Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Enjoy Your Symptom

The following is a guest blog by Archbishop Apollyon Creed.

Dying is such a pleasure. In fact, the stain of death evokes final pleasure, ultimate fulfillment, ecstatic disillusion, final and full release. The full satisfaction of death will relieve the tension, complete desire, resolve the pain, and the very hope evokes pleasure. Satori, nirvana, desire, fuses life with death so that the pleasure of living is in the dying. Life without death is a weariness, a too muchness. Life reduced by death is manageable, commodifiable. With only so much to go around the very stuff of living, the gusto, the being, the value, the pursuit of more, is made possible. Where would be the living in any but a zero-sum economy, creating the value of more – more money, more power, more importance, more esteem, more fame? What is the point without this surplus value?

This excess evokes desire – the life force itself. The child is drawn into the world, beyond womb and breast, into a fulness of life only where this excess is sparked. The first couple are drawn East of Eden toward heaven’s gate, toward a fulness of cognition and the heights of personhood, only through this weight of glory. The greatest pleasure, the most efficient healing, is the unrelinquishing pursuit of desire. The pearl of great price, the fundamental reality, that which gives coherence to love, passion, and ambition, is pursuit of this excess. By definition, to keep love alive, to maintain the power of life, passion must increase and not dissipate. Every thesis needs its antithesis, every entity a non-entity, every something its nothing, as synthesis and balance is the obliteration of the force and counterforce of desire. The ultimate hope is that there is no reconciliation, no harmony, no peace. The irreconcilable, the eternal war, the ongoing struggle, is salvation.

So it is, all obstructions, every prohibition, each obstacle, in its punishing effect, evokes the possibility of pleasure – keeping desire alive. Rightly understood, the punishment is the pleasure as it is the final end – the short-circuit to ultimate enjoyment. Every pleasure is accentuated, heightened, filled with an eternal weight of meaning, where gallows await. Each of us must take rope in hand, become our own obstacle – law giver and executioner – so that the full pleasure of pain is meted out and enjoyed in our happy compulsions, our splendid depressions, the delights of madness. Resist or do not resist the compulsion to repeat – it is the same. Do not step on the crack, or step on the crack that will break your mother’s back, it does not matter. It is the compulsion, the creed, the prohibition, in its punishing effect, which will deliver you to your savior.

Every young aesthete must learn the first and only rule: do not give way on desire! To obtain the object of desire harbors the grave danger of despair, or worse, boredom.  The young Don Juan must calculate, tabulate, and fixate, not on mere humans, but on the realm of the infinite. Apart from the eternally enduring realm of more, lurks the danger of enduring choice, wholehearted commitment, serious relationship, the death of freedom. To slip from the bonds of earth’s gravity personas, relationships, character, cannot be fixed or settled as desire needs infinite choice – the only true freedom. The gravity of friendship, the weight of marriage, the earth’s material pull will tend to ground the young Jeffrey Epsteins before they take flight. Or the boring additions of the flesh: another mark in the journal, another passion spent, more effort expended, and it may not add up. Indeed, as the Great Master has taught, “the body is meant for fornication and fornication for the body,” but eventually the candle burns low. “I do not feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding—the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking—it is too tiring. I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything” (E/O I, 20).

It is best the aesthete learn the discipline and punishment of the ethicist who bears his cross of guilt and delights in moral masochism, his true religion, no matter the name of his God. The lack of being giving rise to desire is the Law Giver, who holds out the possibility of total unity and mergence through law. This religion of lack serves as the ultimate obstacle, the final prohibition, before which God himself must sacrifice. The God is immutable, unmoving, impassable, stone faced, or merely stone, it does not matter.  Death is the coin of this divine realm and all must bow and pour out life to the true divine and in offering the blood of sacrifice his desire is ensured. The God is, of course, the by-product of desire (the true life-force) but better reify and dub divine lest one balk at the eternal sacrifice required by death and desire. No greater delight is there than to do “evil” in the name of God!

All who are weary come, find rest and peace, an end of pain and the fulfillment of pleasure. Every illness bears its own cure, every sickness and suffering its own end. Do not give way on the death of loneliness, the death of lovelessness, the death of friendlessness, the death of neurosis, as judgment has been passed, punishment is extracted and, in the exchange, the immortal soul feels the pleasure of his God. The heightened moral conscience, the intensification of meaning, calls for a propitiating death. The dying may be a dying of self or other, but the world is soaked in the meaning of this sacrifice. Come, bow and worship the drive to death. Enjoy your symptom, while you can.

(From the Editor – Please note that Forging Ploughshares does not endorse the work of today’s contributor, Archbishop Apollyon. The Hebrew term Abaddon, and its Greek equivalent Apollyon appear in the Bible as both a place of destruction and an angel of the abyss. In the Hebrew Bible, abandon is used with reference to a bottomless pit, often appearing alongside Sheol, meaning the realm of the dead. The Archbishop is portrayed as the “King of the Locusts” in Revelation and is also called “The Angel of Death.” In Latin he is known as “Exterminans” or “Destroyer.” Though he has achieved great heights in his religious order, and though his advice is followed throughout the world, we at Forging Ploughshares have chosen to follow one not so well known or popularly heeded.)

