The Lure of Death Defeated in Christ

There is such a vast difference between eastern and western notions of atonement that in the eyes of the west it may sometimes appear that the east is lacking any theory at all, and maybe inasmuch as “theory” presumes to say it all, sum it up, or offer a complete understanding this is true. Recapitulation, for example, pertains to every area of human life and the working out an understanding of its breadth of impact is to be able to describe creation made new. There is no end to the realization of this re-creation. So too with Christus Victor (Christ came to defeat death and the devil) and ransom theory (Christ came to rescue from enslavement to Satan and sin), in that both depict subjection to sin as a disease or corruption called death. Being cured of a disease, freed from the devil, set free from slavery, overcoming death, is the initiation of an unending process of being made new. The western focus on legal guilt, punishment, and payment makes for a neat package of debt (or punishment) owed and paid, but what gets left out of this narrow scheme is the horror and reality of death. So too, what tends to be overlooked is the disease model of sin and death (death is a corruption that infects all of life) and full appreciation of the healing power of Jesus. In a sense, the health and wealth gospel and the focus on physical healing in Pentecostalism may be a demand for something concrete resulting from an atonement theory in which the legal fiction of debt and payment has proven abstractly inadequate. The demand for something concrete on the order of health and wealth, misses both the concrete predicament of death and the healing of resurrection life.

The centrality of death found in the Fall, emphasized in the lie of the serpent, described as the covenant with death in Isaiah, called the last enemy by Paul, described as the enslaving fear under the control of Satan in Hebrews and Romans, depicted as the orientation to sin by Paul, and described as a horror in the eastern fathers, is a predicament which does not figure fully into the western focus on a legal predicament. In turn, salvation from death (as the orientation to sin) through the death of Christ, tends not to register in the western theological emphasis.

The biblical conception of sin and the sinful Subject is built upon a very specific deception, detailed in Genesis, renamed the covenant with death in Isaiah, described as a poisonous lie, a throat shaped sarcophagus, and a bloody path of violence in the Psalms. Paul’s summation of the sin problem calls upon the fulness of this Old Testament depiction, both to describe the problem and Christ’s defeat of the problem. Being baptized into the death of Christ directly confronts the sin condition because sin is entangled with the primordial deception regarding death which amounts to an active taking up of death. Death as a lifestyle speaks not only of outward violence but of an inward destructiveness, and salvation from this orientation to death (death-in-life) is through life in the midst of death.

This focus opens up a new vocabulary that passes beyond the strictures of guilt and payment to a more holistic focus on shame, disease, contamination, alienation, cured, respectively, through fearlessness, wholeness, cleanness, and participation in the Trinity. As described in Genesis and captured in the notion of a sinful desire, there is a lure which draws humans out of or beyond life. There is a pursuit of an unreachable excess that cannot be integrated into the life process. This excess hovers around death in that the beyondess of death seems to hold out fulfillment of the infinite craving – beyond the Garden, beyond life, in which Something is traded for an ontological Nothing. This delusion, which describes the ontological condition of all subjects, makes of the world a horizon or marker of what lies beyond it, so that what is gives body to that which is not. This symbolic fiction or lie, is not a desire for any existing thing, but for that which does not exist. The serpent calls it being like God, in that it seems to open up the realm of experience to the transcendent, but what is beyond life is nothing at all. Thus, it can be understood how God’s prediction is fulfilled, “In the day you eat of it you will die” (Gen 2:7). Shame names the experience of the nothing called death. It describes, in the words of the Psalmist, what it is like to die (Ps 31:17). It describes the nature of the disease, in that it contains within it the entanglement with death, alienation, and corruption. The corruption of death, according to the Psalmist, is the ultimate shame.

It is not that the western church is without the analogy of sin as sickness. Billy Graham, for example, demonstrates a profound insight into sin sickness: “Sin is a spiritual virus that invades our whole being. It makes us morally and spiritually weak. It’s a deadly disease that infects every part of us: our body, our mind, our emotions, our relationships, our motives — absolutely everything. We don’t have the strength on our own to overcome its power.”[1]  Graham, however, does not provide any idea of how the disease is generated. He is not able or does not choose to say why sin acts as a deadly disease. The prognosis is on the order of saying you are really sick, but leaving out the name of the disease. Thus, when he points to Christ as cure, it is unclear why or how Christ addresses the illness. In describing the cure, Graham says the Holy Spirit “tugs at our souls” in order to tell us “we are not right with God.” He says sin is the “clogger” and the blood of Christ is the “cleanser.” The blood of Christ is reduced to something like spiritual Liquid Drano. He references I John, which does say his blood cleanses from sin (1:7) but it also adds the explanation as to why. We have fellowship with Him as we walk as he walked. We pass into truth, out of a deception – a deception which would claim we can be in the truth without practicing the truth (see 1:5-10). In other words, Graham’s mistake is the Augustinian mistake and perhaps simply the western mistake, which misses that sin is an orientation to death. Sin is not mysteriously or indirectly related to death; it is an active involvement with the nothingness of death and the grave.

Subsequent to Augustine’s mistaken reading of Romans 5:12, both sin and salvation, disconnected as they are from death, have been mystified. Augustine’s misinterpretation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is a mystery. In Paul’s explanation, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout Romans 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. This then lays the foundation for explaining why the death of Christ addresses the problem of sin. Christ exposes the lie of sin; he exposes the lie of death as empty of the sham promise of transcendence.

The alienating and desirous aspect to death’s reign has to take into account this lying aspect to death: death is taken to be a power for life. Where prior to the fall humans are pictured as existing in harmony with nature and obeying their natural drives, with the fall a sense of disharmony and of shame enter in, but the split evoked by shame and disharmony creates the realization of a possible synthesis. The gap separating man from nature, from himself and from God is precisely the gap in which he imagines he is to be constituted. The dream of closing the gap is the sinner’s dream, which Paul states in various formulas in chapters 6-7 of Romans (equating sin and grace).

In other words, the sinner has joined himself to death as a means to life. But the Subject ‘in Christ’ has been joined to the ontological reality of God in Christ. Romans 8 describes this joining as being ‘in Christ’ (8.1), living in the power of the Spirit (8.5), belonging to Christ through the Spirit (8.9), living now and in the future in the resurrection power of the Spirit (8.10-11), being adopted as a child of God (8.15), and being joined to the love of God (8.37-39). Where the lie of sin is the active taking up of death, being joined to God and entering into communion with God through the Spirit is simultaneously the reception of truth and life. The truth, in this instance, is not an abstraction but is a life-giving truth which specifically counters the death dealing lie. The lie takes up suffering and death (alienation) as primary, but Paul dismisses the power of death in light of God’s love: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8.35). Where death is the orienting factor in sin, Paul sets out that which trumps death: the love of God in Christ by the Spirit.


[1] Billy Graham, “Sin is a spiritual virus, and Christ is the cure” (Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2019) https://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-201905211906–tms–bgrahamctnym-a20190606-20190606-story.html


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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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