Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

Finding Peace in a Hostile Universe

In the midst of this pandemic it is easy to believe that pathogens, germs, viruses, and disease, or the chaotic nature of the world, is the key factor in determining human behavior.[1] We live in a hostile world and it is the nature of the world that gives rise to the consistent patterns of human response (culture). It may be that it is not that this chaotic world is the cause of any particular response but it is certainly the occasion which gives rise to the range of human responses.[2] In the best of times there are limited resources, the looming possibility of natural calamities, and the inevitable onset of disease and old age, but in the midst of a world-wide pandemic the precariousness of life is accentuated and the responses  were predictable: i.e., this “Chinese” disease is the fault of the Chinese; God is punishing the wicked; life is meaningless so eat, drink, and go to the beach. Writ large this scapegoating (blaming, sacrificing, and organizing around the common enemy), rationalizing (the world operates according to law and God can be identified with this law), or embracing the futility (as in hedonism, nihilism, pantheism, etc.), might describe the predominant cultures, philosophies, and religions of the world. What all such systems share and are built upon is the presumption that the ultimate power (whether the gods, God, or the universe) is against us. The world is hostile and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God), or succumb to it by denying or embracing the hostility under another name (presuming death is not unnatural and evil is an unnecessary distinction).

A hostile universe may not determine that we channel all of our energies into the struggle for survival or that we become bent upon explaining, controlling, and warding off death, but given this factor the basic human tendency is accounted for. Where this backdrop of hostility is made absolute, we must arm ourselves against “God” by employing violent sacrificial religion; we must arm ourselves against our enemies with weapons of war; we must arm ourselves against our neighbor through positions of power and plenty. The self-seeking need to secure ourselves makes even the drive for pleasure an obscene injunction to “enjoy” at the expense of the other (witness the crowds at the beach). The disease that afflicts us in this present moment is simply a case in point of the cause of the human disease, the one giving rise to the other.  We live in a hostile world and this explains human hostility and violence. The disease of human violence arises in the attempt to reduce the worlds hostility to controllable human proportions.

The raw fact that the natural world is deadly and that humans are deadly (for themselves, to one another, and the natural world) is not a necessary correlate, but given that the laws of the universe or that the cosmos itself are presumed to be absolute, cosmic necessity becomes human necessity. The identification of God with the law (no matter the specifics of the religion, the nature of God or the gods, or the details of the law) means that God is felt to be present only as our enemy. This condition which Paul blames on the “natural mind,” creates hostility toward God and others. This hostility is derived from mistaking the finite for the infinite (typical of idolatry) and imagining that limited power is ultimate power (the power of death definitive of nature but also taken in hand by the “principalities and powers”). A religion (call it Christian or not) which mistakes this hostility for God’s hostility is, by definition, absolutely devoted to relative causes.

 In such a belief system, one is bound to swear final allegiance and loyalty to finite and temporal causes (the self, the tribe, the nation, civilization, etc.) which commits one to absolute hostility toward the enemy. Tribal and national allegiances become religious absolutes and violent sacrifice of the enemy or the self (to kill or be killed), can be considered the ultimate sacrifice to God. Human animosity and hostility are presumed to be supernatural forces embodied by our God, and our wrath is presumed to be divine in its requirement of infinite appeasement and satisfaction. Our hostility and defensiveness become the prime creative power so that setting infinite store on our conflicts, the glory of war, the glory of a violent death, the glory of service to our finite loyalties, becomes divine glory. This lying exchange of God’s glory, in Paul’s summation of Old Testament history, is definitive of human evil (Rom. 1:23 ff.).

Under this condition, to know God as love and peace is an impossibility, as God is simply the name given to the hostile powers of the destroyer (the Satanic destroyer is mistaken for God). Though there are instances of naming devotion to the destroyer “love,” this world is so skewed that love is simply an anthropomorphism for delimited hatred (as Calvin explains his understanding of God’s love). To reconcile one to this hostility, as if it is God, is to render love empty and meaningless. In fact, one can deploy the full range of Christian vocabulary but in this world all the words take on a different meaning, though the same thing might be said of many religious systems. The Buddhist or Hindu may use the word evil without believing in it, but so too the Calvinist. The deep grammar of a world of presumed hostility is bound to mistake evil for good, darkness for light, and death as a form of life. To change up this human frame of reference, this deep grammar of human understanding, the Bible does not presume an escape from this world but a salvation inclusive of the cosmos.