Christ Against Salvation

In attempting to comprehend the “semantics of desire,” as Paul Ricoeur has put it, do we need to read Scripture as addressing an unconscious register to which we would otherwise not have access? Could it be that what compels, what distracts and lures, what would destroy, follows a logic which has us in its grip precisely in that it only achieves speech or consciousness by the same semantic loop which blunts access to consciousness? If desire and death are dealt out and marked by what cannot be said, then what is denied or repressed, what is unspeakable, requires a counter-hermeneutic or an alternative means of comprehension so as to follow and counter it. I presume putting this interpretive frame into place is the point of reading the Bible. It is not only that we are to meet Christ or learn about Christ but we are to put on the mind of Christ and this mode of thought must expose in the world and ourselves the matrix of death muting love and life.

The content of this hermeneutic of life is specifically summed up as a counter to a “salvation system” which kills. In various pithy sayings, so succinct that we tend to overlook their import, the point is conveyed that the mortal attempt to put on immortality is the juncture at which death becomes definitive of human identity. Jesus warns in all four Gospels, the human project of saving life ensures its loss. Taking the perishable for the imperishable posits life through means of death.  Mortality, per se, is not the human problem but the positing of an immortal essence as part of mortality.

In Paul’s description, the ego would establish itself through the law of the mind and, in this way, death becomes a definitive force in the self. The “I” is involved in a struggle for life which kills – this is the human sickness. More accurately, this “I” is a being of and for death in that the dynamics which first give rise to this speech formation (in Gen. 3 and Rom. 7 and in Lacanian psychoanalysis) is a dynamic of death. Life is not in the law nor in the symbolic order of language and the sign of the turn from life to death, in Adam (“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:10)) Paul (“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law” (Rom. 7:14-16)) and every human, is the attempt to inscribe the self into being through this order.  In Cartesian terms, the declaration “I am” (that is “my being is established by virtue of this statement”) would attribute being to a symbolic order without ontological ground and thus signals a being of death.

Paul sums up the problem in another phrase which, again due to its familiarity, we tend to reverse or misread: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). Doesn’t Paul have this exactly backwards? Isn’t death the sting of sin – that is, we sin and then we die – and this is according to the law? In this understanding sin gives rise to death and death is an outworking of the law. The problem, given that the law is the first principle, is death (due to sin). One must pay off his guilt for sin, according to the law, and then death is avoided. This is religion as we have it in contractual theology and in pagan religion. But what Paul says is a reversal of this: law is the power of sin, not because it is the first principle but because, in sin, we would make law (the symbolic order) primary.

Sin is the sting of death because sin is the taking up of death so that one’s life is a living death. Law is the opportunity of sin, as sin misuses the law as the source of life to escape death, and thus death is taken up with the law. This moral masochism, in Freud’s phrase, inscribes itself into the law – or the identity provided by the law. The human project of gaining life through the law is the premise of a contractual theology which depicts Christ as meeting the requirements of the law by paying off the penalty of sin (a misreading of Rom. 8:4). Every pagan sacrifice follows this logic – the god is angry because his law has been broken and requires death or sacrifice. Death is the means to life through the law. This formula, summing up the sin problem, precisely sums up human religion, even in its various Christian misconstruals. The profound tragedy is this reinstitutes the problem as if it is the solution.

Resurrection annuls the power of sin in death and the law (the law of sin and death), not because God works in this economy, but because this human economy is displaced by the divine reality of life. Through resurrection we conceive of God and reality differently, as it is clear death does not constrain God but only our conception of final reality. God does not deal in death and has nothing to do with death.

As Christ demonstrates, an understanding grounded in death cannot begin to comprehend God: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? . . . have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:18-27). According to the thought of the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) God, not seeing fit to keep his once living creatures alive, is indeed the God of the dead. The Sadducees understood God was not subject to death, but in their imagination, if God would deal with humans death would factor into the equation – he would, indeed, be the God of the dead. Jesus’ point is that mistaking death as an anthropological absolute is not simply to misunderstand humanity but is to misunderstand God.

Resurrection destroys this dialectic with death and every dualism, in that with God death is not.  As James Allison sums it up, “If God is not the God of the dead – death is nothing to him – it is not to be taken into account.” Death is not the controlling factor for God, and where it is imagined he finds death satisfying, or that he reigns over a vast host of creatures consigned to death, this marks the thought as human or sub-human. As Jesus puts it, “You are greatly mistaken.”

