Camping in Style in an “Instant Cabin” Tent

This is the time of year when we often think of gifts to give to others, or for others to give to us, if they are so moved. So I will share an item which took a bit of research to lock in on, and which has worked out very well in practice.

When I was in my teens, I was content to throw a sleeping bag on a tarp right on the ground when camping. In my 20s, I used a half inch thick dense foam pad, a classic Ridge Rest. I wanted a little more cushion under me in my 30s, and so graduated to a 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) thick self-inflating sleeping pad like this Stansport. For backpacking in my 40s and 50s, I craved yet more air space underneath me, especially for curling up on my side, and got good usage out of a narrow, 2.5 inch thick inflatable sleeping pad.

Now my wife and I are pretty much done with roughing it. We still enjoy the great outdoors, but find we enjoy it even more when we have essentially all the comforts of home, which includes a full size queen air mattress. We inflate it either with an inverter plugged into the car cigarette lighter and a long extension cord to run the 110 volts into the tent, or more recently, using a rechargeable power pack which also keeps all our electronics charged. It takes a big tent to accommodate a queen sized mattress plus all our other gear, without feeling squashed.

I have had some large tents in the past, which were very tedious to set up. So I was pleased to find a huge, airy tent, which almost erects itself. This is the Ozark Trails 9-Person Instant Cabin.

Image from Amazon website

The main room is 9 x 14 ft (2.7 x 4.3 m), which is plenty big for glamor-camping (glamping) for two people. In huddled masses mode, probably 8 bodies would fit comfortably on the floor. The tent has a screen room across the front, for a bug-free place to sit. The fly over the screen room provides a roof over the door to the main room, keeping out rain even when the tent door is opened.  Here are two views from within on our latest camping trip, first looking out the door through the screen room, and then looking straight up through the roof before we put the fly over the tent at the end of the day.

As an engineer, I am tickled by the clever joints that allow you to make the structure arise with just a few strategic tugs. One of those joints over the roof is visible in the photo above. Going from stage 2 to stage 3 in the photo below takes all of fifteen seconds. Taking the tent down for storage simply involves doing all these motions in reverse. The tent itself stays always attached to the poles.

Image from Amazon website

The only major drawback is the price, about $300. That is a lot for a tent, but for us it was worth it. This tent gives us much of the space and utility of a pop-up camper trailer, for a fraction of the cost.

Posted in Camping | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature for a reading club. It is based on his course lectures given at Oxford. I had expected a somewhat boring discussion of one obscure manuscript after another. But the book went in a different, highly engaging direction. Here are some of my notes and takeaways.

The Medieval Model

Lewis spends much of his time in describing the general mindset and methodology of the medieval writers, what Lewis terms their “Model”, to give us the necessary background for understanding and appreciating medieval literature. This helped me to better understand what people were thinking back in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 A.D.). Obviously, the particulars of their model of the universe were incorrect. But having a comprehensive model of reality which worked at the time helped to ground them, so they did not experience the sort of alienation which characterizes our age. 

Medieval and early Renaissance authors did not generally just make things up. They very much relied on whatever Greek and Roman texts they had from pre-Middle Ages or even early middle ages, which included a mix of philosophical/scientific (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelean, neo-Platonic), historical, and mythological treatises. They did not seem to read these sources very critically. Folks in the Middle Ages mainly assumed that any respected classical author would not write anything that was just plain wrong.

So they did some mental gymnastics to try to reconcile different authors, and even different statements from the same authors. They liked systematization, a place for everything and everything in its place. Their reliance on classical writings helps me now make better sense out of the John Milton I read in college. Milton wrote near the beginning of modern era, still in the shadow of medieval traditions; I recall he put endless allusions to Greco-Roman myths and themes in his works, which I found tedious because most of them were unfamiliar to me.

In the medieval model of the universe (which again was pieced together from readings of pre-500 A.D. authors), things below the orbit of the moon were contingent and corruptible and somewhat unpredictable. This was the realm of which we would call “nature”.

From the moon upward, was a more exalted realm, where the seven visible “planets”, which included the moon and sun, was each carried on its own transparent sphere. And also the sphere holding the stars. All these concentric spheres moved regularly (with some complications) and predictably.  Beyond that was the “prime mobile” sphere, invisible to us, which gave motion to all the other spheres within it.  God is the “Unmoved Mover” (from Aristotle) who gives motion to everything else.

Above the moon the space was filled with rarefied “aether”, instead of the thick, sometimes noxious air down closer to earth. Up there, it was always light, not dark, as we now think of “space”. (They understood the darkness seen when we look up at night as simply the relatively narrow shadow cast by the earth; everyplace else in the heavens was bathed in light).  The heavens rang with the beautiful “music of the spheres”, and was inhabited only by good, incorruptible beings such as angels and the stars and planets, and, of course, God. Any daemons or other evil spirits were down in the air closer to earth, below the level of the moon.

The planets (which included the sun and moon) and the stars were perhaps not fully conscious beings, but they were not dead lumps of rock and gas. They were, in some sense, intelligent and they were happy doing what they were made for as they danced their patterns in the heavens over and over again. They had effects or “influences” on the affairs of men. The moon could make people a little crazy, Venus called forth romance, Mars promoted warring passions, and so on. This influencing was not some kind of creepy, occult operation, but just the way things are, a more or less natural principle like gravity. 

Some people could take this to a fatalistic determinism. The more judicious thinkers held that, while the planets and stars did indeed exert such influences, humans could and should exercise their reason and free will to resist being driven solely by such propensities. This nuanced notion carries down into Shakespeare, writing around 1600: “Men are at some time master of our fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar)

In the ceiling of the Chigi Chapel in Rome, there is a Raphael mosaic depicting the medieval view of the wheel and the hub, of Providence and Destiny. Lewis writes, “On the utmost circumference the planets, the dispensers of fate are depicted”.  For instance, Mars is depicted as a warrior holding sword and shield. Just above each planet (and closer to the center) is shown the more spiritual or angelic “Intelligence” that moves the physical planet. And at the center, “with hands upraised in guidance, sits the Unmoved Mover.”

(Click to enlarge image)

The Wheel of Fortune

In this life, in the realm below the moon, good and bad are not rewarded fairly. Fate promotes or demotes people in a somewhat random way.  Ancient pagan thinkers philosophers proposed that the goddess Fortuna (Greek equivalent Tyche) spins her wheel at random, changing the positions of humans on the wheel.

This imagery was adopted by medieval thinkers, though it is not clear how literally they understood it.  In many manuscripts appear a picture of Fortuna, often blindfolded, turning a large wheel to which notable men such as kings are attached. Here is an illustration from the 11th-12th century, showing a man first being raised up to kingship by Fortune, and later being cast down:

It seems, from our point of view, that we are somewhat fated to experience whatever is our Destiny. However, somehow God is behind it all, and the closer we are to God the more we can experience the ups and downs of life as part of His good Providence:

“And as in a wheel the nearer we get to the centre the less motion we find, so every finite being, in proportion as he comes nearer to participating in the Divine (unmoving) Nature, becomes less subject to Destiny, which is merely a moving image of Providence.” [1]

Faeries in the Shadows

There was a common conception of something like fairies or leprechauns. These slender, elusive creatures were almost a relief from the rest of the medieval model which was so well ordered. These beings could appear or vanish from human sight at will. They were mysterious little people, not necessarily good or bad; they just had their own business which they were about.  It was only at the end of the middle ages that they got equated with demons and associated with witchcraft.

Feeling at Home in the Universe

Medieval folks were aware that the universe was really, really huge. The earth was a tiny speck compared to the whole universe. However, the universe was finite, not infinite. That meant when they looked up, it was like looking up into a huge towering cathedral, not into empty space. So they would not experience what Pascal referred to as the frightening infinite dark empty silences of space. Also, they were looking up at a realm which was essentially happy and orderly, with each planet and star fulfilling its proper destiny.

I will close with a set of excerpts which convey their sense of being at home within a well-functioning universe and also their feeling of relatively seamless continuity with many previous centuries of interesting and often honorable human history. Their technology of plows drawn by oxen and of wars fought with swords and shields was not too different from the physical world of ancient Greece and Rome, and their culture of honor was likewise similar. I italicized some phrases which seemed particularly illuminating:

“Because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety. Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one and a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The great ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.
…This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien – all agoraphobia – is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. ” [2] 

“Thanks to his deficiency in the sense of period, that packed and gorgeous past [i.e. of classical myth and history] was [i.e. seemed or felt] far more immediate to him in the dark and bestial past could ever be to a Lecky or a Wells [i.e. modern science or science fiction of cave men, etc.]. It differed from the present only by being better. Hector was like any other knight, only braver. The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own armours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need to be neither proud nor lonely.” [3]

“Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.”
“… Every particular fact and story became more interesting and more pleasurable if, by being properly fitted in, it carried one’s mind back to the Model as a whole.

     If I am right, the man of genius then found himself in a situation very different from that of his modern successor. Such a man today often, perhaps usually, feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance… It is for him, by his own sensibility, to discover a meaning, or, out of his own subjectivity, to give a meaning – or at least a shape – to what in itself had neither. But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance.” [4]

This explains much of the dullness of medieval literature:

“The typical vice, as we all know, is dulness; sheer, unabashed dulness, where the author does not seem to be even trying to interest us. One sees how the belief in a world of built-in significance encourages this. The writer feels everything to be so interesting in itself that there is no need for him to make it so. The story, however badly told, will still be worth telling; the truths, however badly stated, still worth stating. He expects the subject to do for him nearly everything he ought to do himself.” [5]

“I doubt they would have understood our demand for originality… [Why would one want to] spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve? The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking? The modern artist often does not think the riches is there. He is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold.” [6]

(See also “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming )


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Cambridge University Press 1964, 2013, p. 87

[2] Lewis, p.99

[3] Lewis, p. 185

[4] Lewis, pp.203-204

[5] Lewis, p. 204

[6] Lewis, p. 211

Posted in history, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

The Atonement Wars: What the Church Fathers Actually Wrote

Since I blog on the intersection of faith and science, and since the question of how the evolutionary origin of mankind is sometimes thought to impact the meaning of Christ’s atonement, I have recently done some reading on the subject. In the course of that reading, I noticed two things which surprised me. One is the recent vicious opposition to the long-established Protestant teaching that Jesus died in our place, bearing the penalty or consequences of our sin (i.e. “penal substitution”). This doctrine is now being called “horrific” and “cosmic child abuse,” even by more or less Bible-believing evangelicals. That has forced me to rethink this issue.

The other surprise was the claim that penal substitution is a relatively recent innovation, dating only to the time of Luther and Calvin. In contemporary debates it is widely stated (as established fact) by opponents of penal substitution that penal substitutionary atonement was unknown among the early church “fathers”, i.e. Christian leaders and writers from the first several centuries after Christ. Rather (it is said), the earliest Fathers believed that salvation came via Jesus offering himself as a ransom payment to Satan. But…I have actually read the writings of the earliest church fathers, and these assertions seemed incorrect to me. So I went back and reviewed the Christian writings from (mainly) 100-180 A.D. What I found in these texts is the ultimate subject of this post.

Before getting to what the church fathers wrote, however, I’ll offer some general thoughts on the subject of the atonement. As I delved into this subject, a number of challenging problems came up which I had not thought through before. There are severe, legitimate questions around the notion of an innocent man being punished for someone else’s misdeeds. It turns out that there are reasonable answers to these challenges (hint: God the Son was not just some random innocent bystander). But beyond the specific issue of penal substitution, I tapped into a vein of rich teaching from the Greek Orthodox tradition that presents the work of Christ in perhaps a more holistic manner than in typical evangelicalism. Some of those insights are shared below.

This article has gotten longer than intended, as I tried to address more and more issues that cropped up. I moved some discussions into Endnotes and Appendices. The busy reader might want to jump down to the concluding Personal Takeaways section.  Also, if this topic is not of interest, titles of recent articles on other subjects appear on the right-hand side of the blog window.



Multiple Aspects of the Atoning Work of Christ (New Testament References)

A Closer Look at Some Atonement Theories


    Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

    Moral Influence / Moral Example

    Christus Victor

    Ontological theories of atonement/salvation

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Peaceful Coexistence of Atonement Theories

The Loathing of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The Church Fathers’ Teachings on the Atonement: The Christus Victor Revolution

What Did the Fathers Actually Write Regarding Penal Substitution?

Some Personal Takeaways on the Atonement


Appendix A. The Final Judgment

Appendix B. Why Can’t God Just Forgive Us? Can Guilt Be Transferred to an Innocent Party?


Multiple Aspects of the Atoning Work of Christ (New Testament References)

A central theme of Christianity is that our ungodliness leads to a profound relational alienation between humans and God; and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ solves this problem for those that accept his work. On that, believers are largely agreed. But how does this reconciliation work? What is the actual problem, and what is the mechanism of the solution? What exactly happened at and through the cross? How does the work of Christ move us into a lifestyle where we are pried loose from self-protection and move towards joyfully trusting God and loving him and our neighbors?

Atonement as a Black Box

It is often put this way: “salvation” refers to the results of Christ’s reconciling work (forgiveness, empowerment for righteous living, eternal life, etc.) and “atonement” refers to how salvation takes place. Christian thinkers have proposed various “atonement theories” to describe the mechanism of salvation that occurs in the black box shown above.

Supporters of the various theories sometimes go to great lengths to prove that their particular view is right and all others are wrong or trivial. However, the work of Christ is rich and multi-faceted, addressing the problems of humanity on many levels. It is clear that multiple aspects of the atonement are presented in the New Testament. Some of these aspects are listed below, with citations of relevant passages. In brackets are noted the names of some of the better-known atonement “theories”, which are typically derived from the passages cited.

(1) Substitutionary sacrifice for our sins [-> Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory]

Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); Expiation/propitiation of our sin against God via Christ’s sacrificial death (Romans 3:25;  Heb. 2:17; I John 2:1 and 4:9-10); his blood poured out for forgiveness of sins (Mat 26:28); his death and resurrection leading to remission of sins (Luke 24:46-47; cf. Heb. 9:22  – no remission without shedding blood); purchased church with his blood (Acts 20:28);

Delivered to death for our sins and raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); justified, peace with God (Rom 5:1); God demonstrates his love in Christ dying for the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8); justified by his blood, saved from wrath by his life (Rom 5:9); enemies reconciled to God through death of his son (Rom. 5:10-11); his obedient “righteous act” brought justification and life, and made many righteous (Rom 5:18-19);

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (I  Cor 5:7); God in Christ reconciled world to himself, not counting people’s sins (II Cor 5:18-19); Christ became sin for us so we might be considered righteous (II Cor 5:21); gave himself for our sins, rescued us from present evil age (Gal. 1:4); becoming a curse in our place (Gal. 3:13); redemption, forgiveness of sins through his blood ( Eph 1:7; Col. 1:14); set aside the law in his flesh, reconcile Jews and Gentiles together to God through cross, provide access to the Father through Spirit (Eph. 2:14-17); loved us, gave self for us as offering/sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2); reconciled to himself all things, on earth and in heaven, by making peace through his blood on cross (Col. 1:20); reconciled us by Christ’s body through death to present us holy in his sight (Col. 1:22); forgave all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:14); died for us that we may live together with him (I Thess. 5:10);

His work cleansed our sins (Heb. 1:3);  offered himself as a once for all sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 7:27); his blood cleanses our conscience from sins (Heb. 9:14) and obtains eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12); his death is a ransom to set us free from sins (Heb. 9:15); sacrificed self to bear/take away our sins (Heb. 9:26,28); his sacrifice for sins perfects us forever (Heb. 9:12-14); we were made holy through the one sacrifice of his body for sins (Heb. 10:10-14);  ; suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust (I Peter 3:18); bearing our sins in his body (I Peter 2:24);  his blood purifies us from our sins (I John 1:7); he appeared to take away our sins (I John 3:5); he loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev. 1:5);  was slain, with his blood purchased persons from every ethnic group to be kingdom and priests (Rev 5:9-10)

God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:18-22)

(2) Victory over death and evil powers [-> Christus Victor Theory]

Christ triumphs over death (I Cor. 15:26; Heb. 2:9, 14), and over the devil (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14; I John 3:8) and demonic powers (Eph. 1:20-22; Col. 2:15); we overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Rev 12:11)

(3) Participating in the trajectory of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection gives power to overcome sin tendencies and to experience the divine life now and later [-> Ontological Theories]

Identification with Christ’s death and his resurrection, such that we can experientially “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), and  have “participation in the divine nature” so as to escape “corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (II Peter 1:4); knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 2:10); “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20); we are inwardly renewed day by day; in Christ, we are each a “new creation” (II Cor. 4:16, 5:17); we have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of this world, and have been raised with Christ and have put on the new self, and live by the Spirit, not the flesh (Eph. 2:5-6, 4:24, 5:8; Col. 2:11-12, 2:20-3:10; Rom. 8:9-14)

(4) Ransom/redemption [-> Ransom Theory]

We are rescued/bought out from slavery or captivity, typically at the price of Christ’s blood and death; the prior bondage was to the penalty or experiential power of sin, or to satanic influence (Mark 10:45 ; Romans 3:24; I Cor 6:20; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13-14; I Tim 2:5-6; Heb. 9:15; I Peter 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9)

(5) Paves way for the indwelling Holy Spirit

As a result of Jesus’s death/resurrection/ascension, the Holy Spirit comes in a new way, to indwell, guide, illumine, empower believers (John 14:16-17; 15:26, 16:7; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9-16, 23-27; Gal. 3:2-5, 5:16; Heb. 6:4)

(6) Adoption as Sons and Daughters of God, Co-Heirs

“Legal” adoption (analogous to Roman custom) as children of God, co-heirs with Christ for glorious future, qualified to address God with familiarity ( John 20:17; Rom. 8:14-23, 29; II Cor 6:18; Gal. 3:20,26, 4:5-6,28; Eph. 1:5, 5:1; Heb. 2:10, 12:5-8; Rev. 21:7 ); “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17); died for us so we can live together forever with him (I Thes. 5:10; cf. John 14:2-3); new birth into “living hope” through Christ’s resurrection, inheritance kept in heaven for us (I Peter 1:3-4)

(7) Moral example [-> Subjective or Moral Influence Theory]

In addition to the various “objective” results of the work of Christ [items (1)-(6) above], his teachings and conduct (particularly in sacrificial service) provide an inspiring moral standard which can work a subjective change in people who hear about it. (John 13:14; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5; I Pet. 2:21; I John 2:6, 4:11).

There are other ways to categorize the various passages on the saving work of Christ, but any way we slice it, it is clear that there are multiple aspects involved. For instance, Mike Taylor writes:

In the NT [New Testament] there are five main images or metaphors used to explicate the saving significance of the death of Jesus. These images are taken from five different spheres of life:

– The court room: justification               (Rom 3:21-4:25; 1Cor 1:30)

– The market place: redemption            (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14)

– Personal relationships: reconciliation      (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-21)

– Worship: sacrifice                                  (Heb 10:12; 1 Cor 5:7)

– Battleground: triumph over evil         (Gal 1:4; Col 2:15)

Frequently these images are compressed together so in Romans 3:21ff Paul brings together images of law court, justified, market place, redemption and worship, sacrifice of atonement. As always the teaching in New Testament is task-related, applied theology and nowhere is there an attempt to give systematic and comprehensive treatment of the significance of the death of Christ. This is the work of the theologians of the church.

A Closer Look at Some Atonement Theories

Ransom Theory

The work of Christ as “ransom” or “redemption” is referenced in a variety of contexts in the New Testament. In the Roman Empire, slavery was not race-based and it was not necessarily for a life-time. It was common for a slave to have his freedom purchased with the payment of a price of redemption, and then to be completely accepted by society as an ordinary free man.

The “Ransom Theory” usually refers a particular view, in which Christ’s death was a legal redemption price paid to Satan for the release of humanity. The thinking here is that via their choice to follow Satan rather than God, especially in primal Garden of Eden test, humans became legally the slaves of Satan. Around 230 A.D. the theologian Origen proposed that the death of Jesus was a ransom payment which Satan agreed to, which purchased our release from bondage. However, Satan fell for a ruse: he didn’t realize that Christ could not be held in the grip of death, so in the Resurrection he lost his grip on Christ, in addition to losing his claim to humanity at the Crucifixion.  A few other Fathers in the Eastern church championed this view in the fourth century, but it mainly got traction in the Western (Latin-speaking) church, after Augustine (c. 400 A.D) endorsed it. It became a dominant view in the Roman Catholic Church in the years 400-1100 A.D. This Ransom Theory, which is sometimes considered a version of Christus Victor (see below), is no longer widely held, since its premise (i.e. Satan had legitimate rights over humans, such that God had to negotiate with him, stooping to deception) is no longer generally accepted. [1]

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

The “Satisfaction” (or Commercial) Theory was formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why did God Become Human?), written about 1100 A.D. He argued that the payment of Christ’s death was not to Satan, but to God, on behalf of sinners. God’s honor had been violated by humanity’s rebellion, and satisfaction was provided by the willing sacrifice of the sinless God-man. This view made sense in the world of feudal honor and satisfaction. It continues to play a role in Roman Catholic thinking [2]. It was of great historical importance in dethroning the Ransom-to-Satan theory, and in establishing in the Western church that the death of Christ could provide some sort of “satisfaction” or payment to God. Thus, it prepared the way for the later Protestant penal substitution formulation, which focused on God’s justice rather than his offended honor.

Moral Influence / Moral Example

The “Moral Example” theory is fairly self-explanatory: Jesus championed the poor and downtrodden, urged social justice and personal integrity, and demonstrated self-giving service to others. His unjust trial and execution exposed the evil practices of human power structures. His example inspires people to go and do likewise, in serving others and withstanding social and political evils. This is termed a “subjective” approach, since it focuses on the changes to our inward emotional/mental state, without claiming that anything external to our psyches has occurred (such as defeating evil spiritual powers or satisfying God’s justice). This view has been a staple of the liberal wing of Protestantism for the last two centuries, and has been co-opted by followers of Rene Girard. A similar subjective view of the atonement (the “Moral Influence Theory”, where the demonstration in Christ of God’s concern for us excites love for God in us) was articulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142), as a reaction to Anselm’s satisfaction theory.

Christus Victor

“Christus Victor” (“Christ the Conqueror”, in Latin) is a phrase coined by Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen in his influential book with that title. It refers to the work of Christ in delivering us from bondage by conquering sin, death, and the devil, and even the claims of the Law. Christ let the evil powers do their worst to him, but the Father vindicated him in the resurrection. Humanity shares in Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil, though the basis or mechanism of that participation may remain unexplained. Christ’s victory over the evil powers has little or nothing to do with satisfying God’s justice regarding human sin.   Aulen asserts that this was the dominant view of the atonement in the early church Fathers, so he terms it the “classic view”. He further claims (incorrectly, as we will show) that legal “satisfaction” theories (which he called the “Latin view”), which would include penal substitutionary atonement, were a relatively recent invention of the Western church, dating mainly to Anselm about 1100 A.D. and to the 1500’s Reformers.

