In a recent post over at the American Jesus, Zack Hunt commented on a recent statement by Ken Ham which touched on the idea of atonement in Genesis 3. I’ll go into his argument in a little detail, but the argument is basically thus:
1) Ken Ham uses the word “cover” in relation to the atonement
2) To cover up usually means to hide or ignore something
3) Therefore, Ken Ham doesn’t believe that the atonement really deals with sin, it just hides or ignores it
Now, let me get a few things straight before I launch into this. I don’t like Ken Ham. I’m a Young Earth Creationist and I don’t like Ken Ham. I think that he forces a wooden and unhealthy fundamentalism into the text of Genesis, and reads it in a way that no one in the original audience would have. Beyond that, I’m not a huge fan of people who are not trained as Biblical Scholars or Theologians acting as though they are.
That being said, lets dive into the meat of Hunt’s critique.
As usual, Zack couches the theological point he’s trying to make in a narrative that adds nothing substantive to the discussion. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a stylistic and rhetorical thing, but it isn’t worth treating here. If you want to see it, click through to his blog.
Zack links to a clip of Ham making his typical argument that the Age of the Earth is a Gospel issue. You hear the audio in the YouTube video before.
In the course of the video, at about the mid way point, Ham says
This was the first blood sacrifice as a covering for their sin; a picture of what was to come in Jesus Christ.
Zack zooms in on the phrase “covering for their sin” and attacks.
The obvious problem here that Ken fails to see is that the creationist gospel he preaches is wholly dependent upon a weak God who can do nothing more than cover up sin. He can’t actually eradicate it. All God can do is pile bodies on top of sin and pretend like it never happened.
He then compares Ham to the protagonist of the Netflix Show House of Cards who commonly covers up crime in his bid for power. Zack continues:
According to Ken Ham, the message of the gospel is a bloody coverup. Without this bloody coverup, there is no good news and Jesus isn’t the King the gospel proclaims him to be.
Now, at first, Zack’s argument actually seems like it might make sense. Is the language of “covering sin” a way to say that God simply pretends that it didn’t happen? Zack might be surprised that the argument he is making against Ken Ham is fundamentally the same argument that Roman Catholics make against Protestantism. However, when we dig a little into what the Bible is actually saying, and what Ham is actually saying, Zack’s critique misses the mark on a few significant points.
Covering is the language that the Bible uses in relation to animal sacrifice
Zack has missed the fundamental point that is absolutely fatal to his argument. The word that gets translated as “Atone” or “Atonement” from Hebrew is fundamentally about covering something. The Hebrew word kaphar (Caf-Pey-Resh) is a verbal root that is used to describe when Noah covers the Ark in Pitch, to be covered in hair (like Esau), or to cover over ones sin. This is the language the Bible uses in Exodus 30:10 when it says “Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once a year.”
The biblical imagery in the Old Testament is that the blood of the lamb or goat, when sacrificed and applied to the people, literally allows God to overlook the sins of the people because they are covered by the blood. Just as in the Passover, he sees the blood and spares the Israelites.
Does Zack want to apply his argument regarding the language used by Ham to the authors of the Torah, Nehemiah, and Ezekiel? Is his contention that by using the language of covering sins that the Old Testament authors simply meant that God could only pile up dead bodies but not actually eradicate sin?
Covering is the language that has been used in Christian theology throughout Church History
I don’t have the time to get into all of the research, but the language of covering sin is classical Christian language. We find this in some of the most classic hymns and liturgy of the Church. It is prominent in modern worship choruses. The theology of the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation era thinkers made free use of this language. Has the use of this language really meant that these authors, composers, and thinkers really believed that Jesus simply engaged in a cover-up so our sin could be ignored?
Ken Ham is clearly using the language of Typology
Now, Ham probably doesn’t realize it. But Ham is actually making a pretty sophisticated theological point here. His statement that this covering was a picture of what was to come in Jesus is using the classic idea of typology. In typology, a shadow or imperfect image is used to hint at a future perfect reality.
In this instance, the physical covering with its limited protection for Adam and Eve’s body is an imperfect image of the future covering of Jesus with its perfect spiritual effect. Not only does Jesus’ blood cover us and allow the Father to look upon us as though we have no sin, but by the Spirit’s power through the process of sanctification we will be made whole and ultimately glorified.
That is what Zack misses. Ham isn’t saying that EXACTLY what happened when God killed an animal to cover Adam and Eve’s physical nakedness (a reality that points to the fact that we are bare before the eyes of the Lord, and with sin present we are vulnerable to his wrath) is what happens when Jesus covers us. What he is saying is that the action of the Lord in the Garden in providing a physical covering is an imperfect picture of the perfect reality of Jesus’ covering of our sins, which not only allows God to temporarily over look them (as the OT sacrifices did) but to permanently remove them from us.
The New Testament picks up this argument in its use of clothing language, as well as in Typology
I’ll keep this short, but this line of thinking is reflected in three prominent ways in the New Testament.
First, the New Testament equates Jesus with the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. While it doesn’t use the word Atonement, it does use the word Propitiation which is a sacrificial word. This equation of Jesus with the OT sacrificial system clearly links him to the OT language of Atonement, which as I pointed out before is directly related to the idea of covering.
Second, the language of being clothed in Christ or Christ’s righteousness picks up on this idea of being covered in Christ in such a way that as the Father looks upon us he sees his Son. This language is most prominent Romans 13:14 in which we are told to “put on Christ” or “clothe yourself in Christ.” Just as a shirt covers our nakedness, a bandage covers a scar, or a sheet covers us while we sleep, Christ covers us in our sin and protects us from the wrath of God.
Third, the book of Hebrews picks up the typology of the OT sacrifice as a covering which typologically points to Christ. While I don’t have time to go through the whole exegetical work, the whole argument of the book of Hebrews moves toward the fact that the Old Testament sacrificial system was a shadow, and Christ is the reality. So what the Old Testament sacrifices did in part and imperfectly, Christ does in full and perfectly.
Zack clearly misses these fundamental (and classical) elements in his rush to discredit Ham’s “creationist Gospel” without realizing that the element that he is critiquing isn’t unique in any way to Ham’s argument. The language Ham uses cuts a straight line starting in the Old Testament, through the New, into the historical language of the Church, up through the current day. One has to wonder what Zack’s Atonement theology actually is if it doesn’t have room for the language the Church has used since its typological reality in the nation of Israel.