Every human economy circulates around death as its standard of exchange (this is obvious in idolatrous religion in offering up death to the gods but this is the Marxist critique of ideology and capitalism) and the human subject, in the attempt to possess life (the “I”) through the law is possessed (λαβοῦσα) by the law of sin and death. Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver as this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφορμν), and “came upon me” (λαβοῦσα) and reduced me to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death.  The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7.23), and “I” is at war with himself in a losing battle.  “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing life and “I died.” In this economy we need guilt, we need to make ourselves sick, we need to extract the sacrifice so as to pay off the law – the law we institute, the law we enact, and the penalties we require.

People are neurotic because they live in an economy where the pain of neurotic sin, of neurotic religion, is paying the dues required by guilt. Our morality is our immorality in that in this “moral factor,” this sense of guilt, satisfaction is found in an illness which refuses to give up the punishment of suffering (The Ego and the Id, 49). Jesus just becomes an extension of the human neurosis where it is thought he is paying off the guilt – suffering for the pleasure of God.

Realization of resurrection breaks open history and human knowing displacing death as the necessity determining human reality and perception. Where sin transforms death into a personal, cultural and religious reality, resurrection relegates death to a biological reality, and opens personhood and human community to the dynamic of life. In resurrection a new order of humanity, the 2nd Adam humanity has commenced, in which the perishable has put on the imperishable.  The resurrection inaugurates the conversion of the imagination calling us to expand our categories and to reconceive our humanity according to a new order of understanding we could not otherwise know. This salvation stands over and against salvation conceived in the first Adam.

Everything Hinges on the Flesh

“The truth is that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen for the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.” Tertullian

Sin and salvation and the logics, theories, and worlds attached to each are centered in orientations to the flesh.  Sin takes hold in the flesh and Christ came in the flesh so as to address sin. Which raises the questions as to what the flesh might be (is it the sinful nature or does it refer simply to the physical body), what happens to the flesh at resurrection and what is its relation to Spirit? David Bentley Hart has re-raised the issue of the flesh, suggesting that resurrected bodies have no flesh and that the writers of the New Testament were, indeed, denigrating the flesh and did not hold to the notion that flesh was a designation for the “sinful nature” (the NIV rendering). As much as I might enjoy Hart’s cheekiness (“I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV”),[1] the entertainment value is diminished as it becomes clear his is an extreme version of the system he critiques.

Before I get to critique though, it may be helpful to attempt an appreciative word of what I think Hart may be up to. In countering N. T. Wright’s heavy focus on all things earthy and material it may be that Hart simply hopes to ground theology and understanding firmly in Spirit as a first order reality. A healthy dose of German idealism and basic Aristotelian philosophy mixed with the New Testament tells us that matter ultimately eludes understanding and that the true essence of things is in the Mind of God and is to be discovered by tracing his thought with and through the Spirit. Flesh, matter, and physicality, are not the ground of being but the Word of God is true Ground and substance. The turn to the material and empirical may have gone too far Wright and Hart, in pushing it left, is aligning himself more with German idealism rather than a naïve critical realism.  This may account for his focus: “Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” [2] Setting aside for the moment the anachronism and dialectical contrast with spirit, the notion that soul and flesh are a compound (presumably separate entities), this is an affirmation we (or he) might wish Christians appreciated (even if it has nothing to do with common philosophical thought in the first century).  

 As James Ware points out in his not unappreciative critique, Hart is wrong in presuming that the ancient world held to a notion of spirit that would accommodate (even Hart’s) resurrection (the resurrection was shocking and unbelievable even for those who eventually believed); Hart is wrong in presuming that it is Protestants who have innovated the notion that Jesus was raised and ascended in a fleshly body (it is the overwhelming position of the early Church as Ware demonstrates); he is wrong; and he is “egregiously” wrong in presuming that Paul’s contrast between spirit and soul (in I Cor. 15) is typical of the ancients.[3]  Hart’s factual errors though, point to a more deeply rooted hermeneutical problem.

 I presume that Hart’s determined misreading is rooted in something more than a momentary lapse, but is connected to his more eloquent and less unorthodox groundings in Neoplatonism, versions of natural theology, and notions of God’s absolute impassibility. That is, Hart’s error springs from the same well he imagines has poisoned Protestant theology; he too drinks of the presumption that there is a given understanding (knowledge of God as creator and law giver) available to all persons (whose capacity for reason remains largely intact in spite of sin) and that salvation does not pertain to the source of this epistemological putrefaction. Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding. The conceptual world of the New Testament, he claims, is not to be found in a distinctive Hebrew or Christian form of thought but intertestamental apocalyptic literature fused with Platonism informs New Testament cosmology and gives meaning to words such as “spirit, soul, and flesh.”

Hart blames Descartes for modern Protestant failures and presumes that by being steeped in knowledge of intertestamental literature, ancient cosmology, and Greek philosophical thought, he has access to what Paul really meant. Thus, “In the New Testament, ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘sinful nature or ‘humanity under judgment’ or even ‘fallen flesh.’  It just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense. . ..” (He goes on to say “flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death” (and yet he maintains flesh does not mean “sinful nature,” making death a natural outworking of creation, and salvation deliverance from what God calls good and a “shedding of flesh.” All of this is so problematic as to bear no further scrutiny).)[4] When Paul describes the “body of death” and connects it to the working of the flesh he certainly does not mean that this flows naturally from what God has created or that sin is an inevitable result of creation.

