Substitutionary Atonement and Evolution, Part 1 | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1


Growing up in a Christian home, I never questioned the validity of Substitutionary Atonement. I was raised to believe that humans were sinful and God was Holy. Because of sin, God could not be in right relationship with creation. As a solution, Jesus played the role of mediator between humanity and God. Jesus served as a perfect sacrifice for human sin. His blood covers our iniquities, and because of his death, humans can be forgiven.

As a young adult, this view made sense to me. I knew I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. It seemed reasonable that God would use Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for human sin. But over time, I began to question the logical and moral merits of such a view. I can still remember the first time I began to question this interpretation of the cross. I was in a Good Friday service surrounded by Christians celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus. Far from the solemn tone of a Catholic mass or tenebrae service, this worship experience was filled with upbeat music, raised hands, and prayers of thanksgiving. At this moment, I began to ask several questions. Was Jesus’ humiliation and torture really something to celebrate? Shouldn’t we be mourning the death of Jesus instead? Wasn’t the crucifixion of Jesus an example of selfishness and sin by those responsible for his death? If Jesus’ execution was an example of sin, then how could God will it?

These questions still haunt me. They’ve caused me to reevaluate the meaning and significance of the cross and of Christian atonement. They’ve led me to study and discuss these issues with Christians I trust and respect. In what follows, I will attempt to outline some of my thoughts on Christian Atonement. I don’t claim to have all the answers. What you will read below is nothing more than the theological journey I’ve taken over the past few years. The issues covered are sufficiently complex. Because of this, I hope the Christian church can learn to embrace those who accept substitutionary atonement as well as those who interpret the cross differently.

Substitutionary Atonement

To begin, I will briefly sketch a generic version of Substitutionary Atonement. Of key importance are the nature of God, the cause of humanity’s separation from God, and the role of the cross.

  • God created the world and humanity in a state of perfection (Garden of Eden).
  • God was in right relationship with creation.
  • Adam and Eve freely and willfully disobeyed God. As a result, sin entered the world.
  • Because of the original sin, the world is fallen. Every descendent of the original couple will now inherit a sinful nature.
  • God is a Holy God. God cannot relate to sin. Because of humanity’s sinful nature, God is no longer in right relationship with humanity.
  • God is just. Thus, sin must be punished.
  • God is also love. Therefore, God does not want to punish humanity, but desires right relationship instead.
  • In order to punish humanity’s sin, God sends Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin once and for all. Jesus takes our place on the cross. In this way, Jesus functions as a substitute for humanity.
  • Now that sin has been punished, humanity can be forgiven. The chasm between humanity and God has been bridged. We can now be in right relationship with God (salvation).

Some Potential Problems

From my perspective, Substitutionary Atonement creates two potential problems for Christian theology. It seems that if substitutionary atonement is true, then God is either severely limited in power or unnecessarily cruel. If the only way God can forgive or reconcile is through blood and sacrifice, then God’s power is limited. Why is sacrifice the only way God can forgive? If God is all powerful, then there should be a number of ways to reestablish right relationship with humanity. If God can’t forgive without blood and sacrifice, then God is limited in power.

On the other hand, if God can forgive humanity in many ways and simply chooses to use blood as God’s means of forgiveness, then God seems unnecessarily cruel. Why would God will the torture, humiliation, and death of his son, if there were other ways to redeem humanity? One could even argue, as Gregory Love does in his book Love, Violence, and the Cross, that substitutionary atonement makes God look like an abusive father. This raises an important question. Does substitutionary atonement give an accurate portrayal of the God of Scripture, and the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ? I would argue that it does not. And such a view appears to box God into a corner. If God can’t forgive without blood, then God is severely limited in power. On the other hand, if God can forgive in many ways, then Jesus’ death on the cross looks unnecessarily cruel.

Furthermore, I would argue that Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of human sin. How else should we label the execution of an innocent man? This is problematic because substitutionary atonement argues that God willed the death of Jesus as part of a divine plan to reconcile humanity and the world. If the crucifixion of Jesus was sinful and God willed this death, then God willed sin. This contradicts a God whose nature is holy, loving, and just.

My second critique comes from the world of science. In my estimation, substitutionary atonement does not fit well with the theory of evolution. Similar to my experience with substitutionary atonement, I didn’t start questioning the accuracy of a literal six-day creation until I was a young adult. I remember being deeply troubled by the divergent creation stories found in Genesis 1 and 2. In chapter 1 the first humans are created after the sun, moon, stars, earth, animals, and vegetation; but in chapter 2 Adam is created before vegetation. Which order of creation is true? Furthermore, did the word “day” really refer to a literal 24-hour time period? How could there be a day before the sun was created? More troubling questions arose concerning Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel he travels to the land of Nod, but where on earth did all the people in Nod come from? Questions like these led me away from a literal historical interpretation of the early Genesis narratives.

