I’ve been active in the Faith-and-Science dialogue (I prefer to refer to it in this way, rather than as the “Faith-versus-Science debate”) for a few years now. After trying to convince my listener(s) about the agreement between Christian faith and modern scientific discoveries, like Darwinian Evolution, I’m often asked something like “So what do you do with the Atonement?”
For readers who respond with “the what?” … the Atonement refers to humans being separated from God and becoming reconciled back to God. I’ve heard more than once the play on words that “Atonement is about at-one-ment … the process of becoming ‘at one’ with God.”
Christians would say that Christ is the center of Christianity not only because of what he taught, but also because of what he did … his “work on the cross.” The Atonement. Despite this wide consensus, there is very little agreement within the modern Christian community on what the Atonement is or means. What exactly did he “do” on the cross? Why did he have to die that way?
When questions like these were put to me during my Faith-and-Science talks, I wasn’t really sure what to say. I’d grown to dislike all the talk of a God of wrath and of people going to hell, and hadn’t put much thought into a response to that. But while recently taking some Theology courses, I found a view that not only dissolves all that uncomfortable imagery, but also fits perfectly with Darwinian Evolution and Big Bang theory. What’s more, this wasn’t just some half-baked idea posted on the internet by some nerdy nut, but was in fact the very first understanding of the Atonement held by the earliest Christians!?
I thought I’d take the essay I wrote for my course and adjust it a bit for this blog site, because I think many readers are also struggling with how to fit this part of their world-of-Sunday with modern day-to-day thinking.
For those readers who have antibodies to Bible verses and Christian clichés, and also to those raised on Twitter/YouTube where the message needs to be shorter than 140 characters or 30 seconds, brace yourself: this is a theological essay after all! But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the time you get to the end.
For more Fundamentalist readers, brace yourself. This is going to set aside a lot of highly developed theological teaching by prominent and revered theologians … teachings over which the Christian church has been in bitter dispute for centuries … and will instead go to the teachings of the very earliest Christians, who in turn were taught by Jesus himself, and find common ground with scientific discoveries which the vast majority of people today accept as facts. You’re going to be stretched. But why hang on to something which has only ever fractured the church and created a divide between it and the world?
This blog will ask the reader to take a few basic ideas on faith, without any evidence. First, that we were created: that we didn’t just happen accidentally. Second, that something during the first century started a movement that completely changed the world and the course of history, and it started with a handful of largely uneducated fishermen. Something that can only be explained by a paradigm-changing event. Something like a body being raised from the dead. I’ve elaborated on that last point in a previous post.
Immediately after the whole cross event, the followers of Jesus were completely confused about it. Despair and lack of understanding drips from the words of the two disciples walking to Emmaus while they talked of that shattering event: “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). The disciples hid behind locked doors, fearing for their future now that their leader was gone (Luke 24:33; John 20:19). Some of them decided to return to fishing (John 21:2-4).
Within a few weeks, though, through a series of religious experiences they had (Luke 24:27 and 45; John 14:26), they were changed from cowering, confused fishermen into evangelists that faced head-on the Jewish authorities and Roman government. Their new understanding of the cross event can be heard in Peter’s first sermon: it paved the way for reconciliation with God for anyone who wanted it. The details of the idea were gradually fleshed out, but the core elements remained the same for many centuries: (1) that all humanity are separated from a perfect God by their own faults and weaknesses (some added an act of rebellion on the part of the first humans Adam and Eve); and (2), Christ showed “the Way” (John 14:6) for anyone to be reconciled to God.
These ideas continued to be developed over the ensuing centuries with numerous differences in perspective being proposed by theologians of all stripes.
Major theological divisions occurred during the Middle Ages over the nature of the Atonement, particularly its universality and whether salvation was available on the basis of works, or if it was solely a free gift of grace.
Some continued to hold to Peter’s teaching that Christ offered salvation to everyone, but they divided on whether it was freely offered or needed to be “earned” in various ways (repentance; good deeds; repetitions of the Hail Mary; various mortifications of the flesh; donations of wealth; time spent in Purgatory).
Others held that salvation is not universal: only some will be saved, and it is not possible for anyone to know whether they’re counted among “the elect,” let alone to be able to do anything about that Divine decision.
The end result was the major split in the Christian faith between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—the Reformation—and then another one which gave rise to Calvinism. Disputes and divisions continued, and the vocabulary for this discussion became ever more complicated by the introduction of words and phrases like: expiation (of sin); propitiation (of divine wrath); Penal Substitution (of Christ for sinners); Divine justice; Ransom Theory; Satisfaction Theory; Christus Victor Theory; and Recapitulation Theory. One book I used in my essay claimed there were over twenty different “theories” or views for the Atonement. Another book emphasized that this was in part due to theologians bringing in Greek and modern Western thinking into the mix: “More and more theologians are becoming aware of the extent to which our Western concepts of God in Roman Catholic and Protestant thought owe more to Aristotle, Stoic concepts of natural law, Western jurisprudence, and post-Enlightenment thought, than to the God of the New Testament …”
These numerous church splits over core doctrinal theology have been a frequent target for criticism of the Christian faith. Even worse, some of the details within these different views on such a core doctrine have driven some to discard their faith entirely. They find it hard to accept that “God can’t simply forgive. If some mere humans can forgive perpetrators of egregious offences like rapes or brutal killings without insisting that some form of debt must still be paid (let alone demanding the spilling of someone’s blood, even the blood of an innocent substitute), then why can’t God?”
As a scientist, I’ve seen this phenomenon before. When a hypothesis needs to be continuously re-adjusted, when contradictory evidence continues to arise, when exceptions-to-the-rule need to be continually introduced, when the predictions made by the hypothesis repeatedly fail, and when there seems to never be a complete consensus between experts about the validity of the hypothesis, there comes a point when that hypothesis is set aside and a call is put out for a new and different one that better explains the data.
