Do atonement theories continue to speak to the human condition? —NO

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]

by Steve Kindle

Head-Brown smallAs with most of the controversial questions in this series, they must be qualified in certain ways due to the wide range of possible approaches. Even then, we can only scratch the surface. This is especially true of this question. So my effort will not be to convince as much as it is to open possibilities for reevaluation.
Just what is the human condition? The Bible’s answer, albeit here in condensed form, is that human beings are separated from God by personal and corporate sin. As long as this condition obtains, humans are destined for an eternity apart from God. In order to take away this guilt and remove this separation so that God and humans can be at one again, a penalty must be paid. It was Jesus “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:25) Through faith in this self-sacrificial act, humans can appropriate salvation, or at-one-ment (atonement), with God.
Beginning with the New Testament and down to our day, people have struggled to understand how the sacrifice of Jesus accomplished atonement. This struggle has produced several theories, none of which has become the only orthodox explanation. This is partly due to the fact that the New Testament, itself, puts forth competing answers, and that no one theory has captured the imagination of the church. These were doctrinally formative years where disciples were trying to figure out the meaning of Jesus for the community. We are still engaged in that endeavor.
Generally, the atonement theories have this in common: they each assume that human beings are sinners who deserve eternal punishment (hell), and that the death of Jesus is the only means of relief from the wrath of God. The human condition, then, is to either live a life under the curse of death, or by faith in Jesus, appropriate salvation.
What kind of a world presumes such a curse and cure?
Atonement theories originated when the world was young, at least in the minds of their originators. For Augustine, it was a mere 4500 years old when he first conceived of an original Adam passing on to humanity (through sex) the inescapable human condition of depravity, known as Original Sin, which could only be alleviated by the sacrifice of Christ. All one had to do was trace the biblical genealogies and one could arrive at the first parents. This was essentially the view until the rise of modern geology in the 18th century. We now know our world, the planet Earth, to be 1,000,000 times older than Augustine imagined (4.5 billion years old). The literalness of the Genesis primordial accounts were quite plausible in those days, but only biblical literalists continue to believe them today.
Also complicating the picture is the emergence of Charles Darwin and his biological theory of evolution1. This leads to the conclusion that there were no such people as the historical first parents, Adam and Eve2; that, in fact, humanity’s rise took millions of years and many iterations before homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago. Ergo, no “original” Adam, no “original” sin. This suggests that all doctrines adduced from a literal Adam need to be reevaluated, including those of the apostle Paul. A savior who saves us from a primordial “fall” that never happened is credulous in a pre-Darwinian age and impossible to imagine in ours.
Reevaluations remind me of the adage, “having your cake and eating it, too.” Most are efforts to keep evolution and a literal Adam. One suggestion is that God chose a “first couple” out of the pool of existing humanoid creatures and invested them with souls. It was this couple who rebelled against God and ushered in sin. Unfortunately, missing in this construction are the rib from which Eve came, the Garden of Eden, and the assertion that “there was no one to till the ground,” until God formed ha ’adam from the ground.
In those Christian traditions that reject Original Sin as a doctrine, they, nevertheless, hold to a sense of universal sin that no human can escape from. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So whether one comes corrupted into the world through Original Sin, or sins by nature of a corrupted mind, all humans are in need of redemption.
None of this has addressed the presumed answer to the dilemma of fallen humanity: sacrifice. During the time the Bible addresses, sacrifice was the order of the day. By sacrificing crops or animals, and, yes, humans, the petitioner believed that God or the gods were temporarily assuaged.
All but one or two atonement theories have, at their base, the conviction that humanity needs to be redeemed, is incapable of redeeming itself, and that a supernatural imposition in history is required to affect a cure. But is this truly the human condition?
G. K. Chesterton once averred that, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” He saw original sin as the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable and validated by 3500 years of recorded human history.
Evolutionary theory has another answer to humanity’s seemingly irresistible proneness to violence. It’s called the “selfish gene,” and (regardless if it’s a gene or a syndrome) its purpose is to protect the survival of the individual through any threats to its demise. Rather than our propensity to sin, we have a propensity to survive as a way to insure the perpetuation of the species. If this is true, no atonement theory can spare us of it.
In another post on EDN, Allan Bevere quotes John Polkinghorne:

