For all of its philosophical machinations, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory (PSA) can be reduced to a very simple syllogism.

A. The "penalty" of sin is death.
B. Humanity has sinned.
C. Therefore, humanity deserves to and must die.
D. Christ has paid the "penalty" (deserved debt) of sin by dying in humanity's place.

Admittedly, this is logical, straightforward, and it preaches really well. However, despite the prima facie appeal, PSA theory is based upon several false premises and is subject to many philosophically incoherent conclusions. In the following, I shall attempt to explicate exactly what these are. Moreover, I shall attempt to briefly note how these issues relate to recent reevaluations of the structure of the universe and the nature of death.

To begin, let us examine the first statement: "The penalty of sin is death." Based upon the oft quoted words of Paul ("the wages of sin is death"), PSA theory necessitates that physical death is the causal product of sin (however this may be conceived). If one is to speculate back to the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, such a view naturally and necessarily concludes that Adam, before the genesis of sin, lived in a state of non-death. In other words, were one to envision a reality in which Adam's sin is a non-reality, one must conclude that Adam, in such a state of innocence, would have lived perpetually, never to experience the cessation of biological life. Until recent years, the above might be considered the "orthodox" view of Christians concerning the relationship between sin and biological death, and even still this perspective enjoys wide-spread assent in many sections of the Church.
Nonetheless, the question must be raised, "Is this a helpful view?" And even more importantly, "Is it right?"

Darwin and Rethinking Death

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin outlined what has come to be known as the "theory of evolution" in his seminal work, Origin of the Species. Within only a few years of its publication, Darwin's work was received with great excitement by the scientific community and his theories and methodological principles were incorporated into various disciplines–from biology and astronomy to sociology and behavioral development. Initially, many within the Christian community embraced Darwin's ideas, for they saw in his work a creative opportunity to further link theology and religion to the revolutionary advances in human knowledge that were just beginning to occur. To these sympathetic believers, Darwin's theories confirmed their belief about the wonder, splendor and uniqueness of God's creative acts in history. Nonetheless, it was not long until fierce opposition arose from within the then-emerging fundamentalist movement, attacking Darwin's theories as "atheistic" and anti-Christian.

There were many reasons for this opposition. One of the more obvious and popularized reasons was the exaggerated way in which some in the Christian community described Darwin's theory of human evolution, i.e., "monkey's uncle." To some, the idea that humans derived their existence from a "lower," less evolved form of life was reprehensible. Not only did the time frame of the evolutionary theory contradict literalistic interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis, but moreover many felt that it downgraded humanity's createdness in the imago dei, the image of God. After all, they argued, if humanity is merely the product of an improvement on a lower species, how is humanity special?

Another main reason for the groundswell of opposition to Darwin's theory was that many believed (and still believe) the concept of evolution overturned the doctrine of original sin. As mentioned before, the classic formulation of sin at the time was that "the penalty of sin is death." Therefore, many could not understand how to effectively hold both evolutionary theory (which requires millions of years of biological death) and classic Christian conceptions of sin in harmony with one another. "How can the penalty of sin be death," these wondered, "if death is a natural part of the creation?"

As is obvious, the atonement theology of these individuals–as well as many within the contemporary context–effectively determines their assessment of scientific theory. Therefore, the question must be asked, "Is this a correct assessment?"

It must be admitted that it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain "classical" conceptions of death as resulting from the "fall" of humanity. Before Darwin's contributions, it was more or less the Christian community's "word" against that of anyone else concerning the origins of creation, humanity and–in our interests–death. However, with Darwin's theories, an entirely new organizational principle was offered which provided a structure for interpreting the phenomonological history of the world. In this sense, Darwin's theory was not simply another philosophical conjecture about the origins and nature of life; rather, it was an organizing principle based upon observations and experience of the physical world. Just as the Christians had their Bibles to tell them about origins, so natural history became, to evolutionary theory, a new Bible through which to interpret the world.

So what does Darwin's "bible" tell us about death? Simply stated, death must be seen as a natural part of the universe.

Cosmology and Biology: Coming to Terms with Death as "Natural"

Let's start from the beginning. Scientists tell us that our bodies are composed of carbon? But where did all this carbon–the very building blocks of our physiology–come from? Cosmologists note that it is the creation, destruction and dispersion of stars that has provided the constituent elements that of which our bodies are composed. However, the only way in which this carbon could eventually "reach" the earth to provide the basis for our physiology is through the birth and destruction of these very stars. As stars take millions, if not billions of years to grow, burn out, and disperse, the composition of the human body is a vignette of the history of the universe. What is this history? It is a history of billions of years of death, of the organization, disruption and dispersion of the various elements of the universe. In effect, those who would describe this history as "bad" are, in essence, denigrating their very selves, for it is upon the back of this violent cosmological history that the human body is ultimately composed.