Paul says that “I” “of the flesh” is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Not everyone is given to this condition but only those deceived by sin in regard to the law are afflicted with “the body of death.” Paul describes the “body of death” as constituting a split within the “I” with one half of the self pitted against the other in a struggle in which human agency is entirely relinquished to sin: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17).  The flesh as descriptive of this dynamic, is not a stand-alone force (the physical body as Hart would have it) but is the combination of law, deception, sin, and an orientation toward death.

The “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind (that world which is presumably without extension, as with Descartes), and this constitutes the work of death. Death is not simply mortality, and the principle of the flesh is not simply the fact that one has fleshly members. The members of my body are out of control (or “I” am out of control). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18) but this is not because of God’s good creation but because of sin. The precise place which sin dwells is not in “my members” alone but in the law of the mind pitted against the members of my body. The entire dynamic of mind against body (dualism) constitutes the problem.

In presuming Paul is just an extension of his time (more of the same), Hart misses the deep nature of this Pauline critique of human wisdom (inclusive of both Descartes and Hegel, as Žižek notes), such that he falls into the very dualism constitutive of this wisdom (flesh/spirit is no advance over soul/body or mind/body).

Descartes is not the innovative genius giving rise to modernism (it is modernism and not Paul that is more of the same) but Descartes succeeds in giving formulaic expression to the dualism Paul describes as inherent to human wisdom. “I think therefore I am,” (the ground of Descartes’ certainty and the point of departure of modernity) pits the law of my mind (thought without extension into my body) as separate from being (leaving no room for the biological body). The transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself.  Paul calls this second body the flesh (sarx), as it is not the actual physical body (soma) but it is a principle or orientation which has taken on a force and significance that is out of control. Hart seems to repeat sin’s delusion in imagining a body without flesh (without itself) is salvation.

In I Corinthians 15, around which much of this controversy revolves, Paul uses a series of analogies (several employing a positive notion of “flesh”) from nature so as to enable conceiving of the resurrection as on a continuum with the fleshly body. A seed has continuity with the plant that springs from it. Though it may cease to be a seed, this same entity transforms into something else. The person that dies is the one that is raised as it is the same self, though the same self will assume a different form. Paul declares not all flesh is the same flesh. Human flesh differs from that of animals, and so too the sun, moon, and stars vary. Resurrection, it would seem, is not a departure from the created and fleshly order but an addition to it.

The “soulish body” does not become the “spiritual body” by ridding itself of flesh. Pneuma (Spirit) conveys immortality but this immortal kind of pneuma is from God. Spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not mean composed of nonmaterial spirit (God alone is Spirit); rather, Paul is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The raised body is characterized by the uninterrupted, transforming power of the Holy Spirit as there will be no frustrating of the work of the Spirit. Paul’s contrast is between the body energized by either the soul (and thus subject to death), or the risen body infused with the Holy Spirit. The body does not become the Holy Spirit but is energized and enlivened by an undisrupted divine power.

Paul has already indicated that if the Corinthians do not hold to bodily resurrection they might as well be nihilists – “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32). He has already said the soulish human (the psychikos person) does not receive the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned, while the pneumatikos person discerns everything (I Cor. 2:14-15). This passage and others like it do not speak of the human soul and spirit, but contrast the human soul with the divine Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-15; Jude 19).[5]  They could easily have conceived of souls or spirits going to heaven and leaving physical bodies behind (as the Gnostics will soon demonstrate). Paul says this is not good enough. One can presume the Corinthian problem is just more of the same, more identity through difference – mind against body – heaven against earth – light against dark – being over against nothingness – or spirit against flesh, but to presume Paul concurs precludes the very need for such a letter and such harsh warnings.  

While one can appreciate that prime reality is Spirit, part of realizing this essence is not to subtract matter or flesh as an obstacle to the One who conceived it but to realize the physical body is fully itself when joined to Spirit.

 As Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) puts it, “Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own Spirit, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious; — (shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid. God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of His testimony, the sister of His Christ!”[6]


[1]David Bentley Hart,  “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients,” in Church Life Journal (July 26, 2018), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/

[2] My source on this paragraph is Ryan Hemmer whose incisive insight came right as I was writing this blog thus I added this paragraph. Here is the key idea for Hart and the entire quote: “Spirit,” by contrast—πνεῦμα or spiritus—was something quite different, a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere. It could survive anywhere, and could move with complete liberty among all the spiritual realms, as well as in the material world here below. Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” If his focus elsewhere was on continuity and transformation of the flesh and not discontinuity, and was not factually and theologically suspect, and if he had recognized the peculiar application of Spirit by Paul, this particular passage might have had insightful elements.