However, if macroevolution is true and humans are the result of billions of years of natural selection, then several important theological questions emerge. First, what happens to the doctrine of the Fall of humanity in light of evolution? If evolution is true, then the universe is very old, humans evolved from primates, and the historical accuracy (but not the truth) of the Genesis narratives is called into question. Because of this, many who support a version of theistic evolution argue for a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3. In this view, the Fall is not a historical event. But now the questions really start to mount. Substitutionary atonement argues that Jesus was crucified in order to restore humanity’s relationship with God. Sin created a divide between God and creation. Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to bridge this gap. However, if denying the historical Fall calls into question the doctrine of original sin, then it also calls into question the role of the cross of Christ within substitutionary atonement. If Jesus didn’t die in order to overcome humanity’s original sin, then why did Jesus die? What is Jesus, the second Adam, attempting to restore with the cross, if not the sin of the first Adam? Substitutionary atonement sees original sin as a major reason for Christ’s death. But macroevolution calls the Fall and the doctrine of original sin into question. Thus, evolution poses a significant challenge to substitutionary atonement.

These critiques levied against the substitution view are not intended to be the final word on the atonement. They merely represent the major reasons for my own transition away from substitutionary atonement. In what follows, I intend to sketch an alternative view of the cross; one that preserves God’s goodness and God’s justice. A view that identifies the crucifixion of Jesus as sinful, and thus, in opposition to the will of God. A theory more compatible with the best evolutionary science.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Jim Lock) #4

2 thoughts.

Was Jesus innocent of the charges? Lately, I’m not entirely sure. If any part of the Crucifixion was a defeat of the earthly powers and the establishment of God’s sovereignty over said powers, then it seems to me that the charge of treason fits. The twist is whereas the Romans saw Crucifixion as a deterrent and punishment for overthrowing the Emperor, Jesus saw it as the victory that placed himself as sovereign over and the above the emperor.

Also, is Dr. Bankard implying that Substitutionary Atonement as no role in the Crucifixion? Or that it was been over emphasized?


(Albert Leo) #5

When I was 16, I accompanied my mother to the Dalaiden’s religious store in Chicago, and we selected an almost-life-sized figure of Christ crucified to hang above the altar in our parish church. It is still there (but in a new building.) It is a very powerful symbol of how offensive our sins must be in the eyes of our Creator God, and through the years I have seen how the respectful attention given it must have helped parishioners lead better lives.

But at 16 I was at that ‘question everything’ age. I asked all the questions that Dr, Bankard posed about Atonement, and I was seriously troubled. I have resolved (most of) these questions during the long life which the Good Lord has blessed me, but I am anxious to see if the following blogs will add further clarification.
Al Leo

(مَسِيحِيّ) #6

However, if denying the historical Fall calls into question the doctrine of original sin, then it also calls into question the role of the cross of Christ within substitutionary atonement.

And if denying the Fall as a historical event because of a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 does not call into question the doctrine of original sin then this second criticism is rendered moot.

Here’s a video of Keith Ward arguing against Fundamentalism.

(Micah Brown) #7

I think a couple of things need to be noted. First, regarding the objections to God apparently being responsible for Jesus’s death, a theology of God’s sovereignty solves this problem. Bad things happen all the time which God does not directly cause and has no responsibility for, but which nevertheless work towards His plans for the universe. Why would it be exceptional for Him to work in this way to accomplish atonement? Additionally, Jesus himself saw his crucifixion something voluntary, not something which was thrust on Him by sinners (no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord".

Second, there are several models for conceptualizing Adam and Eve which do allow for original sin and evolution in addition to the one expressed in this article. For instance, it could be a group of early humanity, or a federal model, where two chosen representatives sinned on behalf of humanity, even if they were not the only humans. Even if you take the story entirely as myth, you cannot discount it’s message on that basis. Calling something myth does not mean it is meaningless or irrelevant. Rather, myths say profound things about the nature of humanity and God. If we believe in biblical authority, we should look for the message of it’s apparent myths or symbols rather than ignoring them.

