Nonviolent Atonement: Beyond Christus Victor to Expanded Recapitulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Unraveling and Remaking of American Religion

According to the democratic party convention, America is engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the nation and a moral crusade for a return to basic decency. Eric Trump responded that the democrats are crazy and will return the country to socialism, higher taxes, and unfair trade agreements. The covid-19 crisis has only sharpened this political divide, offering focus on economic survival with Donald Trump or biological and cultural survival with a future democratic party, focused on science and common decency. In one party, the death of a few is called for by the economic welfare of the many. There are always those (according to Rusty Reno, see my piece here) who will inevitably be culled by disease, and we must offer up the susceptible for the survival of the many. The fact that black people are dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans is the price many (white?) people would allow for. The counter accusation is, democrats would reduce us to socialism and would subvert the key doctrine of American individualism. It as is if two religions or two alternative world views were vying for the soul of the nation, and maybe they are.

The brokenness reflected in this political moment reflects a personal journey for Faith and I. As the country was beginning to split more sharply four years ago, we were fired, on the same day fifteen minutes apart, from a Christian college. This college and its personnel would fall on the hard right of this political/cultural moment, but at the point we began working there this chasm was still bridgeable. Our dismissal opened a gap with former colleagues and those we once counted as friends, not of our making, which has remained firmly in place. In the intervening years, I have seen the same divide open up with several of my students (maybe my fault) and have witnessed it with acquaintances, who have lost jobs and relationships with family, not just because of politics but due to the religion which attaches to the politics. This period of division in our country reflects an expanding chasm opening up within the Christian faith (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). There are two interpretive frames, one in which economics outweigh the focus on social inequities and human welfare, and I am not referring to political parties but to two theological understandings.   

In the conservative wing of theology (and I use conservative here to refer to a failure to engage the liberal nature of the gospel), Christianity is primarily concerned with correcting a failed economy of a divine order. In this familiar story, God created everything good and human sin spoiled this goodness. The focus, though, is not upon what went wrong in the world but how sin offends the justice of God. Given his prerogative of justice, in his offended honor God could have simply wiped out the human race, but since he is also merciful, God decided to work out a solution within himself. The two-fold problem is how to meet the obligation of his offended justice, as God could not simply forgive as this would violate his justice (the controlling factor in the economy), and how to receive this payment from the quarter (within humanity) in which the offence arose (the debtor must pay the debt). Thus, the incarnation and the cross, in which humanity in Christ offers up the required infinite payment, which was an amount they could not have engineered, but which God arranges through the death of his divine Son. Those who choose or are chosen to be covered by his infinite payment meet the requirements of God’s justice and are enabled to go to heaven and miss hell. An infinite payment is made to meet the infinite debt of God’s offended honor and justice. Thus, the books are balanced in the divine economic order.

This tight focus on payment and exchange, which its inventor, Anselm, thought of and illustrated in monetary terms, becomes literally concerned with money and savings with the Protestant Reformation.  Now that all are priests, their vocations are also a calling (whether shop keeper or banker), in which the accumulation of wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Now one does not depend upon priests or the church to assign blessing, as grace comes through hard work and shows itself in accumulated wealth. That is, an economic order of salvation translated into a primary focus on economics in which the literal accrual of wealth reflects a grace that can been cashed in and credited to one’s account. Capitalism, in this very brief synopsis of its rise as outlined by Max Weber, is already interwoven with a religious belief in which economics is primary, so it should be no surprise that this form of the religion would become narrowly focused on a leader concerned with boosting the economy. The limited dimensionality of this religion, I believe, accounts for the narrow focus of its present political attachment.

The problem with this theory is that, as a theory, it allows for abstraction or a distancing from the lived-reality of what happened to Jesus and what happens to all people. It abstracts from the human circumstance and puts primacy on the heavenly economy shadowed forth in the earthly market. The fact that people crucified Christ and that it is human and not divine wrath which killed him, are rendered inconsequential. One keeps score in this system, not by correcting social injustices like crucifying or killing unjustly, but by meeting the requirements of the law which reflect God’s own character. Fighting injustice (helping the poor, ceasing to steal, cessation of war and murder) though one might choose to do such things, are not primary. In spite of the biblical depiction of the law with its death dealing letter being set aside, in this understanding the economy of salvation is according to the demands of the law. And besides, don’t the poor already bear the signs of missing God’s blessing? Aren’t they deserving of their lot in life by dent of their not doing the hard work which would show forth God’s favor? As a youth minister explained to my daughter, the poor show they are not blessed as they are poor (which seems to have bypassed one of the beatitudes).

