by Pastor Thomas Belt
Ben Myers’ LATC presentation on the atonement was excellent and raised several questions for me, two of which I’ll raise here and comment on.
Question 1: If one adopts an evolutionary view of human origins (which I’m sure Ben does), how does one then say death is a result of human sin (which Ben’s seems to hold)? If evolution is true, mortality predates humanity, in which case death can’t enter creation through Adam (as Paul seems to think in Rm 5). So how does Ben relate mortality to atonement since mortality is unrelated to morality per se?
Some thoughts of my own along these lines:
There’s no doubt Paul believed Adam and Eve were the historical first human pair who let mortality and decay into the material order. Not knowing of evolution, he couldn’t have believed otherwise. For Paul, it seems decay/mortality entered a pristine creation through the sinful choices of Adam and Eve. But once you adopt an evolutionary view of things, I don’t see any way to avoid implicating Paul’s theology. To the extent the essential truths Paul teaches (about sin, salvation, the preeminence of Christ, etc.) require a literal/historical Adam and Eve, Paul is just wrong.
John Walton’s suggestion that Adam and Eve be viewed as the ‘paradigmatic’ and not the ‘biological’ heads of the race might help minimize the damage. Here Adam and Eve aren’t the first of our species, but they do represent the first moment in the history of our race where, presumably, the dawn of moral consciousness is fully manifest (only to be violated). While there has to be some such moment in time when moral consciousness matures, I don’t think Walton’s view helps all that much. It doesn’t help with the question of death for example.
At the very least conservative understandings of inerrancy are not viable and ‘death as enemy’ in particular has to be rethought. It cannot be that mortality per se is the result of morally sinful choices. And unless we want to adopt something like Greg Boyd’s warfare worldview in which entropy itself is the work of demons perverting the natural God-given dispositions of created things, I don’t see an alternative to concluding that God created us mortal, in which case mortality cannot be the consequence of human sinfulness.
What do we do with St. Paul? How does mere mortality become death our enemy? Evolution aside, death certainly does occasion existential despair and angst in us. How so if death is ‘natural’ (i.e., not a privation per se)? Perhaps mortality is a natural beginning but an unnatural end, a natural context in which to begin our journey, but an unnatural place to end it. In this case mortality becomes death/enemy when mortality occasions existential despair in those who remove themselves from loving submission to God. They must face their mortality alone. And that is certainly ‘unnatural’.
But the decay of cells is not an evil in itself — “…unless a seed falls into the ground and die, it abides alone.” Entropy cannot itself be a privation of a good creation if we suppose it to be merely a temporary (and necessary) mode of creation’s beginning. Even on the traditional view of Adam and Eve as historical, prelapsarian matter is still less than what God intends it to be in its final state. This is just to say it has not achieved its telos. Naturally (pun intended), the beginning of things is going to be characterized in ways incompatible with their fulfilled existence. Created mortal by God, we are other than the incorruptible persons we shall be, but this is not to say that as mortal we are ‘privated’ by evil.
In this view then, mortality is the necessary, natural, means for the formation of the perceptions needed for human beings to responsibly meaning-make vis-à-vis ultimate concerns. Death only becomes an enemy where we misrelate to mortality and attempt to establish a meaning for ourselves outside faith/trust in God. Paul could not have expressed this enmity or Christ’s victory over it in terms consistent with biological evolution or the mortality that predates moral consciousness given evolution. But though the terms in which he imagined things (a literal, historical Adam and Eve who open Pandora’s Box and let death into a utopian material realm) are no longer viable, his essential theological point (that death as enemy threatens us with meaninglessness and that Christ’s death/resurrection free us from this existential nightmare) is still correct.
Question 2: The other question I have relates to the woman who asked Ben about the relationship between the ‘incarnation’ and the ‘cross’ relative to atonement/salvation. If the incarnation is the fundamental act by which God and creation are united, why does the union it achieved not universally unfold with the Incarnation? How is it that what is fundamentally an incarnational reality (the union of divine and human being) must await the Cross and resurrection to be realized?
Well, actually it’s not universally realized at the Cross/Resurrection either. It’s still not universally realized in us today. But it is a foregone conclusion. Christ is the eschaton. In Christ, then, creation is not groaning in expectation of glorification. It is fulfilled. But for us and the rest of the created order, we still “groan.” But why, if the Incarnation fulfills creation?
I’m an ‘incarnation-anyway’ proponent. Creation is intended for incarnation from the get-go. In fact, Incarnation just is the reason God creates. Human beings are both the created means of accomplishing this and the beneficiaries of it. But none of this requires a Cross per se. [Side note: This is the fundamental mistake of the passibilist approach to divine-human relationality ala Boyd/Moltmann and others. They define suffering into love metaphysically such that if one doesn’t suffer one isn’t loving. Some take this as far as imagining God in se to eternally undergo the painful ecstasy of inter-trinitarian self-denial and acceptance constitutive of divine being.] The hypostatic union, the lived union of uncreated and created being in the Logos, is the eschatological fulfillment of human being united with God. The Cross doesn’t effect that union at all. It accomplishes something else relative to it, but it is the Incarnation which achieves the union of God and humankind.
But still two questions persist: (1) Why the Cross at all if the Incarnation effects the desired union? And (2) Why, given the accomplished nature of the union of divine-human in the Incarnation, is that union still not universally effective? To my mind the answers to these are essentially the same. The universal reality achieved by the Logos in Incarnation is a personal-hypostatic reality that must be appropriated personally by us. First, then, we must choose. We are not impersonally implicated in the union achieved by Incarnation. Second, we require the Cross because the truth of Incarnation isn’t obvious. Given the privated, despairing, mistrusting, fearful, fallen state in which we find ourselves, we require a demonstration of Incarnate love we are able to perceive within the horizon of our finite and fallen state and so, having perceived it, choose it. And so Paul says, “God demonstrated his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the unglodly.”
The Cross, then, doesn’t seem to be to be the metaphysical price-tag for humanity’s union with God. That union is secured via Incarnation. Nor does God need the Cross to make it possible for him to forgive us. Forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation. Nor is the Cross where God experiences a change in attitude regarding us, where he moves from “holding our sins against us” to “not holding them against us” (2 Cor 5.19). They were never “held against us” and the Cross demonstrates precisely this. It seems to me that atonement models that assume anything else (and I think Ben’s assumes something else, namely, that our union with God must, on account of realities on the divine side, be purchased by divine [incarnate] suffering) are dead in the water.
If the Cross is a demonstration of the truth of Incarnation that makes choice possible, it also makes clear that our participation in the new incarnate reality of the God-Man requires us to take responsibility for our choices, to own/confess the truth about ourselves, and this requires our perceiving the gravity of sin. The Cross displays the true nature of our sin and its consequences — not because God must suffer to forgive, but because we must see the truth about ourselves.
This is how we begin to navigate our new identities in Christ through the Church. The Cross makes the choice existentially possible for us, but the Incarnation is the reality into which our choice takes us. Given our fallen condition, we would never have perceived (and so could not have welcomed) the Incarnate One. So the Cross is entirely for us — a demonstration (confirmed by Resurrection) for violent, despairing minds that reveals the identity and benevolent intentions of God and introduces within the horizon of our fallen perspectives a reason to believe that God is in Christ reconciling us to himself. But I see no reason to suppose God must suffer either so that God can forgive us or to secure the union of God and humanity. God gives himself to the very despair and violence in terms of which we have enslaved ourselves only to demonstrate through his death and resurrection that true human being is otherwise than we imagine it to be, definable in peaceful, benevolent terms not threatened by mortality (Heb. 2.15).