Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2) | 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.

In yesterday’s post I discussed the difficulties of finding a way of expressing the atonement that both deals adequately with the need for reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humanity, as well as the need to redeem all those ills characteristic of the evolutionary world and even perhaps inklings of moral ill in some social animals. Moreover, how can God be thought of as holy, exercising justice, while refraining from dualistic approaches that seem to pitch evil against God, even in the work on the cross? Are such dualistic tendencies in evidence in Luther’s portrait of the cross as some kind of ‘mighty duel’ with human sin, death and hell, through which Christ ends up as victor in the struggle?

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’.

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’.

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’. 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’.

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-atonement-and-the-redemption-of-all-creation-part-2

Dr. Deane-Drummond,

You write,

" Moreover, how can God be thought of as holy, exercising justice, while refraining from dualistic approaches that seem to pitch evil against God, even in the work on the cross? "

Given that the New Testament clearly portrays a dualistic approach that pitches evil against God, even on the cross, the question is, why would you want to refrain from it? Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross. That is the ill-conceived notion of the Reformation. Scripture portrays the demonic, through human agency, pouring out its wrath on Jesus on the cross, and God using this as a way of bringing the demonic to an end. As long as you leave out the demonic, you will always have a nonsensical view of the cross. Good luck with that.

*> 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.

Absolutely correct. The work of salvation is not monistic or dualistic, but dramatic, because Reality is not monistic or dualistic, but relational.

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’. [1]*

Jesus engages the powers the enslave humanity, which are hatred, fear, injustice, ignorance, sin, etc., all of which are relational. Jesus Christ vanquishes them Love, Faith, and Hope, all of which are relational. God is Love, which is relational.

Even the demonic or Sin is relational within human reality. When we try to make Reality ontological, when we try to give evil Being that is when we run into serious trouble. Reality is relational, which means it should go for unity and love, but it can go for conflict and hatred. Humans chose conflict and hatred which seriously corrupted them and nature, so the atonement is necessary to make salvation possible.

“but also sin more generally associated with creaturely being.”

Our “creaturely being” is not sinful is not sinful per se, but does often give us the occasion for “existential doubt” as to whether God can really care about me and can I really make a difference, and is all of this really necessary. This is why the Holy Spirit is very necessary to renew our spirit and faith.

A few comments.

The justice of God seems to be a problem for this line of postings, both this week and the past couple weeks. Justice is an essential concept. To deny it does harm to the character of God. Yes, He judges. Yes, he has vengeance. The difference between Gods sense of justice, judgment or vengeance is that it is not capricious or vindictive, not petty or compromising in character like human justice, but true. He sees all things as they are. If you want to deny His right to judge, than maybe we should scrap His forgiveness (for who have we sinned against?) and our own justice systems and just be forgiving of all injustice. I think these posts have been trying to make God more palatable to what we think Love is. God is completely Love, Good, Kind and Faithful, AND Just, Righteous, and Holy. Both sides of the coin declare His faithful character. To deny one side of the coin compromises His character and worth. Romans 3:21-26 makes this pretty clear. You also might want to consider that it is Christ who “treads the wine press of the fierceness of His wrath” in the book of Revelation.

As far as animal morality, I would respond, only man is made in His image. Consciousness, self awareness, the power to reason or even communicate in an oral language may indeed be elements of animal sociology, psychology and community but none are made in His image. To none other than mankind did God give a covenant.

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Dr. Deane-Drummond:

During my many years as a scientist, I have become used to having statements of general principle followed by some specific examples that are illustrative. Your latest post deals with a number of important principles, but, being somewhat uncomfortable with the language of professional philosophers, I end up unsure of what actually you meant to convey. For instance: “the depth of sin and betrayal possible in the human community far exceeds that in the non-human world.” I wondered if the following was an example of the ‘sin and betrayal in the non-human world’: One species of Cuckoo bird lays her egg in another bird’s nest, depending on the foster mother to hatch it and feed it. Furthermore the cuckoo nestling grows faster and is soon large enough to shove the foster mother’s eggs from the nest so that it then receives all the food and attention. Did you mean that: " the significance of Christ’s cross and resurrection also extends in a mysterious way to include such evolutionary suffering."

