Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?

Because I was raised in a tradition that boasted its anti-Calvinist stance, in four years of Bible College and three years of seminary in a variety of institutions, it did not occur to me that the doctrine of atonement taught in all of these institutions was that of John Calvin. As one of my teaching colleagues put it, “I was not aware that there was more than one theory of atonement.” Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution is the understanding of the atonement most evangelicals were raised on, whether they consider themselves Calvinist or not, and for many this doctrine is so central to their faith that, like prominent pastor John McArthur, they would claim that to relinquish this doctrine is to abandon Christianity. But the reality is that the doctrine is not the teaching of the New Testament nor of the early Church but the conscious invention of John Calvin.

That is, in Book 2 Section 16 of the Institutes, we can pinpoint where Calvin acknowledges his departure from the Apostles’ Creed, the Church’s accepted standard of biblical understanding, and proposes the innovation he claims sums up the gospel. There are elements Calvin borrows and builds upon, such as the Augustinian notion of original sin (based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate – see here), the notion of nominalism (that God in his essence is disconnected from his earthly representation), Anselm’s legal abstractions, and notions of substitution, but Calvin consciously innovates a new reading of that most obscure of passages, I Peter 3:18-22.

 In a sense the biblical reference, taken up in the Apostles Creed and understood to be his descent to the place of the dead, is only the occasion for Calvin to suggest that the true work of Christ pertains, not to death or the grave, but to the place of future punishment (Gehenna or the Lake of Fire). He acknowledges that the Creed refers to the place of the dead to which Christ descended between the crucifixion and his resurrection. He is suggesting that the gradual appearance of the doctrine (he realizes it is not a common teaching in the early church) in the Creed must have significance: “There are some again who think that the article contains nothing new, but is merely a repetition in different words of what was previously said respecting burial, the word Hell (Infernus) being often used in Scripture for sepulcher.”[1] But the question is, why would this peculiar passage with its obscure interpretation find its way into the Creed. He is attaching supreme significance to its gradual appearance and its obscurity.

The argument from incomprehension may not strike modern ears as convincing, but Augustine had made sin inaccessible to explanation with his doctrine of inherited guilt (due to his misunderstanding of Ro 5). The acronym TULIP (summing up Calvin’s theology), beginning with Augustinian total depravity, is logically interconnected but built upon this openly embraced incomprehension. Sin is a mystery in its manner of transmission and it creates its own darkness which admits only enough rationality to know one is a sinner but not enough understanding to do anything about it. Thus, TULIP is an explanation of why humans can do nothing and God does everything. Philosophical nominalism is the atmosphere in which this innovation occurs, and it had become commonplace and expected that the things of God are beyond comprehension.  So, Calvin will reference and depend on, throughout his argument, “incomprehensible vengeance” which implies an incomprehensible payment.

Calvin fully acknowledges he is innovating on the slippage between hell as the place of the dead or the place of eternal torment (in Latin it is descendit ad inferos). The Creed is clearly referencing hades or the grave (as Christ descended to the place of the dead after his crucifixion), but he is going to provide a logical/legal argument for this innovation which appeals to incomprehension. Calvin’s first point is that the very obscurity of I Peter, as it is gradually taken up and explained in the Apostles Creed, speaks to a significance hidden beneath the obscurity. If it were simply a matter of saying Jesus descended into the place of the dead why “illustrate it by clothing it in obscure phraseology?” And here he means the phraseology of the Creed, as I Peter 3:18-22 does not directly reference either hades or hell but speaks of the prison in which the generation of Noah was contained. (I Peter 4:6 says he preached to the dead, not the damned, and it does not reference any place.) Whatever Peter’s argument might be referencing, his primary point is to argue that “baptism now saves you” like the Ark saved the eight from among the generation of Noah. The passage is already obscure and then the Creed, in trying to clear up the obscurity, confounds it, which is Calvin’s point.

The confounded obscurity must contain a significance (an inspired obscurity?), and so Calvin will now clear up what is hidden in the clouds of Peter and the Creed. “When two expressions having the same meaning are placed together, the latter ought to be explanatory of the former. But what kind of explanation would it be to say, the expression, ‘Christ was buried,’ means, that ‘he descended into hell’?”[2] Calvin is presuming a divine pointer in the Creed’s explanation equating the burial of Christ with descent into eternal death.

 It can’t be that the Creed is saying the same thing twice (burial and hell) and though we may not be able to immediately discern the meaning, “the improbability that a superfluous tautology of this description should have crept into this compendium, in which the principal articles of faith are set down summarily in the fewest possible number of words” is itself an argument that something profound is taking place in this obscurity. If hell here, just means the place of the dead, then it is a “superfluous tautology.” He presumes that hell must be taken to convey a different meaning than the grave and that in this obscurity resides a meaning he will now reveal.

In reference to Peter’s Pentecost sermon Calvin notes, “He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.”[3] What it actually says is that “godless men put him to death” and there is no reference to the wrath of God. Nonetheless, he defends the notion that part of this curse involved a descent into hell, or the place where infernal punishments are carried out:

 Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.[4]

He does not simply fuse Gehenna (the place of future punishment) and Hades (the place of the dead), however, he argues that eternal punishment should also be fused with the chastisement of Isaiah 53 and then both of these passages should be moved to the context of the trial and punishment of Christ.

