Imagine that you are a geologist in the late nineteenth century. Your goal is an ambitious one: develop a theory that can explain the following geologic features: volcanoes, moutain ranges, earthquakes, and the puzzle-piece like fit of Africa and South America. A single, over-arching theory to explain all these varied phenomena? That would be ambitious indeed, and in an age before plate tectonics, it would be hard to conceive what creative minds might come up with.
When it comes to atonement theology we are in the age before plate tectonics. That is, we have a range of extraordinary effects extending throughout the cosmos which we seek to attribute to a single cause, but we lack any mechanism and embedding explanatory framework to explain how all these varied effects relate to the single cause.
In his essay on the Christus Victor model of atonement, Gregory A. Boyd summarizes the range of effects Christians attribute to the causal power of the atonement:
“Through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the infinitely wise God solved a number of problems. Among other things, through Christ God defeated the devil and his cohorts (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8); revealed the definitive truth about himself (Rom 5:8, cf. Jn 14:7-10); reconciled all things, including humans, to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22); forgave us our sins (Acts 13:38; Eph 1:7); healed us from our sin-diseased nature (1 Pe 2:24); poured his Spirit on us and empowered us to live in relation to himself (Rom 8:2-16); and gave us an example to follow (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pe 2:21).” (“Christus Victor View,” in The Nature of the Atonement, 23.)
This passage presents us with seven explananda (that is, facts to be explained) which Boyd identifies as resulting from the atonement:
(1) Defeat of malevolent spiritual forces;
(2) Revelation of Godself;
(3) Reconciliation of all things;
(4) Forgiveness of sins;
(5) Healing of our sin nature;
(6) Provision of life in the Spirit;
(7) Provision of an example to follow.
In some of these cases it is relatively straightforward to see how the atoning work of Christ provides an account of the explanandum in question. For example, it seems relatively clear how the atonement explains (7). It is much less clear how the atonement explains some of the other facts. However, an atonement theory is only successful as a theory if it can account for all these effects in a single, unified explanation in parallel to plate tectonics. We can explore this problem by mulling over the oft-overlooked cosmic implications of (3).
We can start with an image that may one day be considered iconic. On September 25, 2012, NASA released the XDF or “eXtreme Deep Field” image, a photo composite of ten years of data drawn from the Hubble Space Telescope which was focused on the center of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The extraordinary image reveals over five thousand unimaginably distant galaxies, some of which are 13.2 billion light years from earth.
So here’s the question for a theory of atonement: how does the atoning work of Christ reconcile the part of the universe portrayed in the XDF? What would that even mean? (As an aside, keep in mind that the XDF image is a snapshot thirteen billion years into the past. Whatever is there now looks very different from the galaxies in the image.)
Many Christians might be inclined to reject (3). Jesus came to reconcile and heal humanity, not distant galaxies. Indeed, one might argue that it isn’t even coherent to speak of the reconciliation of a region of deep space.
While it might be tempting to keep the atonement focused on human beings alone, the New Testament does point to cosmic effects from the atonement. Passages like Romans 8:19-21 and Colossians 1:20 really do seem to extend the effects of the atonement to the whole of the created sphere. The fact that Paul could never have conceived of the XDF is quite irrelevant to the fact that his statements encompass the entirety of creation, including that region of deep space.
This suggests that current attempts at a theory of atonement are much too limited in their scope. To take one example, in 1973 J.I. Packer published a paper titled “What did the cross achieve?”. His answer was atonement for humanity through penal substitution. But even if Packer is correct, penal substitution does not provide a central theory of atonement because any theory must explain (1)-(7).
An illustration of the limitation of anthropocentric theories of atonement
Consider an illustration of the problem. Whatever your personal views of climate change, imagine that the phenomenon is very real and that projections remain in place that CO2 will increase to 650 parts per million by the end of the century. Then scientists develop a new harmless bacteria that the media dubs the “Gobble Bacteria” for its ability to consume large amounts of CO2. Governments around the world use the Gobble Bacteria to bring the global levels of CO2 back to 350 parts per million, thereby stalling the progress of climate change and preventing a global crisis. Now there are two intertwined questions: what did the Gobble Bacteria achieve for the whole world and how did it achieve that?
Let’s focus on the former question by considering one provincial account of that effect. Imagine that “Florida Sportsman” Magazine runs an article called “The Good News of the Gobble Bacteria.” The article goes on to explain how the bacteria has saved the Florida Everglades from a devastating saltwater intrusion that would have come with global warming, thereby protecting an ecosystem highly valued by the readers of “Florida Sportsman”.
You could recognize that this account of the way the bacteria saved the Florida Everglades was a valuable insight. But you would also think it rather provincial and limited if taken to be providing the central account of what the bacteria accomplished. What about the impact of the bacteria on the deserts of Africa? The Great Barrier Reef of Australia? The ice sheets of Greenland and sea ice of the Arctic? Consequently, while the story identifies an important effect, you could reasonably conclude that the readers of “Florida Sportsman” would be best served if their understanding of the impact of the bacteria on the Everglades were embedded within a comprehensive narrative of what that accomplishment meant for the planet on the whole.
Just as sportsmen in Florida will be especially interested in the impact the bacteria had in saving the Everglades, so it is to be expected that human beings will be especially interested in the way the atonement secured the salvation of human beings. But just as there is a danger with confusing the local effect with the global effect in the case of the bacteria, so there is a danger with confusing the local effect with the global effect in the case of the atonement. And that means that the daunting task of any truly comprehensive and satisfactory theory of atonement is to aim to explain all the putative effects of the atoning cause, from the drunkard transformed at the town revival to the outer reaches of the eXtreme Deep Field.