[3] James P. Ware,  “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection,” Church Life Journal (June 21, 2019), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-incarnation-doesnt-end-with-the-resurrection/ Ware provides extensive counter examples. One example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) – “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it only is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it.” (Fragments, 2).

[4] A less generous assessment is to be found here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/08/09/ancients-resurrection-david-bentley-hart/

 [5] According to Ware, “This is something that never occurs in pagan literature, and is contrary to the usual collocation of “soul” and “spirit” in Jewish and Christian texts. Graeco-Roman thinkers did not use “spirit” (pneuma) in contrast with “soul” (psyche), as Hart claims. Platonists and Peripatetics used pneuma (Latin: spiritus) straightforwardly of the “breath” and “air” exhaled by the lungs. The Stoics used the word in this way as well, but they also used it of the divine spirit or pneuma that they believed pervades the universe and subsists as the soul (psyche) within each person.” 

[6] Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 8 – 9. http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000908_tertulliano_en.html?fbclid=IwAR3ov2nIWwUnB4XIg1MjL8RmRR-nrnxC97OrLEDHrjsTU44MVRS-78FhbmM Thank you for pointing me to this quote Joelle.

Two Opposed Depictions of Paul and Two Opposed Christianities

The story of Paul’s conversion is often described as arising from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings (as I have shown here it pertains to every key doctrine). But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. 

To die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.

Resurrection as Escape from the Mud Swamp of the Nation State

Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence, portrays Japan as a mud swamp in which Christianity cannot take root.  Endō’s mistake, of projecting onto the Tokugawa period (the novel is set in the 17th century) a “Japanese” sensibility which developed much later with the Meiji period (beginning in the 1860’s), is itself an illustration of the strength of the ideology of the modern nation state. As odd as it sounds, the “Japanese people” with a supposed mud swamp essence (a distinct religion, language, and cultural identity) is a development which arises as Japan seeks to become a unified nation, prior to which identity would have been tied to the local clan and religion (making the country susceptible to both foreign religion and foreign invasion in the estimate of the ruling elites). The manner in which Christianity rapidly inundated 16th century Japan, one of the most rapidly Christianized countries in Asia, demonstrates that Japan was fertile soil for Christianity (and the Shogun was warned this was the first step in a colonial take-over).  The notion that Japan consists of an essence, a capacity for absorbing and reshaping every influence, is a modern development, demonstrated by the fact that the religion was driven underground, not because it could not take root in Tokugawa Japan, but because tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were martyred by a Shogunate fearful of Western invasion aided by subjects loyal to foreign religious powers. It was not simply, as in first century Rome, that Christians posed an internal threat. The links of the religion to colonial powers posed a political and military threat which would eventually give rise to Japan’s pursuit of British-like imperial power.

The ideology which would make Japan a mud swamp, warding off Christianity and foreign domination, was erected as a purposeful imitation of the modern nation state geared to meet foreign power with an equal and opposite force. The invention of the “Japanese people,” constituting a unique religious identity (State Shinto), a unique language (there was no shared language prior to the modern period and the language is still marked by mutually unintelligible dialects), a unique racial identity (Japan is a DNA melting pot of the Asian mainland) is a relatively modern innovation on the same order as the American, the British, or the French people.  What is obvious to the foreigner visiting Japan is how the culture shapes individuals so as to forge a “unique” national identity.

What may not be so obvious to the Western, specifically American or U.S., observer is that this identity is a mirror image. The identity and counter-identity have both been forged by the same imperialism, colonialism, patriotism, and nationalism, which constitute the corrosive and overwhelming force of the modern nation state. If Japan is a mud swamp which has successfully warded off Christianity (which it is and has for the most part), it is by virtue of the same power which has shaped Christianity so as to fit modern Western identity.  Where we might recognize Endō’s mud swamp, the corrosive effect of those same forces on modern Christianity may be less obvious.

A test, formulated by Paul for the Corinthians, to gauge the distance between the modern American form of the faith and New Testament Christianity is the role of bodily resurrection. The danger is we might imagine Paul is too heavy handed or is being hyperbolic when he suggests it is a choice of either belief in bodily resurrection or belief that the apostles are liars, God is untrue, and a Christianity without resurrection is worse than paganism. Eat, drink and be merry, for death reigns (I Cor. 15:32), he declares. It seems Paul has not considered the more sophisticated notion of disembodied souls going to heaven, which would separate out the earthly kingdoms from God’s heavenly focus. To say resurrection is salvation and that without it Christianity is futile; well, hasn’t Paul forgotten the main point about Jesus taking our punishment so we can go to heaven?

Paul says either embrace bodily resurrection or acknowledge the nihilistic darkness of an empty faith (along with lying apostles, remaining in sin, and being consigned to oblivion (I Cor. 15:12-19)).  He offers no room for dualism or for the notion that a disembodied soul going to heaven is Christian salvation. This dualistic division (dividing faith from ethics, history from eternity, material reality from spiritual reality), apparently would mean Christians are left in their sin (even though they acknowledge “Christ died for my sins”). He indicates this is the delusion resurrection defeats.

