Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 1) | The BioLogos Forum

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.

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.

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.’

Tomorrow I’ll consider an understanding of the atonement that makes the most sense of these demands.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-atonement-and-the-redemption-of-all-creation-part-1

Dr. Deane-Drummond,

I agree that the extent and depth of natural evil is shocking, which is why I find C.S.Lewis’s idea of demonic influence in natural history persuasive. Given such a presupposition, since Jesus said that he had come to defeat the works of the devil, then his incarnation, death, and resurrection would be his way of redeeming not only humanity, but all of creation from demonic control.


Humans are indeed alienated from Nature by sin as the Fall and the problem of climate change indicates. This is why humans and Nature need atonement.

However to say that Nature is basically demonic as indicated by Darwinian theory is both bad theology and bad science.

Hi Roger,

Dr.Deane-Drummond seemed to indicate that evolutionary history was shockingly evil, which would seem to imply that Nature needs to be redeemed from more than mere human corruption. I think Lewis’s idea of demonic influence can be reconciled with good Christian theology. Not sure why it would be either “bad” or “good” science, though. Extra-scientific - above science - would be a better description. We live in a materialistic age where everything is assumed to have a materialistic explanation, which is indeed bad theology.

I guess I would also add that it has been demonstrated that New Testament theology was grounded in the Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology of its time. That view held that Satan and his minions had temporary control of history, until the Kingdom of God came in to destroy and replace it. Had the Jews who developed this view been aware that the Earth was billions of years old, and that life was as well, I think they would have been inclined to extend Satan’s period of control to cover that time period, as well. So I think Lewis’s view is just an extension of the view that influenced the New Testament authors.

I would add that there is no word for “atonement” in the New Testament. It would seem that in order to understand its meaning we would need to study its origin in the Old Testament Day of Atonement, found in Leviticus 16. There we see that two goats are offered. One to clean the Temple of the defilement of sin, allowing for continued fellowship between God and Israel. The second goat carries the sins of the people out into the wilderness “to Azazel.” Most modern scholars translate “Azazel” as “fierce god.” This would seem to imply that it was a demon, and that the scapegoat was a way of breaking the legal claim the demonic had on the people.

Likewise, we should understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as both re-establishing fellowship with God and ending our relationship with the evil one. If the Atonement also applies to Nature, then it would seem we should apply this dual aspect of it to Nature, also. It re-establishes God’s kingdom over Nature, and ends Satan’s control or influence.

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.

Dr. Deane-Drummond

To someone like myself who has spent a lifetime in science (ACS member 65 yrs.) and woefully little time reading philosophy and theology, your proposal that humanity is an ‘unfinished’ work in God’s eyes has much to recommend it. " while avoiding images that seem to present God as vengeful and demanding violence as payment"

And in what sense can atonement be broadened to include all creatures, not just those with moral capacities?" Would not such a “broadening” be sacrilegious? If you accept evolution as God’s method of creating animal life, then the unwritten law to a male lion taking over a new pride is to pass on his genes to the next generation, and the most effective way of doing that is to “murder” all the cubs that do not carry his genes so that the females will come into heat and accept his seed. Even if one forgoes the term “atonement” and instead uses the 'language of redemption”, are we to look foreword to some future date when lions will behave “in a more loving manner?”

I am comfortable with the view that God created Homo sapiens by the process we call Darwinian evolution. It was over 100,000 yrs before perhaps only a few Homo sapiens, somehow and suddenly, acquired a conscience and language to pass it on to their fellows, spreading the Noosphere across the globe and, recently, into outer space. Language allowed Homo sapiens to form societies larger than family clans, and they quickly overpowered their Neanderthal cousins. But human societies became dangerously powerful and, as Noogenes in the Noosphere (co-opting Teilhard’s terminology) they began to compete as do biogenies in the Biosphere. In the past century, we have seen how the gene, ‘Aryan Supremecy’ got out of hand, resulting in the Holocaust. Powerful tools can have powerful results, either positive or negative. God has given us the possibility, but not the guarantee, that His gift of conscience will lead us to Him.
Al Leo

“It re-establishes God’s kingdom over Nature, and ends Satan’s control or influence.”

Bilbo, with all due respect, do you think the Christians in the scientific community are going to believe that God ever lost control over Nature? As I understand it, BioLogos is trying to show evangelical Christians that, in accepting evolution as God’s way of creating, they enhance rather than diminish their Faith. The view that the “evil” we see in Nature must be evidence of a struggle between God and Satan is hardly conducive to reaching an accord between science and religion.
Al Leo

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Darwinism based on random chance and conflict goes against the basic struggle of science which is based on order and harmony. Physics does not work by trial and error and neither does nature, although randomness does play a role. Thus Darwinism is bad science, unless all other science is bad science.

God is the God of order and harmony. God gave order and harmony to the universe. No order and harmony, no universe, no God, just chaos and evil.

Jewish theology is helpful for setting the context for Jesus, Jesus came to change it. He did not see nature as evil. God the Father shows divine Love by making rain fall upon the just and the unjust. “Be perfect just as God the Father is Perfect.”

As far as sin is concerned I take the Orthodox view, which was the traditional view until Augustine, and even then only in the western thought.

