Universal Salvation Through Resurrection: The Answer to an Unasked Question?

After many years in the classroom the questions of students on any given topic became so predictable so as to seem almost mechanical, indicating a certain predetermined orientation of thought. I came to see my role, in teaching theology, as necessitating a shift of focus in which a particular line of questioning is abandoned or at least suspended so as to raise an alternative perspective. Poorly conceived questions or questions which are secondary, when made primary, are not harmful because an answer may or may not be available but because the question and potential answer are misdirected.  Sometimes no answer or a suspended answer allows for a different emphasis. Questions about the problem of evil and suffering, the intermediate state of the dead, the necessity of violence, or available light, given the wrong focus or emphasis have the potential of impoverishing the Christian faith. As Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated, paradigm shifts occur not so much with the gathering of new data as with the rise of a different set of questions aimed at answering a different set of problems (the answers to which may in fact be inadequate in answering former questions). What we might call “contractual theology” is primed to provide a theory of evil, to explain suffering and the necessity of violence, what happens at death, and has an answer concerning those who have never heard the gospel, but the cost, as Douglas Campbell has shown, is an inherently unstable theology which cannot be completely reconciled with the New Testament. But the simplest criterion for testing the adequacy of a theological understanding, according to Paul, is bodily resurrection.

The test Paul provides (in I Cor. 15) for an authentic Christianity is the centrality of belief in the bodily resurrection. Denial of bodily resurrection, or even of its desirability, is the primary marker, in Paul’s explanation, of a futile faith worse than paganism and not worthy of the name of Christ. Some of the Corinthians have concluded bodily resurrection is not a necessity. Paul warns that a Christianity that would displace bodily resurrection as the core of salvation is a lie. Why would they, or maybe more pertinent, why do many Christians today believe in a Christianity in which bodily resurrection is a non-sequitur (even where acknowledged it is often only as an addendum to the saving work of the cross)? As Justin Martyr explains as early as the second century, in his debate with Trypho the Jew, there are “some who are called Christians. . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” These are “godless, impious heretics,” Justin warns Trypho: “Do not imagine that they are Christians” (Dialogue with Trypho, 80). Justin continues, “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead” [literally, resurrection of the flesh]. This heresy is probably the same that Paul is refuting (a Greek dualism of body and soul) and, of course, by this definition most of what is popular Christianity today is a false religion.

It may not be important in the contemporary scene to trace the cause of bias toward bodily resurrection – is it the influence of Greek philosophy, the same striving for wisdom (identity through difference evident in Corinth and a universal phenomenon according to Derrida), is it new ageism with its Eastern influences, or is it simply the natural human tendency? I have encountered it in a supposedly conservative campus ministry (the campus minister acknowledging it would not matter to him if they found the body of Jesus and the board, made up primarily of elders and ministers, concurring); it is obviously denied in certain strands of theological liberalism, and ever-present in fundamentalism (in more or less the form Justin condemns). The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity presume that Christianity (like Gnosticism) addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death, such that resurrection would answer a problem they have not conceived.

To make the point that putting resurrection in the center constitutes an alternative Christianity, I summarily offer eight key ways (following Campbell, in part) in which a different emphasis on resurrection completely alters doctrine:

1. Epistemology – One reading of Romans is that God is known from the cosmos through reason and conscience. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law, which will happen on the day of judgment. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. One is able to attain to a philosophically sophisticated knowledge of God and yet there is a profound incapacity to do what one knows she should (a misreading, I would argue, of Romans 1-4 and 7).

The problem is this does not fit Paul, who testifies that his conscience was clear and that he kept the law perfectly prior to becoming a Christian. In twenty years in Japan, and I worked among cultural elites and every class of people, I failed to meet one individual that had either this natural understanding of God or of themselves. From my own education, I presumed that I would meet depressed people, agonizing over their sinful incapacity, and all I would need to do is show them a way out of their dilemma. In the entire history of philosophy and ethics it is not clear that the finest minds arrived at anything approaching what is often taken to be Paul’s starting point of human knowing.

The alternative to this misconstrued natural light is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians there is knowing grounded in the law or what he describes in II Cor. 3 as knowing from ourselves and resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Rom. 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Philippians 3:10-11).  There is no available light, no possibility of arriving at truth as one is given over to a lie. Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

2. Anthropology – People in typical contractual theology are thought to be individualistic, rational, and cognitive, (perhaps innately immortal) and yet ethically incapacitated. The focus is on a spirituality or soulishness that is not dependent on the body. In this understanding resurrection either is not helpful or is an imprisonment in the body and the material world. In a theology in which resurrection is salvation, people are subject to death and futility and their apparent individualism is a symptom of sin. In this understanding people are not innately immortal, nor are they isolated individualistic souls. Bodily resurrection as salvation speaks of plurality (male/female, family) community and corporateness (as part of being corporeal). The incapacity of being subject to death is obviously holistic when we die – but death has a grip prior to physical death (prior to one’s actual demise) so that living out the resurrection now is equated with life in the Spirit.

