As anyone who knows me or reads my blog regularly will realize, I am quite fond of atonement theology. Besides the numerous posts that I have made concerning it, I have also done a significant amount of study–both personal and academic–in relation to this matter of Christian theology. As the parties aforementioned will also realize, I am a supreme antagonist of penal conceptions of atonement, i.e., those atonement theologies which primally locate and ultimately terminate both the problem and solution of atonement exclusively within the psychology of God concerning human sinfulness.

Those who would disagree with me on this assessment often point to what they perceive to be "clearly" penal language in the Pauline corpus of Scripture, arguing that Paul (or the writers of the more broadly labeled collection and theological method) is my most definitive theological antagonist. While I can certainly understand why these individuals would arrive at such conclusions given their starting presuppositions, I now simply wish to share some reflections which I have concerning a very interesting portion of Ephesians which I feel call into question the legitimacy of characterizing the Pauline understanding of atonement as "penal."

The main text which I wish to reflect upon in is chapter 2, but the first chapter provides an interesting context. Here, the writer offers the usual greetings and theological reflections upon the goodness of Christ's grace and the salvation of God which has been manifested in the community of believers, the church. At the end of this section, the author diverges a bit to speculate about the power and nature of Christ's resurrection. According to the text, Christ's resurrection accomplishes something quite significant: by being "raised" to newness of life by the power of God, Christ has been exalted "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion. The reason for this is plain to the author: so that Christ might be made the head of all things, "filling everything in every way (23) and to "fill the whole universe (4:10). In this sense, Christ has been made the author of all that exists, for as Heidegger astutely notes, to name "something" is to grant unto it existence. Therefore, as Christ is proclaimed to be over "every title that can be given, not only in the present age (that which exists), but also in the one to come (that which will be brought into existence) [21], he is its true author and sustainer.

At first glance, this may not appear to be particularly significant for atonement theology, for what does the exaltation of Christ, and the filling of "all things" by the power of Christ have to do with the restoration of divine/human relationship? The answer may very well be "nothing." However, I do think it is interesting that immediately following this, the writer begins what appears to be a very striking juxtaposition. In the preceding section, Christ is pictured as "above" and "in all things." But when he begins speaking of the human condition, the writer notes a severe break in relationship, an enmity with God. To the writer, humanity is the negation of that which Christ "fills" in that it is "separate" (12) from the one who has been made to be "above" and "in all." Humanity is pictured as "strangers and aliens" to the life of God–the "unnamed ones," thereby lacking in the essential existence.

The picture the author paints, then, is one of a severe dysfunction. Christ, through his raising to new life by the power of the Father, has been made the rightful master and owner of existence itself. However, humanity, in its separation from Christ, is severed from this same existence by virtue of being alienated from that over which Christ has existential rule, i.e., the "all things" which Christ fills by his being raised in resurrection and exaltation by the power of God.

But what, it must be asked, is the primal source and cause of this separation? The author clearly notes later on that the source of separation is not–as is supposed by the proponents of penal models of hamartiology –the anger of God against sin, but rather the sinfulness of humanity itself. It is the "darkening of understanding" from the destructive and annihilating power of sin that has "separated humanity from the life of God" (4:17), creating a dividing wall. The wall, however, is again not pictured as an unwillingness (or inability) on the part of God to offer forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather it is located in the enmity which sinful humanity has towards God. In this sinfulness, humanity becomes an "object of wrath" (2:3). Yet this wrath is not penal forms of retribution by an angered deity, but contrarily the continuing cycle of deepening depravity and ever increasing enslavement to the powers of darkness and non-existence (2:2).

The author does not end in despair concerning humanity's prospects, however, for the death and annihilating power of human sinfulness is immediately juxtaposed with the grace of God in Christ. Rather than punishment, God has revealed the depths of divine benevolence by "making us alive with Christ" (2:5) and "raising us up with Christ (2:6). As the redeemed now participate within the life of Christ who has been made the ruler and author of existence, so those who are raised "up" with him become properly identified with the "all things" which Christ fills with existence and life. In this newness of life, the "raised-up ones" are named, called children of God and citizens in the kingdom. By this proclamation of naming, the existence which was fleeting towards negation by sinfulness is restored and made essential through the filling of the Spirit of Christ. Moreover, In speaking of the cross, the author locates its power not in the satisfaction of divine blood-thirst, but rather in the "putting to death the hostility" of sinful humanity and the condemning power of the law. Rather than a sword, Christ has revealed an ever-abiding peace that is properly extended to all peoples that they might be reconciled to God.

The story of the cross then, to the author, is one of rescue, the epic drama of a God who would save humanity not from retributive divine wrath, but from the prisons of non-existence which they have created for themselves in their sinfulness by destroying forever their power to enslave through the cross of Christ. Yet even more, this God goes to even greater lengths by recreating humanity in the image of Christ that humans might be clothed again in the true self–the named (existence-imbued) self [2:19-22]–created not only by God and for God, but also to be–by grace–that which God is in nature (4:24).