Thinking about the Atonement | The BioLogos Forum

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Last week we ran a short series of posts about original sin. That is a topic of central importance in our dialogue about evolution and the Gospel, and no doubt we’ll return to it again and again. Related to that discussion is the doctrine of the atonement. The work of Christ must be understood as a response to the reality and universal extent of sin among human beings. And, of course, our understanding of the nature of sin is affected by different models of human origins. Many theologians think that the substitutionary model of atonement requires something like the Augustinian view of the Fall. But there are other models of atonement, and other models of the Fall. Substitutionary atonement is questioned these days on grounds other than evolutionary understandings of human origins, but many evolutionary creationists have added their voices to those concerns.

The atonement is one of the easiest examples to give for there being considerable theological diversity in the church over these 2000 years. From christus victor and fishhook theories, to penal substitution and moral exemplar theories, we can’t say there is one doctrine of the atonement that has stood the test of time. Are these necessarily contextual and limited in their applicability (not to be confused with the atonement itself being limited)? Has there been development in the doctrine such that we’re getting closer to the truth? What do you think about the doctrine of the atonement from an evolutionary creation perspective?

Starting tomorrow, we’ll run a couple of posts each week for the next several weeks by theologians on the topic of atonement. They were each asked to reflect on the atonement in light of the science of evolution. These are not meant to be definitive statements on the topic, but suggestive and inducements to further thinking. We hope it will model the kinds of conversations we think are important. We look forward to your thoughts.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As an old man in the “second half” (Rohr), I’ve witnessed far too much obsession by Christians of the theology of penal substitution, of punishment. I’ve heard Brothers and Sisters insistent on the notion that sins required punishment, so insistent in fact that death consumes them to the point of missing the greater Truth of life in the Incarnation and Resurrection. At-one-ment is far more than sacrifice and death, (remembering that death is the dweeb’s only true weapon against humanity.) If we remember that Jesus death means nothing aside from His Resurrection, then we will focus on life, and see Incarnation as God’s greatest gift to humankind. We will see Jesus death and Resurrection as ultimate final victory, and the arrival of the Kingdom on earth, already, yet not complete. Abundant Life is here in Christ, obsession with punishment and death is doing the evil dweeb’s work for him, (the stuff of Screwtape and Wormwood.) Choose life. }:-


AMEN, Patrick. Christian evolutionists believe that Darwinian evolution, based at least partly on ‘selfish genes’, brought Homo sapiens to the point that their Brains were capable of operating as Minds–Minds capable of wanting to know their Creator. Archeological evidence is convincing that this occurred ‘suddenly’ (on a geological scale). Even Dawkins, the evangelical atheist, acknowledges this, and anticipates the time when human minds (operating through ideas, ‘memes’ in what Teilhard called the Noosphere) overcomes these selfish genes and achieves true altruism, something never before seen on this planet. If Dawkins had remained a Christian, he would have agreed with your statement: We will see Jesus death and Resurrection as ultimate final victory, and the arrival of the Kingdom on earth, already, yet not complete.

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I’m looking forward to this series as well. For several years much of the standard Church language about Christ’s death has bothered me. Especially when it comes to guilt. i.e. “Christ DIED for you!!,” “You don’t deserve it!,” and so on and so forth. While not necessarily untrue, such language plays heavily on a person’s guilt. What does it mean to be ‘free from sin?’ As best as I can tell, it means that we are free from anger, jealousy, insecurity, and guilt. It seems to me that focusing heavily on Christ’s death accomplishes exactly the opposite of what the Resurrection intended, a joyful life here and now.

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My sons, professors in astrophysics and cosmology, and evolutionary biology respectively, would likely speak more eloquently here, but I am an old biologist myself and late in life grad in spiritual formation and discipleship. I trust we agree in my family anyway on the greater Truth of incarnation and resurrection in the grand, overarching Story God is telling.

The Genesis effect:

I remember a Star Trek movie with just those words as the theme. In the movie man, manipulating physics creates a world in hours instead of days as Dr. McCoy puts it! I don’t know if this is a satire against creationism or evolution, which remains to be argued. All I know is the Genesis literal account is troublesome for a lot of educated people today.

The creation of the universe in six days seems unlikely given the facts we find in the study of cosmology and astrophysics. I myself lean towards the accepted theory of the beginnings of the universe, its age and so forth; it does makes a lot of common sense. I have often argued evolution with my Christian friends with the aim at bypassing an obstacle to witnessing to someone that firmly believes in evolution. Since evolution can’t explain the resurrection, what does it matter that someone believes in it? Is better that you agree with it, and then go on to talk about the evidence for the resurrection. It seems an unnecessary obstacle to witnessing. But the fundamentalist tells me; “No you can’t agree with anyone about evolution, it is a lie. If you do, then you are not really sharing the Gospel” What? How do they arrive at that conclusion? I don’t know, but being an eternal curious person when having a conversation just like that with a minister, I went about to find a bit more about this issue which brings so many to the brink of paranoia.

