Alexander Campbell: A Prophet of Peace

This is a guest blog by David Rawls

In 1988 I was baptized in a little pond in Central Ohio.  Shortly after this event, I decided to go to a Bible College to be trained in the Bible so I could help young people who were struggling with life.  When I entered Bible College, I was introduced to a Christian movement that I had never heard of before.  It was called the “Restoration Movement.” This Movement was a result of 19th century reformers who saw how denominational churches in America had drifted away from God’s word and teaching.  The focus of the Movement was a return to the primitive New Testament church.  The Restoration Church had two major themes: biblical authority and the unity of all believers.  Men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Racoon John Smith and others led this Movement.  By 1860 Restoration Churches had nearly 200,000 members.  These reformers emphasized such things as believer’s baptism by immersion, regular communion, and local church autonomy.  It was the teachings of these reformers which began to shape my life.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years or so, I have come to the realization that Jesus taught a gospel that was focused on nonviolence or peace.  When we look to the gospels we see, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and not to do harm to them.  For Jesus, this was not simply words but this is how he lived his life, even to the point of death.  Nonviolence was how the church, in its first 300 years, interpreted Jesus’ teaching.  It was only after the church was influenced by Constantine that there was a shift in thought concerning peace and violence.  In the last 10 years, in my pursuit to understand the peaceful gospel, I have been digging into the early church fathers and the works of Anabaptists.  Yet, it is only recently that I was shocked to find out that the early Restoration Movement leaders also taught nonviolence.  They believed that nonviolence was part of the primitive gospel of the New Testament. I was shocked, because I had taken classes both in undergrad and graduate school on the history and thought of the Restoration Movement. I don’t remember any discussion of Restoration leaders focus on nonviolence as part of the gospel.  Yet, leaders like Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb had a rich theology of nonviolence.  In this blog I want to look at some of Alexander Campbells arguments for a peaceful gospel.  I will be using Campbells “Address on War” as well as the work from historian Craig M. Watts, which will show that Campbell had a well-developed theology of nonviolence.

When it came to war, Campbell believed that Christians could not participate in war, as to do so would mean killing other Christians in other nations.  He believed that no nation was Christian except the church.  The church was the “one nation composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth.”  For Campbell, this meant that Christians could not take up arms because they would be killing other Christians.  Campbell asked the question, “Can Christ’s Kingdom in one nation wage war against his kingdom or church in another nation?”  His answer was an emphatic, “No.”   War for the Christian was not an option.  His problem was not so much nation against nation as it was a theological problem of church against church.  Campbell had a high view of unity and the church could not have unity if Christians were killing other Christians. 

To understand Campbells gospel of peace, one must first understand his postmillennialism.  He believed that the best way to usher in God’s reign on Earth was for the church to recover the original gospel, which included the gospel of peace.  Craig Watts claims Campbell “had no intention of passively waiting for the millennium.” He believed that one had to enact, in the present, his understanding of the future millennium.  Campbell maintains that for man, “the principles of his government” are “to give them a taste of, and a taste for, heavenly things.” This meant that the Christian could not participate in war and violence because the millennium would be a time when the earthly powers would, according to Isaiah, “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.” This view had an evangelistic appeal to it as well, because people could get a picture of what the future would look like as they observed the church in the present.  This probably explains why Campbell thought unity was so essential. If the church could not be united, why would anyone want to be a part of it in some future state. If the church killed people now, why would people desire to be a part of a future death and dying. 

Much of evangelical Christianity is a hodge-podge of thought which tries to tie together a belief in God which separates itself from the ethics of Jesus.  Campbell, however, believed that faith and works go together.  He believed that the ethics of Jesus are not simply to be admired but are to be practiced.  Jesus pacifist ways were to be lived out by the church.  Campbell believed that Jesus was at war but his war was not waged like the wars of the World.  The World uses swords to subdue its enemy.  The World uses violence to beat people into submission.  Campbell, though, rejected this coercive method.  He said, “To conqueror an enemy is to convert him into a friend.”  As he explained, “All arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” This is a courageous contrast to the view of Luther and Calvin, who believed violence was a tool of God.  Campbell would have none of this, believing that if one cannot support war by appeal to the life of Jesus, then the Christian has no business in being a part of or supporting any type of violence or warfare.  Christian ethics mattered to Alexander Campbell.

Campbell was a deep and systematic thinker.  If Christians could not go to war with Christians of other countries, if Christians were to live in such a way as to promote a heavenly new millennium which was free of violence, and if the ethics of Jesus did not promote violence, then the conclusion for Campbell was that Christians had no business in fighting at all.  Campbell sums this up in the idea that, “A Christian man can never of right be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, that which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights.”  He goes on to say, “No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself.”  In other words, if a Christian cannot go to war for himself, he also is forbidden to go to war for his country.  Many Christians have conceded that we are not commanded to go to war as individuals but have made the argument that we could go to war for our country for a good cause.  Campbell rejects this dualistic approach. If one cannot kill for a personal cause, then one cannot kill for the state, no matter how noble the cause.  For Campbell, this is a matter of witness for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The church must refrain from any violence.

When Jesus was being arrested in the garden, and Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those seeking to arrest Jesus, he told Peter to put away his sword. Jesus famous line, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” was the very line upon which the early church based its commitment to nonviolence.  Campbell also saw this as an important ground for his non-violence.  He would ask, “Have not all nations created by the sword finally fallen by it?”  Although Campbell would not necessarily appeal to the inherent pragmatism of nonviolence, it is a practical witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Campbell’s observation was that in the moment nonviolence will not necessarily work but over the long haul of history violence has arrived at the same point: failure. Violence has never proven effective.  It certainly has momentary victories but all nations have failed or will fail at some point.  Jesus teaches us, according to Campbell, that ultimately victory will come by laying down the sword.  It will be the slain lamb that will win the day.  This is critical to understanding Campbell.

This is a brief overview of some of Campbell’s views on nonviolence and the way of peace.  Hopefully, the reader recognizes that within the 19th century Restoration Movement, the belief that restoring the ancient church of the New Testament required commitment to nonviolence.  For those, like myself, who presumed examples of peace must be sought outside of the Restoration Movement, the good news is that we no longer need look beyond our Movement.  Certainly, we can learn a lot from other tribes of Christians but we can also know that these reformers took the gospel of peace seriously.  It is now up to the spiritual descendants of Campbell to once again raise the banner of peace.  Nonviolence is not simply a secondary issue for the church but is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus.  It is time to make the Restoration Movement great again by lifting high the name of Jesus.  We do this by living out the peaceful ways of Jesus. 

“Vote for Tiberius?” Asked Jesus. “Never!”

This is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

“We use violence to get peace and wonder why it isn’t working. That’s like sleeping with a football team to try and be a virgin.”