There are numerous references in the New Testament to the pervasive grip and influence of evil spiritual powers over humankind (e.g.  Luke 4:5-6; John 12:21, 14:30, 16:11; Acts 10:38; Eph. 2:1-2, 6:10-17; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8), though in the West today it may be hard to take seriously the power of a personal devil or demons. Conservative Christians typically do accept the existence of Satan and hold that he was in some sense defeated through the work of Christ, but few evangelicals today hold that the defeat of the devil is the primary aspect of the atonement. [3]

In recent decades, various groups of Christians (e.g. post-modern, feminist, pacifist, etc.) have appropriated the language of Christus Victor, and shaped it to meet their interests; societal “structures of oppression”, rather than Satan, are often cast as the evil powers to be vanquished. Upon closer inspection, many of these modern social justice models which employ the dramatic language of Christus Victor are merely Moral Example approaches with specific political/cultural spins. Jesus’s life and death are said to “expose” the oppressive political/social “powers”. But these “powers” usually turn out to be purely human entities (individual or collective), and the effect of “exposing” them is a purely subjective effect within human hearts (e.g. heartening us to work for social justice), not an objective curtailing of external spiritual evil forces or beings.

Ontological theories of atonement/salvation

“Ontological theories” is a broad term to comprehend the teachings of many Greek-speaking church fathers, mainly in the eastern half of the old Roman Empire and mainly from 180 A.D. onward. These teachings center on our experiential participation in the divine life, which was enabled by the work of Christ who fully participated in, or “assumed” human experience, but without sin.

A recurring theme in Paul’s letters (see above) is that believers have participated in Christ’s death and resurrection, such that we are new selves. Paul then encourages his readers to act consistent with their new identity (“You are…; therefore do…”).  The ontological theories often come at this participation from the other side of the divine/human divide. Rather than only discussing humanity’s participation in Christ’s experiences/trajectory, the Greek fathers also focus on his participation in humanity’s experiences and trajectory.

The Incarnation plays a major role here, along with the Resurrection, with relatively less focus on the Crucifixion than in the West. Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) taught that in the course of his life Jesus systematically “recapitulated” the history of the whole human race, but he made all right choices where Adam (and other humans) made wrong choices. Christ, the Second Adam, thus undoes the harm done by the first Adam. Christians can now experience victory over the force of sin by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin in every situation in his life.

This scheme is an “ontological” (whole being) substitution by Christ to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than primarily a legal substitution addressing the guilt of sin before God’s justice. It is sometimes characterized as a “medical” model, stressing the healing of sick humanity rather than the judicial acquittal of a guilty humanity. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection, and experientially participating in the divine “energies” so as to become more and more God-like (“theosis”), is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus. As with the Ransom Theory, the various flavors of Ontological atonement were subsumed by Aulen under the “Christus Victor” or “classic” rubric.

See Theopedia for a fuller list of atonement theories.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The concept of the death and blood of Jesus effecting deliverance and forgiveness for our sins is pervasive in the New Testament, from Matthew:

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mat. 1:21)

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mat. 20:28)

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mat. 26:28)

…all the way through to Revelation:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev 1:5)

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 5:9)

A widespread view of the atonement in historic Protestantism has been penal substitution. In this view, because God is holy and just, he does not simply forgive sin in the sense of shrugging it off and saying, “Ahh, no big deal. I didn’t really mean it with all those commands and expectations of living under my sovereignty. Let’s just forget about it.”  From God’s perspective, the ongoing breach in relationship caused by our unfaithfulness is akin to having one’s spouse be constantly unfaithful. It is not the sort of thing that is just casually dismissed as though nothing significant has happened.

God’s laws are understood to be good, and to carry with them blessings for obedience and sanctions for disobedience: “The soul that sins, it will die” (Ezek. 18:20).  Rebellion against an infinite Creator and abuse of his creation (including abuse of other people) in defiance of his commands merits judgment. Since we owe our very existence to the Creator, he would seem to have the right to decree not only what our behavior and attitude should be, but also the penalties for defying his standards. Theologians have long noted that if God does not apply the sanctions he said he would, that would make him a liar. (See Appendix A for more discussion of God’s judgment).

“There is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 53:3), and “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This is not a problem which we can fix ourselves, since we are the problem. However, God has graciously taken the initiative to provide a solution: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). [4]

Although Jesus was sinless, he took upon himself the penalty or judgment which was due us for our sins. This provided satisfaction of God’s decreed justice.  This aspect of the atonement has become known as “penal substitution”, although, as Adam Johnson notes, “Penal substitution is a misnomer in one sense, in that the emphasis is not upon Christ being punished in our place. Rather, the emphasis is upon him bearing our sin, and doing away with it though its destruction in the form of punishment” [5].

The issue here is justice, not placating God’s hurt feelings. Because the just demands of the law were satisfied through Christ’s voluntary death in our place, as our substitute, Paul can proclaim that God is both “just” AND the one who “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 3:26; 4:5).  In sum: “The wages [i.e. the just recompense] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord [thanks to his vicarious sacrifice]” (Rom 6:23, with amplified notes added).

The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone. -John Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), 160.

A standard evangelical description of penal substitutionary atonement was given by J. I. Packer in 1973:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.  – J. I. Packer, What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution

A penal substitution approach was articulated by the Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, with some details varying [6].  They did not feel they were inventing something new, but that they were merely developing the straightforward implications of statements in the New Testament, e.g. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).

A word search on “sin”/”sins” in the New Testament illustrates how urgent is our need for the forgiveness of our sins. The other aspects of Christ’s atonement (defeat of evil powers, participating in the divine life through the indwelling Holy Spirit, moral example, etc.) deal largely with our experience of how we can live better from this point on. Penal substitution, however, provides a clear basis for the forgiveness of our past and ongoing sins before a holy God. Church historian Richard Lovelace writes:

There is an essential connection between this doctrine and the perception of God’s holiness, as the centrality of the sacrifices in the Old Testament shows…The substitutionary atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is so because it gives the answer to the problem of guilt, bondage, and alienation from God. [7]

Bill Muehlenberg summarizes some of the biblical evidence for penal substitution [8]:

Certainly 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a vital passage here: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Clearly the idea of substitution is taught here. Compare this with Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’.” Here we have substitution alright, but a clear penal component as well. Because he was made by God to be sin for us, that meant he took upon himself the curse of the law.

These passages hearken back to Isaiah 53 and the coming Servant who would suffer for his people. There we are told there that “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). Verses 4-5 make clear how God was involved in all this: “we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Indeed, “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (v. 10). Many have tied this in with 2 Cor. 5:21, arguing that Paul understands Jesus to have been made a “sin offering” for us….

Of course other Old Testament concepts of sacrifice and atonement are being referred to here, including the passage from Deuteronomy 21:23 which says, “cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree”. Christ, by hanging on a cross, took upon himself the curse of God directed at sinners.

The New Testament teaches that the Old Testament sacrificial system provided a precursor or model for the atoning work of Christ. These things were a “shadow” or “type”, of which Christ’s work was the reality (e.g.  Colossians 2:17 , Hebrews 9:11-28, Hebrews 10:1 ). Without getting too deeply into this complex and nuanced topic, we note that key offerings to atone for sin required the death of an animal which had to be without defect:

The first [i.e. Mosaic] covenant was not put into effect without blood…In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb. 9:18, 22)

The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar. It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (Lev. 17:11).

The Hebrew word for “atone” carries a range of connotations, including “cover”, “wipe away”, “ransom by a substitute”. All of these effects are ascribed in the New Testament to the work of Christ in dealing with our sins.  Note that in the Old Testament God himself graciously gave the Israelites the blood as the means to make atonement for themselves; the pardon of their sins was not something wrung from an unwilling deity.

Peaceful Coexistence of Atonement Theories

While extreme versions of some theories of the atonement may be logically incompatible with one another, no single humanly-devised theory should be expected to capture all aspects of the atonement. Johnson suggests that the task of the church “is not to determine which is the theory of the atonement, or which theory of the atonement has pride of place among the others. Rather…we ought to witness to the fittingness of the atonement to demonstrate how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings together a wide range of benefits for the reconciliation of all things to God” [9].

Evangelical preachers and teachers may stress one aspect more than others, but they typically endorse multiple facets of the atonement.  They nearly all hold that, in addition taking the penalty for our sins, Jesus defeated death and the devil, sent the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower righteous living, enabled our adoption as sons and daughters of God, and provided a worthy moral example. This broad inclusivity is consistent with the numerous New Testament passages cited above, which portray a rich picture of Christ’s work in reconciliation.

The Loathing of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

God’s mode of existence is far different than ours. Thus, it is to be expected that the three pounds of neurons between our ears, seemingly shaped over time to process the medium-sized physical information essential to killing and avoiding being killed on the African savannah, will struggle to apprehend metaphysical concepts like the Trinity, divine justice, and the atonement. These matters are termed “mysteries” from our point of view, since analogies with human experience, with human emotions, and with human families and human courtrooms, at some point simply fail us.

That said, a number of questions naturally arise in our minds regarding penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth, “PSA”). God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he likewise just forgive?  Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent victim unjust? These are reasonable questions, and reasonable answers have been given by proponents of PSA. I have appended (as Appendix B) an extended response by Stephen Wellum to those two specific questions.

Regarding the question of why God doesn’t “just forgive” us, Derek Rishmawy writes:

Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that that wrongdoing is condemned and punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen.

Something in human nature seems to react violently against the teaching that God graciously took on flesh and suffered the penalty of death on our behalf in order to reconcile us to him. This reaction goes beyond merely questioning the counter-intuitive aspects of PSA, but escalates into vile denunciations of the doctrine. As early as 1902, B. B. Warfield noted, “A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it [penal substitution] which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”

Atheist polemicists throw around terms like “vicious, sadomasochistic and repellent” and “barking mad” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion) to characterize substitutionary atonement. Similarly, progressive churchmen have long been appalled by what Riverside Church (New York) minister Harry Emerson Fosdick characterized as “slaughterhouse religion”:

Substitutionary atonement … came a long way down in history in many a penal system. But now it is a precivilized barbarity; no secular court would tolerate the idea for a moment; only in certain belated theologies is it retained as an explanation of our Lord’s death.   – H. E. Fosdick, Dear Mr. Brown (1961)

These words are not surprising, since old-school liberal Protestantism has always been clear about setting its enlightened opinions above the primitive views of the well-meaning but benighted authors of the Bible. These Christians tend to locate the problem of sin in the collective, in “structures of evil” which propagate injustices in society, rather than in individual accountability to God and his commands. I have observed that when they confess sins, they mainly point at sins committed by other people (e.g. the sins of racial bigots out there who happen to be fellow citizens, such that “we all” are “complicit” in those sins), not the specific instances where they themselves fell short of totally loving God and their neighbor this week.  Since they evince little alarm over their own personal guilt before a holy, eternal Judge, it is not surprising that they hold little value for that Judge’s given solution for that personal guilt.

At the dawn of Christianity, Paul acknowledged the offensiveness of the cross. In regular human thinking, “Christ crucified” seems intellectually foolish and morally repugnant (the Greek word for “stumbling block” here is skandalon, from which we get our word “scandal”):

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.     Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.     For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength…  

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  (I Cor. 1:18, 21-25, 27-30)

What is new in the past two decades is the number of Bible-believing Protestants who have joined in attacking PSA. Leaders of the so-called emerging church commonly denounce PSA as “cosmic child abuse”, and claim that wrath and punishment on God’s part would be logically incompatible with his love for mankind. This is a viewpoint seen all over the blogosphere. See, for instance, the video clips of Christian leaders Greg Boyd and Brian Zahnd and others misrepresenting PSA with nasty imagery of an angry father beating a helpless son to vent his uncontrolled emotions, or as an endorsement of the pagan myths of redemptive violence or child sacrifice, etc., etc. in the YouTube video They Are Trying to Shame Us out of Good Theology by Misrepresenting Penal Substitution. Christian musician Michael Gungor has called the substitutionary atonement “evil” and “horrific”.  In his book Lies Christians Believe, William Paul Young, author of the best-seller The Shack (now a movie), derisively represents  PSA as teaching that “It was God who killed Jesus, slaughtering Him as a necessary appeasement for His bloodthirsty need for justice.” [10]

An article by Frankfort, Kentucky Baptist minister Chuck Queen declares in its title, “It’s Time to End the Hands-Off Attitude to Substitutionary Atonement”:

This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence…Substitutionary atonement imagines a self-giving Son who gives his life in order to pay off/placate/satisfy/appease a harsh, vindictive Father…

Substitutionary atonement reflects more of an ancient, primitive view of God than the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. In the ancient world, sacrifice was demanded to placate the offended deity; to stay the deity’s wrathful vengeance. Jesus imagined God as Abba — a loving, compassionate parent — seeking the best for God’s children. The God of Jesus would have no need to save us from God’s self.

Queen notes with satisfaction, “In the church I pastor we omit certain verses of hymns because of allusions and references to Jesus’ death as a substitution.” (Interpreters like Queen focus on only the strands of biblical teaching about God which they find culturally acceptable, such as the imagery of a loving Father, and deny the other, less comfortable, strands of revelation. But see Appendix A, “The Final Judgment”, for what Jesus actually taught about the “need to save us from God’s self”.)

Steven West writes:

Some opponents of PSA believe that it causes hatred, bigotry, abuse, murder, and crimes against humanity. And that’s just the short-list. PSA has also been called misogynistic, since it allegedly teaches women that the most beautiful act in history is to be bullied and beaten and even killed by the one who claims to love you. Thus, PSA apparently encourages spousal abuse and domestic violence.   It likewise apparently legitimizes child abuse, since the Son submits to the violence of the Father.

Plus hatred, xenophobia, genocide, war crimes…there seems no end to the foul accusations. Rishmawy has provided brief but cogent answers for most of these objections to PSA in his article The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. For instance, in response to the charge of “cosmic child abuse”, he notes:

The Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

Rishmawy discusses some of these controversial issues in greater depth in his long review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, including how God’s righteous anger against evil is compatible with (and is actually entailed by) his righteous love.

In the face of the widespread attacks on PSA, the Southern Baptist church adopted a resolution in 2017 titled, On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This resolution affirms “the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race”.

Putting aside all the fierce (and mainly groundless) attacks on the doctrine itself, it is of course possible in practice to stress PSA so much as to distort the overall picture of salvation. One unfortunate consequence of the attacks on PSA from the liberal wing of the church may be a defensive reaction by conservatives, leading to an overemphasis on this doctrine. There is only so much “bandwidth” for the content of sermons; an exclusive focus on the cross and on justification will necessarily shortchange teaching on other aspects of Christ’s saving work as discussed above (e.g. the resurrection, the victory over sin and evil, the empowering experience of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, etc.) and on our responsibilities as disciples and representatives of our Lord in caring for the poor and for the earth. Also, the range of what Jesus accomplished for us is so broad that a church could completely miss some aspects of his work, and still have a viable Christian faith. For many centuries millions of Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers have honorably (it seems to me) lived for, and often died for, their Lord, with little or no explicit consciousness of penal substitutionary atonement.

I’m sure there are churches in which nearly every sermon is a lecture on getting saved, and which stress God’s wrath more than his love. Also, some preachers luridly depict God “pouring out his anger” on Jesus at the cross, a disturbing notion for which there is no scriptural warrant and which is not an essential component of PSA [11]. That said, I have attended many hundreds of meetings in dozens of fairly conservative churches and para-church organizations over the past four decades, and have rarely found an unhealthy obsession with substitutionary atonement. In fact, I find it being mentioned less and less. Because PSA is so counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, unless this aspect of Christ’s work is cherished and continually explicated, it tends to fade out in favor of other, more palatable topics.

Opponents of PSA commonly engage in armchair psychologizing, accusing those who hold this doctrine of various sick motivations and attitudes. In turn, Owen Strachan writes of modern Christians who deny PSA:

Each case boils down to this: These voices promote the cross, but not the atonement. Such thinking matches fallen humanity’s pride. We don’t naturally want the cross to save us.

…What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture’s stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy, and even dare to correct.

B. B. Warfield identified what is perhaps the key issue in this controversy:

The fact is, the views men take of the atonement are largely determined by their fundamental feelings of need–by what men most long to be saved from… If we have not much sin to be saved from, why, certainly, a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner who requires a Saviour. [12]

The Church Fathers’ Teachings on the Atonement: The Christus Victor Revolution

Every now and then a work is published which molds opinions on a subject for a whole generation or more. Such a work is Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement [13].  This book was published in Swedish in 1930, with an English translation appearing in 1931. It became seen as the definitive study of the historical development of theories of the atonement, and still wears that mantle some ninety years later. Its assertions are usually taken as established facts, as the basis for any further elaboration. The categories and significance of the various atonement theories are now taken to be as Aulen defined them.

Aulen’s monumental impact comes through in this summary of his work in Wikipedia:

Aulen’s most influential contribution to Theology was in the area of Atonement theory. His book Christus Victor has established itself as one of the key reference points in contemporary discussion.

Aulen identified three main theories of the Atonement: the ‘scholastic’ view, epitomised by Anselm of Canterbury (known as Satisfaction theory); the ‘idealistic’ view, epitomised by Peter Abelard (known as Moral Exemplar theory); and what he referred to as the ‘classic’ view.

Aulen advocated a return to this ‘classic’ view, which he characterised as follows:

Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. 

He argued that both the other theories put too much emphasis on the work of humanity in the Atonement: the Moral Exemplar view wholly so, and Satisfaction Theory in its emphasis on “the service which Christ qua homo renders”.

Regardless of whether they agree with his arguments, most contemporary discussions of the Atonement follow Aulen’s three categories, and the term Christus Victor has become synonymous with the ‘classic’ view he advocated.

This is a fair summary of Aulen’s book and its impact. From reading this work, one comes away with the idea that penal substitution, i.e. the notion that Jesus’ died in our place, suffering the penalty of death that would otherwise fall on us, was practically unheard of among Christians prior to the 1500’s Reformers. Aulen lumps this view with Anselm’s satisfaction-of-honor scheme as “Latin” or “satisfaction” theories. The views of essentially all of the church fathers are lumped by Aulen under his Christus Victor category. Calling Christus Victor the “classic” approach cements Aulen’s contention that this was THE understanding of Christ’s work among the church fathers.

Following Aulen, opponents of PSA now cite, as incontrovertible fact, that penal substitution is a recent theological innovation. This then puts a burden on supporters of PSA to explain how this view could have vanished from Christian consciousness immediately after the writing of the New Testament. However, Aulen is simply wrong on this dismissal of penal substitution by the early Fathers, as I will show in the next section.

Aulen is also unfair in claiming that “satisfaction” theories do an injustice to the unity of the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son. The New Testament presents the crucifixion as a fully Trinitarian enterprise, albeit with differing roles.

Perhaps Aulen’s most fundamental mistake is the logical error of the false dichotomy. He seems to assume that a Christian writer who stresses one aspect of the atonement (e.g. ontological substitution) is incapable of simultaneously appropriating an additional aspect, such as penal substitution. Eric Parker critiqued Aulen’s dis-integrative approach on more general theological grounds:

Because Aulen minimizes the importance of legal metaphors he leaves God’s justice hanging in the balance. When the penal aspect is not included in the classic view one is left with a partial victory of an unjust god. When the victory is not included in the Latin view one is left with a purely human act aimed at the appeasement of a purely wrathful god. When either of these two views leaves out the moral exemplary aspect Christ ceases to be the exemplar of the will of God for humanity – thus the Christian identity of “living sacrifice” is modeled after one whom man could and should never imitate. The solution to this problem of competing models has been demonstrated by Martin Luther’s return to the themes he saw prevailing in the biblical text. For Martin Luther and John Calvin the person of Christ is the source of unity between these models. Because Christ’s works cannot be separated from his person neither can his roles as Prophet, Priest, and King (i.e. Exemplar, Mediator, and Victor). Calvin’s thought is a reminder that Christology is the source of soteriology:

“In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us.” (Institutes, II.12.3)

Kirk Miller offers a further evaluation of Aulen’s assertions.

An additional pernicious fallout from Christus Victor is a popular perception that the earliest Fathers held to the Ransom [to Satan] Theory. This is actually not Aulen’s fault. It is simply a misreading of his work, erroneously taking the Christus Victor theory as being identical with the Ransom Theory, when in fact Christus Victor covers a vast range of concepts. But it is surprising how widespread this misunderstanding is (see e.g. here, here, and even this Wikipedia article on the book Christus Victor).

What Did the Fathers Actually Write Regarding Penal Substitution?

Since I was puzzled and challenged by the claim by the academic establishment that penal substitution was unknown among the early church fathers, and also by the popular belief what these fathers first taught was Ransom-to-Satan, I decided to re-read the Fathers myself to try to get to the bottom of these issues.

These writings include I Clement, letters by Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistles of Barnabus and Polycarp, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and writings by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. These are the key Christian writings from the 100-180 A.D. timeframe. I focused mainly on these, because they are the earliest Christian writings we have, following the New Testament. I later expanded to read some key works of Eusebius and Athanasius from the early-mid fourth century, since they are widely cited in debates over atonement in the church fathers, and also excerpts from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

From these readings, it is straightforward to dismiss the primacy of the Ransom Theory. The first writer to formally propose that God offered his Son’s death as a payment to Satan was Origen, writing around 220-230. He proposed that the devil was tricked into accepting the death of Christ as the ransom payment for mankind, mistakenly believing that the crucified Christ would remain under his control.  Origen was a brilliant thinker, but prone to excessive speculation; his writings were eventually condemned by the church. So this was not a strong start for the Ransom Theory.

About 150 years after Origen, his ransom-to-Satan theory was then picked up, tweaked, and promoted by Gregory of Nyssa. This was in the late fourth century, or more than 300 years into church history.  Gregory of Nyssa’s proposal was not immediately accepted. His contemporary Gregory of Nazianzus strongly rejected this Ransom Theory: since the devil was a robber, he did not have a legal right to be paid to release what he had stolen and so it would be an “outrage” for the devil to be paid the precious ransom of God the Son. Although the Ransom Theory did assume great importance in the West in later centuries, essentially all patristics scholars would agree that this was not the earliest view of the church fathers; the popular perception here is plainly incorrect.

The status of penal substitution is more contested. I read through hundreds of pages from these church fathers, and excerpted all the passages that seemed to bear on substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins. I have written all that up in a detailed study, which I have posted along with some other lengthy articles up at the top of my blog window. In that long document I discuss the meanings of the excerpted passages in their original contexts.

Below I will simply show a sampling of some passages themselves, with minimal commentary. It should be evident that these texts speak of Christ’s substitutionary death for the forgiveness of sins, often with a penal context (i.e. taking on the curse or the debt of death due to our sins).


Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. [Chap. 7]

He bears our iniquities, and is in sorrow for our sakes… He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we were healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray; [every] man has wandered in his own way; and the Lord has delivered Him up for our sins, while He in the midst of His sufferings opens not His mouth. ….He Himself shall carry their sins. On this account He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong; because His soul was delivered to death, and He was reckoned among the transgressors, and He bare the sins of many, and for their sins was He delivered.”     [Chap. 16]

On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.  [Chap. 49]



He was… nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. [Smyr. 1]

He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. [Smyr. 2]

[The Eucharist is] the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. [Smyr. 7]



For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. … He himself willed thus to suffer, for it was necessary that He should suffer on the tree.    [Chap 5]



The strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death [Chap. 1]

…[Be] not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.  [Chap. 6]



But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.     For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?   O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Comment: Here God took on Himself “the burden of our iniquities”, He “gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous”, etc.  This was a “sweet exchange”, by which “the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.”    This can only be characterized as a penal substitutionary atonement: Jesus dying in our place, to take upon himself the legal consequences (“punishment and death”) for our sins, such that his righteousness is imputed to us.  Jordan Cooper writes of this passage, “When one first reads this, he may think it came directly from the pen of Martin Luther or John Calvin. The imputational language in this epistle is obvious.”



For Isaiah did not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge; but… by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death, who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said, when he spake thus:.. He bears our sins, and is distressed for us; and we esteemed Him to be in toil and in affliction, and in evil treatment But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. With His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Every man has turned to his own way; and the Lord laid on Him our iniquities…. And He shall bear our sins; therefore He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong, because His soul was delivered to death; and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered for their transgression….[Ch. 13]

The Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up…His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family. [Ch. 95]

Comment: Justin’s discussions of the work of Christ are complex and sometimes inconsistent, so these passages do not necessarily represent the primary thrust of his writings. Nonetheless, what he describes here seems to be clearly penal and substitution: Jesus took on himself the curse that we merited due to our sins. The penalty decreed by God for our sin is death, and that is exactly what Jesus submitted to in the course of bearing our sins.


All of these passages, drawn from the earliest of the church fathers, speak of Jesus dying for our sins in a substitutionary way. The implication is that the primary result of this sacrifice is the remission of our sins before God. In several passages, the penal aspect (Christ taking upon himself the debt or consequences that we owed) is clearly stated. This is not the language of Christus Victor, in which Jesus moves through a range of human experiences in order to sanctify humanity and thereby win our deliverance from the power of sin and/or Satan. Rather, these passages display exactly the sort of “legal” or “satisfaction” mentality which Aulen claimed was absent in the early church.

How did Aulen deal with these early fathers? He just ignored them. It’s that simple. He skated right past these writers, and started his analysis with Irenaeus, who wrote c. 180 A.D. I leave it to the reader to judge the merit of Aulen’s approach here.  (Ignoring the earliest fathers is a common move among opponents of penal substitution. This censorship is justified by claiming that these writers did not present “fully developed” atonement theories. But they were saying something about the significance of the death of their Lord, and what they did say often depicted his death as taking the penalty for our sin, as our substitute. )



The main work we have from Irenaeus is Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.). As noted above, Irenaeus developed a detailed scheme of how Jesus accomplishes human salvation. Adam was the prototypical man, and his Fall is what got the whole human race on a wrong path. Jesus, in all his earthly experiences (his birth, childhood, adulthood, death) recapitulated the life experiences of Adam, and hence, of all mankind.  “Recapitulation” might be thought of as “re-heading” of a new humanity. Jesus was a sort of second Adam, who made right choices at all the junctures where Adam made wrong choices.  Christians can now experience victory over the force of sin by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin.

However, in addition to this recapitulation theme, there is also clear discussion by Irenaeus regarding remission of the legal debt of sin via Christ’s atoning death:

Now this being is the Creator … by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men”;  propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. For this reason also He has taught us to say in prayer, “And forgive us our debts; ” since indeed He is our Father, whose debtors we were, having transgressed His commandments. …And in what way can sins be truly remitted, unless that He against whom we have sinned has Himself granted remission “through the bowels of mercy of our God,” in which “He has visited us” through His Son? [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

Clark comments on this passage, “Notice that, for Irenaeus, sin is defined as transgression of the law. The incarnation was to restore enemies to a state of friendship. How? By ‘propitiating’ the wrath of God. Is that not the heart of the penal-substitutionary doctrine of the atonement? Cancelling, propitiation, and obedience for disobedience each point to aspects of the legal basis for a restored friendship with God. For Irenaeus, our intimate relationship with God has a legal premise.”

…Therefore, by remitting sins, He did indeed heal man, while He also manifested Himself who He was. For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men, it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator. And therefore David said beforehand, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin; ” pointing out thus that remission of sins which follows upon His advent, by which “He has destroyed the handwriting” of our debt, and “fastened it to the cross; ” so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt.  [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

James Bradley observes that, in addition to his recapitulation scheme of salvation, “Irenaeus, just as Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin in their turn, also articulated a thoroughgoing substitutionary view, and this is a fact that Aulen completely subordinates.   Irenaeus clearly and repeatedly argues for all the essential elements in what can only be called a penal, substitutionary view of Christ’s atoning work.”

Irenaeus states Jesus “suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts”, and acknowledges a “debt” we owe God because of our sin, and also that Christ’s work on the cross gives us remission of that debt: “As by means of a tree [i.e. the tree in the Garden of Eden] we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree [the cross] we may obtain the remission of our debt.” Irenaeus elsewhere makes passing reference to Jesus “propitiating God” and suffering death to deliver man from condemnation:

He did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and Himself suffering death, that exiled man might go forth from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. [Against Heresies, 4.8.2]

The language in these passages seems to comprehend Jesus paying the debt we owed by taking upon himself the legal penalty (death) for our sins, thereby propitiating God, as with sacrifices under the Old Testament law. These are the essential elements of penal substitutionary atonement, even though they are overshadowed by other themes in Irenaeus’ writings.

Again we ask, how did Aulen treat these passages in Irenaeus do not fit into his simple Christus Victor model? Again, he simply ignored them. He has a whole chapter on Irenaeus, but he only discusses the passages which fit into his model.

In my detailed article on the church fathers, I show that penal substitutionary atonement elements are also clearly present in the writings of later fathers such as Eusebius and Athanasius, although as with the earlier fathers their views of the atonement were not confined to just one “theory”.

I won’t cite all the back and forth argumentation here, but more recent partisans for and against penal substitution have (unlike Aulen) started to deal with some of these passages from the early fathers cited above. As with Aulen, the main rhetorical strategy of contemporary opponents of penal substitution is the false dichotomy: if a church father expounds on one aspect of the atonement, he cannot possibly be cognizant of some other aspect. Passages like those citied above which mention penal substitution are dismissed by its opponents as being mere proof-texts which have been ripped out of context and misunderstood.

But it makes no sense to assume that early Christian writers necessarily had such pinhole vision.  We need look no further than the letters of Paul to find multiple aspects of the work of Christ celebrated in a single passage by a single writer (e.g. Rom. 3:21-26, Col. 1:12-13, Titus 2:11-14). In my detailed article, I show that the penal substitution themes are truly present in the early church fathers, alongside other aspects of the atonement.

Some Personal Takeaways on the Atonement

I started off in this area mainly just curious, wanting to check my memory about what the early church fathers wrote about the atonement. I began writing this present article as a quick orientation to this doctrine and to summarize what I found in the Fathers, for readers who would not want to read my more detailed monograph on the subject. I found that the early Fathers did indeed write of the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin, often with penal connotations. So the modern claims that penal substitution, or even “satisfaction”, were unheard of before the late Middle Ages are simply not true. That said, penal substitution was typically only a minor aspect of the early church’s understanding of the atonement.

In the course of that somewhat academic study of ancient writings, I ran across a number of topics regarding the atonement, particularly penal substitution, which I found personally challenging. In the course of trying to nail these issues down to my own satisfaction, this article has grown far longer than planned. In this concluding section are noted a few areas where I feel I have gleaned significant learnings.

(1) Stiff Challenges to Penal Substitutionary Atonement

In the course of my readings, I was exposed to surprisingly broad and vehement attacks on the historic Protestant doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).  That forced me to think through the scriptural and logical grounds for this teaching. I tried to give a fair hearing to both opponents and supporters, and also skimmed through the entire New Testament myself to note relevant passages.

This experience gave me better understanding for how odd and offensive this doctrine can be for folks today. I think that as late as 1900 or so, most people in North America, and many in Europe, still had at least a vague sense of the holiness of God and of being accountable to him. That worldview, which recognized a present alienation from God due to our neglect of him and his ways and also a future judgment by the just Definer of right and wrong, furnished a logical backdrop for PSA; that alienation was the problem for which PSA was the solution. With the crumbling of the old God-fearing consensus, a common response to the proclamation that “Jesus died so God can (consistent with his righteousness) overlook your sins” is, “What are you even talking about??”  The issue here is not a problem with PSA per se, but simple ignorance about divine holiness and judgment.

Even for those who retain something of traditional theism, reasonable questions arise, such as “Why can’t God just forgive sins without a sacrifice?”, and, “How could the death of an innocent man provide forgiveness for somebody else?” It was enlightening to acknowledge the weight of these problems, and to see if answers were available that went deeper than just quoting a few verses to shut down further discussion.  It turned out (per discussion above and below) there are such answers. Assessing these matters has drawn me into a deeper appreciation for the logic of PSA and for the involvement of the whole Trinity in the work of redemption, and specifically clarified that there is no basis for the common notion that the angry Father “poured out his wrath” on the hapless Son or abandoned him on the cross. As for the wilder accusations against PSA, they simply fall apart upon examination.

(2) The Centrality of the Second Coming

As recently as the 1980’s, preaching and teaching on the Second Coming of Christ was common in the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism. Believers overlooked what Jesus said about the timing of his return being unknown, and instead promoted various schemes involving a pan-European Antichrist, a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and a Russian invasion of the Holy Land.  Nowadays, I hardly hear a peep from the pulpit about the Second Coming, except perhaps a vague nod to its eventuality. Maybe the Baby Boomers who lived through the earlier eschatological fervor are embarrassed over all the failed speculation of their youth and want to move on. Also, given the passionate opinions folks have on the subject, pastors may see it as too divisive to touch.

I won’t unpack this here, but in my read-though of the New Testament I was struck by how much stress is there, especially in the words of Jesus himself, on his second coming. He urged his hearers to order their entire lives in readiness for this event, to live as though the final judgment might occur at any moment. His apostles continued to sound that message. This was the “blessed hope” of the early believers. This forceful event is depicted as having a very different character than Jesus’ first appearance.    All the injustices of this life will be overturned, as every thought and act is fully exposed and justly rewarded; every good deed will be celebrated forever and those who love their Lord will finally see him face to face. This will resolve all the questions about the justice of God which trouble thoughtful people in this life. The inevitability and severity of this event provides motivation for contemplating the atonement, as discussed in Appendix A (“The Final Judgment”) [14].

(3) The Wisdom of the East:  Healing of the Whole Person

Humanity is both sick and guilty, and thus is in need of healing as well as forgiveness. The New Testament writers, who were nearly all Jews, devoted much attention to the issue of justification before a holy God. The Greek Fathers gave relatively less attention to the need for forgiveness as such, and focused more on the need for the healing of the whole man.

Modern opponents of penal substitution often try to set these two aspects of the work of God in Christ into opposition, but they cannot be pried apart. A thoroughgoing ontological substitution, where Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, actually entails penal substitution: being reconciled by Christ’s death and being saved by his life (Rom. 5:10) are all part of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

In Western Europe, in both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, there has long been an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and on his crucifixion. Thus, crucifixes (pictures or three-dimensional representations of Jesus on the cross) are common in churches and in peoples’ homes. Jesus’ body is often shown fairly realistically: gaunt, dripping with blood, and sagging from the nails in his hands, as in the painting below.

“The Crucifixion”, by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1515

Depictions of the Resurrection in western churches are fewer, and paintings of this event often show something like what a human observer might have seen: perhaps a tomb with a stone cover removed, and perhaps the risen Jesus standing nearby, talking with Mary Magdalene.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a more balanced emphasis on the Resurrection along with the Crucifixion. Also, there is more focus on the spiritual significance of these events than on physical realism. For instance, this painting of the Resurrection shows Jesus, having busted down the doors of Hades, pulling Adam and Eve (representing fallen humanity) out of their graves, up with him in his conquest of death [15]:

Icon of the Resurrection

This iconography illustrates some fundamental differences in Eastern and Western approaches to the Christian faith. Both traditions can end up affirming a similar set of effects of Christ’s work (forgiveness, sanctification, eternal life, etc.) but the way these aspects are packaged and the way they relate to one another differs.

In evangelicalism, in practice if not in theory, these aspects can be presented in a somewhat disjointed, sequential fashion. Christ’s penal substitution to cover our sins is the typical entry point, and then the other benefits of his work such as empowerment for righteous living and life after physical death are introduced. A common problem with this approach is it can produce believers who endorse Jesus as their Savior (thanks to penal substitution) but not as the functional Lord in their daily lives; they are fans of Jesus, not actual disciples.

Orthodox theologians tend to stress how Christ’s work in overcoming sin and death is one big package that we can participate in. There is often some recognition that Jesus paid the “legal” penalty of death for our sin, but this is not the “burning center” of their thinking, like it is for the Southern Baptists. The main emphasis is on how the entrance of God the Son into the entire human experience brought healing to the entire person, i.e. the restoration of the image of God in us, so we can share in his divine life. The Incarnation, where God united his divine nature with our flesh and bones nature, and then lived out a righteous human life, is central to the salvation of humanity.  The Crucifixion and Resurrection are seen as the completion of the overall incarnational operation. The Orthodox approach is positive and forward-looking, rather than simply doing damage-control from sin. There is more talk of what we are being saved to, and less of what we are being saved from. [16]

It seems to me that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement can be successfully defended against the various logical challenges thrown against its legitimacy. However, in view of how difficult it may be to educate twenty-first century people on their need for divine forgiveness, I wonder whether something like the Eastern Orthodox framework might be a more appropriate way to introduce people to Christianity today. Presumably as folks learned more about the radical goodness of God on other fronts, they could later come to appreciate the measure of God’s grace displayed in the Son dying for their sins.

But actually we don’t have to go as far back as the early church fathers to recover a more holistic view of the work of Christ.  The disjointed approach sometimes found in evangelicalism is simply poorly thought out theology by today’s preachers. It is not intrinsic to Protestantism or to penal substitutionary atonement. The reformer Martin Luther in the 1500’s had a rich view of what Christ accomplished through his life-giving replacement: “[T]hat the curse, sin, and death were to be destroyed, and that the blessing, righteousness, and life were to replace them – and that through Him the whole creation was to be renewed” [17].  This is the language of “Christus Victor” and of healing the whole cosmos, but coming from the man who is largely responsible for bringing to light in modern times the teaching that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, by dying in our place.


[1] C. S. Lewis used a Ransom Theory approach to represent the atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

[2] The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the atonement have developed over time, as its doctors have continued to contemplate this mystery.  A survey of the history of this development is given in the Catholic Encyclopedia. As for the satisfaction-of-honor aspect, Catholic author Thomas Crean provides a contemporary presentation:

“The Catholic doctrine of atonement depends not on the notion of punishment but on that of satisfaction. Sin shatters the relation between the creature and the Creator. Of course it cannot harm God in Himself, since He is immutable. But it violates His eternal right, as the supreme good, to be loved above all things. It thereby ‘robs’ God of the honor that is His due. To satisfy for sins is to restore the balance that should exist between creature and Creator, by taking something from oneself and offering it to Him, out of love for His supreme goodness…Jesus Christ made a perfect satisfaction for sins by the offering of His life. He was not ‘punished’ by God, since He was without sin. He offered his life to God, and this gift, being the life of a divine person and therefore of infinite value, glorified God more than all human sins had insulted him.“   [from God Is No Delusion, Ignatius Press/Family Publications, 2007, pp. 145-146].

Paul Thigpen (2004) provided a Catholic understanding of why Christ suffered for us. Among other things, Christ’s Passion moves us to trust that God loves us, and moves us to gratefully love him in return. It also provides an example of how we should live, in sacrificial love of others.

[3] Contemporary evangelical theologian Greg Boyd is a notable exception here, holding that the primary work of Christ was indeed to defeat Satan:

“The main thing Jesus came to do was destroy the devil and liberate humans from his oppression… the incarnation of the Son of God was first and foremost a military maneuver. Jesus came to bring an end to Satan’s regime and reclaim the earth, humans and the entire creation as the domain in which God is King. He came to establish the Kingdom of God by vanquishing the kingdom of darkness.”

[4] For the record, John Calvin also taught God’s prior, initiating love:

However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he [God] has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, ‘because he first loved us’ [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself.          – Institutes 2.16.3

[5] Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury T&T Clark (2015), p. 112.

[6] Opponents of PSA sometimes claim that Luther, and even Calvin, did not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). However, these claims are usually based on an overly narrow definition of PSA, a definition which focusses primarily on the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus. But as noted below, the notion of the Father being angry at the Son is not intrinsic to PSA; that is an embellishment by post-Reformation preachers, and was explicitly denied by Calvin. The following quotes from Luther, for instance, show he clearly held to PSA as defined above by Packer:     “Christ was delivered for my sins, and was made accursed for me, that I might be delivered from everlasting death…..We are sinners and thieves, and therefore guilty of death and everlasting damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon him, and for them died upon the cross: therefore it behoved that he should become a transgressor, and (as Isaiah saith, chap. 53) ‘to be reckoned among transgressors’ ”… “For God hath laid our sins, not upon us, but upon his Son, Christ, that he bearing the punishment thereof might be our peace, and that by his stripes we might be healed”.

[7] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), p.97. In this passage, Lovelace continues, “The earlier this answer is spelled out in the process of evangelism and nurture, the better. Persons come to Christ initially for a variety of reasons, some of which are eccentric to their principal need for redemption: loneliness, a sense of meaninglessness in the godless life, suffering, fear and so on. Only those are lastingly converted, however, whose eventual motivation is to turn from their sin to God and receive the answer to sin in the work of Jesus Christ” (pp. 97-98).

[8] Unsurprisingly, the interpretations of all these passages are disputed.  Ben Witherington, III, provides accessible exegesis of key passages from the Gospels, Romans 3, Hebrews, I John, and I Peter regarding the atonement.

[9] Johnson, p. 5

[10] Some of these misrepresentations of PSA may be driven in part by various horrifyingly inapt analogies or illustrations of PSA that have been presented in sermons or talks at youth groups, such as the story of the drawbridge operator whose young son falls into the mechanism of the bridge just as a train comes along, such that the father makes the agonizing decision to crush his son in the machinery as he closes the bridge to save hundreds of passengers in the train from plunging to their death. That story presents the son as a hapless victim, whereas the Bible shows Jesus Christ to be an empowered agent who, “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2) proactively decided to save mankind: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Moreover, in that story, the son is dead and gone for good, whereas in the biblical narrative, after his suffering Christ reappears in power and glory.

[11] The notion that the Father poured his anger on the Son or otherwise rejected or abandoned him at the crucifixion seems to have come about by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ cry as he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:26, Mark 15:34 ).  This cry should not be taken as the sum total of the end of Jesus’ life. He also said things like “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “It is finished” (John 19:30), which indicate that Jesus was by no means succumbing to despair.

Jesus may well have felt a sense of abandonment, but that does not mean the Father did actually reject him. The fact that this cry is actually the opening line of Psalm 22 should give us pause. This “Messianic” Psalm describes the experience of a man who was despised by people and seemed to have been rejected by God: “All who see me mock me, they hurl insults, shaking their heads, [saying] ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him’ “ (Ps. 22:7-8.) . Furthermore, “They have pierced my hands and my feet…They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (vv.16, 18). That sounds very much like what Jesus was subjected to on the cross. But the Psalm does not end there. It goes on to declare that God in fact “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v. 24). The result will be that “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22), and “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (v.27).  Thus, far from being a cry of defeat, Jesus with this one line turns the tables on his mockers: he self-identifies with the Psalmist, and therefore declares that God will fully and publically vindicate him, no matter how bad it looks at the moment.

[12]  B. B. Warfield, “Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. IX Studies in Theology, pp. 283, 297. Cited in “The Revolt Against Penal Substitution” (2008).

[13] Large swathes of Christus Victor, including much of the chapter on Irenaeus, may be read in the Google Books “Preview” .

[14]  C. S. Lewis wrote his thoughts on the final judgment in his essay “The World’s Last Night”, which I have summarized here:   “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

[15] Here is an Eastern Orthodox explanation of this type of icon of the Resurrection, which conveys how the Orthodox view things:

Christ is standing on two doors, which are the brass gates of Hades, now broken down because of the Resurrection. They are in the shape of a cross. Scattered near the gates are the locks and keys that bound humanity to Hades….Adam and Eve are now given a new chance and a restored image. For Christ, who in many places is called “the Second Adam,” has come to earth and done what the first Adam could not. He showed that it is possible to live a life in unity with God, demonstrating faith and love, and avoiding temptation. The reward for this life is eternal life, Resurrection from the dead.

…Christ is shown grabbing the wrists of Adam and Eve. This is an important part of the icon. When people great one another and shake hands, this denotes a position of equality, you might even say that symbolically it means meeting one another half-way. The depiction of Christ grabbing the wrist of Adam tells us that we are not equal with God. We cannot even meet God half-way. But if we reach out to God, He is ready to grasp us by the wrist to take us with Him to Paradise. This is the most hopeful part of the icon. It reminds us that we have to reach out to God in faith, and let Him take care of the rest.

…Jesus did not “cheat” death—He destroyed the power of death. We will not cheat death either. Each of us will eventually die an earthly death. But because the Resurrection destroyed the power of death over us, when we die on this earth, we will be resurrected with Christ, the power “death” has over us will indeed be destroyed.

[16] For more on the teachings of the Greek Fathers, see the Conclusions section of my more detailed article on church fathers and atonement. A particularly insightful and edifying evangelical perspective on Eastern Orthodox views of the atonement is Donald Fairbairn’s essay Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories . Whole books have been written helping to bring Orthodox insights to evangelicals, such as Fairbairn’s Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes, and Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton, Jr.

[17] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 26, 282. Cited in Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 41.


Appendix A. The Final Judgment

Behind the notion of penal substitutionary atonement lies the notion that God will judge, and appropriately reward or punish, each individual after death: “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:29).  This concept has been widely accepted by Christians of all stripes over the ages. However, in the past fifty years preaching on the final judgment has largely faded away except in the most fundamentalist congregations, so it may be unfamiliar to many current self-identified Christians. Thus, given its importance for understanding the atonement, it seems worth reviewing the biblical basis for this doctrine. Theologians argue that a God who did not call evil what it is, and did not treat it as it deserves, would not be good.  I will not attempt to justify God’s justice to the satisfaction of skeptics, but in the interest of time will just survey some of the relevant New Testament passages.

In the physical creation, things operate with consistent cause and effect, which is why we can do science. In biblical thought, there is also a divinely ordained cause and effect in the moral realm:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:7-8)

To some extent, this reaping of what you sow occurs in the natural course of events.  What goes around comes around: people will tend to treat you the way you treat them, and your own emotional state is uplifted or degraded by your attitudes and actions towards others.  However, there is another dimension, a deliberate judging and rewarding by God. It seems to be part of his innate nature to do so:

He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6b, NASB)

Paul writes, “This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2:16).  This judgment is not presented in Scripture as a bad thing. Things will not go well for the ungodly, of course, but believers who have been patiently keeping the faith in the face of personal disappointments and scorn from skeptics will be vindicated. They will receive their hearts’ desire, which is unhindered and unlimited communion with their master and friend and lover. They will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat. 25:21). Paul reminds believers that their ultimate citizenship is “in heaven”, and so “we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20-21). The degree of our longing for this event may serve as a gauge of how Christ-centered versus world-centered our lives are.

