This week we explored:
- Are humans just advanced animals?
- The Atonement
- God’s Justice
The Social Animal or the Bearers of God’s Image?
Given the popularity of materialistic/naturalistic worldviews rooted in evolutionary theory, it’s no surprise that we constantly see parallels being drawn between the animal world and human beings. Whether it’s the tool using chimpanzee, the loyal dog, or the language using dolphin, the consensus is that we’re special—but not that special. Is it reasonable to think of humans as nothing more than advanced mammals? Let’s take a closer look at some of the key ways in which humans differ from animals.
The most widely cited difference is the existence of morality. Humans have a very sophisticated, inner sense of right and wrong that informs how we think and how we act. Animals simply do not have this. A bear does not contemplate the moral implications of which stream it fishes from, how the fish suffers, or how they feel about it. If a bear wrestles a fish away from another bear it is not a labeled a thief. And a bear in Alaska isn’t pondering the plight some of the bears in Idaho must be feeling from the wildfires.
The existence of morality is so self-evident that there are many, many prominent scientists around the world are hard at work developing a theory of evolutionary ethics. (We’ll be discussing this in greater depth on September 1 at the District Coffee House if you’re interested.) They’ll point to instances of sharing or sympathy in higher mammals and argue they are the evolutionary seeds from which our objective morality grew. However, the gulf between human morality and the behavior of close-knit higher mammals is massive. Even one of the most prominent evolutionary ethicists in the world (Frans de Waal) admits that, at best, they’ve developed a partial, simplistic model of animal ethics. De Waal believes a comprehensive theory exists, but we have not seen evidence for it yet.
A thorough treatment of morality requires much more time and space than we have here. However, let’s look briefly at another argument commonly used against morality. People will often point toward examples of societies committing terrible atrocities without having any moral qualms about it. Most commonly cited is Hitler, although history is ripe with examples incredibly brutal atrocities that were justified by various political ideologies.
Do these atrocities disprove the existence of morality? Hardly. At best they can be used to argue for moral subjectivism, but that’s also not the easiest position to defend. It’s logically incoherent to say morality doesn’t exist or is subjective because of the horrible things Hitler did. That argument contains a moral position. And if morality is merely subjective, how then could Hitler be condemned? If good and bad are truly subjective, they are utterly meaningless.
Human beings have a much greater, more complex level of intelligence than animals. The intelligence of humans is simply unmatched in the animal world. That’s not to say animals do not have intelligence. You may have seen videos of chimpanzees using sticks to dig termites out of the ground. The ability to use tools is indeed a sign of intelligence. However, chimps are not writing volumes on theories of physics or political psychology.
Sometimes people point toward the incredible complexity of animal behavior as evidence of intelligence. Bees build intricate hives. Ants construct remarkable networks of underground tunnels. Birds assemble a variety of functional nests. But is this intelligence? Bees, ants, and birds have been constructing the same type of structures in the same way for thousands of years. Humans obviously don’t do that—we innovate. Furthermore, ants don’t consider the aesthetic beauty and function of the architecture of their anthills. Bees don’t spend time in the paint aisle at the home supply store arguing about whether they want their hives to be egg shell white or cream colored.
Animals are driven nearly entirely by instinct. They live their lives primarily through involuntary reactions to their environment. Humans, on the other hand, are almost completely driven by decisions. We think through and make decisions about nearly everything! We use logic, critical thinking, and moral reasoning to decide what to do and how to do it.
Beyond that, our use of language is so wildly advanced and complex compared to animals it’s hard to imagine. Sure, dolphins chirp and click to communicate basic information about hunting. Compare that to a four year old who is capable not only of speaking, but also of writing and reading. If that child happens to grow up in an internationally savvy or multi-ethnic household, chances are they can do it in multiple languages. They can also vary word order, inflection, tone, and body language to emphasize a point or ensure clarity.
Humans are also unique in our ability to focus not only on the present, but to recall the past and make reasonable assumptions about the future. When is the last time a fish swam around remarking on their bittersweet nostalgia of when they were growing up? Ever heard a group of monkeys discussing the details of a five-year plan for their lives?
Often overlooked in the discussion about animals versus humans is the importance of creativity. Obviously animals do not write literature, paint frescos, compose symphonies, conduct scientific experiments, or sing songs. Humans do all of those things and many, many more. But creating isn’t something we “just do”—it’s intricately connected to passion, communication, and beauty.
