Evolutionary Creationism and Atonement Theology, Part 2: Why Penal Substitution is a Necessary Part of the Atonement | 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 this and my previous post, I am interacting with earlier posts by Joseph Bankard, Celia Deane-Drummond, and George Murphy, in which they raise questions about aspects of atonement theology raised for them by an espousal of evolutionary creationism. My first response dealt with the notion that evolutionary creationism requires a denial of a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall and original sin, requiring significant adjustments to traditional atonement theology. In that post, I sought to show cogent ways of holding to a historical Adam and Eve, a historical Fall, and original sin, within a framework of evolutionary creationism.

I addressed the questions about the Fall and original sin first, for they set the stage for the atonement proper—which is the way God chose to deal with all the results of the Fall. The discussion in this post revolves around the nature and scope of the atonement. The questions raised by Bankard and Murphy on the nature of the atonement arise not so much from scientific factors as from their perspective on a number of biblical and theological issues. Deane-Drummond shares some of their concerns about the nature of the atonement but seems more concerned in her posts to develop a theology of the atonement that deals with the evil and suffering in the non-human world—evil and suffering she sees as highlighted by the evolutionary story, and thus her questions are about the scope of the atonement.

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.

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, 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.

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolutionary-creationism-and-atonement-theology-part-2-why-penal-substituti

I was stimulated by Celia Deane-Drummond’s discussion of evil in the animal world, and would be interested in exploring that further, or any other aspects of the post.

Dr. Hammet,

I think Penal Substitutionary Theory is a terrible distortion of what Scripture actually teaches. Nowhere does it say that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy justice. If one wants to understand the Atonement, one should study the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16-17. Two goats are offered. The first is to cleanse the Temple of the defilement of sin. It’s carcass seems to absorb sin and is burnt outside the camp. Meanwhile, its blood - in which is its life (Lev.17:11) - is used to cleanse the Mercy Seat and the altar. The second goat bares the sins of the people out into the wilderness, to Azazel, the “fierce god.” This probably represents the demonic, which has some sort of legal demand against us, since we listened to the evil one, instead of to God. Meanwhile, the people are cleansed of sin, and that claim against them is annulled.

If we apply this to the Atonement that Jesus accomplished, he died to sin, and by having faith in and being baptized into him, we also have died to sin, and are cleansed by his blood, in which is his life. God looks on us and sees the life of his Son and declares us righteous.

Jesus was crucified by the rulers of this age - the demonic powers - acting through their human agents, the Romans. The demons did so because Deuteronomy 21:23 taught that whoever was hung on a tree would be cursed by God. But hanging was for a capital offense. What if the person was innocent? How does God curse his innocent Son? By placing our sinful flesh in him, so that when he died, it was put to death, also. Thus we are freed from the legal claim that the demonic powers had on us. Had they known the wisdom of God, they never would have crucified the Lord of Glory.

Meanwhile, in his Incarnation God has united with all of creation, so that when he died, all of creation died with him, freeing it from whatever demonic powers had been corrupting it for millions of years, so that when he returns, all of creation will be nenewed.

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Thank you, Dr. Hammett. Well put!

Thanks for this post balancing the other views presented. I especially appreciated that it actually interacts with what Scripture says.

Since you quote Christopher Wright, I thought I’d recommend the section on the cross in his book The God I Don’t Understand. It offers a thoughtful, balanced discussion of some of the issues raised by those who criticize the way substitutionary atonement has been presented by some without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I found it very helpful in thinking through some of these questions.

Dr. Hammett, as you noted in your first post: “we find no evidence in the evolutionary record of an abrupt Fall, with cataclysmic effects on the natural order.” And yet you state in this post: "After all, sin is against God and wrecked his good world." (emphasis mine) Surely I am not the only scientist who, when given no evidence for a 'wrecked good world’, has difficulty in believing in a God who became wrathful long ago because Adam & Eve spoiled everything. [ His wrath may indeed be kindled in modern times if we are entering the ‘Anthropocene epoch’ with a human-caused mass extinction.]