Though this notion of “cosmic salvation” may sound strange to modern western ears, for Paul’s contemporaries and for the vast majority of world cultures it was and is presumed to be definitive of salvation. The stars, the alignment of the planets, fate, karma, the inexplicable will of the cosmic controlled gods, is the fixed order with which one must negotiate “salvation” (which might mean any number of things). Even temporary deliverance from the malign forces of cosmic necessity accounts for the energies and devotions of many religions. In Japan, for example, to call these forces good or evil, divine or demonic, is to misunderstand, as it seems to pose a choice. One does not choose subjection to these forces; they are simply the forces which must be dealt with. Even nirvana or moksha are not deliverance from, so much as reconciliation with, the obliterating forces of cosmic hostility under a different name.

In Judaism, by comparison, there is the weird depiction of the laws of nature being changed up, so that wolves and lambs will cuddle and children will frolic with snakes and bears. In the grand visions of this kingdom, there is simultaneously steady rain for an abundance of crops and an ending of human violence and hostility. Swords are turned into ploughshares, war is no longer a preoccupation or worry, and even animals that under the old order would have been enemies are found to be eating hay instead of one another. Interwoven throughout each of the texts, is the end of various manifestations of human violence, human greed, human want, human deprivation, human oppression, with the end of  natural calamities, the natural exposures to draught and famine, and the end of the hostility built into nature (see Is 11:6-9, 65:17-25; Job 5:20-24; Zach 8:9-12; Jer 14; Lev. 26:3-6; Ez 34:25-29). The all-inclusive peace of these passages presumes that, in the words of William Frazier, “anthropological peace germinates in cosmological soil.”[3]

This points toward the cosmic/human solution of Christ, as the presumption of the cross is that following “the course of this world” humans have taken up enmity.  Human hostility built upon cosmic hostility is a diagnosis which explains the specific nature of the intervention found in the cross, as outlined in such passages as Col. 1:19-20 and Eph. 2. Both passages are inclusive of the cosmos but depict a reordering or reshaping of the cosmic order through Christ. They depict a cosmic scope, inclusive of “all things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19-20) as Christ “is before all things” and “holds all things together” (Col 1:17). At the same time, there is the focus on the particulars of human peace worked out with this cosmic reconciliation. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, representative of all inter-human enmity, and the hostility of humans toward God, and the cosmic nature of this enmity, are simultaneously addressed in Christ (Eph 2:11-19). The cosmic order is being re-established as human order is brought into its proper service and place through his body, his Temple: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22). The cosmos as temple puts the cosmos in its proper order as it puts the human priests of the temple in their proper place. This peace which ends all hostility culminates in cosmic temple worship: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:17–18).

So, it is this root hostility, in both its natural and human phase, toward which the peace of the cross of Christ is aimed. Peace is definitive of salvation, not because God is our angry enemy (as in theories of divine satisfaction or penal substitution), but as in Paul’s explanation, because we are defined by our hostility. Christ challenges our defining presumption that presumes God has arrayed the laws of the universe, the laws of religion, the laws of the human conscience, against us. Christ is the Prince of Peace because, in a very specific manner, he disarms us of our need for sacrificial religion, for weapons of war, and for the weapons of power and control.  It is not that Christ simply persuades us of the love of God (the moral influence theory), though he may do that. The specific nature of the work of Christ is called for by the specific nature of the human predicament. There is a “dividing wall of hostility” obstructing peace and good will among all human classes (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female) and this dividing wall is inclusive of a “carnal hostility toward God” (Ro 8:7). It is this specific hostility which Christ came to resolve as he “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) and “put to death the enmity” (v 16).

[1] Randy Thornhill has proposed that germs may be the basis for various forms of cultural formation see

[2] William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace Kindle Edition. This article is part of the fruit of a prolonged encounter with and development of the work of William Frazier. Many years ago, I encountered an article in a missionary magazine which set the course of my studies and changed my theological orientation. When you find thought this profound and all-encompassing you presume it must be backed up by a host of publications. I presumed this ground-breaking thinker would be mentioned, studied, and quoted. Either I missed where this was happening or I was wrong. I looked for the big book summing up his research. He published a few articles, but he passed away last year. I just discovered this small book based on his papers and lectures. This piece is a synopsis of this book – available for 99 cents on Amazon. I wish I had let him know of the profound impact his work had on me.  Thank you, William Frazier, and thanks to Joseph Fahey, who put this little book together.

[3]William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 72). Kindle Edition.