Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death

Stephen Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, describes the YouTube video entitled “Jesus Loves You,” which brings to the forefront the contradictions inherent in a theology focused on guilt.  The video begins with Grey Bloke (a sort of grey blob) telling us he received an anonymous e-mail saying, “Jesus loves you.” Grey Bloke then says, “Well I thought, that’s nice. But then I read the rest of it which says, ‘If you don’t worship him, you’re going to burn in hell forever.’”

He acknowledges this is a “conditional form of love,” and that most forms of love are like that, but he expected something more from Jesus since he “should be more noble” than the rest of us. He asks the anonymous e-mailer, “If Jesus loves me, why does he want to send me to hell?” The reply came back, “He doesn’t want to, but unless you accept him, he’s just going to have to.” Grey Bloke then was confused — “doesn’t Jesus make the rules? He is God after all.”

The response was, “Jesus loves you, but his dad thinks you’re a shit.” That doesn’t seem “fair,” he adds, but “at least it’s clear.” But then he was utterly confused by a response, which said, “P.S., Jesus is his own dad.”

Gary Anderson makes the point in his book Sin that to understand a theologian’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation) it is necessary to see how they have defined sin.  The way in which the problem is described – sin –  will correlate with the proposed solution – salvation.  Sin as pollution needs cleansing, as a burden it needs to be lifted, and as a debt in needs to be paid off or remitted.  What stands behind these understandings, in Anderson’s explanation, is the narrative form which fills out the meaning of the particular terms. The particular terms that are chosen, in other words, are not determinative but simply markers of a larger narrative/theological understanding.  In this sense, I want to use guilt and shame as the markers of what amount to two narratives or theologies which seem to exist in two separate worlds.  I do not mean the words to bear the entire weight of these two stories (the stories could be different (and perhaps better than Grey Blokes anonymous emailer) and the words could be used to function differently) but simply as markers of two theologies dependent upon two competing views of the world.

In these competing worlds, the encyclopedia of theological terms will take on very different meanings as they are defined by a narrative that is characterized by either guilt or shame. The narrative behind a guilt theology is focused on the individual before the law.  Jesus’ Father does not think highly of you because you have angered him due to his law.  The law is the prime marker of the predicament and the pointer to the resolution. Jesus must pay the penalty and absorb the wrath of God by dying.

A theology of shame is built upon an understanding precisely opposed to the notion that God requires death.  Shame and death are linked and describe the human predicament and the need for life in place of death, and relationship and connectedness in place of the disconnectedness of shame. The focus of a theology in which shame defines sin is built upon the presumption that anthropology has to do with a plurality of persons – male and female – held together by a third term – God. Shame, in its notion of a failed corporate wholeness, points to God’s plurality and a community of reconciliation as the answer. We hold together individually as we are held together corporately – (the two are one in and through God – but this pertains to Christ and the Church, Eph. 5:22-23).  Here the problem has to do primarily not with a law transgressed but a relationship which has been broken.  This is inclusive of one’s relationships with God, others, the self, and creation – all of which are turned from life to an alienated dealing in death. The resolution to the problem is not God’s wrath poured out on the Son – a dealing in death – but human wrath and alienation absorbed and defeated by the Son so that we might have life.  In this understanding, death is not the required solution but the center of the problem which is defeated by Christ.

I would argue, it is not God who trades in death as presumed in guilt theology, but humans who deal in death in an economy controlled by shame. Ironically, guilt and death have weighed so heavily on biblical interpretation that it seems to have distorted interpretations of the theme of the Bible. The central theme of the Hebrew Bible, which serves as the foundational theme of the NT, is expressed in Deuteronomy when God says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if your offspring would live—by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” (Deut. 30:19-20). The point of Scripture is to choose life. The purity laws were all about the battle between life and death.  They make sense as a training ground in distinguishing life from death and enabling the command to choose life – ultimately as it is revealed in Christ.

