Nations in the hands of an angry God: The political origins of Original Sin

Most readers of the New Testament interpret its texts along individualistic and soteriological lines—assuming, as it were, that Christianity advances a particular system of personal postmortem salvation; the scriptures functioning as a kind of intimate roadmap from sin, through death, into eternal life. The individual reader (i.e. sinner) must therefore decide whether to accept or decline the soteriological path on offer in the Bible. (Other paths to salvation, enlightenment, actualization, etc., of course, are available.) For the majority of Christians the conditions of this arrangement are more or less clear: admit you are a hopeless transgressor of God’s law, put your faith in Jesus Christ as gracious sin-offering, and happily await salvation from the postmortem consequences of your sin.

This framing of the Christian gospel has prevailed over the Western mind in large part because it effectively relieves anxieties peculiar to the Westerner’s inherited philosophical and introspective constitution—his guilty conscience.1 Of course, once one has become psychologically committed to this way of understanding the purpose and function of Christianity (i.e. as salve for the troubled soul), this particular framing, or better, this particular religious technology—the divine savior myth—proves to be the cornerstone of a grand theological cathedral, without which the whole structure tumbles down.

These individualistic and soteriological2 assumptions (i.e. the cornerstone of the Christian religion) thus impose on the New Testament texts certain interpretive necessities. It has become unassailable and intuitive, for instance, that the cosmic and metaphysical sin-bearer must himself be cosmic and metaphysical. Indeed, he must be the one God of monotheism. Christ must, as it were, under the debilitating weight of universal human sin, lift the millstone no ordinary man could bear. He must, unlike sinful man born of sinful man, act as sinless God-man born of sinless God. He who “knew no sin” must “become sin” on behalf of humanity.

In order to do what must be done for the Western psyche, therefore, Biblical Christology must surmount the highest heights, no matter the hermeneutical costs.

A Jewish problem

This rather abstract and psychological framing of Christianity’s modus operandi breaks down when confronted with a sprawling Greco-Roman biography-history like Luke-Acts. For starters, the foundation of this spiritualized gospel—universal human guilt—is less than clearly articulated by Luke. We should therefore begin by asking this: What problem does Luke’s Christ propose to solve?

For the theologically-minded reader the answer might seem immediately clear: Luke’s gospel tells of how God became incarnate through the virgin birth so as to atone for the sins of the whole world. Luke’s church history proceeds to tell of how Christ’s spirit-filled apostles then travelled the earth in order to teach others regarding salvation by grace through faith.

This is not, I would argue, what Luke intended to communicate however.

Luke’s story begins, rather, with a particularly Jewish problem. Israel’s covenant promises, the divine oaths sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob concerning the establishment of a great and mighty Israelite nation, one that would mediate God’s blessings and God’s curses to the other nations, have been left unfulfilled. To make matters worse, David’s supposedly unfailing dynasty has remained defunct for hundreds of years. Instead, Israel’s mighty enemies are high atop their thrones and the Jewish people have no rest from those who hate them. The pagans, in short, rule the world and pay no mind to God3—just as they always have. Such was a compelling and seemingly intractable problem for ancient Jews, and one Christian readers tend to disregard.

The reason for this Jewish predicament, Luke suggests, as did many others before him, was that Israel as a nation had long rejected God’s law and God’s prophets. There were, indeed, many righteous Israelites—some of whom inhabit Luke’s birth narrative and gospel proper: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna4 (cf. Luke 7:28, 15:7, 18:20-21, etc.)—but as a whole the people had failed to uphold their end of the covenant. While Paul may have been a “faultless” and “zealous” observer of God’s commands (Acts 22:1-3, 23:1, Philippians 2:6, cf. 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, 1 Thessalonians 2:10), the Jewish problem was not universal human sin so much as corporate (i.e. covenantal) disobedience.

The Lukan Baptizer emerges from out of this gloom in order to proclaim God’s decision to now fulfill his promises to David and the Patriarchs despite Israel’s continued recalcitrance. With national renewals such as those under Joshua (Joshua 24), King Josiah (2 Kings 23), and Ezra (Nehemiah 8-10) in view, John called all Israel to repent and re-enroll as Abraham’s blessed sons through baptism at this final hour. While repentance of personal sin played an important part in John’s project, repentance at the corporate or national level was key. Jesus underwent John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins not because he believed he had sinned in this way or that, but because he recognized that it was time for the nation to again return to God. Jesus would carry on John’s call not by baptizing but by hosting celebratory kingdom-meals—inviting all Israel, sinner and Pharisee alike. John and Jesus would thus come not to save individuals from Hell, but to put the whole house of Israel in order before the day of wrath.

In the end, this prophetic rehabilitation of all Israel failed, the Jewish problem left unsolved and dealt a devastating blow in AD 70. The nation as nation would not harken to John and Jesus, choosing to execute God’s prophets instead.

A Greek problem

Despite then Israel’s repudiation of their Messiah, a few of Christ’s Jewish apostles would, quite unexpectedly, begin to annex the pagan nations on behalf of Israel’s deity through words and deeds of power in the spirit of their crucified master—their wondrous signs spelling the end of Mediterranean polytheism. For, as it turns out, God had raised his servant Jesus from the dead, making him Lord and Messiah—thus granting him authority to rain down divine spirit with which to subject the Greek peoples, the first of whom was Cornelius the centurion, no doubt a symbol of the agreeable aspects of the Roman empire.

Thus, now outside the bounds of the covenantal relationship between Israel and his God, Luke must assess the fundamental problem with the Greek. Once again, universal human depravity is not at stake; there are righteous men and women among the Greeks too, those who had already come to fear Israel’s God more than the impotent gods of their ancestors (cf. Romans 2:6-16). Among these are Cornelius, Lydia, Sergius, another couple of pious centurions (Luke 7:1-10, 23:47), a host of receptive God-fearers found at the synagogues,5 and of course, the most excellent Theophilus. These Greeks, so we are told, did what was right and just.

