Nonviolent Atonement: Beyond Christus Victor to Expanded Recapitulation

I was explaining to my 81-year-old friend that, though it may be surprising, the very center of Christianity, the meaning of the work of Christ, is under contention. I was saying this, assuming the uninitiated presume that those on the inside of this religion are in agreement on what it is about. I explained that there are multiple theories which are in complete disagreement. She replied that it was not surprising at all. I knew she considered profession of Christianity an uncertain predictor of anything. She asked me what I think. We were swimming laps at the time. We swim a lap between the major points of our discussion and so I swam and considered.

 She has very eclectic spiritual tastes and a variety of physical ailments, so she tends to judge her spiritual consultants according to their practical results. She receives treatment from an Amish Masseur (I never knew there was such a thing and there may only be one) who is also a first-rate carpenter. She speaks highly of foot massages from a native shaman (just paroled), and acupunctural care from a fine Mormon (who has had marriage difficulties, but this may not pertain). She recently changed chiropractors, not because of religion but due to overall philosophy. Apparently, there are crunchers and adjusters but, as far as I know, these are not religious descriptors.

 I formulated my concise statement, and I want to point out that I was mostly underwater and low on oxygen.  “The atonement,” I said when we came to the end of the lap, “is an intervention by God into the human predicament, inclusive of the psychological, social, and historical trajectory of human beings.” I pointed out, “The atonement has nothing to do with changing God or solving God’s problem. People have the problem and the work of Christ addresses the human problem.” I was fairly pleased with my succinct, practical, summation.

Though she may not have been aware of it, I had separated out atonement theories which pertain to harmonizing the mind, satisfying the honor, or appeasing the anger of God. In other words, I had eliminated the theories of Anselm, Calvin, and, though it is subtle, I had also eliminated theories which project violence onto God, theories focused on the wrath of God in future eternal punishment, and law-based notions. But I gathered from her reply that she may not have fully appreciated the subtle, surgical like precision, of my finely honed statement. “You could make picking your nose complicated,” she said as she kicked off for another lap.

So, here is my attempt to formulate, if not a nose pickingly simple, at least a less complicated description of the central point of Christianity. Prior to this simpler presentation, let me make some general observations about what is and is not happening in this simpler explanation. The biblical explanation can be simple, but is mostly complicated by extra-biblical theories. In the explanation below, neither God nor the devil require the death of Christ (as in the most widely accepted notions of atonement), but his death plays the role of defeating the orientation inherent in the law of sin and death. So, this does not fit with ransom theories or forms of Christus Victor that presume the devil receives the payment. There is a ransom from slavery but no person (God or the devil) can be said to be doing the enslaving (sin and death enslave) nor receiving the payment. It does not fit with Anselm’s satisfaction theory that imagines God’s honor is satisfied by Christ’s death, nor does it fit with Calvin’s penal substitution that presumes Christ’s death pays the eternal penalty of hell required by God. In both of these theories there is a notion of retributive punishment, which is of medieval origin (existing yet today in our criminal justice system) which imagines righteousness requires punishment. The biblical concept of righteousness is of making things right in the world and there is no notion of abstract righteousness that must be satisfied. Neither does the understanding  presented here really fit with Abelard’s notion that the cross is some sort of moral influence, in that the cross is depicted as playing a much more specific role in regard to human sin and the human predicament (the orientation to death is undone and life in the Spirit is inaugurated). Both Anselm and Abelard wanted to remove the devil from the equation as he is seemingly given too much power in their estimate. Thus, they rejected Christus Victor and attempted their own explanations. If Christus Victor can be rescued from notions that the devil killed Jesus and that God handed him over as a ransom to the devil, then the description given here might be taken as an expansion on Christus Victor. Christ is victorious over sin and death but specifically he defeats the lie connected to sin and death. There is a law of sin and death which reigns through deception (inclusive of human violence and not God’s violence), and it is this law which Christ came to defeat.

In what might be taken as the theological heart of the New Testament, Paul says it most succinctly and simply: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2). There are two sorts of conditions (two laws), or two sorts of people attached to these conditions, and Paul describes these two types in Romans 7 & 8, respectively. The law of life frees the individual as it displaces the law of death in the individual (“me”).

Chapter 7 describes an individual who is isolated and focused on himself, with repeated reference to “I” or “myself” and this occurs in the environment of “the body of death” which Paul describes as a life of slavery to fear (8:15).  The suffering of the “I” is a suffering implicit in the use of the word, as this “I” (grammatically and experientially middle voice) is at once active as the cause of the suffering and passive in that it is the object of this suffering. Paul describes a painful desire working through a split in the “I” (ἐγὼ/ego), between mind and body, and sums up his problem with a question in 7:23: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

Chapter 8 speaks of rescue from this “condemnation” through a corporate identity (in Christ, in the Holy Spirit). The environment of these two types informs the contrast between them: the isolated individual is isolated in the environment Paul calls the “law of sin and death” or the “body of death” and the corporate individual is “in Christ” and this being in Christ will bring about a series of cosmic (creation wide) and divine connections (inclusive of all three persons of the Trinity).