Is it un-Christian to believe that, by an act of will, Jesus, who possessed the same Homo sapien genome as we do, showed us how God-like altruism and compassion could overcome the urging of selfish genes and become the guiding principle in a new evolved creation? And he invites us to take up this ‘cross’ and follow him? To where? Not to a kingdom where a lion eats grass instead of lambs. But we can realistically imagine a worldly life more pleasant and productive than we lead today and immensely more so than our ancestors led. As to the rewards awaiting us in our next (spiritual) existence, I personally am happy to leave that to a loving Father than to the wrathful God of Genesis.
Al Leo

Thanks for recommending Wright’s book. I’ve ordered it. Perhaps it will keep me from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve been known to do that.
Al Leo

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@Bilbo I think Romans 3:25-26 comes pretty close to saying outright that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy justice. That’s pretty much what propitiate means, and that’s how evangelicals have understood at least one purpose of the cross since the Reformation. It helps explain why Jesus had to die.

@David_Schwartz Thanks for the kind words.

@Christy Wright is one of my favorite authors too.

@aleo The evidence for a good world wrecked by sin is the curse pronounced on the ground in Gen. 3:17-18, the description of creation in bondage to decay in Rom. 8:19-21, and the everyday occurrences we see of flood, drought, tsunami and other forms of disaster. It may not show up in the evolutionary record because God applied the effects of Adam’s sin both backward and forward in time, just as he did the effects of Jesus’ redemption. As to your second paragraph, I think it is possible that Jesus did all you say he did, but I would add more. He reconciled us and all of creation to God, atoned for sin, and has promised to make all things new. With you, I am happy to leave to God the details of that new creation. thanks for the interaction.

@jshammett: First I want to express my appreciation for the chance to interact with biblical scholars who can point out some wisdom in Scripture that might otherwise be overlooked. I guess I have been looking for scientific evidence for the ‘wreckage’ that supports the ‘curse on the ground’ referred to in Gen.3:17. And from a ‘science worldview’, the natural disasters you mention, while devastating to the humans who experience them, are not a curse but an integral part of the mechanism that powers evolution–plate tectonics that produce tsunamis and earthquakes, climate changes that force genetic countermeasures, etc. A planet lacking them would, in all probability, never produce complex life with the amazing variety seen on this Earth. It may well be that God does not permit creativity to occur without struggle and pain. And thus the painless, effortless world humans seem to long for may not be so heavenly after all.
Al Leo


“Propitiate” = to make favorably inclined; appease; conciliate.

Romans 3: “25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.” (RSV)

We’ll assume that the RSV is mistaken, and that it should be “propitiation.” So what is it that appeases God? Penal Substitution says that it was Jesus being punished for our sins in order to satisfy justice. But nowhere in that verse does it say that is what happened. The Greek word used for “propitiation” is “hilasterion,” which was the same word used by the Septuagint for the mercy seat over the ark in the Temple. Paul is alluding to the Day of Atonement, when the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the mercy seat in order to cleanse it of the defilement of sin. Lev. 17:11 tells us that it is the life in the blood that makes it effective for atonement. So it is Jesus’s life in his blood that cleanses us of sin, and appeases God. Our faith in and baptism into Jesus has united us with him in his death to sin. Now God looks at us and sees the life of his Son and declares us righteous.

Penal Substitution is a terrible theory of the Atonement and should be abandoned.


You are correct in what you say; it is the life of Jesus that justifies anyone who has faith in Him, and it is by the Grace of God. I would add one thing to this sometimes odd discussion of penal something or other - the entire doctrine of salvation shows the Law of God is Holy, and that God is both just and merciful, and all of this because of what Jesus accomplished.



I’m looking for the “Thumbs up” emoticon.

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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.

Dr. Hammett, it appears to me (please correct me if I am wrong) that you believe because of the Biblical text that physical death entered the world through the Fall. This is an important question because Creationists argue that since evolution works through death, evolution could not exist before the Fall if there was no death before then.