Here is the idea behind ancestral sin,
“Ancestral sin has a specific meaning. The Greek word for sin in this case, amartema, refers to an individual act indicating that the Eastern Fathers assigned full responsibility for the sin in the Garden to Adam and Eve alone. The word amartia, the more familiar term for sin which literally means “missing the mark”, is used to refer to the condition common to all humanity (Romanides, 2002). The Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin. The question becomes, “What then is the inheritance of humanity from Adam and Eve if it is not guilt?” The Orthodox Fathers answer as one: death. (I Corinthians 15:21) “Man is born with the parasitic power of death within him,” writes Fr. Romanides (2002, p. 161). Our nature, teaches Cyril of Alexandria, became “diseased…through the sin of one” (Migne, 1857-1866a). It is not guilt that is passed on, for the Orthodox fathers; it is a condition, a disease.”

So as you can see if you take the traditional stance on sin there is far less confusion.

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I think this kind of quote illustrates the problem that occurs when “sin” is conflated with “immorality” or “evil” in general. It seems to me that biblically, “sin” is tied to there being revelation of God’s moral law and conscious rebellion against it. Creatures to whom God has not revealed himself, with whom he has not sought out a relationship, can’t sin, even if they can do immoral or evil things.

Humanity is special not because of how advanced they are on the evolutionary scale, or how self-conscious they are, or how capable they are of recognizing what is morally good. They are special because God sought them out for relationship/covenant, entrusted them with the mission of exercising dominion over his creation, and because God gave humans a moral standard to accept or reject.

The atonement applies uniquely to humans, because humans have uniquely rebelled in their unique relationship with God and violated God’s covenants with them. Redemption and restoration, however, apply to all of nature and are a sign of the coming Kingdom. Because the Jesus’ resurrection is the first sign of the resurrection to come, the in-breaking of his New Creation into our natural order of things, it affects all of creation too by showing that death is defeatable. It points to the day when all will be set right and the evil in the natural world will also be done away with, just as the power of sin over human hearts has been done away with. When redeemed humans promote the flourishing of earthly creation, they are participating in redemptive Kingdom work and fulfilling their God-ordained role as stewards of his creation.

"The atonement applies uniquely to humans, because humans have uniquely rebelled in their unique relationship with God and violated God’s covenants with them."

Hi Chris:
I can agree 100% with your quote above. But then you go on: “Humanity is special not because of how advanced they are on the evolutionary scale, or how self-conscious they are, or how capable they are of recognizing what is morally good. They are special because God sought them out for relationship/covenant,”

It would be impossible for God to have a relationship with any creature until that creature had attained consciousness and acquired a conscience. It was evident even to agnostic paleo-anthropologists that, with the appearance of the Cro-Magnon culture, this occurred relatively suddenly amongst Homo sapiens who had been present on earth for over 100,000 yrs . For example, Tattersall in his book “Becoming Human” states: “Truly a new kind of being was on earth”. And further: “Modern Homo sapiens is a totally unprecedented entity, not simply an improved version of its ancestors.”

Is this not the people whom God chose to become co-creators with Him? However, in my humble opinion, in the ‘coming Kingdom’ there still will be death, though perhaps a ‘stingless’ one.
Al Leo

I don’t think we really disagree there.

Yes, of course, the fact that humans were capable of relating to God is key to God choosing to relate to them. But sometimes, in my most Arminian moments, when I wonder about the extent of God’s sovereignty, I wonder if it had been the case that dolphins had arrived at this consciousness and conscience instead of hominids, would God have picked them to bear his image? If they do someday before Christ’s return, will God covenant with them? It’s not like we would know about it, there being a pretty big language barrier and all.

Where I think we may disagree is in this: As I have mentioned before, I think that “sin” only has meaning in relation to God’s initiative and human’s response. I don’t really agree with the idea that the very first homo sapien individual or community to develop moral awareness 100,000 or so years ago was automatically deemed “created in God’s image” and capable of sinning. I think God chose for himself a community at a relatively recent point in human history, people whose ancestors had reached that stage of development many generations prior. It was only after God’s revelation of himself that humans were able to rebel against it. I can’t prove that, but it is how I best make sense of Genesis and Adam and Eve, who I think were real people in the not so incredibly distant ancestry of Israel.

I also agree that “death” in the Kingdom is a multi-faceted concept. We need enough death to provide for good feasting (with no weight gain), in my humble opinion. :wink: And I’m not a vegetarian, and neither was Jesus, so we’ll see how that all plays out someday.

Evidently your thoughts trend in the same direction as mine do, Christy. Dolphins appear to be intelligent creatures that enjoy the world God made for them. Might he offer them a covenant sometime in the future? Perhaps. Elephants seem to be intelligent and exhibit more empathy than most creatures. What about dogs? They are so loving and loyal we would like to take them with us when we leave earth. What special relationship must God have with them? The difference I can see is this: Evolution has given Homo sapiens many unique gifts not given to other creature in order to be co-creators with God–manual dexterity, for one. When you see a scientist peering through a microscope, trying to discern what microorganism is making the patient sick, or a surgeon deftly cutting a patient open and then sewing him up, you realize that humans have to have more than just consciousness to answer God’s call to make the attempt to ‘improve on Nature’. But being ‘co-creators’ is no more than a pipe dream if we cannot put Jesus’ teachings to work in building a better society.
Al Leo

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