3. Theology – In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God “who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death. God is deliverer, sovereign over chaos and death, and loving (the source of help and rescue and not the source of hate and anger).  The helper, the Holy Spirit, enables living out this alternative understanding.

In Christ’s resurrection God is Lord over the powers: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Co 15:21–24, NASB).

4. Revelation – Where resurrection is the reconstitution of all things, including the human capacity to know, “natural revelation” (whatever that might be construed to be) is obscured by sin and death. There is no cognitive, philosophical approach to God. We know this because revelation is life breaking into death, light breaking into darkness, understanding breaking into ignorance, truth as over and against a lie. Revelation is retrospective from resurrection – from which we can see the grip death has had upon us (Rom 7); again, life in the Spirit leads into all truth as opposed to a living death based on a lie.

5. Law – Where resurrection is the answer to the problem law is not a primary category but secondary in that it pertains to death, the real problem in human orientation (the deception is to imagine there is life in the law). It is originally a marker, as with the Jewish law, of the covenant between God and Abraham. In the prohibition in Eden we can see that law is doubly obscured in that the knowledge of good and evil is a law unto itself, not referencing God or life but as Paul describes it, referring to that which comes from the self (II Cor. 3:6). Law in the lie is a means to life and this “life in the law” is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of law.

6. Atonement – Contractual theory does not explain (in any comprehensible manner) why Christ must atone as against other people or things, and especially, in place of the established temple cult. The atonement that is offered involves a legal fiction in which an innocent victim dies to satisfy God’s righteousness. As George McDonald describes it:

“Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me, Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where resurrection has defeated death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, atoning, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage.

7. Faith – In contractual theology faith is a cognitive affirmation which somehow saves (the connection to salvation or deliverance is not clear). Resurrection faithfulness speaks of trusting obedience in the face of death. So, it is interconnected with a life giving, rather than a death dealing, ethic.

8. Soteriology – A Christian faith which poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied and law is the main thing), concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath), divides out ethics and says righteousness is merely theoretical and does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is imputed), does it deserve the name “Christian”? A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and attributes the righteousness to the sinner, so that this is justice, I would say this is the devil’s religion that has been substituted for the Christian faith. Resurrection as the center of salvation makes it obvious that death and a death dealing lifestyle are the problem. Being saved is cosmic, apocalyptic, and not conditioned on our ability to bring it about.

The question is not whether Paul believes in a cosmic, all-encompassing, universal salvation, through resurrection. That is, we might debate exceptions, degrees of exclusion, or qualifications but such questioning and debate must be subsequent to understanding Paul’s primary and driving image of salvation. There are certain questions we must temporarily suspend lest they obscure or derail the main point: universal salvation through resurrection is the resolution to the problem of sin and death.

Saving Romans from Contractual Theology with Douglas Campbell

The hijacking of Christianity can be traced to readings of Romans which would separate Paul’s gospel from the Gospel(s) by making salvation contractual, righteousness a legal fiction, and by reducing sin to a breaking of the law. The focus on guilt (a partial problem measured by law and resolved through payment) displaced shame (a wholistic problem resolved through a reconstituted humanity) in an economy of salvation obscuring Paul’s depiction of sin as linked to a holistic deception and salvation as cosmic or universal. Christ’s death, justification, sin, punishment, or simply the language of the New Testament, severed from Christ’s universal re-creation, becomes equivocal, as demonstrated not only in the Christianities of East and West but in the Protestant fragmenting of the faith. Augustine’s rendering of Romans 5 most sharply marks the divide between East and West, with his notion of original sin and the various innovations which reach full bloom in the peculiar abominations of John Calvin. The sharp divide between German liberalism/spiritualism and the contractual theory of penal substitution, in their readings of Romans, demonstrate the instability of Protestantism in pitting one side of Paul against the other. The tension between participation in the Trinity of Romans 8 and the focus on the law in 1-3, reproduces, in Protestantism, something like the East/West split.

My work, aimed at resolution to the apparent tensions in Romans, focuses on a rereading of chapters 6-8, which involves a reworked understanding of the human problem as defined by Paul and its resolution in Christ. The problem is not that the obligations of a contract have not been met, and Christ keeps the contract. The problem is that humans are in bondage and Christ frees from this bondage. It is the specifics of Paul’s description of this bondage, as slaves to a death dealing (deceived) orientation to the law, that make sense of the peculiar deliverance enacted by Christ.

