An Apocalyptic Atonement

(Part 2 Introducing the Course on Sin and Salvation)

Once sin is defined as a deception with cosmic implications (e.g., as in cosmic bondage to oppressive structures of racism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.) an apocalyptic breaking in of truth and redemption is the only alternative. It is apocalypticism, in contrast to legal theory (which accommodates the structures of oppression), that takes full account of real-world evil and its defeat and gives full accord to Christ as the center of history. But what sort of Apocalyptic? Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to a Lutheran (contractual) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others), presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure (from the legalistic/historic) is key, there has been less work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. A focus on bondage to deception and liberation through Christocentric truth fills out this need.

Filling Out the Coherence and Positive Aspect of Apocalyptic Theology

In Paul’s depiction, deception explains the simultaneous possibility for cosmic (all creation is subject to futility) and personal alienation (they exchanged the truth for a lie) and enslavement. To claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction, but concrete descriptions of how we are captive to culture, to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, paints a picture of seemingly inescapable determinism. So too, it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world but then description of the enslaving force as elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix (constituting the Subject) is impenetrable and irredeemable. So, apocalypse takes seriously the problem resolved through an apocalyptic breaking in.

The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing (in Gal. 3:28 and 6:15), is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs. As Louis Martyn notes, “He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns.” The cosmos founded on opposed pairs (which for Paul was universal), no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ, in rightly recognizing the condition, have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ.

Of course, what is lost is not God’s good creation but a punishing order of understanding (the opposed pairs need oppression). The work of the cross breaks the captive power of the old age (in which death and law reigned), and in his life Jesus enacts the peaceful life (the disempowering cruciform identity) which, as Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. The resurrection type life (which Paul describes “as if not” in regard to cosmic law) suspends the violent necessity of the old dialectic age. The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things. This view from the bottom puts all things in a new perspective.

The Cross Exposing the Lynching Tree

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white.” The punishing law is still in place. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin and he is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him.

James Cone however, describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed, suffering and excluded. “Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.” 

 Law establishes itself through the power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built (e.g., the exclusion of blacks, or Jews, or strangers).  In confronting the law, Christ suffers the ultimate exclusion, and is not afforded the protection of Jewish or Roman law. Homo sacer (the one excluded from humanity) is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the rule and rulers of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to bare life (biological life, not fully human). Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.  The Subject dependent upon the law and dependent on the city of man requires homo sacer, the lynched, the crucified, the erased, as this violence secures his identity. In Paul’s depiction, the wall of hostility which constitutes the lawful Subject has been broken down by Christ.

The Violent Subject Exposed by the Cross

This is a psychological and anthropological insight (inclusive of epistemological insight), grasped by Søren Kierkegaard (if expressed in a slightly different idiom). Do we learn this truth (of Christ), Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death (the violence of the Subject) is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself (that the truth is in self-relation, a cosmic truth). His so-called “fideism” is the apocalyptic refusal to subject God’s Self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to constitute new Subjects.

Recreation From Nothing

The encounter with Christ is not simply an improvement on the present human situation. It is not simply the attainment of forgiveness or relief from guilt, nor is Christ’s death a vicarious payment for sin. In this contractual understanding, the law, the cosmos, or the old order, provides an entry point into the new creation. Paul is arguing that no one has any ground left to stand on. In fact, all of these explanations of Christ (in Galatians) could be framed as part of the false gospel being taught by the teachers Paul is opposing. They want to make of the Gospel a covenantal nomism, in which Christ has met the requirements of the law, so righteousness has been obtained on the basis of keeping covenant through the law. Paul’s Gospel opposes this partial gospel with the pronouncement that the malevolent grasp of the old-world order is finished. Christ has liberated from slavery through his cross. The lie is displaced by the truth, as “by the cross the cosmos has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the cosmos” (Gal. 2:19; 5:24; 6:14). Circumcision is nothing, Jewishness is nothing, Gentileness is nothing, gender is nothing, ethnicity is nothing, philosophy is nothing, as what is taking place is on the order of creation from nothing, but the nothing is exposed in light of the new creation: “For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; my translation).

Enroll in the course, Sin and Salvation: An in-depth study of sin and salvation with a focus on the meaning of the atonement (2022/1/31–2022/3/25).

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.