Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World) was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seem to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.