All the resources which I consulted acknowledge that there are numerous diverse and even contradictory viewpoints on the Atonement, all with abundant scriptural support in favor of their own viewpoint and abundant scriptural evidence refuting the many other viewpoints, yet they can’t come to any agreement. In that sense they fail as explanations or interpretive paradigms.
I’ve found it necessary and satisfying to take a completely different view: the Moral Influence Theory. I was surprised to learn that this isn’t a new idea recently borne out of the ashes of the previous ones referred to above, but is as old as Christianity itself. In fact, it was universally taught in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and was the primary view of most influential early theologians, including Augustine.
In essence, the Moral Influence Theory teaches that God desires a positive moral change in the hearts of individuals, and wants to transform human societies to become more loving. God nurtured this change in part by providing the Old Testament laws, the teachings of the prophets, and ultimately modeled it in the life example and teachings of Jesus Christ himself.
This view not only provides an alternative to the disturbing aspects of Reform theology, but is also compatible with my scientific understanding of human origins. Let’s compare the “traditional” Christian views on the one hand, and on the other hand the Moral Influence view augmented by modern Darwinian Evolution Theory, and see which alternative is more satisfying.
Both alternatives begin from the same starting point. Both agree that:
- God exists and embodies pure love, and for this reason desires relationship;
- God created all things, including humans with whom he wants relationship;
- humans currently fall short of his perfection.
Despite these common starting points, the two alternatives diverge radically after that.
The “traditional” viewpoint says God originally made humans perfect, but the latter rebelled. In fact, some insist that humans are simply unable to attain God’s celestially high expectations of perfection because of our inherent human faults and limitations, and he condemns us for that (even though he’s the one who made us that way). For these reasons, humans are destined for eternal destruction—some would add to that eternal conscious torment—but for God’s compassion in the form of the saving act of Jesus Christ. God makes provision for our salvation, but it is up to us to accept his gift of grace. And yet God cloaks himself in an impenetrable obscurity, and we are pathetically incapable of relating to him directly on a level plane, such that many feel compelled to conclude that there is no God to begin with. Some who persist in theistic belief nonetheless struggle against their own human faults and limitations and experience nothing but failure, guilt, and a sense of separation; the majority, on the other hand, give in to the seeming futility of resisting.
All of these paradoxical statements paint a frustrating scenario in which humans are doomed to fail.
However, I now challenge the view that we were ever perfect to begin with, or that God condemns us for our imperfection.
Instead, I start with the viewpoint that we evolved, and God beckons us closer to his perfection. I see God creating all things using natural mechanisms, including: Big Bang cosmology; Newtonian mechanics; Quantum physics; Relativity; Abiogenesis, Darwinian Evolution.
These processes are ordained and pregnant with the possibility of producing his image out of inanimate matter.
Our evolution from simple life forms was driven by instincts which were absolutely necessary to help us to survive the capricious forces of Natural Selection. Those forces were designed or intended to push life forms from one level of complexity to the next. All life forms needed to think solely about themselves: to be selfish. They (we) had to kill when threatened; had to hoard and steal resources (food; shelter; mates); had to view competitors in their ecological niche as “the enemy”; had to spread genes as far as possible, and as frequently as possible.
Life forms continued to become more complex biologically, intellectually and behaviorally, eventually producing humans which could begin to perceive and act on God’s ideals. The latter include a call toward his perfection, and God cherishes all our efforts to work toward it.
Certainly we’re inherently selfish, and find it easy to ignore the less fortunate. Racism, prejudice, xenophobia, and other forms of tribalism are tearing apart our societies. We struggle with lustful thoughts. We are far from perfect. On all these points I agree with those who hold other views about the Atonement.
But according to Darwinian Evolution, we were never perfect to begin with. We never experienced a sudden separation from God, and to which we needed to be restored or reconciled. Those faults, limitations and undesirable characteristics are products of the mechanisms which were necessary to bring us to this point, and instincts which were crucial to our development as a species. But now we can label them with the word that the Bible uses for sin: “hamartia” … a word taken from archery which simply means missing the mark or falling short [of God’s perfection].
The traditional view puts humans on a downward trajectory that starts from perfection and involves a falling or a breaking which completely conflicts with modern science. But the Moral Influence Theory puts us on an upward trajectory toward perfection, entirely consistent with modern science.
From this perspective, Romans 8:19–22 takes on a whole new meaning for me: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Jesus told us that our “hamartia” comes from those driving forces deep within us (Mark 7:20-23), ones that I now recognize as an inheritance from our evolutionary heritage. And he showed us it is possible to be free from a completely selfish driving force, and modeled for us a new driving force: perfect selflessness. He lost no time on accumulating personal material wealth and seeking personal security and comfort: even to the point of martyrdom.
And we’re called to do the same. He taught us to love supremely (God first, and then all other humans; Matthew 22:36–40), to give, to heal, to serve.
That is our Atonement.
As for the cross itself, I don’t see that as crucial (a play on words there … look up the word “crucial”). To the Jewish and Roman leaders, Jesus was a radical who needed to be eliminated, and it just happened to be the way executions were carried out in that society.
But the resurrection itself, on the other hand, is important. I see that as simply God’s way of putting a spot-light on this event. A way of saying to humans: “Take a look at this … this is something different.” Does it conflict with modern science? No more than aerodynamics conflicts with the law of gravity: something that was previously impossible … making five hundred tons of metal and human flesh fly through the air … is now a routine event. Who knows how God might have done it. But I can live with that kind of mystery. If you’re going to assume that God created all things, the very first take-it-on-faith that I started with, then …
As always, I welcome your responses to this