Demons: Part Four

(17 minutes)

If we are enslaved by sin, how can we become free? How does God “save” us through the Christ Event (Jesus’ incarnation, life, teachings, deeds, death, resurrection, and ascension). In the previous article, I rejected the dominant theory of atonement in Western Christianity known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Such a theory assumes a judgmental God who requires his own son Jesus to be tortured to death before he is willing to offer humans forgiveness and salvation. Jesus dies in our place and rescues us from the wrath of God and eternal hell. In other words, Jesus saves us from God. (The god in PSA is always a “he.” I doubt if many mothers would ever require a torturous death of their own children to “solve” any problem.) According to this theory, our salvation is more dependent on a change in God than a change in us. 

Countering such nonsense is the New Testament’s consistent claim that God loves the world and is active in Jesus to bring about our healing. As Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto the divine self” (II Corinthians 5:19). God is not the one who needs to be reconciled to us. WE need to be reconciled to God. In PSA, God is the problem because he is a judge who is unable or unwilling to forgive us without someone enduring the punishment we “deserve.” In the New Testament, enslaving sin, not a judgmental God, is the problem. PSA never reveals how this penal transaction between God and Jesus “saves” (heals, transforms) us. The observation that there is very little difference in basic decency and compassion between many who claim to be Christian and those who make no such claim should alert us to a major weakness of this unbiblical theory. (For example, Bible Belt Christianity in the South where PSA is assumed by most Christians has been and still is saturated by racism. Years ago, pastors would cut short their sermons to allow parishioners to picnic and “enjoy” lynchings of Blacks on Sunday afternoon!) Salvation by divine child abuse does not serve as a promising way to transform humans into loving beings. PSA assumes a schizoid god with whom we can never feel truly safe and whose violent nature we can freely emulate.

So, what if we put PSA aside and start with the New Testament claim that God is love and let Jesus define the nature of that love? I propose that God’s love (a love we are called to emulate) can be defined by six characteristics:

  1. Unconditional: No matter what we do or don’t do, God will love us unconditionally.
  2. Indiscriminately: God does not love anyone more than God loves any other person. (The Christian faith maintains that God loves Hitler as much as God loves St. Francis. That’s the radical love the New Testament reveals in Jesus’ prayer from the cross regarding those who are unjustly torturing him to death: “Abba, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Most of us cannot even imagine that kind of indiscriminate love.)
  3. Self-giving: Yes, God’s love is costly just like the love of a parent is costly. When children break their parents’ hearts or choose paths which are self-destructive, love becomes sacrificial and costly. Sometimes, it hurts to love others, but love is willing to suffer its commitment regardless of the cost. 
  4. Nonviolent: Love for one’s enemies (a pillar in Jesus’ ethical teaching) requires nonviolence. Like Jesus, Gandhi and MLK were willing to suffer violence from others rather than inflict violence on their enemies. God’s love is nonviolent if the love Jesus incarnated reveals the eternal nature of the Divine.
  5. Victorious: Love is the only power in time or eternity capable of healing, liberating, and transforming a world enslaved to a pattern of violence, hatred, greed, bigotry, duplicity, arrogance, and injustice. Ultimately, love is the only “cure” for the disease of sin. As William Willimon says, “Christian love is not a stupid unwillingness to look at the world as it is. It is the recognition that, because the world is as it is, nothing less than love will do.” 
  6. Everlasting: God’s love for each and all of us never ends. When the last star has flickered into oblivion, God’s love still endures. Such love will relentlessly and stubbornly pursue each and all until there are no empty seats at Her dining table. 

We are “saved”/ “healed”/ “transformed” by love. In Christ, God Herself has come into this world and has united humanity and the Divine. (This helps explain the seeming contradiction of the early church that Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine. All of God and all of humanity are now in this Jew named Jesus.) In solidarity with us and all creation, She has taken into Herself all the pain, suffering, injustice, sin, noble hopes and dreams, prayers, goodness, beauty, and truth of humanity. She has incorporated all into eternity without the use of violence. Jesus’ life and death on the cross reveal the nonviolent nature of God’s love. We may respond with violence, but God’s eternal being, defined by love, will never resort to violence. Jesus, by his life and death, did not come to assuage the wrath of God. He came to reveal the heart of God. The cross is not a price Jesus paid so that God could forgive us. The cross reveals the ultimate depths of the nonviolent, unconditional, and eternally committed love God has for each and all of us—a love which can never let us go. And because God is love and only God is eternal, realities such as sin, injustice, hatred, violence, fear, and death have no ultimate grounding. They have no eternal essence and are destined for healing and transformation. As Paul says in I Corinthians 15, death and sin are “swallowed up” and cease to exist in the face of the resurrection of Jesus – which is based on God’s radical and incomparable love (See also Romans 8.) 

It is through this divine love communicated by the Spirit and conveyed through the “good news” of the gospel that we are “saved.” For the first thousand years of the church, the prominent theory of atonement (known as Christus Victor) celebrated this victory of God’s love over sin, the demonic, and death. Although this theory could be expressed in crass ways, its essence is that God in Christ has triumphed through nonviolent, self-giving, and unconditional love and is committed to spreading that victory throughout all of creation. 

Such “salvation” of course is a process. Paul uses three tenses in his epistles regarding the nature of salvation. The past tense (We were saved) expresses the truth that from God’s side, we have always been loved and in Her eyes, we are already saved. (I love the way Howard Thurman expresses this truth: A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.) The present tense reveals that we are being saved because the healing we need involves a process of transformation. The future tense promises we will be saved and made whole as we are transformed from one degree of glory into another in the likeness of Jesus. We shall each in our own unique way become like Jesus. (Paul uses the future tense most of the time when he talks about our salvation—something those who ask, “Are you saved” and “When were you saved?” should remember. Salvation [becoming whole] is a process which extends into eternity.}

As we experience and become a part of the love God shares, we and the world are loved into our individual and collective healing. Thus, there is a participatory aspect to this salvation. Two favorite terms of Paul express that aspect of our salvation. We become “the Body of Christ” as we join him through the connecting and healing power of the Spirit. We become a continuation of God’s incarnation in Christ as we abide in him. The second term Paul uses emphasizes this new life we experience through God’s grace and love. We are “in Christ.” In our baptism, we die to the old life alienated from God and are born into the new life made possible by God’s love through the power of God’s Spirit. Through this “death” to sin, and, consequently, liberation from Satan and the demonic (as we described them in our first three articles), we are loved into our healing through our abiding Christ. 

Within that healing relationship, we become Christlike as we imitate Christ and not the demonic and satanic of this world with its violence, greed, arrogance, deceit, and fear. (See Philippians 2 where Paul calls us to imitate Christ in his self-giving and unconditional love.) This “imitation” is the alternative Rene Girard understood as the only way out of the demonic and mimetic reality the world has endured from the beginning of history. 

What makes all this possible is the presence of a self-giving, nonviolent God who is committed to the healing of every part of creation. That presence is the Spirit of God which penetrates every atom of the universe. As the Spirit inspires, teaches, guides, challenges, and comforts us, we grow into the salvation we already possess by God’s grace. The power of that Spirit is beyond calculation. It is through that Spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead according to the Apostle Paul. And it is by that Spirit that sin, death, and the demonic will be no more. The ancient church fathers and mothers were correct. The victory over evil is assured. In fact, from eternity, it has already taken place. We are destined for healing and joy. In a world seemingly lost in the “hurricanes” of the demonic, such promised hope is good news indeed. 

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