This divine recompense is set in the future, at what is called the Second Coming of Christ. At present, however, divine justice is typically not apparent in our experience (cf. 1 Timothy 5:24). The jaded philosopher of Ecclesiastes observed, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Eccles. 8:14).

Jesus confronted this subject in the case of a man who had been blind since birth. His disciples assumed this dreadful condition must be payback for some major past sin. They were not sure, however, of exactly whose sin was involved. Thus their question to Jesus was, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus cut through their payback assumptions with his reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Jesus dealt further with the issue of justice in this life, in his commentary on a local massacre and the collapse of a building where eighteen people were killed (Luke 13:1-5). He made it clear that the victims in these tragedies were not worse sinners than anyone else in the city. Thus, Jesus made it plain that in this life the same tragedies befall all types of people, young and old, nice and nasty; and also that all people face judgment in the next life.

While all humans experience pain and loss, they also experience various gifts and pleasures in this life, again typically without regard to their moral merit.  Jesus observed that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat. 5:44), and also that the beauties of nature like the “lilies of the field” are accessible to all.   We can choose to focus just on the negatives (and blame God for making such a horrible world) or just on the positives (and perhaps be insensitive to others’ suffering), or (preferably) try to take a balanced and realistic view of life. (See Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear  for more on this subject.)

All the injustice we observe in this world raises questions in our minds as to whether God is truly all-good and all-powerful. There will come a time of reckoning, however, when justice is finally served. God’s judgments are characterized as “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). This judgment is not upon communal “structures of evil”, but upon persons, upon morally accountable individuals.  (When Matthew 25:31 ff. states “all the nations will be gathered before him” for judgment, comparison with the teachings of the rest of the New Testament shows that this means that “all people on the planet” will be gathered for judgment, not that everyone from Nation A will be saved and everyone from Nation B will not, in some sort of corporate assessment. Rev. 7:9 explicitly states that in heaven there will be a great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language”. )

In the New Testament alone, a search on “judge” and “judgment” finds these terms employed dozens of times to describe a momentous evaluation and recompense for each man and woman:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31 )

Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?     But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.  (Rom. 2:4-8)

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God… It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 9:27-28, 31)

A major theme in II Peter is that believers should patiently live their lives in light of the judgment to occur at Christ’s second coming. Since this judgment is not visible in the current natural order, “scoffers” mock the very idea of a final judgment, saying, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (II Pet. 3:4). We are told that the judgment is being delayed because the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (3:9), but that day will eventually come. The heavens and earth “are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (II Pet. 3:7).

What sort of judgment? If God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly, and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of ungodly men…then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (II Pet. 2:6-9). Those who love and follow the Lord, however, can look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (II Pet. 3:14).

See also John 5:24-30,  Acts 10:42, Romans 14:10 , 1 Corinthians 4:5 , 1 Peter 1:17 , 1 Peter 2:23 , 1 Peter 4:5 , Acts 3:21-23; Eph. 5:5-6, 6:8 ; Col. 3:5-6; I Thes. 1:10; II Thes, 1:6-10; I Tim. 5:24; I Pet. 3:5, Rev. 20:12-15, etc. When the apostle Paul talked with the local governor Felix about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come”, this seasoned Roman official became so alarmed he broke off the conversation (Acts 24:25). So this is a serious matter.

Jesus on the Final Judgment

Lest we think that a cataclysmal final judgement is something devised by Paul and other epistle writers, we should note that Jesus also endorsed it, often describing it in vivid terms. Jesus was a complex character. He called attention to the Father’s gracious response to those who seek him (cf. Luke 11:10), and to his generous gifts of rain and sun to all mankind (Matt. 5:45). Jesus himself was a witty, compassionate, basically happy man, with a reputation as a party animal, a champion of women and the oppressed, and a guy that people liked to hang out with.

These winsome qualities make it easy to miss the fact that he was also a forceful preacher of God’s apocalyptic judgment. This judgment will suddenly fall upon the entire world at any moment, and so Jesus urged his hearers to live each day with their eternal reward in mind. He told his followers that they should be more afraid of God throwing them into hell than of the hostile men who could (and later actually would) murder them:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5)

Opponents of penal substitution tend to stress some parables of Jesus (e.g. the Prodigal Son), while ignoring others, such as the parable of the vineyard (Luke 20:9-16), where the owner of the vineyard comes and kills (!!!) the wicked tenants. One parable portrays the graciousness and mercy of God, the other reveals his justice and coming judgment. It is admittedly a real stretch to ponder how these two seemingly disparate images cohere, but that is how we grow in our knowledge of the actual revealed God, rather than by suppressing or watering down the parts that make us uncomfortable.

Jesus told a parable (Matt. 13:24-29) about a man sowing good seed in his field, and an enemy sneaking in and sowing bad (weed) seeds, such that weeds grew up among the wheat. The master told his servants not to try to pull out the weeds, lest the growing wheat be uprooted. Rather, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

This parable hints at a reason why divine judgment is delayed. Here Jesus pictures the present age as a time when both godly and ungodly people are present and when good and evil can be difficult to cleanly separate; a premature attempt to stamp out evil would thwart the production of the full complement of good.

Unlike the Prodigal Son story, Jesus actually provides the interpretation of this parable. When his disciples wanted to know its meaning, Jesus told them that at the end of the age he himself (the Son of Man) would send his angels to remove evildoers and throw them into a fiery furnace, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” :

The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13: 37-43)

Thus, in response to Pastor Chuck Queen’s scornful comment cited above, Jesus does indeed teach the need for God to “save us from God’s self”. We find many words of Jesus relating to this sort of final and severe divine judgment. For instance, in the gospel of Matthew alone: 5:29-30; 7:23; 8:42; 10:15, 32-33; 11:22-24; 12:36;  13:37-43,49-50; 16:24-27; 18:6-9, 34-35;  19:28-30; 23:33; 24:45-51; 25:14-30, 31-46. And in the Gospel of John (5:28-29) we read these words of Jesus: “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will come out – those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” These passages do not portray judgment as merely the natural consequences of our mistakes catching up to us, but as the deliberate retributive actions of both the Father and the Son.  It seems unlikely that all of these depictions can be dismissed as mere metaphor.

Human Responses to the Final Judgment

The final judgment is, of course, summarily dismissed by unbelievers. Christians of the more progressive school are appalled by these seemingly crude, even violent portrayals of divine judgment, and seek to reimagine a more politically correct God than the one that is so clearly described in the New Testament. Fundamentalists embrace the notion of judgment, but may presume on “cheap grace” instead of soberly ensuring that their “works” (particularly in charity toward the poor and distressed) truly demonstrate that their faith is not “dead” (cf. James 2:17).  We may infer from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) that the most appropriate response to the prospect of the final judgment is to renounce all self-righteousness, press into God’s presence the best way you know how, and cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”.

But this is not the universal response. In the course of laying out the gravity of the human predicament in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers some observations on how we often psychologically deal with the prospect of judgment by a holy God. Although at some level people all know that they are subject to a holy Creator, in practice they wickedly “suppress the truth” (v.18):

Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.  (vv. 21-22, 25).

Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done… Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (vv. 28, 32)

According to Paul, people actually do succeed in suppressing the truth about the final judgment. This allows them to basically do what they want to do without worrying about eternal consequences (cf. Eph 4:17-19). This might be termed the Alfred E. Neuman approach to the final reckoning:

What Me Worry

From a human perspective, this can seem liberating. On the other hand, the absence of eternal consequences necessarily entails the ultimate pointlessness of every human decision and action, since in the natural course of things every memory of human endeavor will vanish in the eventual entropic freeze of the universe (and will likely be burned up long before that, as the sun expands to become a red giant, cooking Earth and Mars).

The Binary Outcome in Judgment

I find it somewhat surprising how “binary” the final judgment is. I mean, if it were up to me, I suppose I would judge people’s lives on some sort of a sliding scale, with a bell-shaped distribution. Guys like Hitler over on one end, kindly grandmas on the other end, with most folks muddling through somewhere in the middle, and with rewards proportional to one’s percentile rank. Or something like that.  However, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Although middle-of-the-road muddling through may seem acceptable to us, a lukewarm approach toward the one who sustains us in being does not go down so well with him (Rev. 3:16). Jesus expected his followers to put him completely above their personal goals, their financial security, their family members, even their lives; otherwise, he said, you are “not worthy of me” (Mat. 10:37-38). On his team, you are either all in, or you are not in at all.  (Although Jesus set an uncompromisingly high standard for his followers in his teachings, in practice he showed great grace for their failings along the way, as long as they were still trying).

And so it happens that the judgment described in the New Testament is typically a 0 or a 1 rather than a continuum. There are some gradations of rewards for the righteous (cf. I Cor. 3:10-15) and punishment for the unrighteous (Luke 12:47-48), but fundamentally you are either in, sharing your master’s happiness, or you are out, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 25:30).

The criteria used in this judgment involve one’s overall orientation for or against the triune God and his ways, where one’s actions towards other humans are indicative of this orientation. Some passages highlight the importance of faith in Jesus Christ and relying on the efficacy of his perfect sacrifice. Others stress the need for righteous living. Taking any such passages in isolation can lead to misunderstanding. Our good works are never sufficient to justify us before God, but a life of consistent sensuality or selfishness would demonstrate that whatever faith we claim is shallow and ineffective (Luke 6:46; I Cor. 6:9; James 2:14-26). It is possible to live a generally righteous and pious life (e.g. Acts 10:2; Phil. 3:6), yet even law-keeping Jews and the conscientious Gentiles fall short of God’s holiness and thus need a Savior (Acts 11:14; Phil. 3:9; Rom. 3:19-28).

Delving into the how, when, and where of this judgment would require a whole book. Theologians continue to debate many of these details.  My point in bringing it up here is simply to note the magnitude of the problem of human rebellion against a holy God, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the solution to this problem which is freely provided by God’s gracious initiative in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition to being just, God is loving beyond description. He is for us, not against us. Whether or not they are conscious of it, it is humans who are enemies toward God (cf. Romans 5:10, Colossians 1:21, James 4:4), not the other way around.

The Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) acts out of radical love towards an often ungrateful world:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:11, 18)

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:3-4)

The ultimate reward is simply being in God’s presence for eternity. Some folks long for that privilege, others don’t. From his end, God has done all that is needed. God, in Christ, was and is “reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor 5:19) – – however, he allows us the choice of accepting or rejecting him and his ways. If you don’t want him, you don’t have to have him:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

God’s Wrath

God’s “wrath” (Greek orgē) is mentioned in connection with his judgement. It is takes some care to understand the meaning of this term; any attempt to describe God’s “feelings” is bound to err in some measure.  In humans, wrath or anger is often a sudden, uncontrolled flare-up of emotion in response to a threat or insult. God’s orgē is quite different. It is a settled disposition of opposition to the humans who are opposing him. One word study summarizes it: “ Orgḗ (“settled anger”) proceeds from an internal disposition which steadfastly opposes someone or something based on extended personal exposure, i.e. solidifying what the beholder considers wrong (unjust, evil)…Orgē comes from the verb oragō meaning, ‘to teem, to swell‘; and thus implies that it is not a sudden outburst, but rather (referring to God’s) fixed, controlled, passionate feeling against sin . . . a settled indignation.”

In Tony Lane’s examination of God’s wrath in relation to love, his definition is: “It is God’s personal, vigorous opposition both to evil and to evil people. This is a steady, unrelenting antagonism that arises from God’s very nature, his holiness. It is God’s revulsion to evil and all that opposes him, his displeasure at it and the venting of that displeasure. It is his passionate resistance to every will that is set against him.”  Furthermore, “God’s wrath is directed primarily against evildoers because of the evil that they do… My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself as far as I am active.”

While man’s anger is typically unrighteous (James 1:20), God’s wrath against evil is just. However, God doesn’t just leave it at that, but with lavish love he takes initiative to overcome evil and its relational consequences. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:1-7)

To those who do not sense the weight of their own faithlessness and ingratitude towards God, his “settled disposition of opposition to sin” may seem petty and unfair. As usual, we can either assume the role of cosmic judge (and demand that God justify his actions to our satisfaction), or we can with gratitude receive the “incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus”.

A result of Christ’s atoning death is that those who receive its benefits are “saved from God’s wrath though him” (Rom. 5:9). Some preachers assert that on the cross God “poured out his wrath on Jesus”, but that is mere speculation, and is not an essential element of penal substitutionary atonement. John Calvin argued forcefully that the Father was in fact not angry at, or hostile to, the Son at the crucifixion, even if in the midst of his suffering it may have felt that way to Jesus. (Institutes 2.16.11).

Divine Retribution

“Retributive justice” is something of a red flag for progressive Christians. Enlightened human jurisdictions, we are told, practice restorative justice, rather than retribution. Also, Jesus didn’t retaliate against the evil men who beat him and killed him, and he told his followers to not take revenge against those who harm them. Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of God to then do what he told us not to?

Like so many other objections in this area, this fails to account for the qualitative difference between God and humans. His role as the ultimate definer and enforcer of justice in the universe is much different than ours. We don’t get to hold him accountable for his actions, however much human pride hates to hear that. This takes us back to the primal dispute between God and man: who gets to define right and wrong?

The nominally “retributive” justice of penal substitution turns out to be radically restorative for those who receive it. Jesus, who actually took the hit, was well satisfied with the transaction (cf. Heb. 12:2). Rishmawy notes that retribution is an essential part of attribution:

Retribution, as I’ve been saying, is not about vindictiveness, or pettiness, but rather is about notions of desert and truth. Purged of sin [i.e. done properly] it is a matter of reckoning—of naming sin as what it is and treating it as it deserves. When Peter says we call “Father” the One “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), retribution is that impartial judgment applied to wicked deeds. As an aspect of distributive justice, it is God paying out what is due.

Looked at from another angle, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested we think of retributive punishment as an aspect of “attributive” justice—as a matter of truth-telling about persons, about acts, about offenses.

Also note that affirming God deals in retributive justice does not rule out God’s restorative justice. Even in punishment intended to reform a prisoner (or even a child), there is an element of retribution—it’s only right to do so if the person actually deserves it. There’s no call to subject them to any treatment against their will if it were not in some way merited.

When it comes to the atonement, satisfaction theories or penal substitution are making precisely the claim that God miraculously accomplishes his restorative justice precisely by way of his retributive justice enacted in the cross. God doesn’t have to put aside his law to save law- breakers. He can be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26) who punishes sin while reconciling sinners to himself.

And let’s just add that admitting a retributive moment in the cross does not for a minute mean you must ignore the restorative value of his saving life, his resurrection, or ascension into the heaven.

Moreover, this objection against God’s retribution completely misunderstands the basis of God’s command that we humans should not retaliate. The reason we don’t retaliate is not because God does not retaliate, but because he does retaliate, though in his time and as he sees fit. The difference is that God is capable of judging justly, while we are not. Romans 12:19 puts it clearly: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” In earlier times, the first part of this verse (“do not take revenge”) challenged cultural norms; now it is the second half (“It is mine to avenge; I will repay“) that offends us.

During his first coming, Jesus did not retaliate, not because retaliation is wrong, but because he trusted that God would execute judgment in due time: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  (I Peter 1:23). At his second coming, this very same Jesus will “send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat 13:41-42). This is not very “tolerant” behavior.

Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, who were being viciously persecuted by people who rejected the claims of Jesus:   “It is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”   (II Thes. 1:6-9 NASB, italics added).      At his second coming, Jesus comes in power instead of in weakness, and will “deal out retribution” of “everlasting destruction”. God is just to visit retribution on the persecutors. It is implied that he would be unjust if he did not punish them.   (I realize this grates terribly on our modern sensibilities; I am simply reporting what Jesus and his apostles said on the subject). Anyway, it seems to me that those who wish to construct a theology of Christian pacifism might do better to work with, rather than against, what the Bible says about God’s eventual judgments.

All the same, something in us longs for some sort of ultimate restoration for everyone. While there are many verses which portray final, irrevocable, destructive judgment upon those who reject God, there are a few passages (e.g. Colossians 1:19-20, I Corinthians 15:22-28, Rom. 5:18) which speak of seemingly cosmic reconciliation for “all”. These verses fuel ongoing debates over universalism in salvation. Unfortunately for the universalist interpretation, the contexts of these passages indicate that “all” does not means “every sentient being, regardless of their response to God”, but rather all those who “continue in [their] faith” (Col 1:23) and who “receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17).

A final comment: besides the effect of the final judgment on individuals (which has been the focus here) there are indications that the whole physical creation will be renewed. The end game may well be living in resurrected, “incorruptible” (I Cor. 15:42-54) bodies on a rebooted earth rather than in an ethereal heaven. Paul writes that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21). The book of Revelation (21:3-4) describes the new creation in these terms:

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.    

Appendix B. Why Can’t God Just Forgive Us? Can Guilt Be Transferred to an Innocent Party?

Excerpts from:  Answering 4 Common Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, By Stephen Wellum

…In his classic book, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006), John Stott famously wrote: “At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology” (159). I couldn’t agree more, yet it’s crucial to remember that a true Christology is also dependent on a correct theology proper. Thus, it’s more precise to say: “At the root of every caricature of the cross is a distorted doctrine of God.” If we get God wrong, we will never grasp the problem of sin, and its glorious solution in Christ and his cross. In fact, all common objections to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) are ultimately rooted in sub-biblical ideas regarding the triune God of Scripture.


In brief, the God of the Bible is the triune Creator-covenant Lord. As triune, the Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally shared fully and equally the one, identical divine nature in perfect love and communication (John 1:1; 17:5). Also, in every divine action such as creation, revelation, and redemption, the divine persons act inseparably according to their eternal person-relations. There is never a divine action that is not triune, including our redemption in Christ and his cross. Furthermore, as the triune Creator, God is independent and self-sufficient, not merely in his existence and knowledge, but also as the moral standard of the universe. Unlike creatures, God’s moral character and justice is grounded in himself.

In Scripture, God’s independence or aseity is closely associated with his holiness (Exo. 3:6–6; 19:23–25; Lev. 11:44; 19:1; Isa. 6:1-5; 57:15; Heb. 12:28; 1 John 1:5). God in his self-sufficiency and moral perfection is the ultimate criterion of rightness and justice which entails that the triune God of holy love is the law, and as such, he always acts consistently with himself.

For this reason, sin before this God is serious. God in his holiness is “too pure to behold evil” and unable to tolerate wrong (Hab. 1:12-13; cf. Isa 1:4–20; 35:8; 59:1–2). This is why, given who God is, he cannot tolerate sin; he must act in holy justice. God remains true to himself, and as such, our sin separates us from him (Isa 59:1–2). As the righteous God, he upholds his own holiness and acts against every violation of it, which also results in divine wrath, i.e., his holy reaction to evil (Rom 1:18–32; 2:8–16). God’s wrath, unlike his holiness, is not an internal perfection; rather it is a function of his holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath, but there is always holiness. But where the holy God confronts his creatures in their rebellion, there must be wrath. To dilute God’s wrath is to diminish God’s holiness and self-sufficiency along with the exercise of his holiness in justice.

No doubt, alongside God’s holiness is his love, and Scripture never pits one against the other. Yet for God to forgive us of our sins, he must satisfy his own righteous demand, which is what he has done in Christ’s cross. The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son as our propitiation, which turns back his own wrath against us and satisfies the demands of justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2; 4:8–10; cf. Rom 5:8). In the cross, we see the greatest demonstration of God’s holy-justice and love. It’s where he remains just and the justifier of those who have faith in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21–26).

With this basic sketch of who God is in place, we can now think through four common objections to PSA, which at their heart, all have some distorted view of God.

  1. Why can’t God just forgive us?

First, why can’t God simply forgive sin? After all, we are called to forgive people without demanding payment for sin (Matt 5:38–48). Why can’t God do the same? Why does Christ have to pay for all of our sins in order for God to forgive us?

The answer is, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral standard of the universe. All of God’s attributes are essential to him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. In regard to his justice, God is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law external to him; instead, God is the law. Our sin is not against an abstract principle or impersonal law, but it’s always against God who is holy and just (Ps. 51:4).

So for God to forgive us, he must do so by remaining true to himself. That is why our forgiveness is only possible if the full satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified before him, our Lord Jesus must perfectly obey all of God’s moral demands for us and fully pay for our sin in his substitutionary death (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21).

For those who stumble over this explanation, think of the alternative. Ultimately, everyone who denies PSA thinks that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice. But to make sense of this, one must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him. However, if this is so, then how is God the moral standard of the universe?

Or, appeal is often made to God’s love being greater than his other perfections such as his justice, as if God can forgive us without the full satisfaction of his justice. But this will not do either. God has all of his attributes essentially and inseparably. In forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the very demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his cross, God’s own righteous demand is met (1 John 2:2; 4:8–10). These other views pull apart in God what cannot be pulled apart, effectively making his love unjust and his justice unloving. They thereby change God’s very nature.

Our triune God is a God of grace and justice, and in our justification, he remains true to himself. God remains the loving, just, and holy one; no sin is overlooked or condoned. Instead, our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed. It is only PSA that allows us to affirm these biblical truths in all their beauty and glory.

…4. Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent victim unjust?

Fourth, isn’t it unjust of God to transfer our guilt to an innocent victim? This last common objection involves at least three problems.

First, it assumes a human court analogy. No doubt, in human courts, judges adjudicate laws external to them and cannot transfer the sin of a guilty person to an innocent one. Yet, in this case, God as the Judge is the law, and he is the person we have sinned against. He has every right to pronounce our guilt or justification in relation to whether our sin has been paid for or not.

Second, it fails to grasp that the one who has taken our place, obeyed all of God’s righteous demands for us, and paid for our sin is God himself in Christ. For sinners to be declared just in Christ, who is the Son incarnate—the very person we have sinned against and whose moral demand is against us—is hardly an unjust transfer of guilt!

Third, the objection also fails to grasp how in God’s eternal plan (Ps. 139:16; Eph. 1:4, 11; 1 Pet. 1:20), the Son is appointed as the Mediator of his people, and how in his incarnation and new covenant work for us, Jesus chose to become qualified to represent us and to act as our representative and substitute. As the Son, in his humanity, he stood in our place, rendered our human obedience, and took his own righteous demand on himself for us.

There is certainly nothing immoral or unjust here, but only the glory of our triune God in the face of Christ, and the wonder of the truth of the gospel! The divine Son has every right to take our place for it is against him that we have sinned and we owe him everything. The divine Son, along with the entire triune God, is the offended party, and he has the right to demand satisfaction from us. By choosing to become our Redeemer in his life and death, our Lord Jesus gloriously, graciously, and justly accomplished our eternal salvation.

Posted in Atonement, Bible Interpretation, Church Fathers | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“Disciple Science” Videos and Podcast on Integrating Faith and Science

This is to call attention to a new organization which is making useful contributions to the faith-science dialog. “Disciple Science” is a crowd-funded nonprofit that is exploring the interface between science and faith, aiming to be faithful to both the core messages of the Bible and to what is discernable in the natural world. Their platforms include YouTube videos, a podcast, a blog, and interactions on Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. The key person driving this effort is Dale Gentry, who I met at the 2019 American Scientific Affiliation annual meeting. In my description of that meeting, I gave a short summary of his presentation there. Dale is an ecologist and professor of biology at a Christian liberal arts college in Minnesota.