This economy of exchange, of debt and payment, is attached to a peculiar and singular ethic: the Protestant work ethic. Virtue pays cash dividends, according to Benjamin Franklin, and the wise investment of time shows itself monetarily in a value system in which “time is money” (Franklin’s phrase). This translates directly into virtue is money and money a virtue. If every calling is a sacred calling, then every occupation deserves holy or whole or complete devotion. Piety is work and eventually one is left with work and money in place of or in conjunction with religion and blessing. This rise of a capitalistic religion seems to explain its culminating attachment to the vacuity of virtue that is Donald Trump.

In that this is the American story and religion, this may be the part we are most familiar with, but let me propose a more orthodox reading of scripture, which is not a theory so much as a direct engagement with the first order problem we face as humans. The root problem behind poverty, social injustice, war, and racism, pertains to the zero-sum economy enacted by the fact that people die. Time is money and both are valuable commodities only where there are limited amounts of each, and so too the ensuing problems of poverty, greed, racism, and injustice. The gospel is not about working within this limited economy of death, but in opening up to life in the fullness of God, creation, and other people, through the defeat of death. Rather than setting us to work to prove we are saved in an economy of death, the gospel call is to act as if death is not a final reality, which opens up an order in which we can address the real-world problems associated with the fact that people die.

James Alison pictures this contrast as that between theory (a disengagement with reality) and liturgy (a direct engagement with reality or something we can immediately grasp).[1] In his description liturgy is something “that happens to you” and it does not depend upon an intervening theory. We need not speculate about the movement or mind of God in theory, as reality is engaged. A way of approaching the difference is in contrasting pictures of sacrifice. In the artificial economy of sacrifice (shared with pagan sacrificial systems), what gets sacrificed (the enemy, slaves, or women, in paganism) saves the one who sacrifices. God’s justice, and in a sense God himself, is preserved or saved from the divide between his wrath and love, in penal substitution. Sacrifice can also depict a personal event in which it is not the other but the self that is sacrificed. Sacrifice to the economy preserves the self and the economy. Where the economy itself is sacrificed the theory of sacrifice is replaced with the reality of self-sacrifice (taking up the cross).[2] This frees up from the work of economic sacrifice so that the implements of the economy of death (i.e. swords) are utilized in a different order of reality as farm implements, the growing of food, and the welfare of people (Isaiah 2:4).

The Jewish Temple sacrifice is often read as if it serves the economy of death, with the priests and people sacrificing animals to save themselves. According to Alison, this needs to be reversed and read in light of the sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of the Temple sacrifice, like the event of the cross, is not that something is sacrificed to God but that God is sacrificing himself. The goat, which was the Lord, is taken into the Holy of Holies and sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest puts on a phylactery when he emerges (on his forehead or wrapped around his arm) which identifies him as YHWH, the unpronounceable name of God.  In this reversal, the atonement is not about bringing the priest and people before God, but it brings God into the world. It is the Lord which the priest represents, who emerges to set the people free from the result of their sin. From out of the place before or beyond creation (represented by the Holy of Holies) the priest would emerge as God himself emerging through the veil of the material world (he would don a robe made of the same material as the veil) so as to cross the divine human divide created by humans. Then he would sprinkle the rest of the Temple, representing the cosmos itself. The life of God (“life is in the blood”) is unleashed onto creation so that the healing of redemption is not an inward and upward heavenly departure of humans but the earthly, outward movement of the arrival of God. God is acting to save his people from sin and death and they are freed up to participate in his redemptive, seventh day, activity.[3]

Of course, it is Christ who is the true high priest who fulfills God’s emergence from out of the origins of creation, before time, into the world. This is the portrayal of Hebrews and the Gospel of John, in which Christ is the true mediator, the true Temple and the true sacrifice. John pictures Jesus as sacrificed on a Thursday, during the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (without a bone being broken) but, as Alison points out, wearing the seamless robe of a priest. Here is the true sacrifice and the true high priest, who upon his death repeats the finale to the days of creation from Genesis, “It is finished.” The beginnings of creation are complete, and this culminates John’s opening chapters, with Christ portrayed as both creator and as re-inaugurating creation in the opening of his ministry. Now the eternal seventh day of rest is made an open reality for all. This is made clear as the tomb is pictured like the arc of the covenant or like the holy of holies with its mercy seat, where Mary Magdalene “saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12). The Holy of Holies has been opened up to the world.