By focusing on and developing the concept that sin is a death-dealing deception in regard to the law, which accounts for the human Subject (as well as the human project) outside of Christ, the work of Christ (the entire movement of his life, death, and resurrection) can be understood as reconstituting humanity in the Truth (Trinitarian participation as in Rom. 8) as opposed to a lie.  This will then lead to a theological understanding which accounts for the focus on the revelatory nature of the death of Christ, as sin is understood primarily in terms of a death denying and death dealing deception.

The revelation of Christ is part of salvation, not because it addresses the rational soul allowing for a measured decision, but revelation, in part, exposes the unconscious work of sin as in a lie the conscious work of sin is dependent on what it negates. The specific content and dynamic of the lie is worked out in detail in Rom. 7, among other places. That which is by definition unconscious consists of the basic ‘human project’ or the ‘founding gesture’ of the conscious Subject. 

For Paul, the truth of Christ (found in facing the reality of death in resurrection faith as in Rom. 4) stands over and against the lie of sin (the resistance to death of the fundamental fantasy and the impenetrable mystery of the real –which is the power of negation of the death drive).  Christ exposes the lie of sin (death as life at the foundation of subjectivity) in his acceptance of death and reverses the orientation of sin (slavery to the fear of death) in which the denial is absolute.  Christ relegates death and the law of sin and death to a secondary category and displaces them with the truth (resurrection life).  The depth of the mystery of the truth of Christ displaces the unconscious structured as a lie; that is, sin as a false mystery is displaced by the true mystery and transcendence of Christ at work beyond human consciousness (the reconstituted unconscious).  So, on this account, the truth of salvation necessarily addresses the Subject at both a conscious and unconscious level as the work of sin is exposed as an identity grounded in the dynamics of a specific deception and orientation to death. 

The implication of my argument regarding Romans 6-8 that Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law, is that it is not the law which provides insight into his death, but sin as it is oriented to the law. Paul introduces an economy in salvation which can account for the law but which is not mediated by law.  Salvation, in his understanding, is not gauged in terms of the law but as a counter to sin and the establishment of an alternative identity and an alternative economy in Christ.  The law, for Paul, mediates and governs the economy of sin, but law is secondary in the economy of salvation ushered in through Christ. The law could not deliver life but God has done what the law could not do by sending his Son, and Christ has ushered in the life promised by the law (Rom. 8.3).  The way God did this was to condemn sin, not Jesus, though it was in the flesh of Jesus that sin was put to death.  ‘By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh’ (8.3).  As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone else’s behalf’.[1]

Paul’s understanding of the law introduces a series of categories in chs. 6 and 8 which demonstrate that the law mediates sin but, in contrast to Anselm’s (along with the line of theology leading up to the Protestant Reformation) understanding, for Paul, the law does not mediate salvation (so law has a narrower sense for Paul than it does for Anselm).  Salvation destroys the law of sin and death and introduces the economy of life, in which there is no end of resources.  Anselm’s ‘divine satisfaction’ works within a closed economy of law and Christ meets the demand of the system.  There is, however, no relief from the system of exchange and payment but only a meeting of the demands of the law.  In Anselm’s system (and the major part of the Western tradition) the purpose of the law plays a primary and enduring role so that even in Christ it is the economy of exchange that is determinative.

In Paul’s picture of an alternative economy,  the promise of the law is fulfilled (the promise of life which it could not deliver), and the law itself has taken on its correct place as secondary to what God has done in Christ to bring life and restore relationship to God by dispelling the lie of sin with the truth of life in the Son.  The law only has an enduring role in condemning sin in sinful man (Rom. 8.4).  The alienation (between the law and the ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) or the individual) produced by a misperception of the law is overcome in the understanding that the proper role of the law is to point to life in Christ. Participation in Christ inaugurates resurrection life which is inclusive of a manner of life which presumes control over the body and an end of alienation (the ‘I’ against the law) – as ‘by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body’ (8.13).  The split between the individual and the social or between the ἐγὼ (I) and the law can be viewed as part of the problem from within the ‘body of Christ’ which denotes individual and social coherence and unity.  

My work on Romans is primarily theological and I have relied on New Testament scholarship, not my expertise, to support the details of my reading of Romans. What I could not have known is that at the same time I was completing a PhD in theology, with a dissertation and book dealing with Romans 6-8, Douglas Campbell was completing work in New Testament studies arriving at conclusions which support my primary thesis. Campbell has provided a reading of Romans that in general (if not in particular details), accords with my own work in rejecting a contractual reading, rejecting a foundational understanding (what Campbell links to Arianism) or the notion that humans can reach God through creation and reason, and in recognizing the centrality of a participatory soteriology throughout Romans. In the upcoming class on Romans, while we will not deal with all the specifics or bulk of Campbell’s reading, we will work out the details of an understanding that is at once universal, noncontractual, participatory, and unconditional.

Sign up by or before May 27th .
You can register for the course here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings.


[1] See Wright, Romans, 578.