Dale notes that many young people drift away from the church because of a perceived conflict between modern science and their Christian upbringing. He also notes that his students often go first to YouTube for information, rather than reading books or articles. His vision in response was to make available a series of engaging videos on YouTube which explore the relation between science and faith. The format of these 5-6 minute animated videos is modeled after the wildly popular The Bible Project video series.

It takes time and money to produce videos to high standards, so there are only four videos to date in the Disciple Science YouTube channel. These brief videos cannot go into details, but they give a good overview of the key issues. These four titles, with their descriptive blurbs, are:

( 1) Is there tension between science and Christian faith?

Before we dig into science, scripture, history and philosophy, we need to address the nature of the relationship. Science approaches the world seeking cause and effect; religious traditions are a search for meaning. What is behind the tension between science and Christian faith?   Can they coexist?

( 2 ) The Two Books of God

Can you know an artist through their art? Scripture tells us that we can know the creator through creation. Hear more about the two books of God and consider what role science and nature can play in your journey of faith and your understanding of God.

A pervasive theme in Disciple Science, which has a long pedigree in Christian theology, is that that the physical creation is a second “book” of revelation about the Creator, complementing the Bible. Two screen shots from this video are shown below. The second shot shows Dale himself, on a chilly Minnesota day.

( 3 ) Christianity & Evolution

Evolution has been a topic of debate since long before Charles Darwin. This video introduces the issue and gives us a framework for how to move forward on our search for understanding of when and how God created.

( 4 ) The Gospel and the Environment  

As human activity continues to change the climate, drive mass extinctions, and degrade soil, water and air, human activity is needed to reduce and reverse these impacts. Christians could and should be deeply interested in mobilizing to help. But Christianity has a tense relationship with the environmental movement which has led some to question whether Christians should be involved in environmental stewardship at all. This video explores the Christian Gospel and considers if it informs environmental stewardship.

A list of proposed future videos is given here. Areas include further exploration of the general topic of discerning characteristics of God and his ways from nature (natural theology), the origins debate (Adam, the Flood, evolution, etc.), and how a biblical worldview should impact out treatment of the environment. Further productions naturally hinge on ongoing donations.


Dale and his team are able to go into more depth on various topics in their podcast series. These episodes are typically around thirty minutes long. They invite interaction via the comments section on YouTube, on the Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter. The podcast episodes are accessible at the link above, and also on mobile devices.

The first thirteen or so episodes deal largely with general questions of how we might encounter God through observing and contemplating the physical world. They note that Jesus (e.g. in his parables) and Biblical authors commonly used analogies from the natural world to enhance our understanding of God and his ways. Further episodes continue these themes, but also deal more specifically with issues such as evolution and ecology.

The podcast includes interviews with a number of authors who have published in the faith/science area. These include Greg Cootsona, author of Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, and Gregg Davidson, who is professor and chair of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. I reviewed Gregg’s excellent book Friend of Science, Friend of Faith .

Two podcasts cover an interview with biochemist Sy Garte. Sy was raised in a militantly atheistic family, but eventually came to follow Jesus in part because his training in science led him to question his materialist worldview. He tells his story and describes his thinking in these episodes and in his recent book Works of His Hands.

The episode titled “Images of Divine Things: A conversation with Dr. Lisanne Winslow on her forthcoming book, A Great and Remarkable Analogy” draws on the writings of Jonathan Edwards to address questions of why God created a physical world at all, what are legitimate ways to discern the meanings or messages that God may have embedded in creation, and what is the place of death and catastrophe that we observe in nature. Dr. Winslow is something of a polymath, with a PhD and an active research program in cell/marine biology, and also a PhD and rich professional activity in systematic theology. She has published in these areas, plus authored nine books of poetry, and has served in pastoral roles.

A recent podcast episode, “Faith, Science and the Coronavirus”, addresses the coronavirus pandemic, and invites us to integrate science’s ability to understand how the world works and Christian faith’s framework for hope, meaning, purpose, ethics and relationship.


For those who prefer a quick read versus listening to podcasts, there are three short articles on the Disciple Science blog site.


I have been favorably impressed with all that I have heard and seen from Disciple Science. The tone is gracious, and the content addresses key points of controversy in helpful ways. They spend proportionately less time than, say, Biologos on what specific physical evidence may support evolution or an old earth, and give more attention to the basic questions of how God might reveal himself in nature. Their overall point of view, namely a high view of both the results of modern scientific investigations and of the New Testament teachings, is one that I share, so it is not hard to endorse their efforts.

I have been engaged in reading and writing about faith/science issues for over ten years now, and so I did not expect to run across much that was new to me. However, I got a lot out of several podcasts. In “Episode 11: What tools do you need to find God in nature?” Dale shares some questions he has wrestled with, such as: “If God embedded messages or meanings in nature that point to spiritual truths, why aren’t these truths more obvious to everyone?”     Dale notes that one can find a rich typology of Christian themes in the Old Testament scriptures, which may not be obvious in a simple, literal reading of the texts; maybe the same hermeneutical principles apply to discerning spiritual analogies in the natural world. The seeming obscurity invites us into intentional contemplation and relational encounter with the Creator. Those who seek will find, while those who don’t seek won’t find. This involves exercising our faculties of intuition and imagination, which is something that has been often devalued since the Enlightenment.

The January 31 podcast episode with Lisanne Winslow mentioned above (“Episode 13: Images of Divine Things: A conversation with Dr. Lisanne Winslow…”) covers these issues, plus much more. Listening to her is like drinking from a firehose. It would take a whole article to summarize the material in that one interview. If you want a strong, fresh perspective of how God is revealed in nature, I highly recommend listening to that episode.

Posted in American Scientific Affliliation, Bible Interpretation, Evolution, Natural Theology, Suffering | 2 Comments

Central Banks, Interest Rates, and Zombies

Preface: Most articles on this blog deal with the relation of faith and science – – see recent titles on the right side of the page. This article reflects a side interest of mine, in how the economy works (or sometimes doesn’t).

In 2013 I wrote an Overview of the U. S. Monetary System   describing what money is and how it is created; interactions of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and commercial banks; and government and trade deficits. Much of this also applies to Europe, Japan, and other countries or regions with central banks. At that time, the world was in the midst of a painfully slow recovery from the traumatic 2008-2009 Great Recession, and central banks were taking unprecedented measures to try to stabilize finances and help economies regain growth. It is interesting to look back to all the macroeconomic uncertainties seven years ago, and see how things have actually played out.

Europe was still in the throes of a sovereign debt crisis. As of 2013, Greek public finances were still shaky, with fears of default driving 10-year government bonds yields over 10% and Greek populist political parties fighting the austerity measures demanded by the EU as the price for a bailout. At that point, the fiscally-responsible Germans were preventing the European Central Bank (ECB) from simply underwriting the bonds issued by European countries like Greece. However, since then the ECB has devised ways to do stealth quantitative easing – – it provides money at very low interest rates to national banks to enable those banks to purchase government bonds. The ECB balance sheet now stands at over 4.5 trillion euros. This has driven government bond interest rates down and down, to zero and sometimes even negative. Because of the implicit ECB backstop, Greek bonds were recently issued with an interest rate of under 1%, which is lower than the rates for current US Government debt. No one could have imagined such a thing in 2013. Such is the power of central banks.

In Japan, the central bank has gone wild, buying anything and everything including stocks as well as bonds. The Japanese central bank routinely vacuums up a large fraction of the debt issued by the Japanese government. This has kept a Japanese interest rates near zero for decades. For some years, various finance commentators have warned that private bond buyers would rebel against the huge government debt and deficit spending, and would force Japanese rates back up. But all the experience of the last 10 years illustrates the truth that you cannot fight the central banks. They have for all practical purposes, infinite resources to execute their objectives, since they can create as much money as they want with the tap of a keyboard.

The Swiss national bank (SNB) currently engages in raw currency manipulation by creating billions of Swiss francs out of thin air, and using them to buy things like Euros and U.S. stocks. Dumping all these francs into foreign markets serves to reduce the foreign exchange value of the franc. This is done in order to make Swiss exports more competitive. A side effect of this currency war operation is that the SNB has come to own huge stakes in U.S. corporations, e.g. it owns more publically-traded shares of Facebook than Mark Zuckerberg.

In the U.S., the Fed intervened massively to stabilize the financial markets in the wake of the 2008-2009 meltdown, but those interventions were seen as extraordinary. But the extraordinary has since become the ordinary. The Fed balance sheet remains bloated at over $4 trillion, and there is no realistic prospect that it will ever shrink down low enough that the Fed can resume setting short term rates by open market operations, like it did before 2008.

In the U.S., the Fed under Chairman Powell tried to reduce its holdings and to increase (“normalize”) short term rates back up to 3-3.5% or so in 2018. That ended disastrously, with a stock market meltdown at the end of the year, and with the Fed quickly back-pedaling and ratcheting rates back down in 2019. In autumn of 2019, the commercial banks got overwhelmed with the flood of bills issued by the U.S. Treasury due to the ballooning federal deficit, and the “repo” market (which I will not try to explain here) froze up, so the Fed intervened by buying lots of Treasuries, in the process re-inflating its balance sheet.

The bottom line is that central banks have succeeded in enforcing extremely low interest rates over the past decade, and at this point it looks like low rates are here to stay. Private and public debt has ballooned to such enormous amounts, that any large increase in rates would probably crash the whole system, since so many parties simply could not keep going if they had to pay higher rates on their debt.

Here is a graph of nominal bond rates over the last 700 years:

Source: Article by author BDCBuzz, , who credited it to VisualCapitalist.

The long term trend has been toward 0-2% nominal interest rates, or essentially 0% or negative real rates (i.e. after inflation). Billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign bonds now trade at negative nominal rates; you would do better stashing your money under your mattress. Corporate and other bonds of course trade at somewhat higher rates than this government debt. This is a novel global macroeconomic experiment, being run in real time. One wonders how economists a hundred years from now will assess it.

So, what are some of the effects of more or less permanent near-zero interest rates? One effect is to enable massive government deficit spending, in Japan and now in the US. It seems like neither major American political party cares about federal deficits any longer. One party used to at least posture about being concerned about it, but their reward was to be bashed as “heartless” by the other party for reining in domestic spending, so they seem to have given up that fight. Politicians now seem to assume that the Fed will step and buy government bonds (“monetize the debt”) as needed to keep interest rates down. It seems that in practice this plank of “Modern Monetary Theory” has become the new orthodoxy.

It used to be the case that the Fed was so independent that it would enforce financial discipline on federal government. If the federal deficit spending started getting high, with attendant inflation, the Fed would crank up interest rates to cool down the economy. This would (in theory, at least) punish the profligate president and Congress by essentially causing a recession on their watch, with all the human pain of job losses. If this punishment caused the stock market to crash, so be it. But now the Fed seems to be more or less hostage to the stock market. If the market swoons, the Fed has shown that it will quickly lower interest rates.

If Europe, the ECB sits above any one country, and is heavily influenced by the Germans, with their tradition of strict financial discipline. Although the ECB has provided cheap money to keep interest rates low in European countries, it demands in return from those countries that they meet certain austerity targets. This has to some extent forced those nations to keep their deficit spending under control. On the one hand, that may seem admirable, but in practice, European economic growth has lagged far behind that of the US in the past decade, perhaps because of all the austerity.

In the U.S., the more productive coastal states subsidize the poorer interior/southern regions via federal transfer payments such as Medicare and food stamps. This money recycling helps allow the folks in the poorer regions to keep purchasing goods and services produced by the wealthier regions, so it is a win-win. However, in Europe, the more-productive Germans and Dutch are reluctant to simply ship their hard-earned euros to Greece and Spain to subsidize the lifestyles there.

In the U.S., companies have taken advantage of low interest rates to issue staggering amounts of corporate debt. Rather than using this money to invest in new factories and hire more workers, a large fraction of it has gone into simply re-purchasing corporate shares. This in turn has driven U.S. stock prices higher and higher and higher. For a given company, the underlying business may not change, i.e. the total revenues and earnings may not grow much, but because fewer shares are in circulation, the earnings per-share continue to creep up. For such brilliant financial engineering, management rewards itself with fat compensation packages.

Looking at things from a more macroeconomic perspective, it seems that permanently low interest rates have a paradoxical “zombification” effect. Japan is a pioneering example of this, since low interest rates and slow economic growth have been a feature there for several decades now. Apparently, the low interest rates enable poorly-executing, walking-dead “zombie” companies to stay in business, whereas previously they would have gone bankrupt and disappeared. On the bright side, this tends to keep employment relatively high, which has been a general feature of many developed economies over the past decade. But on the other hand, this inhibits the “creative destruction” process whereby more productive companies replace less productive enterprises. So the real per capita economic growth remains subdued. Also, large companies seem able to better take advantage of low rates, so we see big companies getting bigger and more monopolistic, to the detriment of smaller firms which might otherwise be introducing new ways of doing things.

A zombified economy where nearly anyone who wants to work can get a job, even at low and stagnant real wages, seems like a fairly benign outcome. However, if young people see only a terminally dull future ahead for themselves, this may lead to dissatisfaction which could have political consequences. Moreover, if the real interest rate of investment grade bonds remains zero or even negative, that will challenge pension funds in meeting their commitments to pay pensioners in coming decades (many pension funds still assume they can obtain secure long-term returns of around 7% on their portfolios). It also calls into question the traditional 60/40 stock/bond portfolio for individual investors, if the 40% bond portion is earning practically nothing. This impelled me to look for, and actually find, some ways to earn reasonably high (6-8%) yields in the present environment (see High Yield Investments).

Every age has its reasons for uncertainties. As I post this, the Wuhan corona virus from China is spreading throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands are sick, and thousands have died. Whole cities have been put under quarantine. Here in the U.S., surgical masks (which are all made in China these days) are all sold out, and organizations are making contingency plans for scenarios where employees, teachers, and students are all confined to their homes for indefinite periods. Tourism and other travel will likely decline, all of which could take a real bite out of GDP. The upcoming election may pit an erratic incumbent against a socialist. Interesting times – – we will see if the Fed can keep working its magic.


UPDATE April 6, 2020

What a difference a month can make – – when I wrote this post in late February, the S&P 500 stock index was hovering near all-time highs, after a steady rise over the previous twelve months. Unemployment was at historic lows, and robust economic growth was forecast.

The “social distancing” implemented to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus has blown this rosy economic picture to bits. A huge fraction of money-generating activities, mainly in the service economy (dining out, cruises, travel, tourism, getting haircuts, working out at the gym, dentist visits, routine shopping) have been stopped cold, and will likely remain stopped for a number of months. The S&P lost about a third of its value in three weeks, though there has since been some recovery:

SandP500 1-Year chart

One-year price performance of Standard and Poors 500 large stock index. From Seeking Alpha website.

The main reason stocks have levitated over the past several years has been corporations taking advantage of low interest rates to issue debt and to use that money to buy up shares. Management usually has impeccable timing of buying shares when prices are high, and stopping when economic conditions drive prices low. Absent corporate buy-backs over the rest of the year, it may be some time before stocks regain their highs.

The unemployment numbers in the next few months will be staggering. While hospitals near New York City are on overload, in the community where I live in the Northeast U.S., hundreds of medical personnel are on furlough because all elective procedures have been cancelled while we wait for the wave of virus cases to come our way. The actual death toll so far is well below what the regular flu season can produce (which is ignored most years), but each case represents its own personal and family tragedy, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate body count will be.

Focusing just on the economic maneuverings – – I noted in the original article some of the powers of the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve. As the crisis unfolded in March, the Fed unleashed a barrage of programs aimed at keeping the financial system from imploding. Besides buying U.S. government bonds and government agency-backed mortgages (i.e. traditional “quantitative easing”), the Fed will buy (directly or indirectly) existing (already-issued) student loans, car loans, credit card loans, small business loans, etc., as well as municipal bonds and even (investment-grade) corporate bonds. I suspect the legality of some of this is questionable, but nobody is questioning at this point. The Fed creates “money” out of thin air to buy all this stuff, which in turn (a) provides “money” to desperate, cash-poor entities, and which (b) keeps the prices of these securities from plummeting, which in turn would drive interest rates to the moon.

A reason that organizations are desperate for cash is that many investing entities have borrowed money from banks to buy securities that they thought would rise in value, but now that everything has fallen in value, the banks are demanding that the investors sell off the securities for cash to partially repay their loans, in order to keep a stated margin of safety for the collateral for the loans. These “margin calls” create a vicious downward spiral, where the more forced selling there is, the more securities prices fall, which leads to more demands by banks for more selling. Forcing investment funds to sell their assets for a fraction of what they bought them for is ruinous for investors. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Complementing the Fed’s efforts, the U.S. government will be throwing trillions of dollars at citizens in the next several months, to mitigate the impact of mass unemployment. We shall see how this unfolds. Best wishes to all…

Posted in Economics, Investing | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 3: Minds Changed?

Preface for blog: This is the last in a series where I show my side of a dialogue with a young earth creationist who I will call Rachel. She had sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments. In Part 1, I posted the cover email I sent her, which dealt with Bible interpretation. I attached a Word document to that email, which addressed many of the scientific claims made in her videos. I posted that document as Part 2 of this series.

My experience has been that it is nearly impossible to change the mind of someone who has intentionally embraced Y. E. creationism. But not totally impossible – – after all, I used to be an enthusiastic Y. E. creationist. There was some reason to hope that I might impact Rachel’s views, since there were several positive factors with her. From our prior encounters at church events, she knew me to be a devout evangelical Christian, so I think she was inclined to give me a serious hearing. Also, she has a background in the sciences, and is a courteous and careful listener in person. She gave every indication of simply wanting the truth.

So, I decided to run an experiment. I took a number of what seemed like the strongest scientific young earth points on her videos, and marshalled the facts to show that these claims were incorrect. I put a number of hours into this, trying to answer the specific claims, and also anticipating and answering the common Y. E. creationist rebuttals to the old earth evidence. I included a number of figures to illustrate fossil intermediates, and showed how her Y. E. creationist sources had twisted some scientists’ quotes to (dishonestly) make it seem like these scientists were admitting that the fossil record does not support evolution.

Alas, my efforts were in vain. Judging by her email reply, she clearly read what I wrote (i.e. Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series), but nothing seemed to penetrate. I post below my final response to her email reply. Her words are in italics.

I am sure that in her mind she was earnestly trying to engage with the facts. But it seems that she ignored the import of much of what I wrote, and simply repeated what she found on various Y. E. creationist web sites. What I found particularly disheartening were instances where she (with no basis) just reiterated the specific young earth claims that I had specifically disproven.

For instance, the annual sets of sediment layers (varves) that accumulate in certain lakes furnish very straightforward evidence for an earth much older than 6000 years. We know how these layers form; we can simply drill down in the lake bottom, pull up a core, and (carefully) count the layers. Moreover, these varve counts are corroborated via radioactive dating to local tree ring data and volcanic ashfalls. Naturally, the Y. E. creationists try to cast doubt on these straightforward results, typically by calling attention to instances where sediment layers can be non-annual. To forestall this, I wrote to Rachel (in Part 2 here) that scientists are well aware of this possibility, and so they take pains to distinguish between real annual varves and non-annual random layers:

As may be expected, YE creationist organizations make various objections to lake varves. For instance, they claim that more than one set of sediment layers per year can be laid down in lake sediments, and thus we cannot trust these deep cores of lake sediments. Of course multiple layers do form in some lakes – -that is obvious, and scientists are well aware of that and they are quite capable of distinguishing between real annual layers and other layers. Scientists specifically choose lakes that are relatively narrow and deep, to avoid issues with wind storms stirring the bottom sediments.”

Nevertheless, (as shown below) Rachel apparently ignored what I had written, and simply repeated a standard Y. E. creationist line: “…… I’ve seen experimentally how some conditions can produce layers that look like seasonal varves.  This can be generated with wave tanks…”.    Furthermore, though I gave additional answers to her responses as shown below as Part 3, there is no reason to believe she took this further information to heart, even though I took the effort to e.g. hunt down and show her the actual location of the leg genes in the whale genome.


But this is how most dialogs with Y. E. creationists go: these folks simply ignore the evidence that is against their position, and repeat and repeat the same old party lines. (Another common tactic is, when backed into a corner on some topic, to change the subject and bring up some other topic. And another, and another, till the scientist who is trying to educate them drops from sheer exhaustion. To Rachel’s credit, she did not do this).

How is this response possible, from a woman I know to be so generally reasonable and informed? I think it comes down to the human tendency of confirmation bias. Per Wikipedia, this is: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses….The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.”   We all do this, especially with “emotionally charged issues” like politics and religion.

Rachel noted in her email to me that she was in the past “not feeling confident about Genesis 1-11,” but now the Y. E. creation perspective has “helped me to be more convinced” about the authority of the Bible there. It is hard to compete with that sort of spiritual/emotional reinforcement given by Y. E. creationism.

So was our dialog a complete waste of my time? Maybe, but I don’t know whether Rachel and her husband might be open to reconsidering their position at a later time, and I don’t know who is reading these blog posts on the internet. My own journey out of Y. E. creationism took years, and multiple exposures to pro-science articles, especially ones by authors who were not hostile to my faith.

Anyway, Rachel and I have agreed to disagree in this area, and not let it cloud our fellowship. In the current climate of polarization, our small measure of civility here is something to be grateful for.

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hi Rachel,

I will offer some comments on the points you raised in your email, in order, except will deal first with point 6 because it is perhaps the most foundational. I will put your remarks in italics.

  1. 6.  Do you acknowledge any faith commitment to the idea that if scientists seek, they will figure it out and get things right?   If God stated Genesis 1-11 authoritatively, and correctly, and we seek some other explanation that is consistent with the reasonings of naturalistic scientists, might we get something wrong?

I do acknowledge that God stated Genesis 1-11 authoritatively and correctly, just as I acknowledge that God stated in I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”) authoritatively and correctly and Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the smallest of all the seeds of the earth authoritatively and correctly (and referred to Herod as a “fox” and himself as a “door”, etc.). This is entirely different than whether we should take each of these passages as literal statements about physical reality or not. We normally utilize the information provided by the physical world to make that determination. That is why, even though Protestant and Catholic alike vehemently affirmed that I Chron. 16:30 must be taken as giving information about the physical world, today we use the results of science to take a non-literal interpretation.

If someone chooses to eschew that normal procedure of using physical information, and instead make a command decision that Gen 1-11 must be taken literally, no matter what the physical evidence actually is, that’s OK, but that is elevating one’s interpretation over the physical evidence, not elevating the Bible itself over the physical evidence.


And, is it deceptive of YEC to say, “yes, we are committed to Scripture,” divulging their bias, and then argue according to their bias?  I do not find that to be deceptive.

I completely agree with you, that is not deceptive, as long as the subsequent arguing is done with integrity.