– Tom MacDonald

Karla and I used to have a neighbor who was a drug dealer – Güero. Everybody around here knew this, although nobody talked about it, especially around him. One night, a few days after New Year’s, Karla and I were buying some tacos at a taco stand on the corner of the street we live on.

Right next to us was Güero buying tacos as well. Everybody felt nervous around him . . . but one learns how to try to ignore this and “act normal” around people like him. Suddenly his phone dinged. It was a text message. We do not know what it said, but we think we do because of what happened next. He got nervous. Yes, as nervous as we were around him. Who was he afraid of?

As fast as he could, he paid for his tacos in advance saying he would come back for them in a few minutes. He walked behind Karla, then behind me, then he turned around the corner. At the same time Karla started adding cilantro to her tacos and salsa to mine I heard gunshots. I looked to the left and there was a Jeep parked right next to me with two guys shooting Güero from the windows. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Güero was dead before he hit the ground.

Although this was a scary situation, it was also a relief for our neighborhood, the bad guy was dead. We could all feel better, safe . . . . until some people moved into Güero’s house.

It was a couple of years later, during the pandemic (July or August of 2020 I believe), that Karla and I woke up, went to the kitchen to make some breakfast, and saw that our house was surrounded by the military.

I opened the door and asked one of them, “Can I help you?”

He said, “Do you know your neighbors from that house?” and pointed toward Güero’s house.

“No.”

“Then you cannot help us.”

A few days later, we heard from other neighbors that somebody snitched on those who lived in Güero’s house, and the police found drugs, guns, and several mutilated bodies. It has been almost an entire year since then and we still have cops basically living on top of our roof to keep watching Güero’s house (they actually made a little grill on our roof and have several chairs).

Day and night, Güero’s house is surrounded by cops. And, because of that, mine too. All this to say, we know the violence of our world. We have experienced it firsthand. And although this worries us, of course, this type of violence is expected from those who do not know God. You know what is troublesome? Violence also happens from those who claim to know God.

When I was a student at CCCB I was a supply preacher. One Sunday I was sent to a small church to deliver a sermon. I got there 30 min. before the church service started, but there was no parking lot. I parked at the end of the road, right next to the church. I opened my Bible and went over my notes repeatedly (I used to get more nervous preaching in English than Spanish). Suddenly I heard a metal knocking on my window. As I looked through my window, I saw the barrel of a shotgun looking back at me. I raised my hands, and the angry guy holding his gun asked me to roll my window down, slowly. I did. He asked me what I was doing parking on his lawn. I explained why I was there and asked him to allow me to park somewhere else, my intention was not to disturb him, and to stay alive, of course. Thank God, he let me go.

A few minutes later, people started walking into the church’s building, I could not get out of my car and into the church fast enough. As I walked in and started greeting my Christian siblings, I started feeling peace again. I was able to breathe a little bit better. They probably could not tell, because of my skin color, but I am sure I was pale. Unfortunately, as soon as my heart calmed down, I saw the angry man walking into the church’s building with two kids, my heart stopped.

He was a church member. Not only was he a church member, but he was also one of the church’s leaders.

You might think that this is one isolated situation. Unfortunately, this is one of several times in which I feared for my life in a church. See the incongruency?

A. W. Tozer once said that “Christianity is so entangled with the world that millions never guess how radically they have missed the New Testament pattern. Compromise is everywhere.” For example, there is a tendency within churches in the Restoration Movement to ignore Church history. It is assumed that from Constantine until the rise of the Stone-Campbell Movement the Church compromised with the world. The Church rejected the Lamb to marry the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, they fail to see that they have made the same compromise.

Many Christians fight over the “right” side of political disputes, or which amendments or rights need protecting. As Greg Boyd asks, “Where in the New Testament are we taught to rally around anyone other than King Jesus? Where do we find any hint of a suggestion in the New Testament that part of our job as followers of Jesus is to weigh in on the political disputes of the country we happen to live in? We certainly don’t find such a hint in the ministry of Jesus, whose example we’re repeatedly commanded to follow.”[1] When Jesus was tempted by Satan, one of the temptations had to do with political power. As Christians we are to aspire to overcoming, as Jesus did, the archetypical wilderness temptation of gaining political power.

Consider that nationalism teaches us to hate other people, even people that we have not met, and then it teaches us to feel pride in our hatred. At a Christian camp in the USA, we gathered to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and then to the “Christian” flag (which was a little below the Stars and Stripes). I did not pledge allegiance to the American flag for obvious Mexican reasons, and I did not pledge allegiance to the “Christian” flag because that was totally new to me. What was shocking was that some people were offended by my actions, or might I say inactions. But what was even more shocking was that they were offended, not by my not pledging allegiance to the “Christian” flag, but by my failure to swear allegiance to the American flag.

Tony Campolo repeats a story Philip Yancey told him concerning a friend during WWII. This friend was part of a special unit during the Battle of the Bulge that was sent out every morning to kill wounded German soldiers left on the battlefield the night before. One morning he came across a German soldier who was not wounded, he was only tired. His friend raised his gun at the German, and the German asked him to give him a moment to pray. Yancey’s friend lowered his gun and asked the German if he was a Christian, to which he replied “Yes.” “I am a Christian too,” responded Yancey’s friend.

They sat together under a tree. They prayed together. One of them had a Bible and they both shared Bible verses with each other. They showed each other their family pictures and prayed for each other’s families. After all this, Yancey’s friend stood up, looked at the German brother in Christ and said, “I guess I will see you again in Heaven one day,” and shot the man in the head.[2]

The devotion to a nation justifies acts of violence, even against Christian siblings: something Jesus would never condone. This justification comes in all shapes and sizes: crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc. The Church has been guilty of all of these horrors. This is not simply the problem of a portion of the church, as many Christian groups have fallen into Satan’s temptation of political power.

Gandhi said, “I don’t reject your Christ, I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The early disciples understood Jesus was the head of the Church, but over time “the institutional church seems to have been severed from its head, and as a result became one of the most violent religions in history.”[3] While many might point to this violence as grounds for rejecting Christianity, the violent history of the Church contradicts Jesus’ teaching. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The way of Jesus has not been tried and found unfruitful. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” In other words, the problem is not in what Jesus taught, the problem is many Christians are not doing what He said.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” is without ambiguity – it cannot involve violence. It is impossible to murder the enemy you are supposed to love without disobeying Jesus or betraying his Kingdom. No war is a just war, it is just war.[4] To engage in violence means to reject the eschatological hope of the peaceable Kingdom – the New Creation in Christ.