To me it seems dangerous to ‘second guess’ God’s method of creating and developing Life on this earth. All the evidence points to fact that all creatures, including our human ancestors, were impelled by God-given instinct to stay alive and reproduce the next generation. As soon as Homo sapiens acquired a conscience, we could decide that any action, such as that taken by the cuckoo birds, would be unjust and sinful if undertaken by a human. But should we impute “sin” or “betrayal” to the evolutionary action instituted originally by God? I should hope not.

I like to think that God is not through with creating us humans yet. He has extended us an invitation to struggle against what we see as undesirable in how our genes urge us to behave. The cuckoo has not been invited to share God’s image. We have. When we refuse the invitation, when we say NO, we sin.
Al Leo

I am not arguing for a vindictive, wrathful God, and I am not closely aligned with Reformed theology. But the idea did come from Scripture. If you take the suffering servant passages of Isaiah as prophesy Christ fulfilled, as many people do, it talks of God inflicting pain on his servant to bring atonement. (For example Is 53:4, 10). And the “wrath of God” is indeed something that comes up repeatedly in the New Testament, and needs to be wrestled with.

I agree with you that the cross does not make sense without their being “rulers, authorities, and powers” in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12, 1 Cor 15:24-26). People who want to deny that there is an ongoing cosmic battle against supernatural forces of evil should go hang out in an animistic tribal setting for a while. One of my secular humanist/Buddhist professors did linguistic field work with an indigenous group in Liberia and left halfway through her scheduled time because in her words, she was not “spiritually equipped to deal with the dark forces at work there.” She gave the missionaries who worked there props for having internal resources she did not have. The non-Western/Majority World church has a much better handle on the realities of this stuff than we do in the West.

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Christie, If being a Christian means that I must believe that the God who created this Universe is so lacking in power that He contends with other spiritual Beings, then I would choose, as Einstein and Spinoza evidently did, a ‘detached’ Diety with whom I could not have a personal relationship. It’s too late in life for me to take it on as a dare, but I would be unafraid to take up the dare to subject myself to the “powers” of animistic ‘dark forces’ as long as they had to be exerted out in the open where no shenanigans could take place.

I don’t believe Moses staff became a serpent at his command, but that doesn’t stand in the way my accepting Jesus’ teachings about how life should be lived. The demons to be feared are inside us.
Al Leo

Who said anything about litmus testing anyone’s Christianity? I was agreeing with Bilbo in that the NT clearly portrays God in Christ as exercising authority over and ultimately defeating supernatural evil beings/forces/entities. So, a few weeks ago we were throwing out penal substitution and this week we’re throwing out Christus Victor? Those are the two main models of atonement of the historic church. Does that bother anyone but me?

It’s a false choice to say one has to choose between “believe God lacks power” or “categorically reject the existence of opposing supernatural forces.”

How do you understand all the Bible verses that speak of God/Christ contending with supernatural beings? It seems to me there is a lot of material there that you would have to explain away as allegorical or the product of ignorant authors of Scripture.

Your dare is impossible because you belong to God. And I don’t really have a dog in this fight, so believe what you want.

Some crazy weird stuff goes down in my part of the world. All the time. Understanding it in terms of “spiritual battles” makes sense of a lot of things that don’t make sense. And I was raised Baptist, not a flavor of Pentecostal that is prone to seeing demons in everything. Just because something does not fit the material naturalism of our own culture and experiences, does not mean it is not part of other people’s real and legitimate experience of the world. People in other countries don’t believe in miracles, healing, and spiritual oppression because they are backward, uneducated people who have not yet arrived at the level of philosophical and scientific enlightenment that we privileged Westerners have attained by our brilliance. They know what they have experienced.

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Hi Christy,

I appreciate your example of the demonic in the present world. Too bad so many Western Christians reject it so quickly. Meanwhile, the only place that can conceivably be interpreted as God pouring out his wrath on Jesus is Isaiah 53. But if you re-read it, it does not say who is punishing and piercing the Servant. It does say that it was God’s will to bruise him, but not that he actually did it. Yes, Jesus had to die to cleanse us of sins, just as the scapegoat carried the sins of the people out into the wilderness, where he was most likely slain by the demon Azazel.