The implication is that we have to do, not with an economy of death set in heaven and reflected on earth, but with creation and its completion in salvation. The contrast with the economy which devolves into the Protestant work ethic is passage out of the legal six-day economy of work. In the imagery of the writer of Hebrews human toil is transformed into the leisure of the seventh day of rest. The contrast between the two religions of the day, is a continued working to escape death in an economy of substitutionary sacrifice and the presumption that self-sacrifice is afforded by God as the zero-sum economy is defeated. The former demands work and consumption, presuming that the wrath of God and divine justice are primary, while the latter abandons this zero-sum game in its recognition that it is human wrath and injustice that are defeated in the death of Christ. God does not require satisfaction or substitution but only people do. It is this human wrath and violence projected onto God, which imagines human sacrifice assuages God’s anger. God does not benefit from the death of Christ; we are the beneficiaries and this is the realization taken up in an alternative form of life.

I believe, in this political/cultural moment, we are indeed faced with a religious choice. The religion of the day, joined to a politic preserving this world’s economy, has divided itself off from Christian orthodoxy. This division and the chasm that has opened up in our culture and which reflects the splintering of the Christian faith, is not entirely negative. The emptiness of heterodoxy is being revealed throughout our nation, though, at the steep price of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a clear division, however, being made between a false and true gospel. Forging Ploughshares and many other individuals and organizations are teaching the gospel of peace, without hindrance or admixture. Religious division is resulting in the emergence of a certain clarity for many. Orthodoxy is showing itself in its creation care and is revealed in its embrace of a politic aimed at human well-being in which the physical is not set apart from the spiritual. It is revealing itself in a faith that regards social justice as synonymous with the establishment of the true church, as this is the politics of Jesus. God himself has entered creation to redeem it, and as we engage this redemptive creation care we recognize salvation engages and defeats death and the death dealing nature of the human economy; it does not divinize or project this economy onto God or seek to sacrifice to preserve it, but it moves beyond it to the real-world relief and salvation of suffering humanity.   


[1] http://jamesalison.com/some-thoughts-on-the-atonement/?fbclid=IwAR088AjIDc3R1-96QWybIPTFknpWV2bZfAV5-YEJPZUZU67xqOrC1xkTqfI

[2] Murder, as René Girard has taught us, stands behind all sacrificial systems and Jesus reveals the intention of the Pharisees and priests and of all religions of sacrifice. “You are from your father the devil . . . a murderer from the beginning . . .  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44-5).

[3] Alison, Ibid.

Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame. Continue reading “Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God”

The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction

A way of illustrating how sin functions through a lie is to use the theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution as a case in point (a singular illustration) of the lie.  That is, these theories of atonement, I would argue, simply offer up the universal deception of sin under the guise of salvation.  Penal substitution and divine satisfaction do what Paul depicts sin as always doing – presume there is life in the law, that suffering and death are redemptive, and that death is an absolute.  Paul’s picture of the fallen Subject is one in which the law (the law of the mind) is presumed to provide life, and death and suffering, under the guise of law, are continually taken up as the law of sin and death.  Three things come together in this understanding: the law as the will to power (to obtain life and being); desire and suffering of and for the ego or “I” (the idol or image); and the production of death confused with life.  In Paul’s picture this is the dynamic within every fallen Subject.  Likewise, the logic of every form of false religion is built upon these three pillars; the immutability of the law setting up the absolute nature of death which makes suffering and death a form of redemption. The gods of paganism require penalty and payment so that law and order are maintained. The good Buddhist or Hindu recognizes that there is a cosmic law at work (karma or destiny) which must be obeyed, that asceticism or relinquishing of life and self is the means of salvation, and that death is the doorway into this salvation.  Both Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin presume that law is the economy determining the nature of salvation and this salvation requires eternal payment – the death of Christ. If penal substitution and divine satisfaction are a repetition of the problem it is a peculiarly blasphemous repetition as it is at the same time a displacement of the orthodox Christian answer. Continue reading “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction”

Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law

Scripture provides two frames which, when aligned, give us a view of the world. Much like getting the two lenses of a telescope aligned, the lens provided by the person and work of Christ accounts for and is aligned by the frame of the law and Judaism so that the socio-political and personal realms of the present (with its various idolatries) are exposed.  Looking through the aligned lens of Christ and the law (with all that the law entails) is the means of diagnosing the present predicament – personal and cosmic. In terms of understanding the human predicament, the depth of the disease of sin, and the cosmic implications of evil, the law and Judaism are inadequate but it is precisely the realization of this inadequacy which sets the work of Christ in the proper frame. Continue reading “Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law”