It saddens me that many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem unaware of the basic teaching of Jesus. They stand by, like the unrepentant Paul at the stoning of Stephen, approving of various forms of violence.  Not only that, they join in the killing by joining the military. This is no surprise, as they are heeding a violent gospel preached with a national flag as backdrop. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in war so that peace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not! Jesus Himself taught us differently when He said, “Put your gun back into its place; for all those who take up a gun shall perish by the gun.” (Matt. 26:52).[5] Can you imagine what the Church and its history would look like if those who claim to follow Christ actually lived like Him?

The story that sums up Jesus’ political dealings occurs when Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders and they asked Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This is not only a political but a religious question, since Caesar considered himself a god. In other words, they are asking, “Should we pledge allegiance to the Roman god or not?” If Jesus said “Yes,” He would be a traitor to the Jews and God, and if He said “No,” He would get in trouble with Rome.

Jesus asked them for a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” He asked them. “Caesar,” they replied. Tiberius image, the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ crucifixion, was on the coin along with the inscription, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” (Perhaps they are in danger of falling into idolatry, since they are carrying Caesar’s image in their pockets.) “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Jesus said. Another way of saying this is “Give to Caesar what is made in the image of Caesar. Give to God what is made in God’s image.”

Many Christians live in the hypocrisy Jesus is exposing. To ask questions about how much violence we can use, which wars are justifiable, how much nationalism contradicts Christian belief, is to edge toward idolatry. It is as if the Jews were asking Jesus, “How much of this idolatrous metal can we carry around without breaking the Law?” As Greg Boyd says, “Since it all bears Caesar’s image, give it all back to him! The only important question we ought to be wrestling with is whether or not we are giving back to God all that bears his image—namely, our whole self.”[6]

Jesus did not compromise. He did not say, “Let’s vote for Tiberius and hope for the best. Let’s Make Israel Great Again.” Like the prophets of old (who were killed for their words), Jesus exposed idolatry without compromise. His life was a witness to God’s Kingdom and in direct opposition to worldly kingdoms – an opposition for which he was killed. As Christians, participating in the world’s violent ways, in any shape or form, is to conform to the world which killed him. It is to exchange our vocation as God’s image-bearers for the world’s image. It is to give to Caesar what is God’s.


[1] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 13). Quoir. Kindle Edition.

[2] Tony Campolo – WWII Story: Christians vs. Christians? – YouTube

[3] Bruxy Cavey, The end of religion: encountering the subversive spirituality of Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020).

[4] Roland H. Bainton; Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. p. 222

[5] I am aware Paul and Jesus did not use these exact words, I am updating them to drive the point home. Nobody goes to war with swords anymore.

[6] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 14). Quoir. Kindle Edition

Sorting Out Atonement Theories

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.

Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.

Contractual Theories

 In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:

  1. Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
  2. Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
  3. The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
  4. It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
  5. Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
  6. God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.

The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history),[1] and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.

The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?

 According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?

The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:

The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.

The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.

The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent?  Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?

In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:

Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm;[2] 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.

Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.

Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God.[3] Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.

In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.

Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.

In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”[4]

What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[5] In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.

The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.

Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding[6] and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.

In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.

N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).

Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.


[1] The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.

[2] Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.

Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.

“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”

[3] A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.

Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”

Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.

[4] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.

[5] Ibid, 208.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.

Theo-ecology: Western Wildfire’s Prophetic Cry

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Smoke choke. Two words I never heard before. Two words I now know intimately, like a dial on the stove top turning up the heat.  “Smoke choke” seared in me a desire for theological action regarding creation care and climate change. 

The mega-wildfires of the West had sent their foreboding herald. In the sleepiest moments of night an ominous smoke crept over the entire West Coast and into communities of the Olympic Peninsula. Our town is situated near the northwestern-most point of the contiguous United States. We were caught unaware. 

Smoke Choke, September, 11, 2020:

Setting the fan on low I welcome the cool air from nearby Salish sea. My kids will sleep well tonight. 

The morning light peeps through our window’s edge. A burning courses down the length of my throat. Stinging tears perch on the creases of my eye lids.  There is a strange haze highlighted by a 7 A.M. burnt orange sun. Our home smells slightly of some odd aroma. It smells of sharp and sweet burnt plastic. My lungs constrict. Fumbling for my inhaler, I puff the stuff of pulmonary salvation. 

Seattle’s news update explains our air quality is now hazardous. Mega fires with their own weather system send their message: Hazardous. What does it mean? It means the air my daughter and son breathe is poison. Each breath could deliver poisonous microscopic particles deep into their lungs.

September 12, 2020

Seattle’s Komo news demonstrates making homemade filters out of box fans. One HEPA filter and copious amounts of duct tape forms the makeshift adaptation. It is too little, too late for our drafty home. Words of complaint fall from my lips, “My throat is still on fire.” The asthma attack tightens its vice. “Do you think the hotel will have clean air?” Andrea asks.

Driving away, the car mirror reflects a hazy image of the neighborhood. The radio blares the height of a smoke plume on top of Western Washington–6,0000 feet. A meteorologist explains, “It’s called an inversion– meaning the clean air is trapped above 6,000 ft of smoke.” 

At the hotel Sophia and Ty spill their toys over patterned carpet. There are no advertisements regarding Quality Inn’s air quality. A few breaths in and it’s clear; we escaped the poison air.

“Hazardous,” is the message of mega-fires from the chaparral mountains in California. “Poison” is the message from the evergreen mountains of Oregon. Beyond the flames, what does the message communicate?

It communicates the prophetic witness of fire. In ecology, or the study of Eden, fire is a renewing agent. It burns through the old and worn out stands of forest–a function often thwarted by mankind’s forest management. Pioneer species and other plants dominate recently burned areas. These pioneer plants–sometimes forming wildflower meadows–renew the soil. 

As time passes, newly conditioned soil begins transitioning to larger, more nutritious plants. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when commenting, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49

Let’s lean into the interpretation of Jesus wanting fire for dramatic renewal. Consider the ecological function of forest fires coupled with the mind-boggling size of West Coast wildfires. What are the forests pleading? What is the earth asking? What is creation groaning?

The earth is asking for renewal. The forests are asking for a restart. Perhaps creation …

waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

-Romans 8:19-22

The initial devastating destruction of wildfires mirror society at large. Society is dependent upon a death-dealing transaction of negligent thinking translated into a fiery blaze of irresponsible human industry. For example, technology’s codependence on manufacturing promotes exploitive resource extraction which harms the earth and props up unsustainable carbon industry. 

It is a global societal pattern akin to the early and chaotic stages of a spreading fire. 

Wildfires also tell us that gluttonous earth consumption is hazardous and ignoring the earth is poisonous. Within the literal smoke the fate of creation and humanity become united.  The smoke is burnt particles of industry: cars, gasoline, non-renewable materials and pollutants. The smoke is also burnt homes, animals, plants and human life. Prophetic fire warns us and smoke compels us to change. 

