In my last article I pointed out that the New Testament (Paul specifically) seems to view the atonement as having truly cosmic implications. Thomas Torrance describes the cross as a “world altar” and says it “has cosmic significance in that it claims and suborns the world for its redeeming purpose.” (Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, 198). And Christopher Wright argues that
“the death of Christ was the climactic victory of God that achieved the ultimate defeat of Satan and spells the final destruction of all that is evil in the universe.” “We must never reduce the cross only to the small scale of our own individual salvation. Personal salvation is but one infinitely precious dimension of the total work of God’s redemption of his whole creation.” (The God I Don’t Understand, 118)
Finally, John Jefferson Davis observes:
“In modern cosmology, to be sure, the earth no longer occupies a central place spatially. But spiritually, in a post-Hubble universe, when that enlarged universe is viewed in the light of Paul’s cosmic Christology [in Colossians 1:15-20], the place of Homo Sapiens is if anything more central, since the picture of God’s redemptive purposes is seen to be painted on a breathtakingly larger canvas.” (The Frontiers of Science and Faith, 156-7)
The point of my last article was to point out that insofar as theologians are attributing such extraordinary cosmic effects as the redemption of the entire universe to the atoning work of Christ, any viable theory of the atonement must account for what that effect is and how the cause leads to the effect.
At this point a theologian suffering vertigo at the dizzying extent of this explanatory burden might be tempted to retreat to a merely anthropic atonement according to which Jesus simply died to reconcile human beings. However, by choosing that option they turn the atonement into a mere anomaly in the suburbs of one of the one hundred thirty billion galaxies in the known universe. But this is clearly not how the event has been viewed by Christians throughout history and back to the New Testament itself. And so any attempt to regionalize the intent and effect of the atonement to a single species on planet earth turns it into an event different from that of the classic faith confessions. To put it bluntly, when it comes to the atonement you go big or go home.
But how can Christians make such dizzying claims? Shouldn’t they just give up attempting to explore alleged cosmic effects to such a regionalized historical event? After all, the universe is positively huge!
This reminds me of what I call the “Pale Blue Dot Fallacy”. The term derives from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot and is summarized like this:
(1) If you get far enough away from earth then it looks like a pale, blue dot.
(2) Therefore, there is no God.
As far as non sequiturs go, this one is prime. And yet something like it seems to be operative in the present case as well. All we have to do is substitute (2) with (2′):
(2′) Therefore, the atonement does not have cosmic effects.
Since we’re engaged in drawing erroneous conclusions from (1), I would like to suggest (2”):
(2”) Therefore, Randal should get a pay raise.
Or even better:
(2”’) Therefore, Randal should get a pay raise and a new Subaru BRZ.
Okay, enough cheekiness. To sum up, the size of the universe simply doesn’t provide a defeater to the proposition that the atonement has cosmic effects, at least not until you can insert a few more propositions between (1) and (2′).