A creation allowed to make itself can be held to be a great good, but it has a necessary cost not only in the blind alleys and extinctions that are the inescapable dark side of the evolutionary process, but also in the very character of the processes of a world in which evolution takes place. The engine driving biological evolution is genetic mutation and it is inevitable in a universe that is reliable and not capriciously magical, that the same biochemical processes which enable germ cells to produce new forms of life will also allow somatic cells to mutate and become malignant That there is cancer in creation is not something that a more competent and compassionate Creator could easily have eliminated, but is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself.
God acts within the open grain of nature and not against it. God interacts with creatures but does not overrule them, for they are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. It follows from this that not everything that happens will be in accordance with God’s direct will. The divine sharing of the causality of the world with creatures will permit the act of a murderer or the incidence of cancer, though both events run counter to God’s desires.3

Certainly if you lived in the pre-scientific eras up to the modern age, the notions of sin and sacrifice could inform your life. It would have been as close to you as the air you breathed. The death of Jesus as somehow the answer to your life’s predicament would make sense. Today, we live in a totally different world. “New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth.”
It is important to bear in mind that not only has the Christian church never camped on one particular atonement theory, it put forward through the centuries a variety of theories. This should make us pause and reflect on how elusive the notion of the work of Christ is in its exactness and detail, even the literalist interpretation of Paul, notwithstanding. Add to this that the Gospels provide different meanings to the death of Jesus. One is entitled to ask, ‘Are these options the only ones possible, and must we be restricted to choosing only among these?’
In premodern times, “man’s inhumanity to man,” was described as sin and its antidote was atonement. There was very little else that could serve as an option We have to take into consideration that human beings have only been at this civilization game for about 10,000 years. For most of that time, we have not needed anything more than our tribe for our survival, whether that be an actual tribe, clan, village, city, or nation. The idea that all of humanity can now be wiped from the face of the Earth is very recent. We have not begun to face up to that reality. Problems are no longer limited to here or there, or them or us. Where once the various disputations had no bearing beyond the disputants, now no one is immune from serious harm inflicted anywhere. All problems may be local but they have worldwide consequences. This means that it now takes the cooperation of the entire world to solve its failures. We are just now realizing that an “us versus them” world needs to be reconsidered. To revise Chesterton, “This new world has not been tried and found wanting, it has not been tried.” The “selfish gene” just may become our best ally as we learn to work together for our own good. For we will either survive or perish together.
The “new physics” helps us place humanity in proper perspective. It provides us a context into which we can place not only ourselves but also all of creation—we are all connected. Moreover, not just humans, but every particle of the universe from the furthest star to the minutest sub-atomic particle are part of the same Oneness. This is true “at-One-ment”: we are all one. There is no dividing us between those who are in and those who are out. We can have no enemies, as this would make us enemies of ourselves.
“Sin” needs to be recharacterized, or better still, broadened. Since all things are connected, or One, any act that is against the well-being of any part of creation is sin. What is sin? Anything that places distance between any part of creation. Another way of putting this is sin is anything that serves to disrupt the Oneness that is by working against its well-being. The Golden Rule becomes the rule for the cosmos, not just for humans.
Forgiveness between humans can serve as a model for transcending the “human condition.” No atonement (as blood/life sacrifice) is necessary. Forgiveness is the act of the offended one foregoing retribution and willing the well-being of the offender. I find this works well with at least one atonement theory, Moral Influence. It sees the whole life of Jesus, including his teachings, gathering of disciples, death and resurrection, as a model for how the world can be saved from itself. Not by blood sacrifice (penal substitution, etc.), but by a servant model that encourages followers to live for the well-being of all, even if it means losing your life in the process. This was Luke’s view and it is now mine. In this way, Jesus is my savior. He taught me how to live properly before God in an “us against them” world. Doing so, I am “at one” with God and God’s world.
1Bear in mind that evolution is scientific fact; natural selection as its mechanism remains a theory.
2The so-called “Mitochondrial Eve” is often mistaken as representing the first human woman. She is, rather, the mother of all humans now living as descending from her in an unbroken line. However, she had parents, siblings, cousins, etc., but their descendants, also humans, are no longer represented in the human genome.
3Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity, p. 72.

Steve’s books can be viewed and ordered here: https://energiondirect.com/authors/authors-d-k/steve-kindle

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