In the following verses (20-28) Paul equates resurrection with an embodied this-worldly sort of salvation. Christ’s resurrection is defeating the powers (the dominion, power, and authority of this world’s kingdoms, v. 24), it is bringing about the reversal of all that occurred in the 1st Adam, and is the inauguration of a universal resurrection in which the reign of God will be made complete (with the establishment of the kingdom of God – his reign, his people, according to the principle of life).  Christ’s resurrection will bring about the defeat of the final enemy and this defeat is in process (I Cor. 15:20-28). How can all of this be true?

It is the case only if the primary enemy is death and an orientation to death deployed by the “dominions and authorities” (human modes of reign and rule) defeated in resurrection. It is only true if the dualism which would split up body and soul, the City of God and the City of man, is not simply a theological or philosophical error but the lie of sin itself.

Resurrection as salvation (as an anti-dualism) makes sense where the “body of death” or the “body of sin” is constituted in a lie that divides (perceived as the self, divided between “body” and “soul”) in which the symbolic order of the law (the soulish, the spiritual) is pitted against the physical body. Sin, in Paul’s picture, is focused on the struggle and sacrifice of life within the “I.” The battle within the “I” is self-destructive and potentially violent – should “I” give way to the ever-present possibility of evil (Ro. 7:21). Sacrifice (masochistic or sadistic violence aimed at gaining life) is inscribed into the sinful economy – it is the agonistic struggle constituting the “body of death” – a Subject engaged in a struggle for life which kills. 

Paul’s “body” (σῶμα) is not referring to only the physical body but to the Subject, with sin and death describing the orientation or existential reality of the Subject. Body denotes the full reality which comes with embodiment: humans embodied in a particular environment, the body being that which constitutes them social beings, a being who relates to and communicates with her environment.  As in a Wittgensteinian understanding, the Subject is a body such that self-alienation might be experienced as “having a body” rather than “being a body” (Paul’s body out of control, as Bultmann describes it, means a Subject out of control).  So, to be joined to the body of Christ in baptism is to close the gap within the self. Sin is an apparent dualism defeated in salvation.

The gap within the self (self-antagonism between body and soul) constitutes a myriad of possible worlds and alternative means of constituting the self through opposed pairs (dualism). John notes this same world order so as to show in these apparent dualisms light defeats darkness, truth defeats the lie, and life overcomes death. The knowledge of good and evil is the deep grammar of sin dependent upon an apparent dualism (Hegel references the fall into the knowledge of good and evil as a cognitive necessity to inaugurate his dialectic). Jew and Gentile, male and female, thought and being, soul and body, East and West, inside (Japanese) and outside (foreigner), all pose the possibility of identity through difference. Or as Paul puts it, the body of death pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7.23-24). Sin is a way of being, an epistemology, a world, constituted in what Paul describes as a death dealing lie.

A modern contractual Christianity tied to the lie in the name of Christ (life is in the law because Christ meets its requirements) might favor a Cartesian version of modernity (the discordant dualism of “I think therefore I am”). In this philosophical individualism truth is apprehended within (thought, one side of the dualism, provides being, the other side of the dualism, and thus faith is its own reality). The modern theological conservative might trust empirical apprehension of reality (laws of nature, laws of science, laws of reason, over and against the mind), in which faith is a cognitive affirmation of historical reality. Both, though, begin with a given reality as posited through a modern Western frame of knowledge and modern notions of self (a self divided between empirical reality and inward essence). It is presumed one has access to an already posited reality, and Christian faith, ethics, and truth works within this framework (as I summed it up here). What is obscured is Paul’s third law – the law of sin and death – the divide within the Subject which secures this reality and the resurrection which defeats it.

“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). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  The “body of death” is put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the “body of death” as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to negation and death, is joined to the resurrected body of Christ. This is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (‘the redemption of our bodies’ (8.23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8.21)). This truth cannot be bent by the mud swamp of modernity as it names the lie of dualism, of doing identity in the law, in the state, in human religion, or in modernity.

The modern nation-state constitutes identity through difference in its own dualism (Orient/Occident, Eastern backwardness/Western progress, etc.) and modern contractual theology with its focus on Western notions of individual faith (constituting the modern self), tied to Western notions of democracy, patriotism, and nationalism, is precisely what Japan’s ruling elite sensed – the ideological forerunner to colonization. The question is if an American faith subject to this same colonizing power can escape its grip?

The way of escape is clear: “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (I Cor. 15:24) as resurrection is the counter-power to a world built on death. “He has put all things in subjection under His feet . . . so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:27-28) as resurrection defeats the apparent dualism by closing the gap of a failed identity. 

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.

Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

(Reposted from July 26, 2018)

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of th(e Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence.

