Comments on Romans 1-5
By Wendell Krossa
The most profound, revolutionary, and far-reaching discovery in history is that the defining core of reality and life is unconditional love. What makes this discovery so profound is expressed in the adjective “unconditional”. This is not just about love as the historic human ideal but points to something far more profound – a transcendent and scandalous love that demands no conditions before forgiving, including, or bestowing unlimited generosity. The consequences of this discovery in terms of ethical, philosophical, theological, social, and other implications, are life-changing and astounding.
To set the proper context, and offer a clear contrast, I have detailed here exactly how traditional religious themes have buried this grand discovery of unconditional. Religion emerged as a social institution oriented to conditions which basically involved appeasing and pleasing the gods. From the beginning religion has been about conditions, and more conditions. Religious gods have embodied the harshest features of primitive existence- things like petty offense at human imperfection, violent revenge, tribalism/exclusion (true believers versus unbelievers, opposing dualism and opposition), and violent punishment, along with conditional atonement and salvation schemes. Firmly lodged deep within human consciousness, these features have stirred endless fear, anxiety, depression, and dread, and have long shaped human emotion, perspective, response, and behavior, for the worse.
Unconditional now replaces these destructive features at the core of human consciousness and liberates the human spirit entirely. Unconditional sparks a liberation that begins in the depths of human consciousness and frees us to engage the authentically humane in every area of existence. Unconditional goes to the deepest root causes- those ideas or beliefs that have long validated human feeling, response, and behavior. It replaces the old themes with an entirely new center, or foundation, that inspires the best in the human spirit. It becomes the most potent reality ever to solve issues like violence, tribalism and exclusion, fear, and anxiety (temporal and existential). It answers all the great questions about the meaning and purpose of existence. This is about exploring the root causes of what went wrong in ancient thought.
The Futility of Reform
There is a lot of effort expended today to restate Christianity in terms of more humane themes. To downplay the nasty stuff and focus more on the nice stuff. You see this in the effort to argue that Christianity is really all about the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. This is admirable, but ultimately it proves to be wasted effort. I believe that much of this reformism arises from the sense of obligation to Biblicism, the belief that the writing in the New Testament is somehow inspired by God, a revelation from God and so its contents must be honored and preserved.
The problem is that the most basic Christian teaching is entirely opposite to the unconditional message of Jesus. The entirely opposite Christian teaching that I refer to is foundational Christianity.
Paul sets forth the foundational beliefs of Christianity in Romans 1-5. Here he is stating the essence of the Christian religion. His larger context is an angry God zealous to punish and destroy sinners. Paul repeatedly states, beginning in chapter 1, that God is angry (wrath) with imperfect people. The demanded solution from this wrathful God?… a blood sacrifice (atonement) as payment for sin. A supreme condition to be met in order for people to be saved from the wrath and destruction.
Let me quote Paul – “God will give to each person according to what he has done”, Romans 2:6. This is a clear statement that God engages eye for eye justice, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Unfortunately, in the next chapter Paul says that all have sinned and therefore all deserve God’s wrath. All are in the bad people category subject to God’s eye for eye, or punishing justice. Paul then states that God had waited to punish people’s sins until he could do so fully in Jesus’ death. He was then able to demonstrate his eye for eye or payback justice in Jesus… “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement…to demonstrate his justice…to fully punish the previously unpunished sins (my paraphrase of the subsequent verses)”. The additional demanded condition is that people had better believe this eye for eye justice or they will be destroyed by God’s wrath. This is not Anselm or other later theologians distorting Christian atonement, this is Paul stating the most basic of Christian beliefs.
There is nothing in basic Christian belief (i.e. Christian atonement) of the unconditional forgiveness and unconditional inclusion as taught by Jesus.
Paul is setting forth here in Romans, the foundation of Christian belief, and it simply has nothing to do with Jesus’ core message that God was unconditional love and treated all people unconditionally. Unconditional means that there is no angry, punishing God. It means no demand for some blood payment or atonement. For Christianity to embrace the message of Jesus would mean a complete denial of its foundational beliefs as set forth in Romans 2-5.
Christian atonement, as clearly stated in Romans, is a statement of eye for eye justice (the full payment or punishment of sin). But such eye for eye is exactly what Jesus rejected in his most basic statement of ethics and theology (Matthew 5:38-48). The contradiction between Jesus and Christianity is so profound that the two positions cannot co-exist in any manner. The teaching of Jesus cannot be used to reform or explain Christianity. The outcome of such attempts is to distort the core unconditional theme of Jesus.
Jesus’ new wine of unconditional simply cannot fit into the wineskin of supreme conditional atonement that is Christianity. Highly conditional Christianity simply cannot express the core unconditional message of Jesus. To embrace unconditional as taught by Jesus, is to reject entirely the conditional eye for eye justice of Christianity. The new wine of Christian reform needs new wineskins.