(Patrick Watters) #8

As a simple old Moose monk, I surrender to greater mystery than I can understand. But I will say I see a much larger, more grand story beyond just the death of Jesus. Creation, redemption, restoration, even recreation (“all things new”) all in the Name of LOVE, aka God. Jesus, the Christ of God, for me personally revealed a Truth I had desperately been searching for; that there is a GOD, and He is the intimate Lover of my soul. The death of Jesus on the cross? I believe the ultimate divine purpose was/is inseparable from incarnation and Resurrection, to take away the evil dweeb’s only weapon and render him powerless in the “at hand” Kingdom. There is good to be done, let’s quit arguing (the dweeb’s “work”) and join God in completing the blessed work of fulfilling the Kingdom. }:-

(David Schwartz) #9

In the movie or book, the Hiding Place, Betsy and Corrie, living in a concentration camp, are confronted by a violinist whose hands have been crushed by the cruelty of the Nazis. She disrupts one of the Ten Boom Bible studies and asks, “Did your God do this to me?” The question of power or sovereignty vs. goodness and love are held in tension at this point. In fact, in much of life they are in tension for us, “if God loves me, then why…?”. While my response is not to provide an explanation, I must add that you must go further back before the garden and the fall to understand the answer to this mystery. Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.” It was not a response to sin that provoked this plan but a deliberate and intentional action prepared to demonstrate the love of God and the fulfillment of His character.

(David Schwartz) #10

I’d like also to say that I have no problem as an evangelical reformed believer (who is neither a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist-every passage must be interpreted literally without considering the type of literature or context of the passage) with the fall in the context of an evolutionary history. I had struggled with the evolution issue ever since I heard Francis Collins being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, roughly six years ago. After much examination of the Genesis beginning chapters and with much soul searching, I had come to the point of realizing that they could be understood as non-literal historical narrative. Having read Keller, Stott, Packer, Walton, Waltke, and Warfield, I have reconciled myself to alternative readings of the first few chapters that would allow for an evolutionary progression. I have spent much of the past few years studying intensely the science of it, from astronomy, to biology, to chemistry to physics. The Fall can be understood in this context. However, I must strongly disagree with an alternate reading of the atonement which dismisses the need for a sacrifice for sin. To ask the question, “Why is sacrifice the only way God can forgive?” is to undermine not only the faith, but the grace in which that faith is placed. You might as well ask, why is it necessary that Christ be raised from the dead? There are a lot of ideas and theories on this site, some of which I can support and others which I can not. But, in the end they are ideas that merit consideration, even if I cannot reconcile them to evangelical faith. Ideas like the multiverse pose quandaries that could be possible, I suppose, but denying the substitutionary (Christ’s bloody death for me) penal atonement makes no sense in the context of evangelical discussion of the evolution of the universe.

Just curious what science conflicted with the atonement? It seems more a theological point than a scientific one.


I have some serious concerns about this post and the argumentation offered, especially in the first critique. Many of the questions asked are either easily answerable from a basic biblical theology or are based entirely on “it seems to me” statements. I’m working hard to try and reconcile my faith with am ECF perspective and posts like this one make that seem all the more impossible.

(Bill Wilson) #12

Substitutionary atonement made perfect sense in the world of first century Israel, where people believed that slaughtering animals somehow appeased divine wrath. It makes no sense today, nor should it. Fortunately, there are other ways to see Jesus’ death in a redemptive light. Foremost among these, IMO, is the “moral influence theory.” As MLK said in 1963, unearned suffering is redemptive.

(David Schwartz) #13

Then Jesus just becomes one of many “Saviors” who have shown us the way. He is no longer God in the flesh and the exclusive Savior of the world. As CS Lewis said, if He’s not Lord, He’s either mad or a lunatic.

(Thomas Jay Oord) #14

Excellent essay! The substitutionary atonement theory has many flaws. Add to them the difficulties that evolution creates, and you have even more reason to reject that theory of atonement. I look forward to seeing the alternative Bankard has in mind.

(David Schwartz) #15

Sorry, I meant to say Lord, liar or lunatic. As you can tell this isn’t a gray area in my opinion. I think Scripture is very clear. If we unravel the fabric of redemption, we have no warp or woof.

(Bill Wilson) #16

Lewis’ trilemma is fatally flawed. First, the idea that Jesus ever claimed to be god is highly suspect. Second, if Jesus was wrong, that doesn’t necessarily make him mad, simply mistaken. Third, I have no problem with Jesus being one of many saviors.

(Joseph Bankard) #17

Thanks for your comment Jim. When I say that Jesus was innocent, I don’t mean innocent according to Roman or Jewish law. I’m referring to Jesus as sinless. I can see why the Romans and the Jewish elite felt justified in killing Jesus. My concern with substitutionary atonement is that it often argues that God willed or even indirectly caused the death of Jesus. This is problematic, from my perspective, because God knows that Jesus is without sin. Thus, for God to will the death of Jesus, is for God to will sin (the execution of a man who has committed no sin).

