmasked, shown to bring death instead of life. But since the one who speaks for God says “Peace be with you,” God is worthy of our trust above all things. He remains faithful even if we are faithless. When we are brought to abandon our idols and place our faith in the true God, we are reconciled with God. Atonement has taken place.
But that will happen only if we hear the message of the cross and resurrection, not if it remains in the past. Crucial to this work is the Spirit-empowered proclamation that Paul called (in Tyndale’s 1526 translation) “the preachinge of the attonement” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
We can see from this brief description that this approach puts bringing people to faith in the true God in a central position. That should recommend it to those who hold that such faith is critical for salvation. We also see how not only the cross but also the resurrection of the crucified one plays an essential role. This contrasts with the surprising lack of Easter emphasis in some other models of atonement.
A more detailed treatment of matters discussed in the following essay can be found in George L. Murphy, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013). Gerhard O. Forde's understanding of atonement (which has guided my thinking), together with his survey of other approaches, is presented in “The Work of Christ” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Christian Dogmatics (Fortress, 1984), vol.2 pp.5-99. Biblical citations are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-the-original-sins-part-1