There are some YE creationists who do treat the physical evidence with integrity. Geologist Kurt Wise is an example of this. He is scrupulously fair in treating the evidence of the age of the earth and evolution. Even Richard Dawkins referred to him as an “honest creationist.” Wise wrote, “I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

Here, Wise indicates that no possible amount of scientific evidence can ever sway him from his YE position. I respect his clarity.

Wise has critiqued a lot of the Answers in Genesis presentations for being inaccurate. He does not deny the presence of impressive transitional fossils at the higher grouping levels:

“…Darwin’s third expectation – of higher-taxon stratomorphic intermediates – has been confirmed by such examples as the mammal-like reptile groups between the reptiles and the mammals, and the phenacdontids between the horses and their presumed ancestors. Darwin’s fourth expectation – of stratomorphic series – has been confirmed by such examples as the early bird series, the tetrapod series, the whale series, the various mammal series of the Cenozoic (for example, the horse series, the camel series, the elephant series, the pig series, the titanothere series, etc.), the Cantius and Plesiadapus primate series, and the hominid series. Evidence for not just one but for all three of the species level and above types of stratomorphic intermediates expected by macroevolutionary theory is surely strong evidence for macroevolutionary theory. Creationists therefore need to accept this fact. It certainly CANNOT said that traditional creation theory expected (predicted) any of these fossil finds.” [My italics added here]

Wise is willing to consider the “appearance of age” approach to interpretation of Genesis. That is, maybe God created everything 6000 years ago, but with the full appearance of being billions of years old.    This approach notes that if you came across Adam a minute after his creation, he would have looked as if he had been alive say 20 years already, and presumably with a navel, as if he had been born the usual way. This appearance-of-age approach then says that maybe this principle extends to the whole created order: the universe looks as if it has been around for 13.8 billion years, and genetics and fossils look as if God used evolution to shape the current biota. This approach allows a YE creationist to hold to a 6000 year old earth, while being comfortable with [instead of denying] all the evidence which, seems as if the earth is old. I have some philosophical reservations about this approach, but it is a self-consistent, honest approach, in contrast to the usual Answers in Genesis approach.

Wise’s protégé, Todd Wood, is also a committed YE creationist, who again tries to be honest with the data. He had this to say about the evidence for evolution:

“… Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

…Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please don’t idolize your own ability to reason.”

So those are honest YE creationists, with whom I have no problem. My problem is with Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, etc., who try to deceive laypeople into believing that there are no transitional fossils, that all lake varves are questionable, that the glacier core layers are unclear, etc. They accomplish this by ignoring the bulk of the physical findings, misrepresenting what scientists actually do, misrepresenting quotations, sometimes outright misstating the core facts, and above all issuing a continual stream of misleading distractors. I noted several instances in your slides where you presented some of these misleading distractors (rapid snow accumulation near coast of Greenland, no blowhole for Rodhocetus, doctored Colin Patterson quote, etc.) . Again, not blaming you at all, but just to note how plausible their presentations can be if you want to believe them.

These organizations continue to promote so-called evidences for a young earth, even after being clearly informed why their assertions are incorrect. This is plain dishonesty; it is not merely arguing from a clearly-stated bias. But it is successful in keeping gullible lay people energized. I have detailed several of these erroneous claims, e.g. salts in the ocean, earth magnetic field, helium in the atmosphere, and folded rocks here:   (Sorry to be so blunt, but that is what I observe, unfortunately).


  1. I definitely understand the point about the sun moving in the sky, that it can be a frame of reference that is the reason for the Scriptural words, and I do  acknowledge that I am convinced that the earth orbits the sun, and it was not necessary for God to go into this.

     However, when Genesis speaks of evening and morning, repetatively, that need not be poetic only.  It can point out 6 days, rather than periods.  Othewise, I don’t see it written as poetic, but the names of people are given that Jesus specifically references in geneologies.  

     I think this is a sign that it is not merely poetic.  I’m glad you have faith and love the testimony anyway.  I did have faith for years, not feeling confident about Genesis 1-11, and I am also glad that your daughters have faith.  For me, it helped me to be more convinced.

I understand what you are saying here. Just one main comment, which is that the age of the earth up till the creation of Adam is a different issue than the time since Adam. Many educated conservative Christians endorse an Old Earth creationism, which accepts the evidence for an old (billions of years) earth prior to Adam, while still taking the Genesis genealogies literally (so only 6000 years since Adam). Hugh Ross is a well-known exponent of this viewpoint. It’s not a view I share, but thought I’d mention it.

And a side comment, that one reason many   conservative Christian scholars think that six consecutive 24-hour days is not the meaning of Gen 1 is because of how these days are neatly structured into two triads (Days 1-3, Days 4-6) which correspondingly address the primordial conditions of formlessness and emptiness (Gen 1:2). Thus, it seems that the organization of Gen 1 is thematic, not necessarily chronological:

Six-Day Framework View of Genesis 1

Anyway, this is just FYI.


  1. As for the sign of Jonah,  I feel that more signs are not necessarily given to a wicked and adulterous generation, but that there is still testimony given all around us, (Romans 1), and, I am also convinced there is flood evidence.  I think we have all seen answers to prayer, which are also signs.  

      Jesus also said that if every tongue were stilled, the rocks would cry out, and I see that as a continuing revelation, like the heavens declaring the glory of God.  What do the rocks cry out?  

      Isn’t the top of the Coconino formation flat? The ripple marks on the side could be perturbations by wind or water, no?  Isn’t there another layer of sediment right above it without much nonconformity?  Does that not speak more of water than of wind, if so?  

I wish it were true that there is Flood evidence, but I have looked carefully and found none.

As for the “rocks crying out”, this is from Luke 19:40 , “He answered, “I tell you, if these [cheering crowds] were silent, the very stones would cry out.” The context of this is the Triumphal Entry. Jesus said that if (for this particular event) the people had not cheered, the rocks would have cried out. However, the people did cheer, so the rocks did not cry out. This verse is not about geology.

As for the meaning of Psalm 19 and Romans 1 re revelation of God in nature, please see .

Key point: Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone since ancient times, not requiring twentieth century observations of rock layers, measurements of salt in oceans, or lengthy explication by Answers in Genesis apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the natural world as a whole, which demonstrates to everyone everywhere the power and skill and care of the Creator.

To my knowledge, the Coconino Sandstone is the only major Grand Canyon formation deposited as mainly dry, wind-sculpted material. Like any desert, there was likely some rain and some water present some of the time. All the other Grand Canyon layers, including the ones just above the Coconino, were deposited under water, as the sea level relative to the land rose and fell and rose and fell over millions of years – -driven partly by plate tectonics, but also by repeated glaciations at the poles which can cause sea levels to change by hundreds of feet. All indications are that the land of the Grand Canyon stayed fairly level over many millions of years, so if it got raised a little above sea level, the exposed land surface would erode a bit but stay fairly flat, like much of the US Gulf Coast today. And every time the sea advanced back in over this eroded land surface, the surf action would tend to level out most of the remaining humps and dips in the landscape (like we see in the fairly level sand at the surf-line today on the Gulf Coast), yielding a flat surface for depositing the next layer of under-sea sediment.


  1. My husband looked up the translation of the small mustard seed, and he found not that it is the smallest seed, necessarily, but the small seed sown in the garden (possibly at the time).  Surely there are small seeds that blow around and drop, like dandelion, and basil.  

I agree that this is a reasonable interpretation of the text, but that is not what the text itself says.

Matthew 13:32 describes the mustard seed as “the smallest of all the seeds”, according to the Greek text shown in this interlinear translation:

Matthew 13:32 Interlinear, on mustard seed

And Mark 4:31 as “the smallest of all the seeds which are upon the earth [or ground]”:

Mark 4:31 Interlinear on mustard seed

Now, if you want to incorporate the physical observation that the mustard seed is not in fact the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, and hold that Jesus was speaking to a group of people at a particular time and place, with their understanding of seeds and so on, and thus depart from the literal interpretation of these verses, that is fine (and I think proper), but again please note that is what the majority of educated Christians do with Genesis 1.


  1. I am not particularly convinced by the calibration methods of the Genesis 1-3 teacher.  Again, repeating “evening and morning” does not prove merely poetic thought to me.   


I understand. Though as noted above, there are reasons besides the repetition to indicate other than six 24-hour days – – e.g. on the first 3 days, there was no sun to mark the 24-hours.


  1. The whale leg bone genes were particularly mystifying to me.  I saw two little bones in diagrams, and we thought they had something to do with reproduction.  

      Nevertheless, Carl Wieland, a physician, has gone to tremendous lengths to produce “Evolution : Grand Experiment” videos, likely available on youtube, where he examines the land mammal/whale  missing links. (I certainly understand your clear explanation about some missing links being understandably missing, and that most creatures are not fossilized, such as Colin Patterson went on to say).  Dr. Wieland has a fascinating story, worth hearing.  I think there must be quite a bit of info. on the genes that are not expressed as whale legs.  I have never heard that before, and perhaps those genes are for something else?  They clearly would not have identical coding to legs that we would recognize, but if this were true, it is curious.  Sounds “vestigial”.  How could they test this?  Surely they could not replace it for the genes on land animals in the lab and wait for legs to grow there?  Now, that would be something to see. It might be interesting for you to watch the Carl Wieland videos.  

Evolution requires that there would have been a long sequence of animals in between a four-footed mammal ancestor, and present whales (which includes dolphins) which have no visible hind legs. And the fossil record, especially as filled in during the past 3 decades, shows exactly that. YE creationists can mount all the peripheral objections they want, but the fact stands that the types of transitional fossils predicted by evolution are there.

I am rather familiar with the litany of YE creationist objections for whales. As I noted in my earlier note, they all tend to be like the one with the Rodhocetus blowhole: true factoids which do not obviate the actual fossil evidence.

One such objection is that shrunken hind legs in some of intermediate species may have some function in assisting alignment during copulation. Another is the remaining pelvis and inner tiny hind leg bones in today’s whales retain some function in anchoring organs, including sex organs. This all may well be true, but that does not in the slightest take away from the fact that these fossil species display the sequence of skeletal transitions predicted by evolution.

As I also mentioned, another thing that evolution predicts is that for parts and functions that have been lost in whales compared to regular land mammals, such as loss of exterior hind legs, loss of enameled teeth (for baleen whales), loss of olfactory lobes (no longer needed for smelling in air), etc., we should still find the original genes there, but deactivated (either inactivated by mutations, or down-regulated). The diagram below notes a number of such genes, as predicted by evolution. I marked with yellow highlighter the genes color-coded red, which is where the genes have been inactivated by mutations. These include the genes for the teeth and the olfactory lobes. And also highlighted the ones coded purple, where the genes are still functional but the degree to which they are expressed has changed. The relevant hind leg genes, called SonicHedgeHog (SHH) and HAND are still there in the genome and are still functional as genes, but they are no longer expressed as before.

Gene changes in whales compared to land mammal (hippo). Source: McGowen, et al., Molecular evolution tracks macroevolutionary transitions in Cetacea . Trends in Ecology and Evolution, May 2014

In case you are curious, here is where the leg-growing SHH gene (here coded as bmy_12671) sits in the bowhead whale genome:

Bowhead Whale Hind Leg SHH Gene Location


YE creationists can always come up with rationalizations after these genetic observations have been made, such as, “Maybe the Creator decided to re-use similar genes” or “Maybe there is a use for these apparently non-functional teeth genes that we just haven’t discovered yet.” But YE creationism would not have predicted these specific genetic features, whereas evolution did. This is why evolution is a useful explanatory framework, and YE creationism is not.


  1. The seasonal varves… I’ve seen experimentally how some conditions can produce layers that look like seasonal varves.  This can be generated with wave tanks. I saw it in a video.I could probably find a link to that video, though it is not always my favorite video.  All it takes is one set of conditions that produces “seasonal varves” that are not seasonal to show that they might not correspond directly with years.   

The fact that nature, and humans with wave tanks, can produce non-annual sets of light/dark layers is irrelevant. As I stated in my earlier note to you, scientists are completely aware of the possibility of spurious non-annual layers, which is why they take pains to analyze the lake core sediments to be sure they are in fact annual cycles. They observe the current sedimentation pattern in the lake (e.g. dark, fine organic matter in winter under the ice; mineral matter like sand and silt washed in the spring thaw; algal remains late spring/summer) in the lake, and analyze the chemical contents of the cored layers to verify that this annual progression of seasons is represented. Also, they know the current rate of sediment deposition, in mm/year, and would be suspicious if there were some sudden departure from that rate in the lake cores.

There are ways to further verify that these are not random/nonannual sets of layers. For instance, a volcanic eruption in southern Italy produced a distinctive layer of ash across southern and central Europe called the Neapolitan Yellow Tuff. This layer shows up in at least two lake sediments that I am aware of. In the German lake Meerfelder Maar, we count down the annual layers and find the ash layer at 14,230 BP (before 1950). For a lake in southern Italy (Lago Grande di Monticchio), we can count down the varves and get a date of 14,120 BP. That is less than a 1% difference in dating, for two lakes that are 600 miles apart, with varves counted by two different research teams. I have difficulty imagining clearer proof of the reliability of the annual nature of properly chosen lake varves.


  1. The oldest civilization that we know (China) claims about 5000 years, and the oldest bristlecone pine tree they have found is about 5000 years (Methuselah), and recently a Harvard graduate has written a book called Replacing Darwin (Nate Jeanson?) which shows genetic pointers in mutation rates that point to 6000 years.  Is there something to look at there? 

Some chronological markers go back 5000 years, but some, as I noted earlier, go back much longer.

Re Replacing Darwin – as you can tell from my extensive blog articles, I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading and evaluating YE creationist literature. Every couple of years they come up with a new attempt to refute evolution. I wrote probably the most comprehensive review on the web (over 100 references) of John Sanford’s Genetic Entropy, which was 2005’s YE creationist bid to demolish evolution. Since in every case I have found that, when all the facts are on the table, the YE case fails, I don’t have the energy to read and analyze yet another such book.

So here is what I suggest: By all means read the book and the YE creationist positive reviews of this book, but also in fairness read a critique of the book by a practicing scientist, such as this examination of a key chapter:


Well, you have raised some more interesting points here. I have tried to respond to them in the attached document. This exchange has been stimulating, but I need to close it out now. We will be traveling and occupied now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope it has been useful to you to receive some comments on your specific concerns. I am sure that there is room for a variety of viewpoints in this area.

I hope you all enjoy the summer!



Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation, Fossils | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 2: Young Earth Evidence

Preface for blog: As noted in Part 1, earlier this year I had a discussion with an evangelical Christian woman who I will call Rachel. She had recently learned that I endorse modern scientific findings such as an old earth and evolution, and that I have no problem squaring that with the Bible’s teachings. She sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments.

In Part 1 of this series, I posted the cover email I sent her, which dealt with Bible interpretation. Below is shown the document I attached to that email letter, which addresses many of the scientific claims made in her videos. The topics I address here are: FALSIFYING THE FLOOD , LAYERS IN GLACIERS AND ICE CORES, MT SAINT HELENS ASH LAYERS AND UNIFORMITARIANISM, WIDESPREAD ROCK FORMATIONS ON CONTINENTS, ON FOSSILS, ARE THERE TRANSITIONAL FOSSILS?, WHALE EVOLUTION, MINING FOR QUOTES ON FOSSILS, and FINAL COMMENTS.  I try to anticipate and answer some common objections made by Y.E. proponents for these various evidences for an old earth.

Stay tuned for Part 3 to see what her reaction was to this correspondence.


Dear Rachel,

Your videos mention a number of scientific issues. I will comment on some of them.


In your video #2, you propose that the Flood (a recent, worldwide, flood which laid down most sedimentary layers) should be considered innocent till proven guilty, i.e. considered as true unless clearly falsified. I think that is a reasonable position.

However, the Flood and a young earth have in fact been fairly examined and clearly falsified. This link lists a couple of relatively simple evidences for an earth much older than 6000 years:

These evidences include angular unconformities, fossil soils with animal burrows, massive salt deposits, thick limestone layers including caves, annual layers (“varves”) in lake sediments, and annual layers in glaciers.


One of the most easily understood evidences for an older earth are the cores drilled down into lake bottoms and glaciers. In most cases, it is as clear as it can be that the layers are annual years, and we can count them down with visual and chemical analyses well past the 2400 B.C. date of the Flood, or 4000 B.C. date of Creation. There are no shaky “assumptions” involved. (For the deeper glacier layers, e.g. past 30,000 year or so, visual identification becomes impossible, so the counting gets less precise but it is still meaningful). As noted in the link above, there are multiple corroborating evidences that the glacier cores are indeed annual. For instance, I show a plot which shows that a Greenland glacier core layer counted back to 536 A.D. shows volcanic ash corresponding to a massive eruption known from historical sources to have occurred that year, causing darkened skies and unseasonable cold. That shows beyond all reasonable doubt that these glacial layers are in fact annual.

Since these annual layers are so clear, YE creationist writers make up all sorts of objections to them. But these objections all fall apart upon examination. For instance, you mentioned the “Lost Squadron”, where WWII planes were buried under some 75 meters of ice. Your slide states that this 75 meters of ice “would normally be read as 2000 years of ice, by standard methods.” That is completely wrong, and is known to be wrong. It is well known that the snowfall is much, much higher on the coast of Greenland where the planes were found, than in the deep interior where the ice cores are drilled and where conditions are more stable. The YE creationists (i.e. Answers in Genesis,, etc.) have been informed of all this, but they persist in mounting this as an objection to the ice cores. This is not honest. Sadly, this deception is effective – -you are a reasonable person, but this took you in, since, of course, there was no way for you to know that the snowfalls are so different. (I am not blaming you AT ALL, you are just a victim of YE creationist literature). I note other failed objections for glacial layers in the link above.


I have a whole article on lake varves here, .You can simply count down some of these layers for over 9000 years or more, with no disturbances from any Flood. This is about as straightforward as one can get. Here is how the varves in cold climates like Sweden form:

Schematic model explaining the sediment cycle of the seasonally deposited lamina in biogenic/clastic varves. Modified from: Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626

And here is what these varves look like (the dark/light winter/spring transition is nearly always very clear under the microscope):

Caption: A microphotograph of biogenic/clastic varves from Sarsjon, a lake in northern Sweden. The different layers (laminae), which constitute a general varve, are labelled as in the figure above.
(i) light-colored spring
(ii) light (brown) summer
(iii) light-colored autumn (not always visible)
(iv) dark brown winter
Source: Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626 . Labels redrawn.

And here is the varve counting “age” (the thick solid black line), shown as years Before Present (where Present = 1950) versus sediment depth for a particular Swedish lake. Over 9000 annual layers accumulated regularly, with no disturbance for a worldwide Flood 4400 years ago. (The layers stop about 9000 years ago, since that is about when the last glaciers melted back from Sweden so this lake could form).

Caption: Sediment depth (y-axis) versus dates from varve counts and from carbon-14 dating of samples from sediment, for two Swedish lakes. Thick lines are the varve counts. Thin lines on either side of the thick lines represent the estimated cumulative uncertainty in the varve counts. “Isolation” is when each lake became isolated, as the Ice Age glaciers in Sweden receded. Modified from Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626. Dashed “Flood” and Creation lines added.

As may be expected, YE creationist organizations make various objections to lake varves. For instance, they claim that more than one set of sediment layers per year can be laid down in lake sediments, and thus we cannot trust these deep cores of lake sediments. Of course multiple layers do form in some lakes – -that is obvious, and scientists are well aware of that and they are quite capable of distinguishing between real annual layers and other layers. Scientists specifically choose lakes that are relatively narrow and deep, to avoid issues with wind storms stirring the bottom sediments. And they err on the side of caution in this regard – no one wants to be embarrassed by publishing that certain layers are annual varves, only to be corrected by some sharp-eyed future researcher. For instance, in the figure above, the authors are careful to note that in two small segments the layers were not as clear, though they were still visible. So this is another example of typical YE creationist misleading tactics – – yes, it is true that multiple layers can form in one year in certain locations, but in reality that has nothing to do with the actual, serious observations of varves. However, this tactic serves to raise doubts in the minds of Christians about varve dating.


You mention the recent Mt. Saint Helens eruption, ash deposits with layers and massive mud flows, and a canyon rapidly cut through the compacted ash layers, as though that canyon somehow disproves the views of geologists that the Grand Canyon took millions of years to form. Two comments: First, geologists do not blindly assume that every process is slow, so it is not true that “under naturalism” these layers would take a long time to form. Any decent geologist would look at those ash layers, immediate recognize that they were layers from a volcanic eruption, and assume that they were therefore laid down in hours or days, not in the course of a million years.

The old Lyell “uniformitarianism” (assuming that every event in the past could only take place at the slow rates usually observed, with no provision for catastrophes like eruptions, floods from glacial ice dams breaking, etc.) was long ago replaced by “actualism” — which assumes the laws of physics hold true across time and space, but recognizes the earth’s history includes both gradual and rapid processes. YE advocates have been informed of all this, but they still reach back 100-200 years to find examples of old uniformitarian thinking, in order to try to discredit geology. That is again misleading. Old-style uniformitarianism is not the reason why modern geologists reject the Flood. They reject it because there is zero evidence for it, and because there are many, many features of the earth which are clearly much older than 4400 or 6000 years.

Second comment on the ash layers: There is all the difference in the world between erosion in a layer of recent ash deposits even if it is somewhat compacted (this ash was not solidified into “solid rock”), and erosion in really hard rock. Try shooting a jet of water into a compacted dirt hillside versus at a concrete wall. For instance, the Colorado River is a very vigorous river, flowing 24/7 year round, but the rate of its erosion of the hard metamorphic rock in the base of the Grand Canyon is so slow it is almost imperceptible. So it is nonsensical for YE creationists to claim that Mt Saint Helens ash-field erosion shows the Grand Canyon could have been carved in a year.


You showed a slide with a folded rock formation, suggesting that it might well have formed with wet rock layers. Actually, what you showed would not look like it does, if those large rock layers were wet when they were folded – the large layers would have smeared and mixed.

It is well known that solid rock, if buried under some thousands of feet of other rock or sediment, and thus at high temperature and pressure, can easily deform as shown in your slide, over millions of years. A piece of glass will shatter if you try to bend it at room temperature, but glass blowers heat it up till softens, in order to bend it. See here             for my write-up of a bent rock formation in the Grand Canyon which Answers in Genesis claimed was formed when the rock was wet and soft, whereas the actual evidence of fractures shows the rock was hard when it was bent.