@aleo You’re right about plate tectonics and such. I’m not as sure that droughts and floods work for good. But I would say that God works all things together for good, so even if tsunamis and earthquakes are worked by God for ultimate good, I’m not sure that means we didn’t lose something that would have been better had Adam not sinned. Romans 8 does seem to promise something even better to come when creation is liberated. Because God is gracious and resourceful, the fall didn’t ruin everything. And, yes, even some of the things we experience as painful fit a larger pattern for good. But it seems to me that Scripture says we lost something and that the new creation to come will be better.

@Bilbo We may have to agree to disagree on this. I still am left with the question why Christ’s blood made God favorably inclined, especially how it relates to God being righteous (or just). Yes, the hilasterion was the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Temple. But that blood was from sacrifices who served as substitutes for those who placed their hands on the head of the animals, symbolizing the transference of sins, and then those animals were killed, because death is the penalty for sin. The blood sprinkled on the mercy seat came from a substitute who had paid the penalty for sin. I don’t think penal substitution is the whole of the atonement, but I don’t see a cogent rationale for why Jesus had to die apart from penal substitution. It’s simply intrinsic to most of the key biblical terms for the atonement. I still see penal substitution as a beautiful demonstration of amazing love and grace, as I John 4:10 says.

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@relates I don’t think Scripture gives us the origin of death per se; I do think Rom. 5:12 connects human death with sin. I think we are left to science to give us the origin of death in the animal world and I think the record is pretty clear that animal death came before human sin.

@jshammett I thought you might be interested in these quotations from recognized scientists dealing with this subject:
Tattersall (ref.3, p. 190) asks: “Where does our consciousness come
from? Are our minds distinct from our bodies, or does the one emerge
from the other? Most acutely posed by Rene Descartes well over three
centuries ago, this question is still the center of vigorous debate. The
introduction of evolutionary thought hardly did anything to resolve it;
Charles Darwin was firmly of the opinion that brain evolution through
natural selection was the unambiguous explanation of human
consciousness, while Alfred Russell Wallace, an energetic proponent of
adaptation through natural selection in all other matters, was simply
“unable to see how this process could have brought into existence the
extraordinary awareness of human beings…The mechanisms that lie
behind these emergent properties (of the brain) remain among the most
important unanswered questions of science, although many lines of
investigation are energetically being pursued by neurobiologists,
psychologists, philosophers, and others.”
Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary biology at Cambridge
University (a ‘traditional’ Christian & author of “the Crucible of
Creation”) puts it this way:
“(Darwin assumed) that humans must have had a process of gradual
emergence. But the archeological record doesn’t really show that. We
know that modern humans only appear about 200,000 years ago. But
they didn’t really do much for the first 100,000 years. Why not? They
have the same brain size, but they seem rather stagnant. I’m deeply
puzzled about the origins of the things that make us completely human,
such as our ability to use language and engage in rational discourse,
our ability to employ our imagination. I’m not persuaded those things
can simply be extrapolated from Darwinian processes.”
Ian 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.”
Also: “How did we acquire our singular linguistic/symbolic abilities?
The mechanism remains totally obscure.” Then: “Burials with grave
goods indicate a belief in an afterlife…Incontrovertible evidence for
existence of religious experience.” Another respected anthropologist,
Robert Boyd at UCLA, states: “ Evolutionary theory (Darwinian)
provides a perfectly good explanation for the behavior of other primates,
but not humans. And Bill Calvin, a noted neurobiologist at the
University of Washington, is agreement: “mere anatomical modernity
was not the big step (toward) the life of the Mind”.
5 In ‘The Selfish Gene’, Dawkins titled the final chapter, “Memes: the new
replicators”. He credits them as the foundation of human culture, and sees them
as giving purpose to an otherwise meaningless existence. “We have the power to
defy the selfish genes of our birth…We can even discuss ways of deliberately
cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism–something that has never
existed before in the whole history of the world. We, alone on earth, can rebel
against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Of course, as an evangelical
atheist, Dawkins cannot attribute this in any way to God’s plan for humanity.