The Holy Spirit does not appear in chapter 7 but is the theme of chapter 8 (mentioned 19 times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11) and with the introduction of the Spirit, Paul’s question (of 7:24) summing up his problem and the human problem, is definitively answered. The rescue from the body of death and the law of sin and death is through the Spirit of life brought about by being in Christ.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit.

Everything remaining or everything beyond this basic explanation of the move from death to life, is filling in the details of the how and why.

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of chapter 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the living death of the identity of “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14).[1] Paul differentiates two Subjects which might be dubbed “the Subject of desire” and “the Subject of hope.” The Subject of desire, deceived as it is, makes the law a means of achieving the self and so enacts a loss in which the “I” objectifies or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7:23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7:20-21).

Hope counters this spectral relation to the self: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all” (8:24). If the object of hope is within sight then it ceases to be hope. Hope, by definition, falls outside the static spectral relation (the bodily image or the image in the mirror or the image of others) as it reaches forward to that which does not appear. Where the split “I” focuses on fulfilling or finding the self in and through a self-relation (the bodily image of self or other), hope is focused on the prospect of conformity to the unseen image of Christ (8:29) and it does not mis-recognize the mortal body but it presumes that through the Spirit the body is resurrected (8:11). Where desire arises through lack (lack of self), the ground of hope is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (8.29).

Achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of walking as he did (8:4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8:5), of active submission (8:7,13), and patience (8:25). The hope of resurrection (8:11) displaces the static orientation to death (the negation or denial of death ) in the acceptance of the mortal body (8:11) without slavery to fear of the punishing effects of the law (8:15) (or the punishing conscience or superego), for through the Spirit of sonship a direct relation to God has been opened (8:15).

Put simply, one Subject is the Subject of life and the other is the Subject of death. Though this could and needs to be filled out and explained, what may be most noticeable in this explanation is what may seem to be missing.

Where is the devil? The devil is present in Paul’s explanation as the deception in regard to the law. In his particular explanation in Romans 7, Paul is making specific reference to the role the serpent in Genesis plays by creating a misorientation to God through a deception in regard to the law (or prohibition in Genesis 3). This power of the devil is a deception that Paul depicts being deployed by the principalities and powers, which presume God’s authority and rule in this world are challenged by the powers, but it is not simply a singular personal force.

Where is the wrath of God? The punishing effects of the law of sin and death are an admixture, in Paul’s explanation, of divine wrath and human wickedness. The judgment passed on sin brought condemnation (from God but also from the inherent nature of sin), so that death reigned from the time of Adam (5:16-17). God condemned sin through death but the condemnation Paul is describing in chapter 7 is the active human implementation of death in which death is the inherit outcome of sin.

Is there substitution? Certainly there is not substitution in a Calvinist or Anselmian sense, but Christ has intervened and taken up the sort of condemnation meted out by and inherent to sin, so that it can be said, God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (ἁμαρτίας κατέκρινεν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί) (8:3) so that it no longer deals out death by deception. As a result, there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). In chapter 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) (8:3) so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20).

What is the role of the law? Paul links the capacity behind the cry “Abba” to an ontological shift which manifests itself in the move from a previous incapacity to obey the law to the capacity to now meet the righteous requirements of the law (8:4-11). This is not simply a forensic shift or imputed righteousness, as Paul proceeds to explain how the previous incapacity has now become not only a possibility but an obligation (8:12). The law is not definitive of either the problem or solution but it marks both.

I am not sure what to call this explanation, as it does not fit precisely with many of the theories of atonement, though it may fit best with the picture of atonement found in Justyn Martyr and Irenaeus. It might be deemed a form of recapitulation in which focus on the nature of the deception, the form of its exposure (not worked out by either Justyn or Irenaeus), are filled out in a new form of Christus Victor. Dying with Christ can be understood as the death or victory over investing life in the alienating lie (the defeat of the law of sin and death) and the beginning of a new kind of life in communion with Christ and his body by means of the Spirit of Life (the law of life in the Spirit).


[1] The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20) who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28) who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3) and who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) as he died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in the Spirit and in whom the Spirit dwells (8:9) as the Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13) and through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and who helps in weakness and prayer by interceding for the saints (8:26- 27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17), and saving hope (8:20, 24).


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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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