If it weren’t for active plate tectonics, all the continents would erode down to nothing and be covered by shallow seas. Plate motion is driven by very slow convection currents in the earth’s mantle. Exactly what those currents are, and where they are relative to the position of the continental plates, varies with time. So in some geological eras (like the present) there is a lot of land mass at elevations high above sea level, while in other eras much more of the continents were covered by shallow seas. For instance, 385 million years ago, Michigan and Illinois, and the area of what is now the western Appalachians, was covered with water:

Paleogeographic reconstruction showing the Appalachian Basin area during the Middle Devonian period. Source:

So (contrary to what you suggested in your video) regular geology has no problem explaining widespread sedimentary formations on continents. Ironically, it is Flood geology that cannot readily account for the widespread rock layers we actually observe, as explained here:

Side comment: You may have gotten your figure from this AIG article, or something like it: . That article claims, among other things, that the widespread Coconino sandstone formation was laid down in rapidly moving water. The reality is that this formation was not formed by water-born deposits. Rather, it is wind-sculpted desert sand dunes (later buried under marine sediments after sea level rose again). The angle of the bedding planes within the formation is much too high to be a marine deposit, and there are lots of terrestrial animal tracks (reptiles, scorpions, spiders, etc.). The frosted surface of the wind-blown grains (different from smooth beach sand) comports with a desert origin. Naturally, YE creationists don’t want to admit this desert origin, since it completely destroys their Flood geology (can’t have massive dry deserts forming in the middle of the Flood) so they try to spin facts to try to support a water deposition. See here for my discussion of this issue:   )


I will pick just one area to mainly focus on for the rest of this document, which is fossils, and especially transitional or intermediate fossils. Some background is necessary in order to understand the fossil evidence.

There are three key principles to keep in mind:

1) Very, very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons became fossilized. As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers and forming hard, detectable fossils. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away, or smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations deep in the earth. Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction of them are available near the surface for paleontologists to examine. Thus, it is not surprising that we do not find actual fossils for many of the species, including intermediate species, that we believe to have existed.

The Coelacanth fishes furnish a classic example of the fickleness of the fossil record. The Coelacanth order of fishes was once widespread in the ancient seas. Coelacanths peaked in the fossil record about 240 million years ago, and then declined. The most recent known fossil dates back to about 80 million years ago. It was thought that they had become extinct. In 1938, however, a live coelacanth was discovered in the Indian Ocean. Since then a number of others have been caught. (As might be expected, these modern specimens are not precisely the same species or even genus as the fossil coelacanths, but they are clearly coelacanths). Unless we are prepared to claim that an Intelligent Agent supernaturally re-created these modern coelacanths, we must acknowledge that some population of these fish has existed for the past 80 million years but without leaving a trace in the fossil record.

(2) The basic arithmetic of population genetics shows that it is difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations. Thus, it is far more likely that a new species will develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. Such a small, transient population is unlikely to leave a trace in the fossil record. If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand in numbers and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted species may appear for perhaps millions of years with showing little change.

( 3) Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”. Typically the organisms out on the side branches show up in the fossil record, rather than the transitional ones along the main “trunk” of the evolutional family tree. The transitional ones along the “trunk” would have existed in small, isolated populations whereas some of the organisms on the side branches will be the large, established, stable populations, which will leave appreciable fossils. This trend is illustrated below:

Expected Intermediate Fossil Finds

In this figure, living species are shown as solid black dots, and fossil (extinct) species as black circles. As noted, the species that actually leave appreciable amounts of fossil evidence will tend to be large, stable populations out on the ends of the “branches” (e.g. A, B, C, D, E), whereas the small, isolated, probably stressed populations in transition (i.e. along the dashed line of lineage) will likely not leave enough fossils to be found by us millions of years later.

Thus, we should expect many gaps in the observable fossil record. The fact that various transitional fossils have not yet been found is not a rational basis for believing that these transitional forms never existed. It is worth noting that as time goes by, more and more gaps do get filled in by additional fossil discoveries (as predicted from common descent). However, there will always be some gaps left.


First we have to set reasonable expectations here. As noted above, we do not expect to find fossils of the species along the actual core lineage, or transitions between these species. (Again, these direct transitional species will be in small, stressed populations which will likely not show up in the fossil record).

However, we should find fossils of at least some of the more plentiful, successful species out on the “branches” of the family tree. Let’s call these “branched intermediates”, to distinguish them from “direct intermediates”. These branched intermediates will show most of the intermediate features that are developing along the main “trunk” of the family tree, and so they are validly referred to as intermediate or transitional species. They are what paleontologists typically mean when they talk about transitional fossils.

So, do such intermediate fossils exist? Yes, there are plenty of these transitional fossils. The National Academy of Sciences notes,

In Darwin’s time, paleontology was still a rudimentary science. Large parts of the geological succession of stratified rocks were unknown or inadequately studied.

Darwin, therefore, worried about the rarity of intermediate forms between some major groups of organisms.

Today, many of the gaps in the paleontological record have been filled by the research of paleontologists. Hundreds of thousands of fossil organisms, found in well-dated rock sequences, represent successions of forms through time and manifest many evolutionary transitions. As mentioned earlier, microbial life of the simplest type was already in existence 3.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of more complex organisms (that is, eucaryotic cells, which are more complex than bacteria) has been discovered in fossils sealed in rocks approximately 2 billion years old. Multicellular organisms, which are the familiar fungi, plants, and animals, have been found only in younger geological strata.

.. So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species. …The fossil record thus provides consistent evidence of systematic change through time—of descent with modification.

[Science, Evolution, and Creationism by the National Academy of Sciences,]

Here is one figure showing some of the transitional fossils between fish and the first four-footed tetrapods (primitive amphibians):

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

In this figure above from Ahlberg and Clack  can be seen the differences in skeletal and other morphological features among the fossils species discussed above. There is a gradual loss of the gill cover (blue), and a reshaping of the skull. Note that the scientists in drawing this figure depict each of these fossil species as branches off the main lineage line. That is, they do not claim these species as direct ancestors of modern amphibians, but as closely-related “branched” intermediates, as we discussed above.

Here is another figure illustrating fish-tetrapod intermediate forms, which calls out the specific changes in limb structure between the fossils:

Evolution of Tetrapods, showing limbs. Source:


YE creationists will always find something to complain about, but for the rest of the world, this fossil series provides a reasonably complete set of transitional fossils for the fish-to-tetrapod transition.

I have a whole article on transitional fossils, , which describes some other transitional series.


Since you brought up whale fossils, let’s look briefly at them.

Whale Evogram, showing bodies and skulls. Source:

This figure describes some of the gradual changes in body parts. One of these trends is for the nasal opening in the skull to move from the front of the snout, to further back on the snout, and eventually to become a blow-hole on the top of the head:


Whale Blowhole Position Evolution

Again, this is about as complete a transitional series as one could ask for.

It gets even better when we factor in genetics. Modern whales have no exterior hind legs. But if they were actually descended from land mammals, they should still have the genes for making hind legs, even though these genes would be deactivated. We look in the whale genome…and there are the hind leg genes, as predicted.

There are two main classes of whales. One class has teeth (as do nearly all mammals), but the other class, the baleen whales have no hard teeth. Instead, they have a fibrous filter in their mouths to collect edible food bits from the water. However, if these baleen whales descended from land mammals that had teeth, they should still have (deactivated) genes for making enameled teeth. We look in the baleen whale genome…and there are the deactivated teeth genes, as predicted.

This illustrates the predictive power of evolutionary theory. Again and again, evolution predicts that a certain novel feature should be found, and as additional data is gathered, the predictions are fulfilled. This is a major reason why scientists are so sure that evolution is true. This is how science is done: take initial observations, propose a theory that explains them, use that theory to make novel predictions, then take more data to test whether the theory is valid. Evolution passes this test over and over and over again, whereas YE creationism does not.

Since the whale transitional series is so impressive, of course the YE creationists mount all kinds of objections. I have not seen the particular DVD you mentioned, but I have read numerous articles by YE creationists trying to attack this clear evidence for whale evolution. None of their objections actually amounts to anything. For instance, I saw in one of your slides the “admission” by researcher Gingerich that “the Rodhocetus fossil contained no evidence of whale tail (fluke) or blowhole.” The scientific response to this “admission” would be: “Of course Rodhocetus doesn’t have a tail fluke or a blowhole at the top of its head ! It is an intermediate species, not a final modern whale.” If you look on the figure above the figure above, you will see that all of its features are only maybe a third of the way along between the starting land mammal (Pakicetus) and modern whales (it still has hind legs). Its nostril hole has migrated about a quarter of the way back along its head, which is about where we expect it for that stage of evolution.


There are many fossil series which bridge important evolutionary transitions. A deceitful tactic which YE creationist authors practice to discredit this fact is to dig around in old, often outdated literature and “mine” for quotes that seem to say that there are no transitional fossils. Often they do this by pulling phrases out of context, or carefully editing away words to make the quote say something that the author did not really mean. There is a large section ( the “Quote Mine Project”) of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing these misleading quotations.

I will deal with three such quotes that I saw on your slides. (Once again, I am not at all criticizing you for using these quotes – -the responsibility lies with those who foist these quotes onto unsuspecting lay people).

The Darwin “Admission”

In his Origin of Species Darwin wrote:

The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.

This quote from Darwin’s Origin of Species is presented frequently on YE creationist web sites as an admission by Darwin that the facts were against his theory. What the creationists typically fail to include is the very next sentence, in which Darwin tells why this is NOT a problem for his theory:

The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

This is exactly correct, as we have explained above: very few organisms get fossilized and then found by us, and the few that do are far more likely to be members of a large, stable population than representatives of a small, stressed populations in transition.

Darwin acknowledged that there were not millions of finely-graded intermediate fossils lying everywhere, yet still a reasonable number of significant transitional fossils had been found, even in his day. He wrote:

As the accumulation of each formation has often been interrupted, and as long blank intervals have intervened between successive formations, we ought not to expect to find, as I attempted to show in the last chapter, in any one or in any two formations, all the intermediate varieties between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of these periods: but we ought to find after intervals, very long as measured by years, but only moderately long as measured geologically, closely allied forms, or, as they have been called by some authors, representative species; and these assuredly we do find. We find, in short, such evidence of the slow and scarcely sensible mutations of specific forms, as we have the right to expect.

The YE creationists don’t generally show you that quote, where Darwin notes that we do “assuredly” find transitional fossils of the type that “we have the right to expect”, given the realities of fossil formation.

The Colin Patterson “Admission”

Here is a quote from paleontologist Colin Patterson, which is often cited by YE creationist authors, and which appears on one of your slides:

I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them. . .I will lay it on the line, there is not one such fossil for which one might make a watertight argument.

This was from a letter Patterson wrote in 1979, in reply to an inquiry from YE creationist Luther Sunderland. It is emphatic, but what did Patterson actually mean here?

In Patterson’s 1979 letter to Sunderland, the full text continues:

The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question. It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way to put them to the test.

YE creationists do not show this full text, because it shows that Patterson was NOT denying the existence of the usual “branched” intermediate fossils. What he was saying is that we can’t be sure of the exact lineage relations among the various fossil animals, since there is not enough information to test whether a proposed ancestral relationship is correct or not.

In other words, if all we have are the branched-intermediate fossils A, B, C, D, and E in the figure below (which I showed earlier), that constitutes reasonable support for the notion that the current living species F and G evolved from earlier forms. However, we don’t have fossils of the species that lie right along the main dashed lineage line, and we cannot be absolutely sure of the exact relations among A, B, C, D, and E; we could have drawn other configurations of the dashed lineage line(s) that would also fit the fossil data we have. That is what Patterson meant by “lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions.”

Expected Intermediate Fossil Finds

In later correspondence, Patterson explicitly confirmed that what he meant by   “lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions” was lack of testable direct transitional fossils, not lack of credible branched intermediate fossils. YE creationists have been confronted with this later correspondence, but they continue to show the original, deceitfully edited quote. See for the full story here.

Patterson certainly acknowledged the usual “branched” fossil intermediates, as evidenced by this passage from his 1978 book Evolution (p 131-133):

In several animal and plant groups, enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back sixty-million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can only be distinguished from therhinoceros-tapir group by one or two horse-like details of the skull. There are many other examples of fossil ‘missinglinks’, such as Archaeopteryx, the Jurassic bird which links birds with dinosaurs (Fig. 45), and Ichthyostega, the late Devonian amphibian which links land vertebrates and the extinct choanate (having internal nostrils) fishes. . .

You noted verbally that, “Naturalists don’t like it when creationists use this [Patterson] quote.” The reason naturalists “don’t like it” is that it is dishonest for creationists to keep citing a partial, out-of-context quote that is spun to convey the opposite of what Patterson actually meant.

Patterson on fossil gaps among Cambrian phyla

In your slides appears another quote from Colin Patterson (Evolution, 1999), “But there are still great gaps in the fossil record. Most of the major groups of animals (phyla) appear fully fledged in the early Cambrian rocks, and we know of no fossil forms linking them.”

That is actually fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go as far as it may appear. One needs to understand what is meant by “fully fledged” phyla. That means a fossil meets the core definitional criteria of membership in a phyla. It does not mean that modern-type animals like mammals or even modern fish were actually present. There were arthropods in the mid-Cambrian, but no insects (which are by far the most common arthropods today).

We vertebrates are considered members of the phylum Chordata. By definition, chordates possess (at some point in their life-cycle) a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail. There are organisms which meet these criteria in the Cambrian fossils, but these earliest “chordates” are basically swimming worms. The crudest fish don’t appear in the fossil record for millions of years afterward, and modern type fish after more millions of years, and the first amphibians after more millions of years, then reptiles appear in the fossil record and still later, mammals. That pattern is consistent with evolution, not with a worldwide Flood raging across the earth and mixing and burying things.

Biologos notes:

The major animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion did not include the appearance of modern animal groups such as: starfish, crabs, insects, fish, lizards, birds and mammals. These animal groups all appeared at various times much later in the fossil record. The forms that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion were more primitive than these later groups, and many of them were soft-bodied organisms. However, they did include the basic features that define the major branches of the tree of life to which later life forms belong. For example, vertebrates are part of the Chordata group. The chordates are characterized by a nerve cord, gill pouches and a support rod called the notochord. In the Cambrian fauna, we first see fossils of soft-bodied creatures with these characteristics. However, the living groups of vertebrates appeared much later. It is also important to realize that many of the Cambrian organisms, although likely near the base of major branches of the tree of life, did not possess all of the defining characteristics of modern animal body plans. These defining characteristics appeared progressively over a much longer period of time.

The further back we go in time, e.g. back the Cambrian period some half-billion years ago, the less likely it is that whatever fossils were formed would survive being buried beyond our reach in further sediment or squashed beyond recognition or elevated and eroded away. So our access to Cambrian fossils is limited. Also, the organisms in the Cambrian tended to be soft-bodied, worm-like or slug-like animals that would not generally fossilize well. There are a few spots like the Burgess shale with exceptionally fine conditions for preserving these fragile creatures, but these few spots can only give us brief snapshots in time of the progress of evolution, not the full movie. As hard body parts evolved later in the Cambrian, we find more abundant fossils, but by then the different phyla were already defined. There is plenty of evidence of worm-like activity in the earliest Cambrian in the form of worm burrows in sea floor sediment, but the animals that made those burrows are not generally preserved. So it is not too surprising that soft-bodied fossils from the earliest Cambrian/late pre-Cambrian aren’t available to trace the earliest differentiation of the animal phyla.


From Wikipedia:

Despite their small size, broad wings, and inferred ability to fly or glide, Archaeopteryx had more in common with other small Mesozoic dinosaurs than with modern birds. In particular, they shared the following features with the dromaeosaurids and troodontids: jaws with sharp teeth [in the adult stage, unlike the few modern birds which can display teeth as chicks] , three fingers with claws, a long bony tail, hyperextensible second toes (“killing claw”), feathers (which also suggest warm-bloodedness), and various features of the skeleton.   These features make Archaeopteryx a clear candidate for a transitional fossil between non-avian dinosaurs and birds.

Archaeopteryx is such a mix of bird and dinosaur characteristics that paleontologists go back and forth on whether to classify it as a bird or as a dinosaur. The current opinion is to classify it with dinosaurs. At any rate, it has a number of skeletal characteristics (e.g. long, bony tail) that are clearly like dinosaurs, not like any modern birds. It was probably a branched intermediate, not a direct ancestor of modern birds.

YE creationists dive into old literature and pull quotes out of context to try to show Archaeopteryx was “just a bird”. These spin efforts are discussed here:



If you want my comments on more of your science slides, I am happy to give them, but this should suffice to show why practicing scientists find YE creationism to be untenable.

I realize I have used harsh words like “deceptive” and “dishonest”, but I am just calling it the way I see it. I recognize that YE creationist authors do not intend to be dishonest. Rather, they are being consistent with their approach that the literal interpretation of the Genesis narrative must be true, and therefore any evidence that seems to contradict that must be wrong and can therefore can and should be denied. Their underlying motive, to honor God’s word, is commendable. Unfortunately, as with defenders of Old Testament literalism in Paul’s day, this is an instance of “zeal not according to knowledge” ( Rom 10:2).

However pure the underlying motives, YE creationism creates a poor witness. Scientists wryly refer to it as “Lying for Jesus”. In the words of one missionary, “It creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church… How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? …We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.”

Long ago Saint Augustine warned of the consequences of having Christians “talking nonsense” about the physical world, based on some interpretation of the Scripture:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.

I know that young earth creationist organizations mean well, and think they are defending the truth of the Scripture against the biased infidels, but it seems to me that (1) they are not being true to the facts of creation or to the intent of the Bible, (2) they bring discredit on the gospel, making it harder for a scientifically literate person to take it seriously, (3) they divert Christian resources from more worthy works, (4) they furnish ammunition to aggressive atheists who would like to shut down Christian schools and home schooling, and (5) they cause many Christian young people to lose their faith when they find out YE creationism is not true.

If some adult doesn’t accept an old earth or evolution, I don’t see that as a big problem. But in many churches and Christian families, young people are told that a literal interpretation of Genesis is the only acceptable one, and there is no natural explanation for things like babies and flowers. These young people are then set up to lose their faith when they discover the earth is old, and evolution is how we got here. Sadly, this happens all the time. On the internet one can find anguished mothers telling of the day their son came home and told them that he had found evolution to be true, and therefore (since he was told that evolution is incompatible with the Bible) he had given up on Christianity.

In my opinion, the way for Christians to teach their kids to deal with evolution is not to deny it, but point out that God often works through extended processes (think: sanctification and parables of seeds growing). My daughters are now adults, with vibrant Christian faith. As they were growing up, we exposed them to the full range of writings by C. S. Lewis. He (at least provisionally) did not dispute biological evolution. What he did was refute the ungodly implications that unbelieving naturalists tried to draw from evolution. That was the spirit in which I addressed the subject in my talk at the ISI dinner.

I have been very frank here. I hope that is what you wanted. I understand if you want to stick with YE creationism, and I don’t consider it something that needs to cause any friction among us.

Best regards,


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2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 1: Bible Interpretation

Preface for blog: Earlier this year I had a discussion with an evangelical Christian woman who I will call Rachel (not her real name). She had recently learned that I endorse modern scientific findings in geology (the earth is old) and biology (today’s fauna, including humans, physically evolved from earlier life-forms), and that I have no problem squaring that with the Bible’s teachings. She sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments.

It has been experience that once someone gets committed to Y.E. creationism, it is usually impossible to have them change their mind. No matter how much of their best evidence for a young earth that I refute, and no matter how much evidence for an old earth I present, they end up waving it all away. Nevertheless, I decided to run an experiment with Rachel. She is intelligent and good-willed, with some familiarity with science, and (unlike my typical encounters on the internet) she knew me personally to be a devout, Bible-honoring Christian.

So I took some time to compose this email (reproduced below, with a few wording changes) to address the issue of Bible interpretation, and also another document addressing many of the scientific claims made in her videos. I will share that other document as my next post here (“2019 Letters to a Creationist,Part 2”). I hoped that by showing that these “evidences” she relied on for a young earth do not hold up upon inspection, I might get her to reconsider her commitment to Y.E. creationism.


Hi Rachel,
I did listen to all three of your video presentations. You did a fine job presenting many of the relevant scriptures, and also sharing young earth perspectives on some scientific issues.

It seems like you are interested in my comments, so I will share some thoughts here. This is not in the spirit of who is right and who wrong, but to perhaps help you understand how another devout Christian can have a very different opinion on some of these matters.

First, I’d like to make it clear that I am not criticizing anyone who holds to Young Earth (YE) creationism. When I refer to “YE creationists”, I mean YE advocate groups like Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research who promote this viewpoint, not the millions of lay people who go along with what these organizations promote.

There are some picky details involved with the scientific issues, so I will address those in a separate word document. In this email, I will share some of my thoughts on the Bible interpretation issue.

I think a key issue is the extent to which it is appropriate to use observations of the physical world to influence our interpretation of the scripture. I think somewhere in the videos the question was asked whether science can trump the plain sense of the scripture. I will note that this is not an issue of whether the Bible is inspired and authoritative, but an issue of how to interpret it.

The approach taken by YE creationism is to elevate their particular literal interpretation of Genesis over any possible physical evidence. This is stated, for instance, in the preface to the book that launched modern YE creationism, The Genesis Flood, authors Whitcomb and Morris reveal the basis of their thinking:

We believe that the Bible, as the verbally inspired and completely inerrant Word of God, gives us a true framework of historical and scientific interpretation, as well as of so-called religious truth. This framework is one of special creation of all things, complete and perfect in the beginning, followed by the introduction of a universal principle of decay and death into the world after man’s sin, culminating in a worldwide cataclysmic destruction of the “world that then was” by the Genesis Flood. We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context…the real issue is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters.

On this telling, the authors hold that the earth was recently created, that decay and death only entered the world following Adam’s apple, and all terrestrial life was drowned apart from the humans and animals on Noah’s ark. Knowing this to be the case, they feel justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they know that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence: “We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.”

Their fundamental mistake is assuming that a verbally inspired, authoritative Word of God must always be correct in its statements concerning the physical world. This assumption drives the whole agenda of YE creationism. I respect the pious motivations behind this approach, but it is simply wrong. That is not the way hermeneutics actually works. Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32 NIV].

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest seed that ancient Galilean farmers were familiar with, so this was a useful illustration for that audience for the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. Modern naturalists have found other plant seeds which smaller than the mustard seed. If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” (That is what YE creationists do with Genesis). Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

The Bible often presents spiritual or moral teachings in the form of stories or imagery which are not literally true. It is true that the simplest, most literal readings of Genesis 1-3 and other passages point to a recent creation. However, it is also true that the simple, literal meanings of many Biblical passages show that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:

We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.

This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note the words: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.

Galileo did not dispute that the literal teaching of the Bible was of a stationary earth; he just argued that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. As he put it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before that time? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.

Nowadays most evangelical Christians will say, obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended for making authoritative statements about the physical world. But that is only “obvious” after one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts.

There was an earlier, lesser-known controversy over the “firmament” in Genesis 1. The simple, straightforward meaning of Genesis 1:6-7 and 1:14-18….

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault [Hebrew raqia ]between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. …. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

….is that God created some sort of thin, solid dome (raqia) in the midst of the primeval waters. This separated the waters below, the oceans, from a great mass of liquid water (not vapor) up above the dome of the sky. God then set the sun and moon into this dome. The Hebrew root for raqia (often translated “firmament” or “expanse”) is the verb raqa. According to the standard Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs, raqa means to “beat, stamp, beat out, stamp out”. It is typically applied to metal being beaten out into a thin sheet (e.g. Is. 40:19, Ex. 39:3, Num. 17:4, Jer. 10:9; cf. Num 17:3). Thus, raqia (“firmament”) denotes something which has been beaten out or spread out, like a sheet of metal. Brown, Driver, and Briggs define raqia as, “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” This was not empty space or atmosphere.