Buddha’s original insight into the human predicament (suffering, disease, and death) was to lay the blame on desire or attachment. It is not that detachment gets rid of suffering and death—but the point is to posit a reality which is untouched by suffering and death and, so, relinquish a grip on the material world in a way that takes hold of this alternative reality. In actual practice in Japan, this has not meant a refusal of violence but a fearless embrace of death—as in Bushido. To be struck down or to strike down (by light saber or sword) is of no great concern as death is a passageway into a more substantial reality. Isn’t this the teaching of the Bible and Christianity? Consider the hymns we have sung for decades: this “world is not my home I am just passing through,” “I’ll fly away,” and “we will meet on that heavenly shore.” Those who accept Jesus into their heart have the assurance of a spiritual heavenly home and this is why Jesus came. Now we can see that death is not a reality and this material world will soon be burned up.  Our souls will depart for heaven, upon separation from our bodies at death, and we will spend eternity in disembodied bliss.

The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism (see the fine blog and podcasts with Bret Powell) is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity (see Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics) presume that Christianity addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death.  This understanding was never far from the Gnostic Christ or from the Star Warsportrayal of Anakin as a Christ-like figure (his immaculate conception, his Ben-Hur like chariot/pod race). The New Age pagan universe is not so different from the second century pagan universe, as in both good and evil are not really opposed forces but each is a necessary part of the other. The point is not to rid the world of the dark side but to keep all things in balance. The serpent and Judas are joined to Christ in the same way that Anakin, a Christ figure, is joined to Darth Vader.  The neo-Gnostics, like the originals, presume that the serpent represents a feminine principle which has been demonized and so we need to hear this voice which would have us imbibe in the fulness of knowledge.  Those with true insight, as the Zen Buddhist philosopher Kitaro Nishida puts it, recognize that the principles of good and evil, God and Satan, can be conjoined and harmonized within the self so that the enlightened individual is greater than God and Satan. The goal is to achieve balance and harmony through detachment from both principles.

Within this pagan horizon, one who claims to be the “way, the truth, and the life,” or one who advocates selling everything, not simply to become detached but so as to become attached to Him, must be the ultimate devil. Christ explains that he did not come to bring balance and harmony, but a sword. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” Christianity is not paganism precisely because it opposes, divides itself from, and does not presume to explain and incorporate the “necessity” of evil. Darkness is not a counter-balance to light, and death is not a doorway to life; death is the final enemy and darkness will be penetrated and overcome.

On the other hand, the sign of a Christianity turned Gnostic (whether by post-evangelicals or evangelicals) is the willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness. Violence, nationalism, or personal betrayal (in my experience “raising up new servant leaders for the Church” requires that the old ones be expendable) in which doing evil to singular individuals is justified in bringing about the greater good for the kingdom (an actual theological explanation I received). There is no end to the evil (war, keeping the foreigners out, imprisoning children, or simply doing evil to a friend) which may be required to usher in the kingdom. Calvin maintains the Fall, Judas, and evil, are a necessary part of God’s plan, so it should be no surprise that, in the name of this sort of Christianity, some are willing to play the role of Judas so as to advance the kingdom.  After all, don’t we need Judas to betray Christ so that the world revolution can begin? Maybe Judas recognized he was the necessary cog in fomenting a showdown.

In its exclusiveness, orthodoxy is intolerant of this sort of evil because the kingdom established on this principle (“Let us do evil that good may abound”) is itself evil. (Which is the interesting part of Star Wars – the Republic turned Empire – “we ourselves have become evil” – to which I will return below.) To state it differently, there is the possibility of defeating evil and not simply the presumption that Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin, false opposites to be harmonized in a higher principle. Christ presumes to separate good and evil and not reduce them to mere appearance. His harsh judgments of the Pharisees (“You are of your father the Devil”), of his own disciples (“One of You is a devil”), and even his chief apostle (“Get behind me Satan”), are meant to divide and separate the good from the evil. Where paganism would obliterate differences – good and evil, male and female, darkness and light – Christ draws lines and distinguishes elements, such that the imbalance is not undermined but accentuated.

This sort of intolerance is counted the source of evil in New Age paganism. How can one achieve peace if continually caught up in this agonistic struggle? The quietism of the East accepts the inevitable cosmic conflict but presumes one can withdraw to a higher plane. Where Christ demands a definitive belief, the New Age principle would suspend belief and revel in non-duality, non-thought, and a primal Ground in which substantive reality is enfolded into Nothingness. The Force needs its “Anakins” as much as its “Lukes” and it is no surprise that the same principle should give rise to both. What I have argued in my previous two blogs, as with the Kyoto School, Martin Heidegger, and the head of Shambhala International, is that this form of enlightenment may “positively” impact the brain (as determined in the valuation system of neurotheology) while actively promoting evil. The Gnostic, in reply, would point to the relativity of terms such as “good” and “evil” and valorize the role of the serpent and Judas. What is a bit of groping, fascism, National Socialism, murder, betrayal, in light of the cosmic balance, the Empire, or the kingdom of God? (Perhaps Anakin should be made to realize the Emperor only appears evil through the limited perspective of the archaic league, the Jedi, and he is the true master.) Both the Gnostics and orthodox Christians would accuse the other of being deluded. (As I have argued, neurotheology does not have the tools to look at the brain and make a determination one way or another.) The precise nature of reality is under contention.