To imagine that God requires death to gain access to his presence is a reversal of the meaning of the Temple and its sacrifices.[1] Death is a pollution to the presence of God, represented by the holy of holies. The bodily impurities require the cleansing rites connected to the outward parts of the temple and moral impurity requires the sacrifice of atonement, but every impurity is connected to death.  Dead bodies, blood, semen, skin disease, and moral rebellion have death as their common denominator.[2]  Life dedicated to God – the point of the atonement – and not death, is the means of access. Death was not ignored, as if it is unreal, nor was it the center of gravity.  It was acknowledged, and thus was meant to turn Israel to YHWH, the source of life – finally and fully revealed in Christ. In short, where shame and death define sin, the life, death and resurrection of Christ are the answer.  Where guilt defines sin – the death of Christ is the answer.

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that Christianity enacted a backhanded violent resentment against its enemies. In Grey Bloke guilt theology, Nietzsche seems to have gotten it right. The question for guilt theology, is whether God is simply a participant in the cycle of violence that all such economies require? Does God shift between grace and wrath – does he change – on the basis of the death of Christ?  As David Bentley Hart would answer “Christ’s death does not effect a change in God’s attitude toward humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.” God does not change and the crucifixion is not an event that happens in the life of God, as portrayed by Hegel.  As Hart states it: “the donation that Christ makes of himself draws creation into God’s eternal ‘offering’ of himself in the life of the Trinity…. His gift remains gift to the end despite all our efforts to convert it into debt.” In other words, a guilt economy is displaced by the infinite giving of the economy of grace.

Where shame is definitive of sin, Jesus’ suffering and death are not on the order of an offering to God to appease his wrath. His participation in our enslavement to death defeats the reality of the living death of shame. He shares our humanity to the point of death so as to defeat the devil and our slavery to the fear of death – a fear that is synonymous with shame (Heb. 2:14–18). His “faithfulness” overcomes, it does not trade in, death. This point is central, as it sums up the center of gravity of each world and the terms in each orbit.  Theologies of guilt, in passing over death as the prime problem, ironically put the death of Christ front and center, as in penal substitution, to the near exclusion of his life, resurrection, and ascension.  Theologies of shame, in acknowledging a direct connection to death (see my previous blog), find the resolution to shame in the entire course of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

In summary, guilt can be used as a descriptor of sin as a partial problem in which a partial answer will suffice.  Shame can be used to describe sin in a holistic manner which will describe a holistic answer.  Guilt can be resolved by a payment within an economy of exchange, while shame calls for an alternative non-violent economy of grace without exchange.  God calls for an end to an economy of violent sacrifice by putting an economy of life and grace in its place.  God does not conform to a violent economy he defeats and displaces it. Guilt can be resolved through a salvation which is primarily inward, leaving the present economy in place.  Shame calls for a salvation which extends to the body, the community, and ultimately to the cosmos.  Where guilt can be resolved legally through an imputed righteousness, shame requires an embodied, incarnate solution.

Ultimately, I would suggest that privileging guilt is a marker of a dualistic theology in which the death of Christ is the focus, as what is required is a payment of a debt incurred in the mind of God (a world apart).  Shame, as definitive of sin, is the marker of a salvation which includes each stage of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, as it is the cosmic Temple which is being redeemed.

I am summing up two theologies and two frames of reference to suggest that what is actually in contention between these two theologies is precisely what is always and everywhere in contention. There is a cosmic conflict involving all of creation between life and death.  Should it surprise us that theology has become a prime battleground between these contending forces?

[1] Jacob Milgrom holds that each of the phenomenon that cause impurity symbolize death – and he spent much of his career making the case. I am following Richard Barry’s wonderful dissertation in tracing Milgrom.

[2] According to Milgrom’s theory, impurity affects the sanctuary in a “graded” way: first, less severe pollution contaminates the outer courtyard (which is the place of the burnt offering altar); second, more severe pollution has enough malevolent power to push through to the shrine (which houses the altar of incense, the menorah, and the showbread table); and third, the most wicked evils penetrate the holy of holies itself (the place of the ark of the covenant, God’s very dwelling place).


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Author: Paul Axton

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

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