Fire is a startling teacher and yet it heralds good news too. After the flames arrest our attention we can choose to start anew. We can choose a new relationship with creation by working with the ways of the earth (ecology), not against it. We can renew our relationship with God as cultivators instead of consumers. We can forge new relationships with each other as fellow cultivators, not destructive competitors. Yes, it’s hard work. But don’t worry; we have help.

“One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Luke 3:16

Do-ology Challenge: Get some dirt in the game! Replace smart phone time with planting real trees via a conservation app.  https://www.forestapp.cc/

Lessons from Canada’s Poet: How Cohen’s Beauty Outlasts Fear

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims. 

Canadians are in an uproar. Much to their dismay, Trump used their beloved Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, twice over.  Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter and poet who died in 2016. I happen to be a huge fan of both his poetry and songwriting. He is a subversive figure who champions beauty. Trump is a divisive figure who champions fear. Cohen is an eloquent poet, Trump a brutish tweeter.

On Thursday evening of August 28th Trump’s campaign appropriated the lifegiving music of Cohen for the purposes of fear. The RNC used Cohen’s music to woo an audience and soften Trump’s rough image. The contradictory pairing of the venerated poet and Donald Trump calls for an examination of Cohen’s work. President Trump, his supporters and all of us would do well to learn from Canada’s muse.

The majority of Cohen’s songwriting is not explicitly subversive.[1] His honest beholding of beauty and pure expression of art, is itself, subversive to the powers.  He gently holds the beauty of humanity and of the created world while simultaneously witnessing the complexity of love’s suffering.

 Unlike the fast-paced consumption of modern media and politics, Cohen encourages somber yet pleasurable reflection. In the act of beholding beauty through poetry, our often-violent impulses for legal rights, guns, security and wealth dissolve. Marveling at beauty soothes us toward our more vulnerable selves. If society could simply be in awe of beauty, vulnerability might lead to compassion.

Imagery of Cohen’s “The Window” demonstrates the beautiful and vulnerable condition of humanity.

Now why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side?

And leave no word of discomfort
Or leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host, gentle this soul

The tension of beauty and pride, chosen love and frozen love, broken hearted and gentle soul evoke an exquisite tenderness for human suffering and love. Cohen is of Jewish descent and in several early writings he incorporated imagery of the suffering Jesus Christ. The first stanza brings to mind not only the spear in Christ’s side but also the spear in the side of the listener. For the spear “of the age” and the “powers that be” harm all of us in one way or another. 2020 is a stark reminder of how powerful entities harm people – black civilians, immigrant families, the poor. Cohen’s art touches the listener through beauty and inspires one to empathize with the wound in the side rather than extort it.

Works such as “The Window” cultivate empathy and reflection. Such practices are deeply needed in American culture. Cohen’s poetry stills the human heart and fixes our attention on beauty. His work calms fear and beckons our hearts toward peace. Like a mother gently rocking a baby to sleep, Cohen’s music woos listeners into a vulnerable surrender of beauty. The listener relaxes in a willing embrace. In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric to his base is like a parent exposing their child to a horror flick before bed time. Consequently, the child embraces the parent in white-knuckled fear.

One could say, “submission to beauty” is the power or spirit of Leonard Cohen. Evident in his poetry, written in “The Flame,” he submitted to beauty with raw vulnerability. This poetic spirit calls the listener, voluntarily, to bended knee before the sacred.[2] Conversely, Trump rhetoric orders people, often the marginalized, to bended knee via the smoke grenades of “law and order.”

During the convention Donald Trump and his political team, consciously or not, sought to harness and manipulate the spirit of Cohen – the power of submission to beauty – by using the song Hallelujah. Trump’s campaign emptied the meaning of Hallelujah by using it as a signifier or symbol for a faulty unity based on fear.[3]

The RNC used one of the most revered artistic songs of modern times, Hallelujah, and emptied it of its meaning by pulling on the spiritual strings of the conservative base. Consequently, a hollow Hallelujah becomes an empty signifier used for manipulation. The original song cues and signifies feelings of love. Unfortunately, the masses of the RNC mistakenly associate Hallelujah’s positive feelings with Trump’s spirit of fear.

The unparalleled beauty of Cohen’s melody disarms the hearts of listening Republicans and calls to the audience’s inner desire for beauty. Potentially, they opened their hearts with vulnerability and received not the healing of the artist, Leonard Cohen, but the poisonous lies of a con man, Donald Trump.

Cohen’s song Hallelujah typically ends with listeners awed into a profound solidarity and reflective silence. Cohen teaches we are all lonely and we all love. We are not alone in the exquisite pain and joys of love. Trump’s performance ends with raucous applause widening the chasm of division. Teaching not solidarity in existence but wealth in division.

Unfortunately, for fear filled power structures a paradox remains. Trump’s appropriation of the music, in effect, propagates Cohen’s message of beauty. Playing the song deposits its truth in the subconscious of listeners. Cohen’s expression of pervasive beauty is subversive to power structures by simply being in existence and Trump’s use of Hallelujah perpetuates Cohen’s
healing work.

His poetry is detached completely from consumerism, patriotism and other forms of power. To be in awe of Cohen’s art is to temporarily experience freedom from struggle while beholding beauty. Unwittingly, Trump’s campaign further propagated the humble yet eternal truth of Hallelujah. Unbeknownst to them, as Hallelujah wafted in sound waves to the ears of thousands of people, it carried sacred beauty and it’s unifying elements. However long it takes, no matter the loss, the disappointment, the suffering, beauty and love will out last.

The oppressed, the suffering and wide eyed cross bearers can find solace and enduring beauty in Hallelujah’s final lines:

I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah [Praise Yaweh]



[1] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018 Although his song Democracy is an explicit example of subversion: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cohens+song+onamerica&docid=607993096676966909&mid=4E E0A854F88A4B8CF3A74EE0A854F88A4B8CF3A7&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

[2] Paul Axton explains the coercive use of signifiers in his blog:Forsaking Chritian Ideology.
https://forgingploughshares.org/2020/08/27/forsaking-christian-ideology/

[3] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018

Renouncing the Way of Violence

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Bible portrays God as intervening in human evil and putting sacrifice and violence to an end, through Christ (as Daniel 9:27 prophesied) and it is this continuing nonviolent intervention into violence to which the followers of Jesus are called. In other words, Jesus’ death is not a violent sacrifice for God, nor is it a sacrifice bringing to a climax the plan required by God to forgive mankind.