This is just a very brief overview, but obviously humans are more than animals—we are truly special. This privileged specialness extends far beyond the reach of purely chemical, biological, or social forces working randomly over long periods of time. We’re special in a way so much deeper than abstract ideas of uniqueness, value, or purpose we hear all the time. Contained within each of us are flickers of the nature of God—His love, morality, intelligence, and creativity.
There are a lot of theological nuances to the atonement, but at its core understanding the atonement involves digging into the question: Why did Jesus die/What did His death accomplish?
This is such a foundational question for Christianity precisely because the Christ’s death on the cross was primary reason Christ came (the incarnation). Unlike other religions, Christianity does not put the focus on the life of Christ—He came to do so much more than to offer a moral example or to teach doctrine. Remove the cross and you remove salvation.
Atonement is commonly defined as satisfaction or reparation of wrong or injury. Atonement for sins is discussed in several locations throughout scripture. The Hebrew word used to explain guilty offerings in Leviticus (chapters 4 and 6, for example) is kaphar, which literally means to cover over.
Understanding how Christ’s death covers over our sins relies on understanding three concepts: propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.
Propitiation is a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath so that He becomes favorably disposed toward us. Scripture speaks plainly about how Christ is the propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17 and 9:5, 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, and Luke 18:13).
Propitiation is a hotly contested issue for some people because it deals with the concept of God’s wrath. It can be an uncomfortable thing to think about because our kneejerk reaction is that a loving, tender, merciful God cannot be wrathful. Scripture makes no attempt to hide God’s wrath—it speaks openly about it frequently. The real question is what is the nature of God’s wrath?
Contrary to what might seem intuitive for us from human relationships, God’s wrath isn’t Him throwing a fit or losing His temper—it is an obligatory moral indignation against sin. God isn’t flexing His muscle to torture sinners. Rather, the very nature of God is logically opposed to sin. (We’ll examine this a little more closely in the next section.) God is so thoroughly opposed to sin that He takes action to defeat it, which is the next element we need to look at: reconciliation.
Reconciliation is really an act of bringing things back into a state of harmony. At the beginning of creation, God and man existed in perfect harmony. Adam’s sin threw everything into a state of chaos. Returning things to a state of harmony requires that the demands of God’s justice be met (again, we’ll look at that more deeply in a bit). Christ’s death satisfied those demands and allows harmony to reemerge.
So, God has satisfied the need for propitiation through and achieved reconciling through Jesus. Aren’t we done? Isn’t all of creation back into harmony? No, not quite. The remaining piece of the puzzle is redemption. In scripture, the term redemption alludes to a payment of a debt and the freeing of a captive. Christ’s sacrifice does both. However, we are not simply redeemed because God makes the potential for redemption possible; we have to actualize it. God has built, paid for, and unlocked the door that lets us pass from chaos back into harmony, but He cannot make us walk through it. We are truly redeemed into a reconciled state after each one of us chooses to do so.
It’s not uncommon to hear a lot of accusations hurled at God because of His role as a judge. On one side of the issue are people that find God’s judgment incompatible with His love and mercy. It’s usually expressed as something like If God’s really loves everyone He wouldn’t judge anyone? On the other side are the people that criticize God not judging harshly or swiftly enough—What was God doing when Hitler was around? Why didn’t He just kill him or not let him be born! Somewhere in the middle are the folks that dislike God’s justice and label it as unfair because His forgiveness extends to people we cannot fathom forgiving like serial killers or child abusers.
Let’s unpack this a bit. In order for love to exist, judgment must exist as well. If you truly love children, what do you do with child abuse? Is it judgmental to oppose it? Absolutely not. In fact, you cannot truly love children unless you hate child abuse.
Love demands boundaries in order for it to make sense! If you love justice, how can you not hate injustice? If you love love, how can you not hate hate? If you love joy, how can you not hate despair?
So does God really love everyone? Certainly. We were created in His image to be in perfect harmony with Him. However, God’s nature requires that He resist anything that is in opposition to that nature. His nature cannot contain sin, but our nature is ravished by it. Both logically and morally speaking God must resist sin. This could certainly make God come off as some kind of elitist jerk. However, you cannot forget the key piece of the puzzle here: God freely did all the work to allow us to obtain a nature compatible with His. And He did it at immense cost to Himself.