But the death of the scapegoat wasn’t to fulfill retributive justice, but to cleanse the people of sins. Likewise, the Suffering Servant doesn’t suffer in order to fulfill justice, but to bring healing and wholeness to his people.

God does not need to punish somebody before he can forgive us. Our sinful nature needs to be put to death, so that we can be resurrected in a new creation. By having faith in and being baptized, we have been united with him in his death. We are now in Jesus and covered by his blood. The life is in the blood says Leviticus 17:11. So when God looks at us he sees the righteous life of his Son and declares us righteous.

So if all of Nature likewise contains a shocking amount of evil, as Dr. Deane-Drummond maintains, then it likewise needs to be put to death and re-created. Through the Incarnation, God has united then, not only with us but with all of creation, in order to bring all of it and us down into his death, and then bring us all back into his new life, rescued from the power of the evil one.

Just curious… In your mind, how is this rescue appropriated by the rest of creation? If, in order to actually be rescued from the power of the evil one, humans have to be united with Christ in his death and resurrection through the work of the Holy Spirit initiated by their faith, how is the rest of creation united with Christ? Does the need for faith only apply to creatures with free will?

I actually agree with you about God pouring out his wrath on Jesus. I just thought you sort of implied the Reformation made the idea up out of nothing, when exegetically, it’s more complex than that. There may be no Bible verse that says “God poured out his wrath on Jesus,” but propitiation and the wrath of God are biblical concepts, though I agree they have been unfortunately applied, logically linked to other concepts inappropriately, and taken to an extreme by some people in this case. I was just trying to be fair to the Reformed folks.

Christie, first let me say that both you and Bilbo are right: I am one of those Western Christians who too quickly reject a demonaic presence in this world. One might ascribe this to the fact that I have spent my entire adult life as a practicing scientist and always try my best to explain events in terms of Natural Laws that operate universally. On the other hand, I readily admit that on a number of occasions I have experienced a benign presence in my life that Natural Laws are unable to explain. So I am not being consistent.

Part of the problem lies in the definition of terms. "Nature likewise contains a shocking amount of evil" is a quote from Dr. D-D. that I disagree with. Misfortune and suffering, yes; evil, no. Mental illness is a misfortune that is still difficult for modern medical science to deal with effectively. Even Jesus could apparently only effect a temporary cure, but to even speak of it, he had to use terms his followers could understand: demonic possession. On All Saints day 1755 a powerful earthquake destroyed Lisbon, killing thousands of people. Was this an evil visited on them by God because they were Christians? Or was it a misfortune that was the direct result of the creative force of plate tectonics–the force that produced the change in environments that spurred evolution to greater creativity?

When you quote the many NT verses that clearly speak of demons and their action against humans, I am at a loss to explain it. But I don’t see it as an essential part of Jesus’ message. What I can relate to is a quote from Bilbo: "Our sinful nature needs to be put to death, so that we can be resurrected in a new creation." Jesus showed us perfect altruistic love, even though he had to rise above the same selfish genes that we possess. We are asked to rise above (i.e. ‘die to’) our selfish genes in order that we may follow Him to the New Creation.
Al Leo

Good point. I agree with you that calling everything that is less than ideal or painful, evil, confuses things. I think we live world where many things are broken and imperfect, but that doesn’t make them evil. It’s not evil that a child is born with a chromosome abnormality like Down’s Syndrome or a gene that predisposes her to breast cancer. It’s a misfortune like you say. It’s broken. I think you get into theological hot water when every natural disaster or sickness or birth defect or painful experience gets tied to sin and evil and spiritual forces. Some things just happen. But “the problem of evil” is still a problem even if you chalk a lot of bad things up to nature taking its course.