The incomprehensibility of the doctrine, in Calvin’s own description, pertains to how Christ could bear eternal punishment in his suffering and death. He concludes that death alone cannot explain what it was that Christ bore on the Cross, so it must be the case that it was eternal suffering in hell or the place of future punishment which he actually bore.

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[5]

Calvin acknowledges that this creates a certain disorder in the sequence of events, with Christ suffering eternal punishment in hell prior to his own death (and one might point out, prior to the inauguration of this category) but Calvin doubles down.

It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.[6]

Calvin here subverts the received understanding of the Apostles’ Creed. Up until the sixteenth century, Christians had always confessed Christ’s descent into hades or hell as his victory over the grave. Calvin sets aside the conclusion of the Creed and has Christ descending into eternal torment (Gehenna) while he was still alive. “It was requisite,” he says, “that he should feel the severity of the Divine vengeance, in order to appease the wrath of God . . . necessary for him to contend with the powers of hell and the horror of eternal death.” According to Calvin, even while Christ suffered visibly before men, he also experienced “the invisible and incomprehensible vengeance which he suffered from the hand of God.” In other words, the actual death of Christ comes to mean very little in this system, as it is eternal spiritual suffering which Christ undergoes in his soul which is the reality behind death. (At this point Calvin defensively notes that he makes no scriptural appeal, but even his appeal to the ancient theologian Hilary, is dependent on the ambiguity of the term hell. “The Son of God is in hell, but man is brought back to heaven.”)

One wonders if this spiritual sort of suffering required the incarnation at all – if payment could be made through a pure soulish suffering. But Calvin presumes that it could not have been an ordinary death that Christ feared, as this would reduce him to an effeminate sort of figure.

How shamefully effeminate would it have been (as I have observed) to be so excruciated by the fear of an ordinary death as to sweat drops of blood, and not even be revived by the presence of angels? What? Does not that prayer, thrice repeated, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Mt. 26:39), a prayer dictated by incredible bitterness of soul, show that Christ had a fiercer and more arduous struggle than with ordinary death?[7]  

He effectively reduces the object of the fear of death to fear of eternal punishment and makes the real event of the Cross an inward spiritual event. “Thus, by engaging with the power of the devil, the fear of death, and the pains of hell, he gained the victory, and achieved a triumph, so that we now fear not in death those things which our Prince has destroyed.”[8] Though in the popular imagination hell is the place of the devil, the biblical depiction is that death and hades are destroyed in the Lake of Fire. The equation of death (hades), Gehenna (which came to be called hell) and the devil is an odd alignment and one that never occurs in conjunction with the Cross in Scripture. 

In the popular imagination, largely due to Calvin and his various disciples, such as Jonathan Edwards, the idea developed that God punished Jesus the equivalent of an eternity in hell and the primary rescue that he effected was no longer equated with the actual historical events surrounding the Cross but with categories of future and eternal punishment, inward or soulish suffering, and divine wrath. As one of my former professors states it (in spite of his purported Anti-Calvinism), “He bore the equivalent of an eternity of hell for us all. His suffering was much greater than the physical torture of crucifixion. Since God’s wrath is spent on Christ, God is now free to forgive sins without violating His own justice.”

Though we may have all become used to the conjunction of the Cross and eternal punishment, there is nowhere in Scripture that the Cross addresses the category of Gehenna or eternal punishment. Calvin’s choice of, what may be the most obscure passage in the New Testament, and then his examination of the confounding of this obscurity in the Apostles Creed, and then transporting this fusion of the place of the dead with the place of eternal torment to the Cross is, by his own account, an innovation (meaning it is not the received understanding of the New Testament).

Penal substitution subsumes salvation into a problem with God’s anger, as the righteous anger brought on by transgression of God’s law (Calvin depicts the entire transaction as law based) is only satiated by Christ’s soulish suffering. It is an infinite anger, provoked by an infinite offence, satisfied by an infinite payment which, relates to the finite hardly at all. It is an exchange exclusive to the persons of the Trinity, pitting the Father against the Son, and fails to address the finite human circumstance. The exchange between Christ and God is complete in and of itself. Infinite satisfaction for an infinite offence has been made, but it completely bypasses the lived reality of human experience.

The conclusion: John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead to eternal punishment and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution.


[1] Calvin, Institutes 2.16. 8.

[2] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[3] Calvin, 2. 16. 11.

[4] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[5] Calvin, 2:16,10

[6] Calvin, 2.16.10.

[7] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

[8] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

Sorting Out Atonement Theories

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.

Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.

Contractual Theories

 In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:

  1. Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
  2. Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
  3. The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
  4. It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
  5. Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
  6. God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.

The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history),[1] and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.

The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?

 According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?

The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:

The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.

The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.

The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent?  Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?

In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:

Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm;[2] 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.

Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.

Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God.[3] Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.

In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.

Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.

In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”[4]

What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[5] In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.

The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.

Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding[6] and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.

In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.

N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).

Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.


[1] The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.

[2] Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.

Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.

“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”

[3] A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.

Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”

Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.

[4] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.

[5] Ibid, 208.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.

On the universal necessity of our crosses

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

The faith I grew up with had a singular notion of the meaning of the cross: it was simply the necessary price that someone had to pay in order to satisfy God’s need to punish us for our sins. This “vicarious” sacrifice ensured that God’s retributive justice was satisfied so that his forgiveness could be extended on an individual basis to each sinner. As such, it was done for me as something I could not do for myself. Jesus “took your punishment,” he “lived the life he lived and died an innocent man so you don’t have to.” Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo established for us this principle: Jesus is God become human because no mere human could do what God could do, but a human must do it–hence “why God became man.” And, because he did something which was not possible for us, we reap the benefits at no personal cost.

My oversimplification here is intentional. At Forging Ploughshares, Paul and the rest of us who have contributed have written, interviewed, and podcasted extensively on the problems of penal substitutionary atonement.

To my mind, though, the brilliance of penal substitution as it is developed in the centuries post-Anselm is its simplicity and ease. The problem Jesus came to solve? Well, we’ve committed “sins,” actions God didn’t want us to do that, once done, irreversibly give us a mystical mark as “sinners,” prohibiting our entry into heaven and destining us to eternal suffering or destruction. The “defeat of death” in the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament is simply the promise of eternal life, post-mortem in heaven purchased entirely by someone else.

Because of the mystical nature of what this salvation is, the real question for the reformers who ran with Anselm’s initial theory was always “what then must be done to apply the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the individual sinner?” And, because of their rightful distaste for the corrupt Roman Catholic church of their day, they became convinced that nothing was required but a nebulous “faith.” Ultimately, while Luther and Calvin transitioned Anselm’s initial medieval analogies to more contemporary court analogies, the thrust remained the same: Jesus had done something for you that you are incapable of doing.

As far as I could tell from my conservative (one-step-removed-from-Reformed) Bible college education, the only issue left for the church to resolve was to kibitz over the details of who qualifies to receive the mystical “salvation.” Is it anyone who repeats the magic words “I believe?” Are there other requirements, such as baptism? How many sins can I still commit before I lose that salvation? Can it be lost? Are there just a few people who are saved? Or, does it sort of automatically apply to everyone, universally?—an idea that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past year or two. From the perspective of a Gospel predicated on something Jesus does for us, the people who argue all of these positions must feel that concepts like universalism and infernalism are polar opposite. But they are both predicated on the same assumption: that the problem of evil and death is mystical, otherworldly, and that it is defeated by someone else for you.

About fifteen years ago (around 2005, give or take a year), my friend Paul Axton began to drop hints to me that there were other ways to look at the cross. Maybe the cross wasn’t something that was done for us, but something that we were invited to share. It’s still not entirely clear to me whether to thank Paul or curse him, because the question changed everything for me—and there is no doubt in my mind, it did so at great cost to both of us.

What happened for me was a shift to what I now consider a much more practical, physical, and human understanding of the point of the cross. I no longer believe that the cross solved some mystical problem for God that prevented him from allowing us to live with him forever after we die. The removal of the sting of death has literally nothing to do with moving on to a disembodied heaven. The problem of sin isn’t that it prevents escaping the planet. The problem of sin is that it corrupts God’s good creation.

This means that the problem the cross resolves is more complicated than “going to heaven.”

In the creation narrative, we are told that humans were created to live and thrive on this planet as physical “images,” representations of the divine creator who made it. In this story, God is portrayed creating the universe through a cosmic speech act (he speaks and it comes to being). When people (the images) are created, he calls them to mimic the speech act by naming what is created. Thus, the role of the images of God is to partner with God in the ongoing work of caring for one another and that creation, to be co-participants, co-creators in the ongoing creation of the universe. As John Walton has stated, God’s “resting” on the seventh day is his sitting on his throne in his new cosmic temple so that the real work of partnering with his new friends in the joyous work of his kingdom could begin.

In the story, the created “images” weren’t satisfied with their image-hood and chose to know what was not for them to know. They chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil, to be other than little copies of God—and in fact, to make God in their own image. And, since they were no longer living as God’s images, they began naming things improperly. The earth, its creatures, and one another were all named for exploitation. For this, they were cursed—but we must carefully understand this.

The curse, of course, was death. But this was not the carrying out of some divine ultimatum or threat. He didn’t kill the people in the story. All of God’s statements in the fall narrative seem to be God’s observations about the state of things, rather than punishments. That they would now “die” seems to have deep implications: rather than having work to do, they would now have to work simply to survive. Rather than having loving relationships like the persons in the trinity, they would rule over one another. Rather than having access to the Tree of Life, their lives would be predicated on, and ruled by, their deaths. All of life had now become a competition to avoid death, a zero-sum-game of chasing power through violence. As a symbol of this new defining characteristic, they were now even clothed with death.

And there it is. The problem of sin and death isn’t some mystical problem which must be undone in the mind of God to allow entrance to heaven after we die. The problem of death is that it has become the defining characteristic in our lives. And sin is the violence we do to the world, to the people, to ourselves, and to God in order to try to get as much life lived as we can in view of our death, even if it means killing someone else, before we ourselves die. This, we call “evil.”

Again, the problem of death isn’t about what happens after. The problem of death is always the evil we are doing before because of our impending deaths. The problem of death is real world evil. Something that is intended to be resolved before we die, not after.

Enter Jesus into this understanding and you find the core problem which penal substitution attempts to resolve is dismantled. Jesus is not solving some meta-cosmic problem, but the real world problem of evil. His death on the cross is the undoing of the necessity of power by the acceptance of death made possible by the resurrection. As such, the cross was the ultimate undoing of the pursuit of power through violence. How so?

If the problem of evil is the attempt to escape death, salvation from evil is the acceptance of our own death–the acceptance of the cross and a cruciform life.

Death isn’t defeated in such a manner that we no longer have to die. No, we are promised that we all still die. Death is defeated in that it no longer rules over us while we live.

Which means, Jesus didn’t “do it [die] so that you don’t have to.” He died to restore to us the image of God by our acceptance of our death by participation in the cross. Jesus restored divine image-hood by demonstrating death’s defeat and calling us to follow. When Jesus bore the cross, he was saying, “Here is God.” When he quoted Psalm 22, crying, “why have you forsaken me” he was calling to mind the psalm’s own solution: he hasn’t forsaken the suffering one. He is here in the suffering with us because he has always been a suffering God. To be like him is to suffer, with him. And being like him is the entire point of this.

Salvation is not a status purchased for us. Salvation is the lived reality of the cross. It is the return to true human image-hood by the mimicking of God. On the cross God was showing us that this is the God he is—and to be human is to be like him. Therefore, his call for us is to pick up that cross and follow. “If you want to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross.” “You will share in his glory, if indeed you share in his suffering (Ro 8).”

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

This is the entire point: dying on our crosses is salvation, not a mere eternal destination. Salvation is the lived reality of a restored image-bearing done by sharing the cross of Christ. That means that Jesus’ cross wasn’t the only one that is necessary to “be saved.” Carrying our cross is what being saved is.

If, then, as some are saying, “Jesus defeated death for all, no matter whether they share the cross of Christ or not,” they are actually saying Jesus has not defeated the problem of evil and death in this world but in the next world. If it is not necessary for us to bear our crosses, then we are left with some mystical understanding of what Jesus died for, and we are left with the same problem of real-world evil and death.

In fact, real world evil is ultimately dismissed by the universalist’s claims as nothing more than “foolishness.” This, I take to be a denial of even the necessity of the cross of Christ. Was it merely people’s foolishness that crucified Jesus? Were they just tricked? If the problem in this world was nothing more than foolishness, could it not have been cured by a divine critical thinking skills course? No, on the cross, Jesus faced true evil. And we face it as well on our crosses.

Again: to deny the necessity of carrying our cross is to deny the real-world solution to the real-world problem of sin and evil that murdered Jesus. It is to say it was not necessary for 2nd and 3rd century Christians to face the lions in the arena. It is to tell the martyrs that their sacrifice was in vain, that it was unnecessary. It is to say to me and my friends who’ve lost jobs and dreams and livelihoods that, “You didn’t have to do that. It was done for you no matter what.”

I am frequently told that unless I believe that all people are saved regardless of their participation in the cross, I am just not loving or “hopeful.” But a mystical escape from the world is simply not the kingdom my imagination has been taken captive by–I find no hope in it. My hope is in a kingdom defined by a people who are willing to bear the cross of Christ. This I take to be a beautiful kingdom of those willing to live like God by dying like God. It is a kingdom with a real solution to real evil right here in this real world. And a resurrection peopled by those who never understood the cost of this cross would be a resurrection of the fallen earth in which we currently reside.

And in this real world, where millions of people who call themselves Christians are willing to cause harm to anyone else in the name of “freedom, security, and the economy” the notion of changing that theology to one that says “You actually can be his disciple (or share the benefits of the cross) without carrying the cross,” is one I gladly, wholeheartedly, and passionately–even angrily–reject.

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).

Renouncing the Way of Violence

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Bible portrays God as intervening in human evil and putting sacrifice and violence to an end, through Christ (as Daniel 9:27 prophesied) and it is this continuing nonviolent intervention into violence to which the followers of Jesus are called. In other words, Jesus’ death is not a violent sacrifice for God, nor is it a sacrifice bringing to a climax the plan required by God to forgive mankind.

What God requires is self-denial, since “the sacrifice of the heart is the atonement for which alone he cares.”[1] To think God required or needed a sacrificial death is to succumb to the lie that God requires violence and, therefore, to cover up the evil that the Gospel tries to annul. A Christianity which needs sacrifice would fall under the critique of Regina Schwartz and others, which would suggest monotheistic religion is inherently violent, an abomination in its promotion of violence and exclusion. In reality, authentic Christianity is a critique of violence and is the singular means of ending it.  

Violent atonement theories, such as penal substitution, have prolonged violence in the world, reducing large portions of Western Christianity to a reaffirmation or means of violence – a vehicle for Satan’s lie which requires bloodshed. The force at work undermining an authentic Christianity is the error of Israel, the darkness of the nations, the delusion of the world, that is characterized by violence. A violent Christianity has succumbed to or even embraced the world’s darkness, while the authentic Christian life is an intervention into this system.  

In a biblical-historical recapitulation, when humanity becomes its own god (Genesis 3; cf. Romans 1:21-23), it begins to depend on itself for its survival, because without God, humanity stops living and begins to survive. Violence becomes the means of survival. As Darwin would describe it, survival is only for the fittest (or strongest), but in order to survive, it must destroy its surroundings, that is, creation itself (including the neighbor). The problem is, that by wiping out the resources that surround it, survival entails self-destruction.

Revelation presents the alternative; a peaceful alternative, an alternative in which the harmony that was in the original design is restored. In this alternative, the human being must retake his place as a gardener. Only by loving God, loving the neighbor, and caring for the Garden, can humanity not only survive, but truly live, truly be a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).

Likewise, the violence of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:18-28), Saul (1 Samuel 18:7-11, etc.); Judah (Ezekiel 8:17), the one imposed on the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-22), and that of the rest of humanity, is reversed through Christ and His followers by loving the brother (Matthew 22:39) instead of murdering him as Cain did, by forgiving 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:22) instead of taking revenge 70 times 7 like Lamech, by reconciling with the brother even if he provokes one to anger (Matthew 5:23-24). By submitting to the King of kings the follower of Christ reverses evil (Ephesians 5:24a; Revelations 19:16) instead of perpetuating it as Joseph’s brothers did. Instead of wanting a position of power as Saul did, instead of committing violence as Judah did and humanity does, the follower of Jesus seeks peace with all (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

This is the path of peace that God had been presenting gradually from the beginnings of the Old Testament, but that had its fulfillment in Christ and in His Church. Pacifism is the quality that makes Christians unique in this world full of violence. Being a pacifist like Jesus, is not only to imitate Him, but it is the true sacrifice that God requires. Sacrificing the violence that dwells in the human heart and replacing it with the peace of Christ is the way to eternal life.

Pacifism is controversial since, as mentioned above, a large part of Western Christianity has adopted violence as part of its interpretation of atonement. In other words, under this wrong perspective, God requires violence to end violence. But violence only gives birth to more violence; it does not eliminate it. Rather, violence as the means of combating violence, is the degenerate perspective by which humanity is governed, and it is the one that God seeks to eliminate in a redeemed cosmic order.

This is why the Sermon on the Mount is controversial, Jesus not only wanted humanity to love those who are easy to love, but also the enemy. And how many wars has humanity started in the name of God? Many, but Jesus taught, it is impossible for a person to genuinely love another and at the same time seek to murder him. “Just war” does not make “Christians” of those who subscribe to this theory, it makes zealots – people willing to attack the enemy for a “good reason.”

Jesus precisely rejected the zealot option because it was not radical enough. Attacking the enemy does not require much, it is easy to get angry and seek to do evil to the other. What is radical and extremely difficult is to forgive the enemy; and not only that, but love him too. In his omnipotence, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified by His enemies, and hanging on the cross forgave them (Luke 23:43). The call is for the Christian to do so as well! For Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Jesus’s death on the cross instructs us to self-sacrificially absorb violence instead of forcefully resisting it, or worse, inflicting it. It tells us to suffer violence, to allow it to do its worst to us, rather than to use it ourselves.”[2]

As Mathew C. Fleischer describes it, Christian pacifism is not passive or inactive, but just the opposite, it is active non-violent peacemaking. While violence hurts, destroys and tears down, Christian love serves, restores, and edifies.

There is no verse in which Jesus commands violent action, not even for a righteous cause. “What is a more righteous reason than defending the Master?!” Peter thought as he cut off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10). And Jesus’ answer was “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Not only were Jesus’ commandments non-violent, they were anti-violence, as the example of His arrest demonstrates. Jesus fought valiantly, not violently. He subjected Himself to the worst form of violence, and triumphed over the violence that killed him in his resurrection.  This is the King who offers eternal life; a life where there is no more death, because there is no more violence. While human governments reign by force, Christ reigns by peace. His Kingdom is not forced on mankind, for this would make Him violent. Jesus does not force His entrance into the human heart, He knocks on the door, He does not knock it down (Revelation 3:20), because violence has no place in His Kingdom.

The Christian who denies this pacifism and adopts violence as a resource, not only denies the teachings of Christ, but denies Christ Himself. “Jesus did not renounce the way of violence for the way of peace so that we could renounce the way of peace for the way of violence.”[3]

Man is made perfect in his faith when he lets his violence, his desires, his aspirations of power, his sinful thoughts, his failures, his negligence, his grudges, etc., die. Loving the enemy requires a true sacrifice from the Christian. It is to go against what he feels in his guts, it is to go against his strongest instincts. But it is the way to a full life. It is extremely easy to kill the enemy, but very difficult to forgive him. However, that is the living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. Instead of the Christian adapting himself to this world and its violence, he must allow himself to be transformed by God by the renewing of his mind, so that he may verify what the will of God is: what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).[4]


[1] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II. (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.

[2] Matthew Curtis Fleischer. Jesus the Pacifist: A Concise Guide to His Radical Nonviolence (Kindle Locations 1061-1063). Epic Octavius The Triumphant, LLC.

[3] Brian Zahnd, A farewell to mars: an evangelical pastor’s journey toward the biblical gospel of peace (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014).

[4] The above is an excerpt of the last chapter of the book I’m writing: The Sacrifice God Requires.

Mutually Assured Destruction Is Not the Answer but the Problem Exposed by Christ

The Old Testament prophets and Psalms echo the refrain, “How long God,” and then join this to a wide-ranging summation of evils as in, “how long must we suffer injustice, violence, and oppression. How long before you rescue us – will it be forever” (e.g. Psalm 13:1-2)? The darkness is accentuated with the coming birth of the Messiah. A world census in which a megalomaniac rules, sends Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. After Jesus’ birth, Herod murders all the babies of Bethlehem to wipe out the competition. And it only gets worse from there. The darkness is not banished but seems to deepen as the light grows in intensity. This is not a process completed in the New Testament but the battle continues in the Church so that there is an ever-heightened confrontation being worked out historically. The dark night prior to the coming of the light, characterizing advent, calls for describing the full depth of darkness Christ confronted and which he continues to confront in the Church. The presumption is that the battle continues as does the depth that revelation penetrates and the apprehension of the darkness it dispels and the nature of God revealed. There is an exposure, not simply of the genesis of subjective evil, but the anatomy of the madness that grips the world and the presumption is that the madness of the former is of the same order as that of the latter. The presumption of gaining peace through violence, of avoiding death by killing, of throwing off suffering by inflicting it, might describe the work of a mad individual or a world gone mad.   

To make the point that a similar form of madness is at work at every level, I will use as an example the ultimate madness – M(utually) A(ssured) D(estruction) of nuclear war. Two years ago, in December 2017, Daniel Ellsberg published The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, depicting his work as a war strategist for the Pentagon in the early 1960s. At the same time as he copied the Pentagon Papers (detailing the Johnson administration’s lies about the Vietnam War), Ellsberg also copied nuclear war plans which he also intended to release to the public (but which were lost). Ellsberg describes U. S. plans for nuclear attack that can be triggered inadvertently (which has nearly occurred over a hundred times in Noam Chomsky’s count), or by intention, which would lead to a nuclear holocaust which would wipe out at least a third of all human life and potentially all life on the planet.

At one point Ellsberg came upon a document which read, “Top Secret- Sensitive” and marked “For the President’s Eyes Only.” The document posed the question to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to how many people would be killed in the Soviet Union and China in a nuclear first strike by the United States. The answer was in the form of a graph, in which the vertical axis showed the number of deaths in the millions while the horizontal axis showed the amount of time in months. It was estimated that at least 275 million people would die instantaneously, while after six months the number would rise to 325 million deaths. The Pentagon calculated another 100 million deaths in the Warsaw Pact countries and potentially another 100 million dead in Western Europe, “depending on which way the wind blew.” The total casualties of a nuclear U. S. first strike would be at least 600 million dead, “a hundred holocausts” by the Pentagon’s estimate.

Ellsberg writes, “I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.” Ellsberg has described it as an incomprehensible evil; a form of madness and destruction so large in scale as to be beyond the scope of understanding. Yet, the basic plans are the same today as those Ellsberg saw in the 1960s.

The basic strategy is for a “first strike” which would eliminate enemy cities and targets before U. S. targets are struck. To ensure that there is the possibility of retaliation, even after missing the opportunity for first strike, a series of individuals have access to the “button” should the chain of command be unresponsive or eliminated. This “dead hand” approach means that multiple individuals, and not the one finger of the president, have the potential to start or finish a nuclear war. The probability, according to Ellsberg, is that the same system is in place in Russia and China and other nuclear-armed powers. There are any number of individuals (Chomsky estimates 1 thousand) that might push the button should they perceive the chain of command above them to have been incapacitated. This means there is ample opportunity for mistakes or false alarms which could lead to unintended world destruction.

Ellsberg warns that the threat of nuclear holocaust has only increased since the end of the Cold War, partly due to a decreased public awareness of the danger and partly because of the continued “use” of nuclear weapons as a threat in negotiations. The “fire and fury” of Trump, in this sense, is not an aberration but the culmination of a “mad” logic in which ones negotiating partners will be more easily coerced if they consider the finger on the button to be unpredictable. Trump, purposely or not, embodies the “madman theory” pioneered by President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. As in any robbery of a store with a gun, the victims must believe the gun is a real threat and the one holding it must appear crazy enough to pull the trigger. The crazier he appears the greater the perceived threat and the more effective the deadly weapon.

According to Ellsberg, during the Korean War both Truman and then Eisenhower threatened to drop nukes in order to get the Chinese to negotiate. He lists more than 25 such incidents of nuclear threats by U. S. presidents, during the Cold War alone. The following exchange between Nixon and Kissinger is from an Oval Office conversation (recorded on Nixon’s secret taping system) regarding a North Vietnamese offensive from April 25, 1972: Nixon: “I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?” Kissinger: “About two hundred thousand people.” Nixon: “No, no, no … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?” Kissinger: “That, I think would just be too much.” Nixon: “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ sakes.”

Both Presidents Bush and Obama threatened nuclear war on Iran on several occasions. A near requirement for running for the Oval Office, whether Republican or Democrat, is a demonstrated willingness to resort to nuclear weapons. It is a sort of litmus test of ruthlessness to qualify for the Office. Trump’s tweets are just a more shrill and public version of what has been required of every American president and presidential hopeful in the nuclear age. Only potential “mad men” need apply. One must be willing to consider not simply homicide or genocide but omnicide – the destruction of the human species.

Given the logic that peace requires absolute violence, that life requires the weapon of death, the reversal of this logic by Christ can be understood to be salvific on multiple levels. The logic of mutually assured destruction is the logic that is always at work in tribal and national wars and rightly understood it is the logic at work within the individual. Death as the means to life, describes religions based on human sacrifice, societies organized by scapegoating the outsider, religion that pictures death as a doorway, or it might describe the masochistic individual bent on self-destruction which is aimed at ridding himself of his self-destructive tendencies. This death drive is that which Christ exposed in his life, death and resurrection. His formula for undoing this logic is world transforming because it reverses the logic of the world. “He would save his life will lose it.” This is because this mode of salvation is life destroying. Whether it is the accumulation of security through wealth, through religious righteousness, through chariots and horses, or through sacrificial manipulation of the gods, life is destroyed by human salvation systems. People are violent idol makers, hostile toward God and uncomprehending, according to Paul. In their incomprehension they would destroy themselves and the world.

The revelation of Christ witnessed to in Scripture is not about God’s anger being appeased or satisfied. It is about the human predicament, the exposure of the destructive nature of this logic, and the positing of life on a different principle. Christ comes to resolve the problem but also to give a surprising diagnosis to the problem. Humans are the problem and even the human solutions to the problem are the problem. He who would save himself is in the process destroying himself, and unless he gives up on this mode of saving his life, he destroys it. This obviously includes wars to destroy evil which multiply evil, religion to appease the gods which sacrifice to the gods (including notions of penal substitution), and scapegoating the neighbor in an effort to isolate and destroy the problem. If the problem is us then the solution will also be within us in the most minute and the most global way. Individual sickness, social disease, national disease, world disease, all consist of the same human problem and require the same cure. The incarnation is required because the sickness is within the human condition, as is its cure. Christ gives us a diagnosis of the problem that says we are the problem and he offers a cure that is focused on the nature of sin and the duplicitous and violent nature of the human heart but also on the global scale of the problem.

In a strange way Penal Substitution is a theory of mutually assured destruction in which God is not only on the cross but with his enemies at the foot of the cross carrying out the crucifixion. God was angry, but the destruction of Christ means now he is not. God is now enabled to forgive and love through the violence and death of Christ. This seems to take the logic of sin and apply it to God. In this deplorable theory, the primary message is that the violence and evil that would destroy the world has its ontological ground in God. In turn, the apocalyptic destruction of the world is presumed to be precisely the work of God, rather than as Scripture portrays it, as the culminating work of humans.

If the Gospel message is as we see it preached in Acts and in a summation of that Gospel in the epistles, there is no notion of the cross saving from hell or saving from God. We are saved from sin, death, and the devil and from the principalities and powers that would destroy everything. God is not like Caiaphas in need of a scapegoat, requiring one man to die to save the nation.  God is not like Pilate, Anselm, Luther and Calvin, requiring an execution to satisfy justice. God does not follow human logic which is bent on violence and world destruction to save.

The perspective of the New Testament does not brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is the problem creating the painful wait of Advent. Advent tells us what to expect with the coming of the Messiah. Christ is expected to expose and solve the problem of evil and we are part of the solution. Christ will defeat sin, death and the devil and rescue from mutually assured destruction, but this is the prolonged work which continues after Easter. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this madness, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within in the unfolding of healing sanity through the continued incarnate work of the Church.

Waiting for Godot or the Wait of Advent

Being human means being consigned to waiting. The waiting may be on the order of waiting for Godot – a compounded futility and frustration. The two main characters in the play, Vladimir and Estragon, are in pain. One is suffering physically and the other is suffering mentally and in both acts they take steps to try to hang themselves.  Waiting is simply what they are occupied with. It does not seem that Godot will provide relief and it is doubtful he will even show up. In fact, it is not clear that he even exists and if he does exist, given the evidence of his purported ill treatment of the boy messenger, he does not seem to be particularly kind or even worth waiting for. This purported “keeper of sheep and goats” has left his characters hanging. Their literal discussion of the act (of hanging themselves) and the existential circumstance both indicate the need for some sort of closure or relief, but they wait as this seems to be their lot.

Vladimir, the more philosophically inclined, insists they wait but it is a burden accentuated by Estragon’s aching feet and Vladimir’s enlarged prostate. The suffering is slightly relieved by conversation, an incomplete joke (Vladimir cannot complete the joke due to the constant need to urinate), and the capacity to sleep. But as Job lamented and as Estragon experiences it, even sleep produces nightmares and Vladimir refuses to listen to Estragon’s dreams – so sleep is only isolated suffering.  A pair of visitors accentuate the futility and unfairness. Their visit offers promise one might forego the mental agony of waiting, or so it is implied in the incapacity for thought of the two visitors (Lucky, the slave and Pozzo, his master), but this slave/master circumstance is even more immediately oppressive than aching feet or mental anguish. Things are not right and this oppressiveness points beyond itself to waiting for something better. The play illustrates the human predicament needing resolution and reducing everyone to waiting.

George Carlin describes a dog’s life as waiting for something to happen – the eager tail wagging, the longing looks, is all pure anticipation. But what awaits humans is not a ride in the car. The temporal condition, a unique human understanding, means that there are only so many acts in any life, so we wait for life to play out and somehow resolve itself. The angst driven aspect of the waiting is accentuated by the incapacity to grasp the nature of the long-anticipated arrival. There is an ambiguity as to the identity of Godot, perfectly fitting in describing the marked absence contained in human anticipation and angst. The ambiguity is angst ridden – is it death, God, rescue, final destruction, or simply an unfillable absence longing for final presence? To name it may be to misname it and to miss the all-inclusive life absorbing nature of the wait. Freud’s death drive, Lacan’s real, or Kierkegaard’s angst, is all encompassing in that it cannot be specified.

Advent, from the Latin word adventus, is a time marked by expectant waiting of a different kind. It is the expectation of the birth of Christ, reimagined and infused with hope of the Parousia, so that “God with us” identifies the nature of the absence. The waiting is not over at Christmas or Easter but now waiting is an ongoing order of expectation in which the genealogy of suffering, oppression, and death, are exposed. The angst is identified and pinpointed in the peculiar absence portrayed in the Gospels. God is present in the worst sort of suffering and advent is a training in a reoriented waiting.  

The medieval Catholic Church, in its pursuit of glory “now” (in Luther’s estimate) missed God in the suffering of the cross. Wealth and power mark it, or any church, indicating the refusal of advent – the refusal to wait. The theologians of glory have turned to the noise machines (Deus ex Machina) of the cathedral and mall like structures, the glittering gold of wealth, and the empty promise of power. Instead of waiting upon the Christ in humble places – the manger and the cross – they would seek him out in the Palace. A “theology of the cross” (Luther’s phrase) turns from glory (the big, the loud, and the noisy) to the humble and the unnoticed. Advent is a period of learning to live the principle of the manger and cross which address the human condition from within.

Advent affirms the human perspective – the place of lamentation and waiting for things to be made right. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Waiting in suffering lament is the recurrent theme of the Hebrew Bible, from Psalms, to Isaiah, to Habakkuk. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence! and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).  The perspective is not one that would brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is precisely the problem creating the painful wait. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this suffering, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within.

The verdict that Christ must die due to God’s wrath and not because people would kill him, overlooks the lament inherent in advent. There is no lament and waiting in Penal substitution and no real engagement with the human perspective. God and the persecutors are on the same side in justifying the death of Christ as his death resolves a heavenly need and does not address an earthly absence. God and his followers are now at the foot of the cross reveling in the final (in)justice. The dying is an objective legal necessity and the perspective is divine rather than human (divine anger diverted).  The books are cleared “now” and the blessings can flow, and there is no waiting for justification. There is no advent.

Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes on the cross, depicts the worlds injustices: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). The Psalm describes the crucifixion scene: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (22:7-8). Yet in the midst of this suffering, and this seems to be Jesus point in quoting the Psalm, there is hope. It is not simply the futile waiting for Godot but prayerful complaint brought before God, the very form of which presumes “he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (22:24).

 Christ is not departing from Hebrew advent but is completing it. His cry from the cross partakes of a biblical theme: waiting upon God to act to remedy the world’s injustices. His quotation of the Psalm simultaneously enacts and fulfills the hope at the end of the prayer. God has already acted and is acting as Christ quotes it. This Scripture is now being fulfilled: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! (22:26). “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (22:30-31). He has done it, he is doing it, and he will do it, but who can see it? Only those who wait. It is a process that requires waiting.

Waiting in the fields are the humble shepherds. The stargazers have patiently plotted a path of star light. A few fishermen recognize God is acting in a small way through a child, a carpenter, a roving teacher. Here is a man the world would overlook: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Math. 12:19-20). It was not those at the center of power, important Pharisees, powerful kings, or experts in the law, who have the patient perspective to wait and in waiting to recognize the Christ.

At the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon once again encounter Lucky and Pozzo beneath the tree where they are waiting, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb and Pozzo has no memory of having met the men the night before. The suspicion dawns that Pozzo and Lucky are the alter-egos of Vladimir and Estragon and that their waiting is interminable as they are incapable of knowing if Godot has arrived or already come and gone. The two men once again assure one another they will hang themselves tomorrow should Godot not show.

We are all made to wait but the choice is an insufferable waiting or the hopeful waiting of advent.

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.

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 seems 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.