Luke’s problem with the Greek then is not simply the sinful heart of fallen man. The problem with the Greek, rather, is that he has, by in large, corporately speaking, bound himself to corrupting and idolatrous cults in defiance of primitive monotheism (Acts 14:11-18, 19:26-27, cf. Romans 1:18-32, Wisdom of Solomon 14). It is this idolatry that the Lukan Paul rails against in Athens, the heart of polytheistic worship (Acts 17:16-31).

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of [pagan] ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

If in Luke’s gospel then Christ calls Israel as a nation to abandon its disastrous course of covenant betrayal, in Luke’s church history the apostles call upon Rome as a civilization to abandon its ruinous neglect of the one true God. The preservation of each—Israel as a nation and Rome as a civilization—hangs in the balance, Christ being the only means of salvation from “sins passed over [by God] previously” (Romans 3:25). Whatever choice is made, God’s kingdom will soon reign over the οἰκουμένη, destroying the wicked in its path and raising up the righteous at the coming of the Lord.

A Christological problem

The medieval theologian answered the question Cur Deus Homo by appealing to the individualistic and soteriological assumptions we noted at the start. God became man—by historical development, if not also by incarnation—in order to resolve the agony of the universal guilt and introspective outlook that came to dominate the Western religious anatomy. God, or perhaps it was the Christian psyche, demanded satisfaction—an infinite act of restitution for an infinite act of transgression, God’s eye for God’s eye, God’s tooth for God’s tooth.6 Christ’s death for the Jew’s national treachery and for the Greek’s civilizational apathy became Christ’s death for fallen mankind, mired in sin and shame. The problem with the traitorous Jew and the problem with the idolatrous Greek became the problem with the sinful (introspective) Man.

And so, hand in hand with this shift toward abstraction as regards the problem(s) Christ solves, the contours of Israel’s redemptive hopes were also redirected in spiritual and heavenly directions. With the unexpected rise of post-pagan Greco-Roman civilization (i.e. Christendom), the people of God no longer eagerly awaited the great and mighty nation of Patriarchal promise or the messianic empire of Davidic lore to shatter and rebuild the earth so as to prove God’s supremacy among the heathen peoples once and for all. That theo-political project had come to a close; now was the time for a more philosophical theology—a biblical interpretive strategy equipped for answering new problems.

1—Indebted to Krister Stendhal’s Th Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West and E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism here.

2—Perhaps “harmatiological” is better; a fixation upon personal salvation as a solution to universal sin and its metaphysical consequences (i.e. the Fall, Hell).

3—Or Israel’s world.

4—Others inhabit the pages of Luke’s Septuagint—Israelites like Joseph, Joshua, Deborah, Hannah, Elijah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, Esther, etc. In the second temple period many of these figures had taken on a morally-exalted status (cf. Sirach 44-50).

5—Acts 13:13-43, 14:1-7, 16:11-15, 17:1-15, 18:1-11.

6—At this point the persecuted Paul, a mere (sinful) man, was no longer allowed to “fill up” what was lacking in Christ’s redemptive suffering (Colossians 1:24).

5 thoughts on “Nations in the hands of an angry God: The political origins of Original Sin

  1. I appreciate your blog and find overlaps between what you suggest in posts like this, and the writings of others like N.T. Wright and Andrew Perriman. I have moved beyond the individualistic and soteriological understanding of the Christian narrative through a shift to a narrative-historical perspective, and wonder how this might be applied in the contexts of post-Christendom pluralism amidst secularism and religious diversity. Evangelicals continue to devote so much time to the assumptions of individual soteriology in regards to the religions that alternative frameworks are not even a possibility, or if they are, they are greeted with suspicion. I hope one day there might be a forum for serious scholarly and popular reconsideration of what a new framework and contemporary application might look like as it moves beyond assumptions of the past, if that’s even possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John, I agree. As of now I think most Christians are committed to Christianity purely because of the psychological benefits that spring from the divine savior myth. Without this element the whole Christian project appears worthless to modern, western man.


  2. The synoptic Gospels are written decades after Jesus’ ministry, based on circulating stories. The people who wrote them down were not first-hand witnesses and may not have met first-hand witnesses. But Paul met first-hand witnesses.

    In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Simon Peter and then to the twelve apostles.’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

    Bart Ehrman explains that these were the things passed on to Paul, possibly as a creed. And because Paul joined the Christian movement early on, it is likely the original Christian teaching that Jesus died for our sins.

    The Westerner’s so-called guilty conscience might be a product of Christianity. Christianity may have promoted individualism in the Roman Empire. People could either accept or reject the Christian message. It was their choice. It was not imposed at first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points. Christianity was a cult that people chose to serve, indepent of birth/social location. Religion became a matter of the individual mind, not household/ancestral happenstance. Though this was reverted somewhat when Christianity came to power, I believe.


  3. I think Jesus’ followers had to come up with an explanation for the delay of the parousia, and Acts suggests the council in Jerusalem thought Paul was onto something. Paul believed God had somehow partially hardened Jews until the full number of Gentiles accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who would soon be returning from heaven to rule over all nations (Rom 11:7, 25). These Gentiles represented the nations that Jewish prophets said would forsake their gods to worship Yahweh and give tribute to Israel (Ps 86:9; Isa 14:2; Amos 9:11-15; Zech 8:22-23, 14:9). He believed the inclusion of Gentiles would make Jews jealous so they would become followers of Jesus Christ once Yahweh removed the hardening (Rom 10:19; 11:11, 14).

    Liked by 1 person

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