What God requires is self-denial, since “the sacrifice of the heart is the atonement for which alone he cares.”[1] To think God required or needed a sacrificial death is to succumb to the lie that God requires violence and, therefore, to cover up the evil that the Gospel tries to annul. A Christianity which needs sacrifice would fall under the critique of Regina Schwartz and others, which would suggest monotheistic religion is inherently violent, an abomination in its promotion of violence and exclusion. In reality, authentic Christianity is a critique of violence and is the singular means of ending it.  

Violent atonement theories, such as penal substitution, have prolonged violence in the world, reducing large portions of Western Christianity to a reaffirmation or means of violence – a vehicle for Satan’s lie which requires bloodshed. The force at work undermining an authentic Christianity is the error of Israel, the darkness of the nations, the delusion of the world, that is characterized by violence. A violent Christianity has succumbed to or even embraced the world’s darkness, while the authentic Christian life is an intervention into this system.  

In a biblical-historical recapitulation, when humanity becomes its own god (Genesis 3; cf. Romans 1:21-23), it begins to depend on itself for its survival, because without God, humanity stops living and begins to survive. Violence becomes the means of survival. As Darwin would describe it, survival is only for the fittest (or strongest), but in order to survive, it must destroy its surroundings, that is, creation itself (including the neighbor). The problem is, that by wiping out the resources that surround it, survival entails self-destruction.

Revelation presents the alternative; a peaceful alternative, an alternative in which the harmony that was in the original design is restored. In this alternative, the human being must retake his place as a gardener. Only by loving God, loving the neighbor, and caring for the Garden, can humanity not only survive, but truly live, truly be a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).

Likewise, the violence of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:18-28), Saul (1 Samuel 18:7-11, etc.); Judah (Ezekiel 8:17), the one imposed on the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-22), and that of the rest of humanity, is reversed through Christ and His followers by loving the brother (Matthew 22:39) instead of murdering him as Cain did, by forgiving 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:22) instead of taking revenge 70 times 7 like Lamech, by reconciling with the brother even if he provokes one to anger (Matthew 5:23-24). By submitting to the King of kings the follower of Christ reverses evil (Ephesians 5:24a; Revelations 19:16) instead of perpetuating it as Joseph’s brothers did. Instead of wanting a position of power as Saul did, instead of committing violence as Judah did and humanity does, the follower of Jesus seeks peace with all (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

This is the path of peace that God had been presenting gradually from the beginnings of the Old Testament, but that had its fulfillment in Christ and in His Church. Pacifism is the quality that makes Christians unique in this world full of violence. Being a pacifist like Jesus, is not only to imitate Him, but it is the true sacrifice that God requires. Sacrificing the violence that dwells in the human heart and replacing it with the peace of Christ is the way to eternal life.

Pacifism is controversial since, as mentioned above, a large part of Western Christianity has adopted violence as part of its interpretation of atonement. In other words, under this wrong perspective, God requires violence to end violence. But violence only gives birth to more violence; it does not eliminate it. Rather, violence as the means of combating violence, is the degenerate perspective by which humanity is governed, and it is the one that God seeks to eliminate in a redeemed cosmic order.

This is why the Sermon on the Mount is controversial, Jesus not only wanted humanity to love those who are easy to love, but also the enemy. And how many wars has humanity started in the name of God? Many, but Jesus taught, it is impossible for a person to genuinely love another and at the same time seek to murder him. “Just war” does not make “Christians” of those who subscribe to this theory, it makes zealots – people willing to attack the enemy for a “good reason.”

Jesus precisely rejected the zealot option because it was not radical enough. Attacking the enemy does not require much, it is easy to get angry and seek to do evil to the other. What is radical and extremely difficult is to forgive the enemy; and not only that, but love him too. In his omnipotence, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified by His enemies, and hanging on the cross forgave them (Luke 23:43). The call is for the Christian to do so as well! For Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Jesus’s death on the cross instructs us to self-sacrificially absorb violence instead of forcefully resisting it, or worse, inflicting it. It tells us to suffer violence, to allow it to do its worst to us, rather than to use it ourselves.”[2]

As Mathew C. Fleischer describes it, Christian pacifism is not passive or inactive, but just the opposite, it is active non-violent peacemaking. While violence hurts, destroys and tears down, Christian love serves, restores, and edifies.

There is no verse in which Jesus commands violent action, not even for a righteous cause. “What is a more righteous reason than defending the Master?!” Peter thought as he cut off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10). And Jesus’ answer was “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Not only were Jesus’ commandments non-violent, they were anti-violence, as the example of His arrest demonstrates. Jesus fought valiantly, not violently. He subjected Himself to the worst form of violence, and triumphed over the violence that killed him in his resurrection.  This is the King who offers eternal life; a life where there is no more death, because there is no more violence. While human governments reign by force, Christ reigns by peace. His Kingdom is not forced on mankind, for this would make Him violent. Jesus does not force His entrance into the human heart, He knocks on the door, He does not knock it down (Revelation 3:20), because violence has no place in His Kingdom.

The Christian who denies this pacifism and adopts violence as a resource, not only denies the teachings of Christ, but denies Christ Himself. “Jesus did not renounce the way of violence for the way of peace so that we could renounce the way of peace for the way of violence.”[3]

Man is made perfect in his faith when he lets his violence, his desires, his aspirations of power, his sinful thoughts, his failures, his negligence, his grudges, etc., die. Loving the enemy requires a true sacrifice from the Christian. It is to go against what he feels in his guts, it is to go against his strongest instincts. But it is the way to a full life. It is extremely easy to kill the enemy, but very difficult to forgive him. However, that is the living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. Instead of the Christian adapting himself to this world and its violence, he must allow himself to be transformed by God by the renewing of his mind, so that he may verify what the will of God is: what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).[4]


[1] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II. (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.

[2] Matthew Curtis Fleischer. Jesus the Pacifist: A Concise Guide to His Radical Nonviolence (Kindle Locations 1061-1063). Epic Octavius The Triumphant, LLC.

[3] Brian Zahnd, A farewell to mars: an evangelical pastor’s journey toward the biblical gospel of peace (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014).

[4] The above is an excerpt of the last chapter of the book I’m writing: The Sacrifice God Requires.

The Death of Death

The following is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

Although its origins are subject to debate, ancient Aztec religious practices might serve as a background to explaining the cult of Santa Muerte (Spanish for “Our Lady of Holy Death”), a cult of the dead illustrative of and typifying how death has a hold on us all. The lord and lady of Mictlán (region of the dead), Mictlantecuhtli y Mictecacíhuatl were the gods of death, reigning over those who died of natural causes. When someone died, they had to present themselves to these gods, but in order to do that they had to go through nine obstacles or infernos. Some of these obstacles included two hills crashing against each other continuously, a place with a lot of snow, arrows, wild beasts, water, etc. Luckily, a hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintle – pictured above) was sacrificed during the funeral rites and buried with the deceased to help the person through these obstacles.