At this point, some might object, wishing to bifurcate cosmological history and human history. These might affirm the 15-billion year history of the cosmos, yet choose to draw the line of the "natural-ness" of death at the level of humanity. The argument goes something like, "humans, after all, are created in the image of God–therefore, they exist on a different level of relationship to the created order than anything else in the universe." However appealing such an approach might be, it must ultimately be rejected.

Firstly, it is theologically dangerous to bifurcate humanity from the created order. Such an approach ultimately cannot be reconciled with the biblical record, for humanity is claimed to have been created from the "dust" of the earth. Therefore, if its "dustness" is to be affirmed in a meaningful and intellectually honest way, humanity must be viewed in such a way that humanity's experience of the physical universe is not diametrically opposed to being made of the same "stuff" of creation.
Secondly, denying the natural nature of human death is counterintuitive from a biological perspective. As grade school children learn in science class, the human experience of
ing "alive&q
uot; is predicated upon cellular death. The flow of blood, growth and preservation of tissues, etc. is the result of human cells constantly dividing and dying, dividing and dying. Without the division, death, and replication of cells, human anatomy would be impossible to animate. In fact, biological death is precisely defined by the cessation of the cellular growth/replication/death cycle. In this way, then, being physically alive necessarily involves an element of death. Over the span of our lives, we will lose untold billions of cells to "death"; and yet, it is this very death that makes our experience of life possible. With this is mind, it is difficult to conceive of a form of human existence that does not involve death–at least on a cellular level–and yet is consonant with the history of universe.

Much more could be said on this topic. However, it seems the point is sufficiently made. The very constitution of our universe is rooted in "death." Not only is it a defining characteristic of what exists, but it is also, in crucial ways, the basis for the existence of the human person and its subsequent experience of "life." In this way, it is difficult to imagine how it is possible to speak of "death" as something that is "bad" and against "God's will," when death is, in fact, the very mechanism through which God has brought about the whole of creation.

"Good and Bad" and the Morality of Death

At this point, one might raise a few objections. One of them, at least, might center around the human experience of death in a total sense (not just on the cellular level). After all, one might argue, humans do not experience death as "good" or "natural." There is pain and loss involved. Many are devastated by the death of those they love. How in the world could death be part of a "good" creation?
Admittedly, this is a strong objection. Because it directly intersects the crisis of human experience, it cannot be distilled into a purely theoretical conversation. After all, in the final analysis, people still experience the distress of death and cannot be pacified by philosophical arguments.

I think the answer to this dilemma is to examine the problem: the human experience of the negative evaluation of death.

Very simply, humans assign a "moral" value to death because it dramatically and unavoidably intersects the very experience of "being" human. However, as has already been noted, there is very good reason to believe that death–rather than alien–is actually centrally rooted in what it means to be human and "alive." From where, then, does the discrepancy in the actual nature and the human evaluation of death arise? I would assert that the answer lies in the ultimate consequences of death, not in the nature of death itself.

As the book of Genesis beautifully illustrates, humanity was created with capacity for relationship with God. Although Adam shares a similar genesis and biology with the rest of creation ("from the dust"), humanity is unique in the sense that within it resides the imago dei, the image of God. While some locate the imago dei in human reason, personality, etc., it can be limited to any one feature of the human person. Rather, the imago dei is expressed in the ability of the human as a totality to exist in a qualitatively different kind of relationship with God than the rest of creation. This relationship is expressed in that it is with humanity whom God converses and it is to humanity that God grants responsibility for the care of creation. Even the recounting of the special circumstances surrounding the creation of Eve represents the relational nature of God and humanity in the garden ("it is not good for Adam to be alone"), for God reveals that humans are more than "just" biological–they are also created for relationship with others and with God.

So what does this have to do with death? In the Genesis accounts, we are given a picture of humanity's state of living in the presence of God. Without fear, Adam and Eve live and work in the garden. They exist in harmony with the creation surrounding them, providing care and love for God's good creation.
But then everything goes wrong. Deceived by the serpent, Adam and Eve disobey God's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because of their disobedience, something about them is altered–they take on an entirely new perspective of themselves, God and their relationship to the created order. What was once a natural part of creation now becomes a source of shame (their nakedness). The God who had once dwelled with them and walked with them is now a source of fear. Suddenly, the entire creation is transformed–in their eyes–from something "good," created with the care and providence of God, to something hostile and violent to them. Unable to properly exist in this environment any longer, Adam and Eve are excluded from the garden, cut off from the Tree of Life that had sustained them.