I read two books by Francis Collins that eased my mind as to the evidence for evolution[32]. I also read an interesting book called “The Counter Creationist Handbook”, and it sort of answered the basic questions I had about evolution. I concluded that it is likely the universe is 13.7 billions old, earth about 4 and man is a lot more than 20 thousand years old. Now I don’t have much of a problem agreeing with a firm believer in evolution, the issue is not that important when I am bringing him the case for Christ.

But I do have a gripe against theistic evolutionist I one issue, the fall. See, if there is a fall and for all the theology so far available in the Bible and its interpretation it seems that this is the consensus it doesn’t really matter if there was an actual Adam that existed. The fact that the Bible talks about the “second Adam” referring to Jesus, suggests the “first” one didn’t quite work out! Even if Adam refers to man as in mankind still the connotation is that there was something that went wrong with the first “one” or with mankind in general, thus “the fall”. Further the resurrection of Christ and also the Jewish interpretation of man’s destiny in the bodily resurrection, suggests that something went wrong with the intended goal for mankind. The conclusion for the Justification at the cross should make one realize that justice aims at correcting the wrongdoing. If there is something that goes wrong, someone that does a wrong doing, then justice is there to correct it. In the case of mankind, the sacrifice at the cross (Christ paying for our infinite sin) corrects mans wrongdoing, sin, transgression. And if mankind sinned it means that there was a time in which he was created whole, sinless and was in perfect harmony with a God that creates only good.

I think that this is the evolution problem for Christians. We have understood our condition as sinners from a start point in Eden. Genesis puts this in the best possible way we can understand why we die, why we are cut off from communion with God and the history that unfolds, culminating in Christ’s resurrection that show us the way to our future, all of this reinforces this fallen state towards “restoration” in the resurrection of the body. It all tells of a fall, we are in a place or state of existence which was not intended, sin is an accident, it wasn’t suppose to be.

Now comes evolution and tells you and I; “Hey you weren’t quite created whole, sinless or perfect and by the way death was always a constant in your biology”! It tells us that we were pretty much “fallen” already, and the evidence leans toward evolution. Big problem for Christians! How do we answer these issues?

Recently I posted that question on a blog in a Christian evolutionist’s page. The answer was that they didn’t see a problem with the fall and evolution; I am still waiting to hear how do they arrive at that conclusion. You see it is not enough to believe; you have to know the reasons for your belief, the theme of this book.

And this applies to them as well. If you adhere to evolution is your responsibility to answer not just superficially that God is powerful enough to create through evolution, you need to answer all the questions that 2000 years of theology have amassed against it. Part of that huge theology has to do with what man is, what God intended, the evidence of how we got to this mess and explain if we fell, from where did we fall and when in evolution!

If my theistic evolutionist friends have a better answer I would like to hear it! Otherwise much work has to be done in explaining this understanding and coming to an agreement at several stances in Christian theology. I believe they owe us this much if they are going to monkey up with issues that are true by the current theological reasoning. This synthesis they are talking about has to be thorough, not just superficial! I believe it can be achieved, but they have to answer the evolution objectors.

1- How do they explain Christ’s restoration of man to the ideal?

2- What was that ideal?

3- Was there an actual fall of man or a necessary condition?

4- If so, why was it necessary?

5- If not, from where did man fall?

*From my book “What I Wish Christians Would Tell You”…In the chapter of "difficult areas of Christianity. My answer to this is right after the above copy but it raises the challenge for Christians who believe in evolution to clean up a lot of these “diverse” views into a common sense theology. The prior chapters to this one should make you realize the answer to questions on atonement/substitution etc. Combined with this chapter, the previous ones, I believe have a good answer to this dilemma!

Tio Papo

I have yet to read your book, but, for me at least, the answer to your challenge below is simple:

" the challenge for Christians who believe in evolution to clean up a lot of these “diverse” views into a common sense theology."

Christians should STOP insisting that a Perfect God (by human definition of perfect) must have created humankind in a Perfect state (again our definition of perfect). Why not accept the scientific scenario that Homo sapiens, like all earthly life, arrived on the scene via Darwinian evolution which operates to a great extent through ‘selfish genes.’ God, using biological mechanisms that are not yet clear to us, then turned Homo sapien’s Brains into Minds capable of using a Conscience to defy our selfish genes and build an earthly Kingdom that He sees as possible. Why don’t we admit we were created ‘faulty’-- but given the opportunity to become co-creators of a better world?
Al Leo

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