Fast-forward to 1795, a group of indigenes worshiped a skeleton whom they called Death in a town located in what is now central Mexico. Testimony indicates that this cult remained hidden for at least two centuries. But this popular myth, which was transmitted word of mouth, came out into the open in the 1960’s when a man in Catemaco, Veracruz saw an image of Death painted on the boards of his hut. The man ran to ask the local priest to verify and canonize this image, but the priest refused to do so and called it a Satanic ritual.

After President Carlos Salinas de Gortari undertook reforms to the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship in order to improve relations between the state and different religions, greater freedoms were granted that allowed many religions to rise. In the year 2000 the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA (ISCAT)[1] solicited a formal registration for their Death worship, and although it was granted in 2003, it was revoked in 2005.  But it was through this that the Santa Muerte religion became more popular in Mexico and in some places in the USA.

Santa Muerte has become a representative idol of death within Mexican and Mexican-American culture. It is a personification of death, usually associated with healing, protection, and a guardian of the afterlife (some even call her a “mother”). And although many of the leaders of the Catholic Church have condemned her worship, she is adored by many Roman Catholic congregants, and it is spreading into other Christian denominations. But the worship of death is nothing new, as explained before. Probably, every culture has had some sort of worship or veneration of death. It just takes a quick search of Wikipedia to find a long list of ancient death deities.

What might sound incongruent is her worship within the Christian community. But is it really that strange? Afterall, there is a huge emphasis on death within Churches holding to a contractual theory of atonement. Even the Israelites pursued a relationship with death. Although forbidden by God, many Israelites looked for help from violent gods instead of the God of peace; death gods, instead of the God of life.

Necromancy was banned in the Old Testament, punishable by death itself to necromancers (Leviticus 19:31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11), but that did not eradicate the practice in Israel completely. King Saul is a good example of this, in 1 Samuel 28 he searches for a medium in Endor in order to talk to the prophet Samuel.[2] The Israelites seem to have adopted this practice from neighboring countries along with other idolatrous inclinations. They were quick to exchange God for any lifeless idol, such as the golden calf during the Wandering (Exodus 32).

Isaiah 28:15 characterizes the practice as entry into a “covenant with death”:

“Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, For we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception (emphasis added).’”

This covenant with death has been interpreted in at least two ways:

  1. A possible allusion to necromancy and idol worship (Isaiah 8:19).
  2. An alliance with Egypt that supposedly would protect them from Assyria (Isaiah 20:6).

For the purpose of this blog, it does not matter which interpretation is favored. This does not mean that it is not important, it means that whether someone agrees with interpretations 1 or 2, the fact is that Israel was searching for help from anything and anyone other than God Himself. As Isaiah 8:19 says, “…should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”

The problem was, they did prefer to consult the dead instead of God.

This covenant with death has a deeper meaning than the two interpretations mentioned above, which goes back to my initial point: humanity has made a covenant with death. When? During the Fall and thereafter. In the attempt to avoid death (death-resistance), humanity has made a pact with Sheol. And as the verse makes clear, this death-resistance amounts to a pact between humans and deception (constituting the original lie or the very ground of deception). The human predicament in Genesis 3 (entry into the lie in order to avoid death) is then repeated by all humans in all cultures. The fear of death creates a respect for death which results in deifying death itself, therefore, they keep this covenant going.

But there is hope. Isaiah 28:18 says: “Your covenant with death will be canceled. And your pact with Sheol will not stand.”

Although, in its original context, this verse held out no hope for the Jews. Death was going to visit them soon if they kept this covenant active. The false idea that death can protect you from death needed to end, and that is the hope found in Christ. Only through Christ’s resurrection could this covenant with death be annulled.

The ultimate evil, death, could not defeat Jesus. John describes this battle between death and God in terms in which death is easily overpowered: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it (1:5).”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed out of death into life (5:24).”

There is an obvious contrast between the covenant with death and the covenant with God; the first one brings death, the second one brings life; the first one is based on deception, the second is based on truth.

Paul also contrasts the two covenants in Romans 3 and Romans 10:

 Romans 3 Romans 10
10There is none righteous.10Resulting in righteousness.
11There is none who understands.10With the heart a person believes.
11There is none who seeks for God.20I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.
12All have turned aside.13Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
13Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.8The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.8 10The word is…in your mouth. With the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
15Their feet are swift to shed blood.15How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!

Scripture teaches that death does not win over life. As in Genesis 1, darkness, the nothingness, is a canvas upon which God creates His best work. God did not become human to make bad people morally good, he became a human to make dead people alive.

Death, like Santa Muerte, is personified in the book of Revelation. And in this book, the death of death is described when John writes: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire (20:14).”

Whoever makes a covenant with death should expect death. But whoever makes a covenant with the God of life will enjoy life. The resurrection is Santa Muerte’s death, it is the death of death itself. Jesus has defeated death through life; trust Him who overcame the final enemy!


[1] The Roman Catholic Church still does not consider Death a Saint or even agree with the description “Holy.” While Roman Catholics worship Jesus and Guadalupe in México, the ISCAT worships Jesus and Santa Muerte.

[2] Whether Samuel showed up or not is a matter of debate. But there are many reasons to remain skeptical about Samuel actually showing up:

  1. Mediums are deceitful.
  2. Saul asked for Samuel, a man who was famous during those days, specially after his recent death. Because of his death, Saul removed all the mediums and spiritists, this would include this woman.
  3. Verse 12 says the woman saw Samuel (which could be part of the deceit), but no verse says Saul saw him. Many assume Saul saw him because he starts to speak to him, but it is not specified in the text. When mediums bring up the spirit, people “speak to the spirit” through the medium as if the medium is being possessed by the spirit, therefore, they “speak to the spirit.”
  4. For those who believe that heaven is the final resting place right after death, Samuel is coming up, not coming down. Did Samuel not make it to heaven?
  5. Samuel says “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” A prophecy that was not fulfilled as such. Was Samuel a false prophet?
    1. First of all, in chapter 30, three days (3 tomorrows) have passed by and they have not died yet.
    1. During the battle against the Philistines, Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua were killed. But Ish-bosheth is alive and was made king over Israel during David’s rule (not all sons were killed).

Manic Muse: Metaphysical Disruption as Deliverance

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

A hard break, at one point or another, is needed for all people. Such a disruption results in an arresting divorce from daily experience and imperceptible illusions. Illness, relational discord and victimization all serve as solid metaphysical disruptors. Much like an earthquake, disruptors shake us humans to the core. Powerful ruptures in “reality” undermine knowledge. Our original grounding dissolves.

