How you interpret Genesis 1-3 is about more than just the length of the creation days. What you believe about how the world began has ripple effects throughout Scripture. If Genesis 1 and 2 are metaphorical or allegorical and not meant to be understood literally, then that affects many other parts of Scripture. For example, was there an actual couple, Adam and Eve, from whom all humanity are descended? How were they created? Were they created perfect and without sin? Did they sin and fall from that perfection? Was there death before the Fall?
Some Christians who believe in theistic evolution work hard to show that their views on the origin of the world and mankind do not mean abandoning a belief in Adam and original sin. For some Adam was a de novo creation, for others he was a hominid adopted by God and given a soul, and for another group Adam is merely a metaphorical figure who represents the origin of man and sin.
The problem with these attempts to reconcile evolutionary teachings on the origins of man with the Bible is that for each “conflict” they solve more difficulties are created down the line. Many Young Earth Creationists (YEC) are belittled for being concerned about the dangers of the “slippery slope” that starts with accepting evolution. However, there is a very real problem with how to interpret Scriptures dealing with Adam, the Fall, sin, etc. And many theistic evolutionists agree.
BioLogos, a foundation that exists to promote theistic evolution, regularly runs articles from various scholars on how to reinterpret these issues and how to reconcile them with evolutionary teachings. The latest series discusses the doctrine of the atonement. BioLogos wants Christians to believe there is a rich history of differing opinions on the atonement. In fact, they want you to believe that there is no one accepted position:
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.
This is disturbing to say the least. While it’s true that there are various other “models,” none are Biblical. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is, and has been, the one orthodox position. Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins. That’s the gospel. This is clear in a number of passages:
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21 ESV)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24-25 ESV)
But substitutionary atonement is dependent on Adam and the Fall and original sin. If evolutionary views on origins move one away from these doctrines, then the atonement needs to be reworked too.
The first attempt to do so in BioLogos’ new series is by Dr. Joseph Bankard, an associate professor of philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University. In part 1 of his essay, Dr. Bankard explains that he was raised to believe in substitutionary atonement, but after he accepted evolutionary views on origins, he decided to rethink the atonement. He was particularly bothered by two aspects:
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.
Dr. Bankard doesn’t believe that substititonary atonement is consistent with God as revealed in Jesus. He also doesn’t believe that it fits well with evolutionary theory:
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.
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?
So, according to Dr. Bankard, no Adam, no Fall, no original sin, no substitutionary atonement.
In part 2 of his essay, Dr. Bankard attempts to answer why Jesus died if not to “save His people from their sins.” He believes that instead of Jesus’ death, we should focus on the incarnation:
Jesus doesn’t become human to die. Jesus takes on flesh and bone to show us how to really live, how to be fully human.
First, the incarnation is not primarily about the cross. God does not send Jesus to die. God does not require Jesus’ death in order to forgive humanity’s sin. As a result, God is not motivated by retribution or righteous anger. Instead, the incarnation is motivated by love.
So, Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. He is then our example. But if so, then why did He die?
I argue that God did not will the cross. An angry crowd, a prideful group of the religious elite, and a cowardly Roman prefect, put a perfectly innocent man to death. They willed the cross. And I believe this act is an example of sin. But God is holy, loving, and just. Thus, God cannot will or condone sin. Instead, I argue that the incarnation is about life, revelation, and inspiration—not death. I believe that God knew Jesus would be killed. That’s what happens when the kingdom of God collides with the kingdom of this world. But Christ’s death was not part of God’s divine plan.
Dr. Bankard believes that Jesus died because bad men killed Him, but that it was not part of God’s plan. I’m not sure why he finds this lack of God’s sovereignty and power to be a more comfortable position. He goes on to explain that God’s love is the heart of the atonement:
God promises to absorb violence and death and replace it with reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. This revelation, this vision, is the reason for the incarnation. It is the power behind the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And it is the method and the means of our atonement and ultimate salvation.
So, all we need is love. All we need is love. All we need is love, love. Love is all we need … . (My apologies to the Beatles, and their fans.)
I believe that Dr. Bankard is correct that God’s love was the impetus behind the whole plan of redemption. John 3 is pretty clear on that:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16 ESV)
But God’s love for us doesn’t change the fact that Jesus came to die for our sins. Both are true. God loves us, therefore Jesus came to die to pay the penalty for our sins. As Romans 3 says:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22-26 ESV)
He is just and the justifier. God is love, but leaving us in our sins would not have been love.
Dr. Bankard closes with explaining again why his view of the atonement is preferable:
This view of the atonement is important for several reasons. First, it doesn’t require, though would be compatible with, a historical Adam and Eve and a traditional view of original sin. The substitutionary view argues that Jesus’ death redeems the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the garden. To adopt this view, one must read Genesis 1-3 more literally. At times, this kind of biblical hermeneutic may run counter to evolutionary theory. The view sketched above does not require a historical Adam and Eve or a traditional concept of original sin, making it more compatible with evolution. Additionally, my view of atonement argues that Christ’s death was not part of God’s plan. This helps preserve God’s power (God can forgive in many ways, he doesn’t require blood) and God’s goodness (God doesn’t will the cross).
Dr. Bankard’s understanding of the atonement is certainly easier to reconcile with evolutionary theory. But that seems to be the wrong way to go about interpretation. Reading Scripture so that it fits within your own paradigm is eisogesis, reading into the text. When you start with the view that evolution is correct and then decided how to read Scripture so that it fits with evolution, you will end up doing some interesting hermeneutical gymnastics.
No creation, no Adam, no Fall, no original sin, no substitutionary atonement, no Christ? How far do we go to accommodate what evolutionary science says is and isn’t possible? It really does come down to “Did God really say?”
He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31 ESV)