The Bible and Christianity (in its pre-Gnostic form) accounts for the drive to detachment and non-duality, not as acceding to the primal ground, but as a delusion arising from rejection of the divine perspective. The Fall consists, as Bonhoeffer describes it, of humans displacing the divine role and becoming the arbiters of their own ethic. Paul describes the cathecting of the law into the self so that both law and the subject are transformed in the process. The law, taken up into the subject, divides the “I” against itself so that the individual is simultaneously constituted and consumed in the ensuing struggle.

The law is not something distinct from the self but is that part of identity – that punishing voice within which would obliterate the ego. The key point is that the agonistic struggle is not something which happens to the “I” or ego; rather the ego is constituted in the struggle with the law. To succumb to the law (or to what Paul describes as a deceived orientation to law definitive of sin) is to give death full sway. Thus, Freud dubs it the Nirvana principle, as in a masochistic self-relation ultimate pleasure is to be had in a death dealing dissolution.  Obi-Wan’s succumbing to death, or the enlightenment goal of dissolution of the ego, succumbs to the deluding power of the super-ego or the law (which in the revised Star Wars would be the Evil Emperor).

Paul’s resolution (unavailable in psychoanalysis) is a deconstruction of the entire dynamic. The ego is identified as a spectral unreality, the law (superego) is one’s own voice given final authority, and the positing of these two realms denies the reality of the mortal body and death. The serpent, Obi-Wan, but every form of paganism, whispers, “You won’t die, you will be gods knowing good and evil.” Paul’s cry in regard to the real of the death drive, “who will rescue me from this body of death,” is to be found in the specific work of Christ in exposing the death dealing orientation of sin (the death drive). Death and desire, the controlling forces of sin, are displaced by life and hope. The “I” can be said to have been crucified with Christ, but it is not that the placeholder of the “I” remains empty. It is now, Paul says, Christ that lives within me. What this means in experience is detailed in his depiction in Ro. 8 of taking on the perspective of Christ in relation to “Abba Father” through the Spirit. Paul fills in each part of the tri-partite identity with a depiction of the work of the Trinity.

In place of the law (the punishing superego) is a first order relation with “Abba – Father,” and in place of the ego is the perspective and relational identity of Christ (“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives within me”), and in place of the orientation to death (id, death drive) is the life-giving work of the Spirit.  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 key difference between the living death of 7.7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates (giving rise to the three parts of a lie – what is denied (death), what is posited (the ego), and the controlling medium (the law), 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).  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).

The pertinent question/objection, in conjunction with Star Wars, is not simply why one individual became evil but why the Republic became the Empire and how Paul’s prescription amounts to a political intervention? In the end Lucas’ (or what has become the Star Wars franchise) portrayal of the fall of Anakin is not consistent. If Anakin had been portrayed as one who pursued the good or peace, such that like Judas he was willing to do evil to bring on the final confrontation which would bring about peace, this would have followed the trajectory from Republic to Empire. (As it is Anakin proves simply to be weak willed and drawn to power for its own sake.) Hardt and Negri sum up the problem of Empire: “the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace—a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.” This fits Lucas’ explanation that the Empire did not conquer the Republic, but the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’” The pursuit of peace through evil, at the individual and corporate level, produces Empire on the macro and micro scale. Anakin becomes Vader (and this would have been the more authentic portrayal) in the same way that the Republic becomes the Empire; not through attachment to the good but a determination to achieve peace by any means. Anakin should have become a monster through his commitment to fight evil by any means. A democracy becomes a dictatorship in its commitment, as Žižek puts it, “through the very way we, the ‘good guys,’ fight the enemy out there.” The war on terror endlessly reduplicates terror as it functions according to the presumption generating evil.

The enemy which Christ exposes, as Paul explains, is precisely this principle of doing evil that good may abound. The political alternative is the enactment of the good, in every circumstance and at any personal cost (laying one’s life down for the brethren), without falling back on evil. Though “necessity” may demand an immediate violence, a slight moral modification, a temporary suspension of peace, the Kingdom founded on the Cross refuses to succumb to the principle of Empire. The Peaceable Kingdom declares the struggle and its principle, “shall we sin that grace may abound,” as the delusion undone in an original peace devoid of the necessity of conflict.

[1] This was from a 2002 Time Magazine interview. I am employing Slavoj Žižek’s account from his article “Revenge of Global Finance” In These Times at http://inthesetimes.com/article/2122/revenge_of_global_finance.

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.

The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense, explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with Gehenna or the Lake of Fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of Gehenna or the Lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fulness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.


[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).