My own disruptor came in the form of untreated bipolar (2008-2012). The manic psychosis of bipolar proved too much for churches, college, jobs etc. Indeed, society had no language, no imagination, no recourse for my odd behavior and expressiveness. Few people had patience for my dull, myopic depression. Almost none had the presence available to endure my suicidal fixations. The churning of society’s wheel spared no time for an existential dialogue with death.

Societal reality broke apart in the kaleidoscope of mania. I discovered the power of unbridled creativity—I still recall its intoxicating liberation. I remember no distance between my dreams and eyes, no space between my thoughts and lips, no pause between my desire and touch. All reality was to be experienced in the now and I was to be experienced by all reality. Such experience of holistic integration changed me. (Interestingly, many people with bipolar quit meds to escape reality for a dose of unreality. Or conversely, one could argue their escape is to a more extensive reality.)

Nevertheless, I also discovered the destructive fire of anger and fears unchecked by a lack of prefrontal cortex inhibitors.  This sort of unbridled and candid behavior wreaked havoc on my relationships and societal standing. Looking back, people may not have feared me as much as themselves. The torch of manic depression had shone into my inner corridors. Darkness flew from me, stripping me bare. I was an open book. Having no shame I was freed from shame–a reality which drove normal people mad into their corners of gossip.  People seemed like closed books and wanted others to remain the same. Absent existential disruptors, what fears lurked in their own pages?

The experience I lived was utterly alternative. Thus, my way of knowing reality, no longer held beneath my feet. When my brain returned to a state of “normal” nothing looked normal any longer. It was as if the earth had been kicked like a soccer ball at recess—her contents spilled in every direction. This dynamic created an opportunity for salvific reorientation as Paul encouraged in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

In 2012 the fog settled and my reality found no articulation in the dominate cultures of America.  My experience did not fit in the square holes of cultural narratives. It turned out, I had been clothed in the stinky garments of a sojourner—traveling in a place once called home.

Perhaps this was my “call” akin to Abraham’s metaphysical disruptor: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

I knew not where I was going. No doubt, Manic-depressive illness provided exquisite metaphysical disruption for me. But disruption alone does not equate existential liberation. People need a salvific substitute for illusion.  Jesus depicted this in the parable of the empty house in Luke 11. The empty room must be used. The broken heart and mind reborn.

Salvation from a broken system is Paul’s call to be transformed by an alternative reality. Humans find solidarity with Abraham in his choice to endure disorientation. And when life empties us of all attachments, we can choose to hear Jesus’ admonition by filling the space with God’s reality. Yes, metaphysical disruptors hurt deeply. They also provide opportunity for God to speak reality in us.

How has God called you to awareness of broken reality?

For me, bipolar suffering grew into opportunity. Opportunity to be freed from the mindset of modern man. Opportunity to wake up and see God’s reality. Opportunity to learn a simple truth: Earthquakes shake and make cracks of vulnerability. In cracks seeds germinate. Roots grow and supplant idols. A new world grows.

I believe God cultivates a vision in the soil of our hearts, as we cultivate God’s vision in the soil of our world.  And from season to season, we become enamored by what is growing around us and in us…

Spend some time with this imagery: Describe the world God is growing in you and around you.               

The next blog explores a new lens of alternative reality.

Rereading Sacrifice in the Old Testament

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

What alternative is there to atonement theories that do not seem to grasp or be grasped by what God did through Jesus? A shift needs to be made, if God is not violent, who is? If God did not come up with the idea of a sacrifice, who did? To find an answer, the story of the first sacrifice and the story of Cain and Abel will be analyzed below that will challenge the presumption that God requires sacrifice of a deadly kind; that God is angry and is violent. Could it be that humans are the author of sacrifices, and it is humans who are angry and violent?

This question challenges another popular misconception: “If it is in the Bible, God wanted it.” It is important to state that just because something is in the Bible does not mean that God requires it, or that it is a need of His, or that He agrees with it. There are many sinful things written in the Bible, there for the purpose of teaching humankind to practice the opposite. [1] Given the question of the origin of violence and the challenge to this basic presupposition, let me propose an alternative reading to the first sacrifice and the first murder.

Sacrifices Before the Law And God’s Sacrifice

To demonstrate the consequence of evil initiated by Adam, God makes the first sacrifice in order to clothe them (Genesis 3:21) because they are ashamed.[2] This is important theologically because, “The garment given them is special…. A kuttōnet is always worn by one in authority (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31–33; Exodus 28:4, 29–30 … [15 x in all]; 2 Samuel 13:18–19; 15:32; Isaiah 22:21; Job 30:16; Song of Solomon 5:3).”[3] God covers their nakedness (shame) with something better than what they could do on their own (Genesis 3:7). In Galatians 3:27 Paul says “all of you who were baptized (Romans 6) into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).”

It is important to see that the first sacrifice made was by God in order to cover humankind’s shame. God had to appease a soon-to-come wrathful humanity (the next chapter, in Genesis 4). This is the complete opposite of what most atonement theories teach.

Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice

Cain and Abel brought an offering to God. Cain gave from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. Things get complicated when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In a traditional reading, God seems to be demonstrating favoritism toward Abel. And many Apologists give several explanations of why this is so, some of these explanations include:

  • Cain brings what he wants, Abel brings the best.
  • The soil was cursed by God (Cain is offering from what is cursed).
  • Cain brings less than what he is supposed to. Abel brings the exact amount.
  •  God required a sacrifice of blood, not fruits

What is never asked and answered is, when did God ask them to bring an offering or sacrifice? What were God’s requirements? Hebrews 11:4 only says that “Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did.” But nowhere in Genesis 4 – or the rest of the Bible – is there any request from God to do such a thing. So, why did Abel conceive this idea of an animal sacrifice? The only previous recorded example was when God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. As suggested previously, given a retrospective view, perhaps it was God appeasing humanity’s wrath, not humanity appeasing his wrath. Both brothers may have had a mistaken assumption.

Abel brings a sacrifice to a God who did not ask for one, because in reality there is no wrathful God to appease.  On the positive side, at least he demonstrates a willingness to please God, and so the Lord had regard for Abel. On the other hand, Cain sacrifices Abel since his previous sacrifice was not pleasant to God. Abel found an outlet in the bloodletting of the sacrifice for the violence inherent in all human beings, Cain had no such outlet and so killed his brother instead.[4]

If we follow this logic, the significance of the sacrifice takes on a completely different meaning than that found under the logic of traditional atonement theories.

A mistake is made; the lie of sin and death remains intact. Abel offers an animal’s blood to appease God’s wrath (the lie of sin), something God did not ask for. Cain, in turn, offers his brother’s blood (the lie of death), even with God’s forewarning against such an act, the murder was committed. Two options arise: kill your brother or love your brother. These are the two options open to humankind. Unfortunately, humankind chooses – frequently – to murder the brother.