The folks best placed to understand the meaning of the ancient Hebrew text would be the ancient Hebrews themselves. The Septuagint translation of Genesis into Greek was done by Jewish scholars around 300 B.C. The Septuagint translators rendered raqia as “stereoma” which connotes solidity, not an empty space. The Latin translations of this passage followed the Septuagint’s lead in rendering this word as “firmamentum,” which again connotes solidity. The King James version retained this usage (“firmament”), while modern translations render it as “expanse” to better mesh with today’s science.

The Jews of the Second Temple period, followed by practically everyone up through the Renaissance, understood the raqia to denote a solid dome above the earth. The Jewish literature of that era includes discussions, for instance, of whether this dome was made of clay or of copper or of iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7-8).

This was not some bizarre concept unique to the Old Testament. Practically everyone in the ancient Middle East believed that the sky was a solid dome. How that dome got created calls for an explanation, which the Genesis story provides. The Genesis creation narrative is an example of God wisely and graciously accommodating to the “science” of that day (rather than trying to correct it), as an effective means to convey the essential and novel message that Yahweh is the sole, sovereign creator.

Martin Luther clearly understood the meaning of this term, and he was greatly annoyed when the scientists (“philosophers”) of his day were questioning the existence of such a solid dome. Luther took a firm stand on defending the plain, literal meaning of the Bible:

Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.

[ Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43 ]

A woodcut illustration in the 1534 Luther Bible shows the firmament containing the sun, moon, and stars, with the liquid waters up above the heavens, just like Genesis says. Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s YE creationists regarding a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”. ( see for more on this controversy over the firmament).

Sorry if this has gotten kind of long-winded. I just wanted to make it clear that the reason that I and millions of other science-literate evangelicals reject automatic Bible literalism is not a “low” view of scripture, but rather a balanced view of how God has provided revelation in both his Word and his works. The devout Christian scholar Francis Bacon commended study of both God’s word and God’s works:

Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling [pride]; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together. – – The Advancement of Learning (1605)

His warning against unwisely mingling or confounding these two areas has been, unfortunately, neglected by YE creationists.

Now, you may wonder what practicing scientists, who understand the evidence for the age of the earth and for evolution, do with Genesis and related scriptures, if they don’t hold it to a literal interpretation. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t try to spell it all out in this email, but I have sketched out my approach in two articles on my blog. The first one to look at, if you’re interested, is .That gives an overview. Among other things, it answers the question that was asked in your video, what is the purpose of the Genesis creation story if it is not literally true. (It might help to first read the prequel to that article, Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1 ).

The second article deals specifically with Adam and the Fall, including Romans 5, etc. : . You might also be interested in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology and Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear . These are not primarily about creationism, but they do note that if there were widely-available physical evidence of the Flood, that would seem to contradict Jesus’s teaching that no sign would be given to the world in general, apart from his resurrection.

I’ll say it again to be clear: In the interest of time, I am being pretty blunt here, but I am just stating my point of view here, not meaning to call into question anyone else’s motives. You two are both wonderful believers, and I trust we can just agree to disagree here.



Posted in Bible Interpretation | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

“Friend of Science, Friend of Faith” by Gregg Davidson: A Comprehensive Treatment of Bible and Science

Greg Davidson is chair of geology and geological engineering in at the University of Mississippi. He is a co-author of The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth, which I reviewed here. (He has also authored a science fiction trilogy). He has just come out with a new book, Friend of Science, Friend of Faith, which does a thorough job addressing diverse issues concerning the Bible and creation science. It is a meaty book, with some 270 pages of text, plus a lengthy bibliography and two indices.

In discussing the scientific issues, the author focuses heavily on geology, which is his area of professional expertise. There are also sections of the book which deal with cosmology and evolutionary genetics. As he notes in the Acknowledgments, he sought input from experts in these other disciplines, to ensure accuracy in those areas.

Interpreting the Bible

The first third of the book deals mainly with interpreting the Bible, which is a key area in this controversy. A basic premise of the book (which is supported with theological arguments) is that God is not a massive deceiver, and so we can trust that the physical evidence we find for the great age of the universe, and the evidence for biological evolution, give valid information on what really happened. However, for sincere believers who value God’s opinion over man’s opinion on matters, it makes perfect sense to reject any scientific conclusion if it truly conflicts with the teaching of the Bible. What Professor Davidson does, clearly and thoroughly, is to help readers distinguish between the actual words of the Bible, and our interpretation of those words.

He notes that we have the “tendency to conflate God’s word with our own interpretation of his word.” He goes on to say, “God‘s word is immutable and true; our interpretation is not always so. Failure to recognize this has the potential to cause tremendous personal upheaval. If the weight of evidence begins to accumulate that my interpretation is an error, but I am unable to differentiate my interpretation from scripture itself, I will begin to retreat into a world of contradictions where some truths must be ignored in order to cling to others. “

As an opening illustration, Professor Davidson uses the controversy in the 16th and 17th centuries over whether the earth moves or not. There are a number of Bible passages, which, taken literally, state unequivocally that the earth is stationary, fixed on its foundations, while it is the sun that moves past the earth. A few centuries ago, both Catholic and Protestant theologians asserted that the literal interpretation here was correct. He goes on to list a number of other passages which, taken literally, make physical statements that we know to be untrue. Nearly all modern believers, no matter how conservative, accept that these passages were not intended to teach truth about the physical universe, and thus do not interpret these verses literally.

From there, Professor Davidson argues that we should take what we have learned from these issues, and apply it to more recent scientific findings, including the age of the earth and evolution. Opponents of evolution and of an old earth naturally mount a variety of objections against a nonliteral interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative. Here is where Professor Davidson shows he has really done his homework. He acknowledges a number of these objections fairly, without caricaturing them, and answers them clearly. The overall tone of the book is patient, and sympathetic toward those who are influenced by the young earth creationist point of view.

The book notes that even within the first three chapters of Genesis, there are numerous outright contradictions, if you take each verse literally. Thus, “a great deal of interpretation underlies a superficial, literalist reading of the creation story. In fact, few if any at all truly believe the supposed ‘plain sense’ meaning of the words, for a host of non-literal explanations are required to buttress the purported literal view.”

A Wealth of Illustrations

The book sets forth a number of examples to clarify the underlying issues. For instance, it notes that arguing over whether identification of mechanisms for evolution (e.g. mutations and natural selection) excludes God is as nonsensical as arguing whether gravity excludes God:

Consider a hypothetical God-versus-gravity debate. A ball is released at the top of an incline rolls down the slope. Scientists studying the phenomenon discover that the behavior of the rolling ball is predictable, and develop a theory that the behavior is controlled by something they call gravity. Some of the scientist go so far as to say that God is not necessary to account for the behavior of the ball because they have a good naturalistic explanation for the observed phenomenon. In reaction, some Christians insist that God is the driving force behind all of creation, therefore gravity cannot be true. [pp. 83-84]

Another line of discussion points out some of the flaws of the “baramin-kinds” approach that is currently popular within young earth creationism:

As each group of organisms is created in Genesis 1, a repeated phrase is used that organisms were made and then reproduced, each “after their own kind”.… Israel’s neighbors believed nature to be the chaotic, unpredictable outgrowth of the actions of the precious gods.… But the God of Genesis is not capricious. There is an order to the creation. In human experience, sparrows will give rise to sparrows and sheep will give rise to sheep.

This is not a statement against evolution. Quite to the contrary, evolutionary theory affirms that nature is not controlled by mercurial gods, but acts in an orderly and logical fashion. That orderliness is what allows us to selectively breed to enhance desirable traits in crops or livestock, and even to manipulate the genetic code with reasonable foreknowledge of what it will produce.

Ironically, young-earth creationist have turned the traditional interpretation of this text upside down. Realizing that representative species from the entire earth could not fit on the ark, leading young earth advocates now claim that creatures we would not recognize today entered the ark, with offspring evolving at hyperspeed after exiting to a dramatically changed environment. As an example, a single cat-kind pair leaving the ark gave rise, in a matter of a few generations, to all of today’s lions, tigers, cougars, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, bobcats, panthers, lynx, ocelots, and house cats, as well as the many extinct varieties of saber-tooth cats. With a biblical
kind defined closer to a biological family, not even sheep, goats, and cows would have been on the ark in forms recognized today, for they are all part of the bovind family.… Noah presumably brought on pairs of a bovind kind, which soon gave rise to goats, sheep, and cows…All this departs radically from a literal/traditional understanding of Genesis. [pp. 84-85]

I will not to try to summarize it here, but I appreciated the discussion on animal suffering and the possible role of human sin in the corruption of the physical universe, relative to the sovereignty of God.

There are many figures in the book, which were carefully chosen to illustrate particular points. These figures are all in black and white or grayscale. These include nice sketches of key fossil intermediates for the evolution of whales and for the reptile-to-mammal transition. Some of my favorite figures are those which compared the expected sequence of fossils for various flood geology scenarios compared to what we actually observe in the sedimentary rock layers.

For instance, young earth creationist sometimes claim that the reason that humans and other modern mammals are not found in the lower rock layers is that they were able to run to higher ground as the floodwaters rose. The figure below illustrates a representative fossil sequence if “fleeing to higher ground” was a dominant mechanism for fossil sorting. (I just snapped a photo of the figure with my cell phone, so it is a bit distorted here).

Cell phone photo of Figure 18 from Friend of Science, Friend of Faith. Copyright Gregg Davidson. Original caption: “Expected fossil sequence if based on the ability to flee rising flood waters, and the sequence as actually found. Horizontal lines represent borders between lower/older layers and higher/younger layers.”

It depicts various slow moving animals like shrews, plus both ferns and flowering plants, appearing in the lower sedimentary rock layers. These plants and animals would not have been able to flee the lowlands, and thus would have been swept away early and buried in the lower sedimentary deposits. Meanwhile, more mobile animals like giraffes and predatory dinosaurs and elephants would be able to escape to higher ground. Of course, there would be both ferns and flowering plants in higher as well as lower elevations, and so these plants would be buried in the higher sedimentary layers along with the elephants and therapod dinosaurs. Flying creatures like birds and pterodactyls would take refuge in the tops of the highest trees on the highest hills and mountains, before they were finally swept away to be buried together in the very highest rock layers from the Flood.

The figure plainly shows that that is not what we actually observe. In reality, pterodactyls and dinosaurs of all kinds are found only in the lower, “Mesozoic” rock layers. There are little or no flowering plant remains there. In the “Cenozoic” rock layers which lie above the Mesozoic are found all kinds of modern-type mammals, including very sluggish ones, and only in those layers do we find a large variety of flowering plants.

The book includes similar figures showing an expected fossil sequence for hydrodynamic or vibrational sorting of animal remains of various shapes and sizes by the moving floodwaters and also an expected fossil sequence for sedimentary rock layers attributed to the global Flood versus post-Flood deposits; again it is shown that these “Flood geology” sequences do not match what we actually find in the sedimentary rock layers.  Hydrodynamic sorting would tend to result in similar size/shape/density animals being grouped together in the same layers (e.g. elephants grouped with medium sized dinosaurs).  But that is not observed in the rock layers.

Although most of the book’s arguments are aimed at young earth creationism and its Flood geology, there is a chapter on Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design proponents often accept an old earth, and the appearance of new plants and animals over time as indicated by the fossil record, but they claim that natural processes such as mutation and natural selection cannot produce significantly new forms. Intelligent Design proponents energetically point out the many instances where we do not yet have a complete natural explanation of this or that evolutionary step, and thus (they claim) the frequent intervention of some (supernatural) Intelligent Agent is required. The book notes that, despite its protestations to the contrary, Intelligent Design is for all practical purposes just a sophisticated god-of-the-gaps exercise, and cites a classic passage by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of our knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

The Stakes Are High

The book opens with a fictitious but representative scenario of a college student named Riley who comes from a conservative Christian home. Her parents and youth minister had told her that the evidence for evolution and an old earth were flimsy, and easily overturned. In her studies, however, she found there is a wealth of transitional fossils which support evolution, as well as geological evidence that the earth is old. When she looked to the campus minister for guidance on this, he handed her a young earth creationist book, filled with scientific assertions which she could immediately see were false. Riley naturally concluded that if the veracity of the Bible depends on the validity of young earth creationism, then the Bible cannot be considered reliable, and that “her family and church had unwittingly indoctrinated her with fairy tales”.

The author’s reverence for God and his word come through in the concluding chapter, where he revisits the type of dilemma faced by “Riley” and he expresses the hope that believers in the future will realize “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days, how Scripture and science both speak of a beginning to the universe and of the earth bringing forth life, the incredible artistry of life adapted through time, that nature continues to proclaim the glory of its Author, and that God delights in giving us amazing tools to explore the wonders of his creation long before humans walked the earth.”

He further notes that as a professor, he has personally had the experience of talking with students who were on the verge of giving up their faith because of the impossibility of retaining the literal interpretation of Genesis which they had been taught, and has helped them to see “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days”.

Prospective Audience

Because young earth creationists are so energetic and creative in their objections to modern science and to nonliteral interpretations, this controversy has many arms and legs to it. Thus, any book which (like this one) tries to address the majority of the contested points will necessarily be long and involved. I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone who is deeply engaged in the Bible/science controversies or who has had depth exposure to geology or biology. Anyone who had read a number of young earth creationist articles or books has probably picked up many erroneous beliefs, which would be addressed in Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.

On the other hand, if someone is only casually interested in the topic, or if they have not been previously exposed to many young earth arguments and counter-arguments, the length and depth of this book may be off-putting. There is probably some 5-10 page tract which treats Bible interpretation and key physical evidences, which could serve as a standalone introduction to the subject for a nontechnical conservative Christian who is considering the claims of modern science for the first time. (I don’t have a favorite article or pamphlet here – if any readers have a recommendation, I’d be interested to hear about it.) Friend of Science, Friend of Faith would be a good back-up reference for such an introductory tract.

Posted in Age of Earth, American Scientific Affliliation, Bible Interpretation, Fossils | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Evograd Blog Debunks YE Creationist Genetics Claims in Depth

The Internet debate between those who affirm and those who deny the evidence for evolution and an old earth usually takes place on the scale of fairly short articles which are accessible to the average reader. Some supposed evidences for a young earth, such as the changing magnetic field of the earth, or the amount of helium in the atmosphere, can be readily disposed of in just a few pages.

On the other hand, there are topics where the scientific issues are more complex and subtle. In such cases, it seems useful to present a comprehensive examination of all the main points in one write-up. For instance, one of the top 10 evidences for a young earth claimed by Answers in Genesis is the observation of soft tissue in some dinosaur fossil bones. To the layman, this seems to indicate that that these bones cannot be tens of millions of years old as mainstream science says. Rather than trying to address just a few of the scientific issues with soft tissue in a piecemeal manner, I decided to write a fairly long essay which discussed all of the key scientific findings up to that point. This enabled the efficiently addressing of all the substantive young earth claims associated with this topic, and provided a single reference to which readers could be directed.

Every few years some seemingly well-credentialed Young Earth (YE) creationist publishes a new book which is touted as the final demolition of evolution. The sweeping claims in such a book are then regarded as established facts by the consumers of YE creationist literature. It seems helpful in such cases to systematically work through such a book, and compare what the author claims to what the full data actually show. This sort of fair and thorough rebuttal will typically make no impression on dedicated YE creationists (since they rigorously filter everything through their particular interpretation of the Bible), but it can prove enlightening to someone who is on the fence, trying to sort out what the truth really is.

For instance, when John Sanford’s book, Genetic Entropy, was first published in 2005 it was hailed as the definitive proof that modern evolutionary theory is a complete failure. The central claim of that work is that all genomes are (and have been since The Fall) relentlessly deteriorating due to the buildup of unselectable harmful mutations. Jubilant YE creationists widely referred to that book to bolster their beliefs. The author was a respected retired botanist from Cornell. In my own case, a fellow evangelical Christian handed me a copy of that book in 2008, assuming that it would bring me over to the anti-evolution camp. At that point I had not made up my mind about the scientific case for or against evolution, and Genetic Entropy seemed convincing at first reading. Being a professional researcher, I wanted to read some in-depth critical review of the book, and then balance the pros and cons in my own mind.

However, I could not find a thorough critical review. In the end, I wrote my own chapter by chapter review of Genetic Entropy, as a means of clarifying issues for myself and to respond to my well-meaning YE creationist friend. The net result for me personally was to conclude that the evidences presented against evolution were complete failures, if all the facts (not some cherry-picked subset) are laid on the table. (It happens that writing that review of Genetic Entropy  was what launched me into blogging on faith and science – – since no other thorough scientific review of this controversial book seemed to be available, I decided to implement a WordPress blog to put it, and some other material I had drafted, out on the internet for the benefit of others.)

All of this goes to show why I am highlighting here the Evograd blog. The proprietor of this blog, a graduate student in evolutionary biology who prefers to remain anonymous, has produced a relatively few but very weighty studies which treat timely, highly technical subjects. I don’t think his work is as well known as it should be, considering how it directly and thoroughly confronts some key YE creationist claims.


I first became aware of this blog when looking for commentary on Replacing Darwin, by Answers in Genesis’s Nathaniel Jeanson. This book appears to be the latest, greatest “demolition of evolution” touted by YE creationists. Jeanson has a PhD from Harvard, which is supposed to lend credibility to his work.

The only in-depth critique of this book I was able to find was by Evograd. He systematically exposes Jeanson’s erroneous assumptions and faulty logic. The first seven out of planned ten posts on the blog have been completed. (Evograd’s fans are waiting for the last three installments to appear, but more pressing matters have taken up his time). Replacing Darwin is a long, sprawling, and dense treatise, and so Evograd’s responses are likewise lengthy, diverse, and detailed. I’ll mention a few points here, but won’t try to summarize all the issues.

Part 6: Jeanson’s Fulcrum Fails” treats chapter 7 of Replacing Darwin. In that chapter Jeanson claimed that the actual, observed amount of mitochondrial mutational differences between various species is much, much lower than predicted by standard evolutionary timescales – – and therefore, the biosphere (and indeed the earth) must be much, much younger than posited by mainstream science. But…the Evograd blogger notes that Jeanson used a mutation rate for mitochondria that is about ten times too high, and also did not take into account the elementary math of how the apparent rate of substitutions will tend to slow down for more ancient lineages even if the actual rate is/was constant. These errors (and others) led Jeanson to grossly overestimate the mitochondrial mutations entailed by “standard” evolutionary theory. When those errors are corrected, the data are in fact consistent with evolution.

The seventh and latest installment, “Part 7: A Nuclear Catastrophe“ has links to all the previous posts in the series on Replacing Darwin. In this technically dense post which cites a wide range of relevant literature results, Evograd debunks a number of Jeanson’s claims concerning DNA in the cell nucleus.


Tomkins on the Human Vitellogenin Pseudogene: Who Needs Signal When You Have Noise? – – Reptiles and birds produce eggs with substantial yolks. The yolk nourishes the embryo as it grows and matures in the egg, prior to hatching. The vitellogenin gene is involved in producing the yolk. That is its function in birds and reptiles, as can be clearly demonstrated. (In some species, this gene has been duplicated, so there is more than one copy of it in the genome, but the function is the same). In modern placental mammals like humans, there is no need for the function of the vitellogenin gene. Human embryos get their nourishment from the placenta, not from an egg yolk, so they have no need of the protein product of the vitellogenin gene. Thus, over the tens of millions of years since the emergence of modern placental mammals, most of this gene has mutated away. However, some mutated, nonfunctional fragments of the vitellogenin gene still appear in the human genome, in a location corresponding to the locus of the functional gene in chickens. Standard evolutionary science holds that mammals descended from egg-laying common ancestors with reptiles, and so finding these deactivated “pseudogene” fragments in this location is a confirmation of evolution. [1]

In response to this evidence for common ancestry, a YE creationist scientist, Jeffrey Tomkins, published an article in an Answers in Genesis journal, claiming that one of these gene fragments is in fact functional. Tomkins identifies it as a key part of a gene that affects neurological processes in the human brain. This claim has been cited as fact by YE creationists all across the internet, and used to deflect the evolutionary evidence of the vitellogenin gene. Enter Evograd: in this article linked above, he eviscerates Tomkins’ contention of functionality, showing that each of Tomkins’ seven lines of argument is utterly worthless. This is another virtuoso performance by the Evograd blogger, showing a keen grasp of subtle technical points and wide command of the relevant literature, combined with clear writing style and ability to focus on the most important issues.

More Evograd articles on the evolutionary significance of pseudogenes:

Dating Shared Processed Pseudogenes in Primates

Pseudogenes Testify to the Evolutionary History of Animals


Articles dealing with human chromosome number 2.

This chromosome 2seems to represent a fusion of what in all other higher primates are two separate chromosomes (typically called 2A and 2B). In the human chromosome, the actual point of the fusion of the two original chromosomes can be discerned, pointing to common ancestry between humans and other primates.

Chromosome 2 Fusion and Bayes Theorem: Support for Common Ancestry After All

Chromosome 2 Fusion and Bayes Theorem: Addendum

[and also, in   Part 7: A Nuclear Catastrophe , Evograd demolishes Tomkins’ claim (retailed by Jeanson) that a functional gene spans the fusion site in Chromosome 2]


Some other excellent reads on the Evograd blog:

Testing a Strong Prediction of Universal Common Ancestry

Human Genetics Confirms Mutations as the Drivers of Diversity and Evolution



[1] A “pseudogene” is a recognizable DNA sequence derived from some functional gene, but which no longer expresses the original protein. For instance, humans have many nonfunctional genes (i.e. pseudogenes), which in other animals are functional genes involved for odor recognition. (Presumably as humans developed higher visual acuity, they became less dependent on sense of smell, and so natural selection was relaxed for retaining these olfactory genes). These pseudogenes, both the coding DNA and related regulatory regions, were originally fully functional (prior to accumulating disabling mutations), so it is not surprising to find that some bits of some pseudogenes have become used in the regulation of some other, still-functional genes in the genome. Opponents of evolution cite these discoveries of functionality as though they overturn the status of pseudogenes as pseudogenes, but that is misleading nonsense.

Per Wikipedia on the definition of pseudogenes:

Pseudogenes are segments of DNA that are related to real genes. Pseudogenes have lost at least some functionality, relative to the complete gene, in cellular gene expression or protein-coding ability. Pseudogenes often result from the accumulation of multiple mutations within a gene whose product is not required for the survival of the organism, but can also be caused by genomic copy number variation (CNV) where segments of 1+ kb are duplicated or deleted.[4] Although not fully functional, pseudogenes may be functional, similar to other kinds of noncoding DNA, which can perform regulatory functions. The “pseudo” in “pseudogene” implies a variation in sequence relative to the parent coding gene, but does not necessarily indicate pseudo-function. Despite being non-coding, many pseudogenes have important roles in normal physiology and abnormal pathology… Pseudogenes are usually characterized by a combination of homology to a known gene and loss of some functionality. That is, although every pseudogene has a DNA sequence that is similar to some functional gene, they are usually unable to produce functional final protein products.

[Housekeeping note: in deference to the primacy of his work, if a reader here is unhappy with some of the technical conclusions of the Evograd blogger cited above, please leave your comments on his blog, not mine]

Posted in Evolution, Genome, Mutations | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments