The primary human problem is not, as John Calvin portrayed it, the wrath of God. It is not as Anselm pictured it, that God’s honor is impugned by the breaking of the law. The biblical focus is not on future punishment in Gehenna nor is it that some necessary punishment is required to satisfy or propitiate God. Neither God nor his wrath, nor his punishment, nor his righteousness, nor his law is the problem. God is not the problem. Sin and evil are the problem, but the confusion concerning law, righteousness, punishment, etc., is in how each of these relate to the definition of this primary problem. We all recognize the destructiveness, violence, and harm we call evil but what is this thing at its root and how does the work of Christ address this root problem?
Paul sums up the biblical depiction of the anatomy of sin as the reign of death (Ro 5:14). However, even to say that death is the primary problem may miss that sin and death cannot be equated – though they are aligned. The emphasis should fall upon the reign of death – the orientation to death included in its “reign.” As Paul subsequently explains, “sin reigned in death” (5:21), so that the reign of death is inclusive of the response to this primary limit. Human mortality, the limits of life, the biological destiny of the body, is not the problem, but the human response to death is the problem. The reign of death (inclusive of the human response) may manifest as political, social, or interpersonal. It may be experienced as the antagonism between the sexes, between races, or tribes, or religions. Or it may be experienced as between the individual and God or the corporate body and God. But again, the manifestation of the problem is not the thing itself.
It is difficult to describe a negative – the negating power of death which we come to embody – which may be why consequences of the problem so often stand-in for the problem itself. The absence of peace (violence), the absence of life (death), the absence of love (hatred), the absence of relationship (alienation), has its punishing effect but to imagine this punishment or wrath is a destiny, a primary attribute of God, or an ontological condition of the universe is to miss the secondary quality of sin and evil. The possibility of the parasite of evil is to be found in the goodness it perverts, the life it destroys, the peace it violates, and the grace it refuses.
Maybe this negativity is easiest to grasp and recognize at the corporate level. It is on the order of the image of the idol – that which is essentially nothing invested with supreme importance. The idol marks the spot where nothing would be transformed into an absolute something and yet it is also the point of absolute frustration and desire. The idol never gives up its secrets, never makes immanent the promised transcendence, but it stands as an impossibility to achieve what is desired.
Many things can serve in place of the idol: money in the modern economy is a purely imaginary value as it signifies no actually existing entity and yet it marks the supreme value in capitalism; nationalism requires continual human sacrifice so as to ensure freedom and to lend it final substance; modern democracy or even pop culture distills the acclamation of the crowd into a glory or “power” which is a palpable (non) existence and ultimate reality. Each object is not an actually existing thing and yet it marks the final goal, the ultimate value, or what people “live” to attain. This living death holds out its impossible object of desire as the true source of life, substance, or existence. Maybe this is easy to understand, and in the understanding, there is already the recognition that this negativity is a delusion – this proposed “knowledge of good and evil” never gives the god-like life it promises.
What is more difficult is our personal and individual participation in this structure. The ultimate incomprehension must pertain to how the object of desire can be one’s own image (the self-image and the idolatrous image are the same Hebrew word). This interior logic reverberates and confounds so that it is no easy task to describe how the pursuit of self (saving one’s life) is actually the loss of life, but this is the theme of the New Testament.
Usually, Paul will pair the negative with its positive element, so that we understand alienation through reconciliation, hostility through peace, etc. In Romans 7, however, Paul sustains a prolonged description of the dynamic of sin without appeal to its opposite. The negative force, from within this sinful perspective, bodies forth in an unreality, an un-birth, an “essence” which is the place between two antagonistic laws or two parts of the self. These two laws, one centered in the mind and the other centered in the body, create the struggle which causes Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7.24).
This wretched ego (“I”) arises with a lack of self-consciousness and only becomes gradually cognitively aware as part of a negative process (there are no cognitive verbs in 7:8-11). The ego makes its appearance only in coming up against, or in resistance to, the law, but this law is not an externally imposed force. Subjectivity arises as subjection to a force within, so that it is not mere subjection to an exterior authority. It is self-subjection, such that one part of the self stands opposed to another part of the self, so that the struggle for existence is from out of a not yet existent reality.
In the Freudian picture, the ego emerges from and continues to be partially situated in the id (the place of drives and the unconscious), which may be a complicated way to say the ego is an imaginary construct – a fiction. But it is a fiction which one would make true; it is an imaginary entity one would give birth to. The subject takes itself as an object and this object needs to be established, needs to be brought to life, or given substance. The self as object must be brought into oneness as there is a failure to completely be the self. Self-difference or self-objectification must be overcome, yet this self-antagonism is the very definition of self-experience.