Given this understanding, Jesus mission does not begin in His death. In order to expose the lie projected onto God (that it is divine anger that requires sacrifice), Jesus exposes the source of anger in his encounters with the leading Jews. With His death the exposure of the lie is complete as is his absorption of human anger. With His resurrection there is an overcoming of the worst that human anger can mete out. He exposes and displaces the lie with the truth of love for the brother. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).


[1] For example, many people in the Old Testament were polygamists, even many of the key characters (heroes of the Bible), but God did not want this or looked at it as if it was right (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:3-12). The Bible is written not to tell humankind God’s needs, it is written to tell humankind what humankind needs in order to be the “image-bearer of God.

[2] This is an assumption; Genesis 3 does not specifically describe a sacrifice. “…but immediately in chapter 4, Abel knows to bring an animal sacrifice to God. And the Israelite reader would think of sacrifice, as well, because in the Tabernacle the skins of the animals went to the priests for clothing and additional income. (Allen Ross y John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 57.)”

[3] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 35–36. N. T. Wright explains in The Day the Revolution Began, “Humans were made to be ‘image bearers,’ to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator…. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity.” After the Fall, humans “abdicated their vocation to ‘rule’ in the way that they, as image-bearers, were supposed to.” Humans had authority, and even after they exchanged it for a lie, God covers them with an authoritative garment.

[4] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, y David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 42.

Can Nations be Christian?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

A few years ago, I visited Washington D.C. again, having been to our nation’s capital probably a half dozen times.  I am always taken aback by its history and its architecture.  On this last visit I was admiring the Jefferson Memorial, a tribute to one of our country’s founding fathers and our third president.  What caught my attention were the inscriptions inside of the memorial.  Many of them were references to God.  One such quote reads,

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. 

The Jefferson memorial is not the only place where scripture or references to God are inscribed.  The Washington Monument also has scripture verses and references to God.  One could do a search of the whole city and find thousands of references to God.  Our very Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

With all these references to God and the faith of some of our founding fathers it makes sense that many believe America is a “Christian nation.”  Yet can any nation actually be Christian?  Does calling a nation Christian make it Christian?  The question can only be answered by discerning what it really means to be Christian. 

The term “Christian” was first used at the church in Antioch.  It is quite possible that these earlier followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians, but it was name the community gave to the church because they saw that these people followed Jesus.  The word “Christian” simply means “little Christ.”  The city of Antioch called Jesus-followers “Little Christs” because they saw the people of the church imitating the life and ethics of Jesus.  This labeling by the community of Antioch is important because it gives us a huge clue to what it means to be Christian.  The Christian then, is one who has allegiance to the teachings and person of Jesus and seeks to imitate these teachings.  This core is easily seen in other New Testament passages.  Here are just a few examples.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he called people to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27).  In what we call the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

In all these passages we see the theme of allegiance and imitation of Jesus as essential to being a Christian. 

The Apostle Paul understood that allegiance and imitation were key to what it meant to be Christian.  It could be said that at the heart of his letter to the Corinthian church, with its many problems and issues, was the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?”. Paul answers this decisively when he tells the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  Paul was saying that being a Christian means following Jesus

This idea was not unique to Paul.  Peter says in 1 Peter 2:21, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” The apostle John would say in 1 John 2:6, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”  Jesus’ brother James would insist that being a follower of Jesus was not simply a matter of intellectual belief but had everything to do with imitating Jesus’ ways and life.  He would say in James 2:14ff that faith without action (imitation of Jesus) was dead.  The New Testament seems to be clear that to be Christian one must have allegiance to Jesus and imitate his ways.  So, can nations be Christian?

The easiest way to answer this question is to explore whether any nation has ever demonstrated allegiance to Jesus and sought to imitate his ways.  We need to be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that just because people want to be a Christian nation or desire that such a nation exist that it means it is Christian.  A duckling can grow up with dogs and even believe that it is a dog, but even though it tries to behave like a dog, tries to do dog-like things, it can never be a dog.  It is still a duck.  Throughout history nations have called themselves Christian, have claimed to do Christian-like things, but this does not mean they are Christian.  I believe that if we honestly evaluate what is at the heart of nation state, we must say they can never be Christian.  Though some certainly believe themselves to be Christian, they can never be Christian.  Christianity is reserved for those who imitate Christ and follow him.  Let me give you an example of a nation seeking to be Christian and believing their cause to be Christian.

During World War 2 one of the main leaders of a country who called themselves a Christian nation said this,

In this hour I would ask of the Lord God only this: that He would give His blessing to our work, and that He may ever give us the courage to do the right.  I am convinced that men who are created by God should live in accordance with the will of the Almighty.  No man can fashion world history unless upon his purpose and his power there rest the blessings of this Providence.

It is clear that this person believed their cause and their nation was Christian.  So, who said this?  Franklin Roosevelt?  Winston Churchill?  We might easily believe it to be either, but these words were, in fact, spoken by Adolf Hitler.  Hopefully it’s obvious that Nazi Germany was not a truly “Christian” nation.  They neither followed the words of Jesus or sought to imitate him. 

But, can America be the exception?

Again, the criteria we are looking for is following Jesus and imitating him.  Certainly, many Americans believe the nation to be Christian based on superficial statements like saying we are “under God,” but words are not as important as actions (thinking you’re a duck does not make you a duck). One only has to look throughout our nation’s history to see that, as a nation, we have not followed Jesus, nor have we imitated him. 

This is not meant to be overly harsh, but to demonstrate that nations can never be Christian because nations have different interests and agendas. Nations cannot imitate Christ partly because to do so they may cease to exist as nations.  If the heart of being a Christian is loving one’s enemies, then it is safe to say that America and all other nations have never been Christian.  America has always had enemies and even though we invite them to join us and we might even to seek to love them it is only when they seek to serve our interests. 

Christians, on the other hand, are to love their enemies regardless of their actions or intentions.  If Christians are called to put down the sword, then it is evident that America is not Christian.  America and all other nations use the sword to keep people in line and even at times (unknowingly) may be agents of Gods plans.  If Christians are to be “just people” then one can look at American history and see it has not been just.  The stain of slavery and the inequality of women and minorities are just a few examples of our injustice.  Justice for all is a great dream for America and one we should strive for but it has never been realized and since nations are part of the fallen world, they never will achieve this goal.

It is my prayer in writing this blog that the reader will agree that nations cannot be Christian.  Only the church can be Christian.  I love the nation I live in.  I want to be a blessing to it and even strive to live out my Christianity in it.  Hopefully Christians see that the only nation which is Christian is the Jesus nation.  This nation is a nation which has no borders and is without enemies of the flesh, but is a people who seek to imitate and follow the one leader: Jesus.