Also, I feel strongly that atonement comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But I am opposed to any view of substitutionary atonement that argues God needed the blood Jesus to reconcile humanity or to forgive human sin. Hopefully, tomorrow’s blog post (#2 in the series) will help answer your last question in more detail.

Thanks again for your comment.

(Joseph Bankard) #18

Thanks Micah. I really appreciate your comments. I will respond below.

  1. I absolutely agree with you that God can work through horrible events. God can use just about anything to further God’s kingdom. But I make a distinction between God being able to use pain, suffering and injustice to further God’s kingdom and God causing said events. I believe that the cross demonstrates this well. God took the sin of the cross (an angry crowd torturing an innocent man to death) and transformed it into an act of salvation in the resurrection. What a beautiful image. However, I don’t believe that God willed, planned or caused the crucifixion. If God’s plan or will includes the torturing of an innocent man, then God plans for, wills, and even causes sin. I believe this view paints an inaccurate picture of God and God’s character. So I believe God can and did use the crucifixion for God’s redemptive purposes, but God did not plan or desire the cross.

I also agree that a huge part of the crucifixion is Christ’s willingness to be killed. Jesus could have avoided the cross by calling down a legion of angels. Instead, he chooses to lay down his life. I believe that Jesus reveals the nature of God and the nature of love in this act of kenosis. This reveals the road to our salvation (sacrificial love).

Finally, I also agree that we need to take the theological (spiritual, eternal) truths found in the book of Genesis very seriously. Genesis 1-3 tells us many important truths about God, human nature, the nature of sin, human freedom, the imago die, the doctrine of creation, etc… I don’t want to diminish this in any way. It is also possible to reconcile a literal Adam and Eve with evolution. However, experts in evolutionary biology find it difficult to imagine two original humans evolving in such a way. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I think a literal Adam and Eve can be compatible with evolution. But this is not the dominant view of those with expertise in evolutionary biology.

Thanks again for your comments.

(Joseph Bankard) #19

Thanks Patrick. I loved your comment. It echoes some of what I write in tomorrows (Wednesdays) blog post. I hope you have time to read it. I’d love to hear what you think.


(Joseph Bankard) #20

Thanks for your comment David. I agree that a huge part of the crucifixion is Christ’s willingness to be killed. Jesus could have avoided the cross by calling down a legion of angels. Instead, he chooses to lay down his life. I believe that Jesus reveals the nature of God and the nature of love in this act of kenosis. This reveals the road to our salvation (sacrificial love). And I believe that the incarnation was something God planned from the start. So Christ’s selfless love (Philippians ch. 2) is a part of the incarnation and the crucifixion. Like you, I think this reveals the will and character of God.


(Joseph Bankard) #21

Thanks for your post David. You raise important questions. As you know, there is more than one theory of atonement. In fact, their is no official orthodox position on the atonement. Throughout church history many decisions have been made regarding orthodoxy. Everything from the nature of Christ (divine by nature won out over divine by action), to the Triune God, to the nature of sin. This allowed the church (Catholic) to make decisions about orthodoxy and heresy. But no official view was taken on atonement. I believe that substitutionary atonement is a legitimate Christian view and should be a part of the Christian church and it’s teachings. However, I don’t believe that it is the only option. I hope there is room in evangelical Christianity for honest disagreement on this issue. I believe in atonement and salvation. I believe that salvation comes through Christ. But I don’t believe that God willed the death of Christ as a payment for human sin. My view of atonement is somewhat different. I lay out my constructive view of atonement in Wednesday’s blog post. Hopefully, that will help answer some questions.

To your last question, I think that substitutionary atonement is both a theological and a scientific issue. If evolution calls the fall and original sin into question (at least in some of its forms), and substitutionary atonement relies heavily on the logic of the fall and original sin, then evolution will also pose challenges to substitutionary atonement. In this way, it is a scientific issue.

Thanks again for your comments and questions.

(Caleb Knox) #22

I’d like to say that I strongly resent the " Let’s reinterpret all of Biblical Theology in light of Biological Evolution" mentality. I’m a confessionally Reformed Christian that thinks that there may be validity to Evolutionary Creationism. My biggest sorrow in this area is that i’m very much alone in this perspective in my theological camp and those who do hold to EC deny very central Christian doctrine(making EC look exactly like what Fundies say it is, liberalism.) When it began to seem unlikely that the Solar System was geocentric, or when we began to understand that being “knit together” in our mothers womb happened via cell division, or when we realized that God blesses us with rain through the water cycle…did we need to reanalyze everything regarding God, Man, and Sin? Why would the mechanism of creation cast doubt on anything the historic creeds or confessions have taught?