All of this simply articulates the feeling of incapacity inherent to the ego. The self is its own symptom, the primary mental illness in being human. As in Genesis 3, the ego becomes an articulate consciousness only as the center of fear and shame, as if it is loss and death incarnate. Alienation not only marks the ego; the ego is this alienation. It is a purely negative entity – an absence which would be made present.
One way of approaching this negativity is by recognizing the impossibility put upon the self in the prohibition of desire in Romans 7:7. The command not to covet seems to allude to the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, but the question is why Paul shortens it so that the objects of desire named in the Law are absent? The original commandment has a fairly exhaustive list of things that are not to be desired, but desire itself is not forbidden. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20.17). But as Paul pictures his discovery of the commandment, he comes upon it too late. “You shall not desire” causes what it forbids.
Paul formulates v. 7 in such a way that both the prohibition in the Garden and the Law of Sinai are echoed but these laws are not inherently problematic. They do not necessarily generate their own transgression. Yet in Paul’s description, sin and law (at 7:7) have already been fused in an obscene or perverse desire. As he puts it, desire is the force of sin as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:8).
Paul’s shorter version of the command lends itself to being readily applied to two alternative distortions of the law, in pursuit of either good (zeal for the law) or evil (transgressive desire), but these two generate their opposite – and this is Paul’s point. The more zeal the more desire and the more desire the more zeal. One can try to gain life through the commandment (zeal for the law) but one’s zealous desire is already a transgression.
Forbidden desire literally isolates the letter of the law or a portion of the command (which Paul explains elsewhere is death dealing). It is as if “Kill” is isolated from “Thou shall not.” Covetousness is isolated from particular objects and from the intent of the law. Sinful desire reduces the law, voided of its context and purpose, to a deadly letter which prompts the transgression it would forbid. Where the law is sin (7:7), sin will establish the law (7.23).
Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7:21). Paul recognizes throughout that he cannot actually split his mind from his body as he is this mind/body. Nonetheless, one who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7:19). Paul depicts subservience to this law as a war in which the law of the body is a separate entity or “another law waging war against the law of my mind” (7:.21) as the law divides and pits the self against the self.
The mind/body split is an instance of the inherent antagonism of any dualism. The mind does not and cannot exist apart from the body and the body cannot exist apart from the mind, nor can there be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. Just as (in the knowledge of good and evil) the evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil, so too the law of the mind and the law of the body must be an interwoven opposition. The opposed pairs are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other.
The imagery is not of possessing (though to embody or possess the law may describe the desire) but of being possessed by a force that kills (ἀπέκτεινεν) and deceives (ἐξηπάτησέν). Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver; this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφoρμν) and “came upon me” (λαβoῦσα), reducing him to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death. The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7:23), and Paul (“I”) is at war with himself in a losing battle. “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing the “I” and “I died.”
Paul has already provided the solution to the problem in Romans 6. To die with Christ in baptism is to be joined to Christ and it is to reorient oneself to death and the law. The likeness or form of Christ in his incarnation mediates or makes possible a “joining to” which defeats the death dealing attempt to be joined to the law or to be joined within the self. The idea of being joined or “united with him” is of being “knit together” or being made to “grow together” or to unite as in fusing or healing a wound or to “plant along with/together.” This being “united with his likeness” ends the alienation characterizing sin.
Here the gap is closed between subject/object (the image or likeness of the idol) as there is no gap between the subject and the image of Christ. The alienation is overcome in this likeness or participation in the form or likeness of Christ. The gap within, the gap with God, and the objectifying gap with the world is healed. To die with Christ is to be joined to a form which will bring about a conformity without alienation or objectification. The form of the subject in Christ displaces the form of the subject under the law. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8.2).
There is a suspension of the alienation of the law and a reorientation to death: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8.1). Paul proclaims victory over the forces of evil that work through the force of law and sin’s deception. The “condemnation” (katάkrima) or the curse (Rom. 5.16-18; Gal. 3.10; Deut. 27.26) is suspended as the orientation to death is displaced by life.
In Paul’s description, sin may be abundant but grace is “super-abundant” (Ro 5:20). “If by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many” (5:15). The reality of God and his grace (his gift of life, peace, and unified wholeness) has the final word.
This is the work of atonement.