The curse of breaking the command was that "on the day you eat of the fruit, you shall surely die." Nonetheless, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit–and didn't die, at least no "on the day." So what are we to make of this? Is biological death the proximate result of what the stories of Genesis recount? Or is there something else that is being communicated by these stories?

I would suggest that the death spoken in the Genesis accounts cannot be reduced to biological death. The point of the Genesis stories is not to provide a theological explanation for biological death; rather, the crux of the story is getting at the fundamental problem of humanity. The problem with humanity, according to the Genesis account, is not simply that humans die. Rather, the crisis of sinful humanity's existence is that humanity is separated from the presence of God. The Garden is where God dwells. It is by the presence and power of God's spirit that human life is understood to exist ("the breath of life"). Corrupted by pride and disobedience, humanity cannot dwell in the presence of God. It is not so much that God excludes, but the humanity excludes itself. In its sinfulness, humanity reevaluates its nature as created by God. For example, in viewing themselves with "opened eyes," they called their nakedness "shame" when God had called it "good." Because of this dichotomy in judgement, humanity cannot dwell with God for it will persist in denying that which God has called "good," replacing it with its own sinful assessments.

I think this conception of "separation from God" gives us a helpful insight into the problem of death. Death is not "bad" because it is negative in and of itself. In proper relationship to God's will, death is part of the creative structure of the universe. However, when analyzed by the experience of sinful humanity, death is called "bad." This occurs for at least two reasons.

First, death is diametrically opposed to human autonomy. Sinful humanity's sole driving force is to assert itself against the will of God. Death, however, mitigates against this because it is something that sinful humanity cannot overcome; it remains a part of the power of God in creation and cannot be subverted by human designs.

Second, death exacerbates humanity's separation from God. In proper relationship to God, humanity need not fear death, for it can trust in the goodness of God to accomplish God's good and pleasing will in human life and death. However, to sinful humanity, separation from God is the terrifying self-annihilating confrontation with non-existence. As humanity's existence is based upon the power of God's life-giving Spirit, separation from God is a hopeless existence that can hope for nothing but disillusion.

Because of these reasons (and many others that will not be mentioned he

re), it is no
t difficult to see why death is assessed so negatively in human experience. Death becomes a negative reality for humanity precisely because sinfulness transmutes death into a reality-negating force. In human relationships, we are pained by death precisely because our separation from God as sinful humans precludes us from any hope for loved ones who have died. Separated from the presence of God, those who have no existence to us, and merely proclaim the fate that we seek to escape, but inevitably cannot.

So what does this have to do with PSA theory? Let me try to bring this around full circle. As noted earlier, the baseline assumption of PSA theory is that "The penalty of sin is death." If Christ, in his death, "pays" the penalty for humanity, it would follow that no penalty remains. This should mean that those for whom the "penalty" is paid should not die, for to die would be a consequence of the "penalty." Yet all humans–Christian and not–die. This is a problem.

However, a bigger problem is that "death" within the confines of PSA theory is seen as something from which humanity needs saving. As I showed above, it is very difficult to scientifically speak of death as something that is "alien" to the created order. Rather, it is an intrinsic part of creation, and is even utilized as a mechanism in creating life. Therefore, to assert that death is something from which we need "saving" is to undermine our very createdness. It is, in effect, to call the good creation of God "bad," and requires that God recant in the purpose and design of creation just so that God can rescue humanity.

Moreover, it distracts from the real problem that plagues humanity, a problem from which "rescue" from death will not save–separation from God. After all, if death is a natural part of existence for human creatures, it does not follow why it would be something from which humanity needs saving. To locate humanity's problem in the natural event of biological death is to completely miss sight of why death is perceived as a negative reality. We do not fear death because we fear biological death. Our entire lives are caught up in biological change–it is something in which we are caught up from the first moment of consciousness. Rather, we fear change and death because it reminds of our dilemma, of the myriad ways in which we are separated from the life-giving presence of God. It is ironic, indeed. Life is the one thing that we desire, and yet our very sinful existence wars against this desire by rejecting God. Though God would be reconciled, we desire the road of Adam and Eve, to define and arrange reality according to our own designs (calling "good" "bad"), thus perpetuating the rift, driving ourselves closer and closer to the precipice of non-existence.

As seen, the problem of separation is not just a matter of "life and death"–rather, it concerns the very crisis of being and non-existence. There is more to stake here than simply making it to heaven or hell.