I am in a season of both swirling snows and swirling conversations about atonement theories.
It makes sense since I do live in north-central Alberta and we are well past due the time for seasonal snows. And it makes even more sense now during this season of my life as I’m engaging more theological circles, writers, teachers, and theologians addressing atonement (as well as feminist and maternal ideas of soteriology which, in my world, are blowing ANY atonement ideas away). I’ve been challenged about deeply held beliefs, beliefs I’ve struggled with, and beliefs that seem like they’re so far out that the mothership is calling them home.
In terms of soteriology (theology of salvation), I’ve long dispensed my attachment to penal substitutionary atonement for many reasons, but one discussion seems to keep rearing up:
“How do you explain evil in the world?”
Humans from all times and places have only been narrating and wrestling this singular questions since humans understood that evil could be a thing. So to answer it:
I can’t explain the presence of evil in the world.
But I can try to understand it better.
Let’s begin by clarifying some complex theological concepts:
High anthropology: the belief system that, at it’s core, suggests that human beings are basically good.
Low anthropology: the belief systems that, at it’s core, suggests that human beings are basically bad.
There are nuances, of course, as there are in any theological conversation. But for our short purposes now, these definitions will do. Every theological viewpoint will shift towards one or the other. Howe we view humanity — as good or as bad — will shape how we view God, Jesus, sin, suffering, salvation, and our day to day lives. It’s a pretty pivotal concept.
In terms of penal substitutionary atonement theory, its very fabric cannot hold together without a low anthropology. It assumes that people are basically bad. Due to original sin (as defined from particular Christian theologies using Pauline doctrine), we are sinful to the core, unable to save ourselves (even to the cellular levels for some streams of thought). It considers all of the evil that happens in the world, and proceeds to justify God penalizing us (and then Jesus instead) because of our badness.
Here’s my counterpoint: that’s the easy answer.
It is easy to assume that because we are essentially bad people, that we will do bad things. It is easy to say that because we have committed unspeakable atrocities since the beginning of time, that we are thoroughly depraved (is TULIP ringing is anyone’s ears right now?). It is easy to put God up here and humans down there, to make heaven up here and hell down there, and to explain our place in the lowest spaces of the world. And without Jesus, we’re doomed. We are a doomed people.
Yet as I sit with this idea that we are basically bad, I find salvation to be…cheapened. If assigning humanity as bad is the easy way to categorize our natures, it is also easy to cheapen the grace, character, and love of God. Yet to question our anthropology is like heresy. It’s like saying humanity doesn’t need a reconciled relationship with God. So before blood pressures rise, let me explain the place I’ve come to.
God didn’t create Eden as perfect. God didn’t create humans perfect right from the start. God created people as very good. God did not create the singular ideal in the beginning. God created A beginning. One beginning meant to grow steadily towards intimate and whole relationship with God’s own Self.
As for people, we are created good. Even after God’s curse (often referred to as The Fall, but if God hadn’t responded to Adam and Eve’s actions as God did, there would have been no trespass; there was no Law in effect yet after all).
Yes, relationship was broken.
Yes, people are broken.
Yes, we are imperfect.
But God’s design for our essence to be very good remains.
But what about evil?
By upholding a high anthropology of humanity, I must also uphold the greater depravity of evil in our world. Instead of minimizing our evil, it actually magnifies it making the evil all the greater, all the more powerful.
It is easy to expect an evil person to commit evil acts. It is easy to expect an evil system to perpetuate genocide, infanticide, poverty, rape, colonialism, and racism — evil powers of this dark world. It is easy to expect and evil and fallen creation to simply do who we are.
It is far harder to accept a reality where humans are basically (as in essentially) good, and witness ourselves committing all of these atrocities towards one another. It is harder to accept a good person committing evil acts towards another person. It is harder to accept communities of good people developing systems and powers that oppress others. We can’t reconcile our essential good nature with the reality of evil and suffering.
I mean, if we so essentially good, wouldn’t our goodness keep us from doing bad things?
We also need to be clear on another point: both anthropologies, high and low, still need a form of reconciliation with God. High anthropology, too, acknowledges that we are broken and in need of healing on all levels. Too easily and often theologies that espouse a low anthropology assume that if I espouse a high anthropology, I’m basically saying humanity doesn’t need Jesus as a Saviour.
While that’s a good question and will address it in another post, let’s save it for another day. I would say it’s too broad of a statement to be adhered to with any substantiated consistency.
As I step more into the mystery of God and the relational call God places upon humanity, I am more and more convinced that we are created very good. And that declaration at the point of creation continues. This essence of goodness did not somehow magically break apart in Genesis 3.
What my view does do is hold humanity to a far higher account for our horrible actions. Think of the indigenous genocide of North America (of the whole world for that matter), the Holocaust, the rape of Mother Nature, and the singular power that is neoliberalism that holds us all in an endless cycle of consumerism. If we are very good, and still commit these things, how deep our need for healing and forgiveness must be.
It is easy to blame our bad deeds on us being bad people.
When we realize our inherent and divine goodness, and then witness our choices to commit the crimes we have, the festering wound — our deep need for healing — becomes far greater than any low anthropology could possibly accept. In fact, our need for a Saviour is elevated as an essentially good people rather than the reverse.
Good people don’t murder, rape, or pillage. And yet we do. Instead of jumping ship and assuming then that we must then be basically bad, perhaps returning to God’s vision of humanity is a better step. God created people very good. We are broken, we are frail, we are certainly stubborn, and we have created systems and powers from which we cannot free ourselves. While good, we are not all-powerful.
We are broken and in need of the relationship that was designed to enliven us from the beginning.
I was taught growing up that we are basically bad.
The more evil I witness, the more I realize that this evil is not because we are inherently depraved. We are essentially good. Otherwise, the need for healing with God, ourselves, creation, and one another would be nominal.
And if there’s anything I do know for sure, God as reconciling all things to God is not nominal. Our pain runs too deep for words.