I homeschool my kids because we live out of the US and we have been doing American history with my oldest for the last two years. For me, when we study the barbaric decimation of the indigenous populations at the hands of the conquistadors, the treatment of slaves as expendable resources in the Caribbean, the KKK in the South, World War 2 and the Holocaust, the rise of Islamist extremist terrorism, and other examples of unimaginable brutality and depth of cruelty you can find in human history, it is helpful, not a stumbling block, to see these things as something more than just “the selfish gene” given free reign. Acknowledging the existence of forces of evil in opposition to God and his rule, forces that intentionally influence humans to be worse than their “nature” in order to try to thwart God’s work and bring people to despair, that is a helpful paradigm for me. I can understand how for some more rationally minded people, it would not be. I also understand that it is unhelpful and damaging in many cases when people try to identify and label things as Satanic or “demonic activity.” But when Ephesians talks about putting on your spiritual armor you can stand against the devil’s schemes, and when the Lord’s prayer specifically asks for deliverance from the evil one, I take it as more than just poetic. I think there really is a battle.

I’m just curious (honestly, I like knowing how different people interpret things), but what do you do with the Temptation of Christ? From my perspective, Jesus didn’t just rise above his humanity, he rose above the most cunning temptations of Satan himself. Do you just see that as a just story to prove a point?

Christie, I know the primary purpose of founding BioLogos was to show evangelical Christians that a belief in evolution need not threaten their Faith. But it’s other functions may be every bit as important. My postings with you and Bilbo has been so valuable to me even though I was already comfortable with evolution. I have many intelligent Christian friends and relatives, but we never get around to discussing matters that are truly important, like those you bring up in your last post. Too often we are told we must refrain from meaningful discussions of religion and world politics ‘lest it upset someone’s feelings’.

Long ago I opted to build my worldview (following Teilhard) on the reality of the Noosphere, the sphere of human ideas that evolve and have become a more powerful influence on human lives than biospheric evolution. When a “noogene”, such as Arayan Superiority" or “White Supremacy” gets out of hand, bad things happen. But this is a detached description–too detached for most people to get upset over. It is undoubtedly more effective (and possibly just as correct) to say that the Devil took hold of that noogene and is using it for his evil purposes. Certainly that would convince more people of the basic importance of my contention: We cannot fight these ideas through the Department of Defense–only with more powerful ideas can they be defeated.

I wish we could have some face-to-face conversations, Christie. I admire you for home-schooling your kids. You want your noogenes to be passed on to your kids–not some politician’s ideas. My wife’s niece has 10 kids whom she home-schools. They are Morman, and are very particular about sharing their noogenic heritage. More power to them! (even though I don’t see eye-to-eye with their theology.)
Al Leo

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Whoops! I see I neglected to answer your last question about Christ’s temptation. Yes, precisely! I see the Temptation of Christ written down just as folks in those days would best comprehend it. The idea that our human phenotype is determined by an impossibly long organic ‘molecule’ and that, somehow, our animal instincts are influenced by it–that knowledge was all 2,000 yrs in the future. Only recently do we know that our genes greatly influence (but do not absolutely dictate) how we are driven to procreate sexually, to exert controlling power etc. Obviously Christ was a very magnetic figure–Christ Superstar! He could have received more adulation than any Hollywood star ever will. Instead He rebuffed the Devil and chose the role of servant to us all. What an example we have to emulate!!
Al Leo

Same here. Aside from talking with my husband, almost all my most interesting conversations are online. Nice discussing with you.

Hi Christy,

Good question. I’m initially inclined to say that most of Nature does not have the ability to choose, and is therefore automatically included in the work of the Atonement. But then there are verses like 2 Corinthians 5:14, “…one has died for all; therefore all have died.” Is all of humanity also included in Christ’s death? And would therefore be included in the Resurrection?

@Christy, you virtually took the words right out of my mind on this topic! I too have told people that I had not an ounce of Pentecostal background in me–and actually tended to be dismissive of my Christian brethren who “saw a demon behind every bush”, as I sometimes deprecatingly expressed myself-- but I found myself at mid-life in a number of environments where I could no longer rationalize what I observed. I had to wise up and re-think what I knew from the scriptures about demons and yet tended to see them as not all that relevant to my life. The fact that some of the most shocking manifestations were shared/observed by family members makes it impossible for me to rationalize those events as my being tired or deluded or hallucinating.

Now, I look at the scriptures and wonder why I didn’t think through the reality of the demonic more seriously long before.

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