Mysteries of the Kingdom

            in awe of scripture, viewing it through the lens of the kingship of Jesus


    It surprises most Westerners to learn that the first 1,200 years of Christians understood the cross in a very different way than modern Protestants and Roman Catholics understand it. For well over a thousand years, Christians never taught that God punished Jesus. We should not think early Christians failed to read the same scriptures we read. In fact, nowhere in our Bibles did the apostles or prophets actually state that God punished Jesus. Scripture never says that Jesus bore God's wrath. What then, did ancient Christians and do modern Eastern Christians believe happened when Jesus suffered and died for us on the cross?

What Divides Us from God?
     Modern Western Christianity views the cross as the place of God's wrath. We tend to see humans as divided from God because of His wrath against sin. His wrath against sin does separate us, but His wrath is not the only separation. Early Christians viewed the cross as the particular place where Jesus conquered the devil. That view of the cross is called "Christus Victor Atonement." Christus Victor views the reign of the devil as the problem dividing humans from God.

    Early Christians also saw the cross as the means by which Jesus rescued humanity from the devil. That view of the cross is called "Ransom Atonement." Ransom Atonement sees human enslavement to sin as the problem dividing humans from God.

    Finally, early Christians said Jesus brought Adam's legacy to an end and established a new line of humans who are born of the Holy Spirit. That view of the cross is called "Recapitulation Atonement." Recapitulation Atonement sees human Adamic nature as the problem dividing us from God.

    Early Christians agreed that three things happened on the cross: the victory, the ransom, and the recapping. Irenaeus of Lugdunum, for example, taught all three views in his book "The Preaching of the Apostles." Irenaeus was discipled by one of John's disciples, Polycarp, so he had a good idea of what the apostles preached. His "Preaching of the Apostles" is the oldest book of theology still available. It can be found online for free at

Cross as God's Wrath
    While God's wrath against sin does divide us from God, no one until Thomas Aquinas taught that God punished Jesus. Around AD 1100, Anselm of Canterbury taught that our sins create a debt of honor. He said that on the cross, Jesus honored God to overflowing. Since Jesus honored the Father to overflowing, Anselm said His honor can be counted on behalf of our sins too, thereby satisfying our sin-debt and enabling Christians to be united with God.

    Around AD 1200, Thomas Aquinas employed Anselm's idea of a debt to be satisfied, but Aquinas said our sin-debt was a debt of punishment or penalty. In the thinking of Aquinas, God penalized Jesus on the cross, thereby satisfying His wrath, satisfying the debt of our penalty, and enabling Christians to be reunited with God.

Ancient Atonement
    Since the cross of wrath is a relatively new idea, let us understand what Christians believed for the first 1,200 years of our faith. The Christus Victor view of the cross sees the devil as triumphing in the garden of Eden, ruling the world to a certain degree, and being defeated at Calvary.

    The devil triumphed in Eden through King Adam's disobedience against God. The devil's defeat at Calvary therefore had to come through the obedience of King Jesus toward God. Romans 5:19 similarly states, "through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous." Likewise, Philippians 2:8 says, "He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Obedience to God is rebellion against the devil whom Jesus called the "ruler of this world." Victory for a rebel is his successful rebellion. So long as a rebel refuses to obey, the rebel wins, regardless of what the  so-called ruler says or does. If the ruler cannot enforce his authority, the ruler no longer rules; the ruler is defeated. Early Christians understood the cross as the Anointed King's victory over "the ruler of this world."

    Since Adam's rebellion introduced human death however, a temporary rebellion against the devil could not suffice. Jesus had to rebel against the devil to the point of death in order to defeat the devil's Edenic triumph. Defeating the devil therefore had to cost Jesus His life. When Jesus defeated the devil, He defeated the authority of the devil with His own blood, enabling Him to take from the devil his human slaves. For this cause, the scriptures say we were bought with a price, not of silver or gold, but with the blood of our King. Jesus did not give the devil His blood as payment for us, but Jesus defeated the devil, and that defeat came at the price of His own life. When scripture speaks of our "purchase," that is only a metaphor. He ransomed us from bondage when He defeated the devil with His blood. The Victory view of the cross therefore goes hand in hand with the ransom view of the cross. At Calvary, Jesus won at the cost of His own blood, thereby ransoming us from the devil's slavery.

    Finally, the victory and the ransom were accomplished on the cross by the Last Adam (1Cor15:45). Jesus is not the Second Adam for then there could be a third. Jesus is the Last Adam, bringing an end to Adamic humanity and instituting a new race. So Jesus declared, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. ... That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Those who believe Jesus is the rightful ruler of earth are born of God (1Jn5:1). By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God makes us new creations (2Cor5:17). Jesus recapped humanity which was formerly born only of the sinful flesh of King Adam, but now can be reborn of the Holy Spirit into King Jesus.

Problem of Wrath
    In the recapitulation view of the cross, the Word of God put on Adamic flesh so that the Unchangeable was joined to the changeable. Unchangeable God put on changeable flesh so that all who were in Adam could be transformed. Jesus obeyed the Father to point of death, disobeyed the devil to the point of death paid the ultimate price, liberated those who had been bound in death, rose from the place of the dead in a procession of triumph over death itself, ascended to the Father and then transformed what was Adamic into a new creation so that all those born of an Adamic nature could be reborn of the Holy Spirit into new creations.

    In the recapitulation view of the cross, God's wrath no longer separates us from Him because we are new creations, no longer sinners, but saints. Recapitulation sees no need for God to punish Jesus. Oddly enough, holy scripture never says God must punish sin. The closest we get is, "for the wages of sin is death," in Romans 6:23. It does not say the mandatory punishment of sin is death. Rather, the entire passage is about the enslavement of Sin and the fact that Sin pays her slaves corruption.

    Neither does scripture ever state that God punished Jesus. Recapitulation says God needed to undo the Adamic problem. His wrath is poured out only on sinners, not on the righteous. Scripture speaks of the children of wrath and the children of God. He corrects His children, but the recapitulation view of the cross sees no need for God to punish His adopted children, much less His only begotten Son.

    While I lean toward the recapitulation view, I am not arguing for it. I'm just presenting the early Christian view and the modern Eastern view of the cross as a place of victory, of blood ransom, and of human recapitulation. As I shared this with a friend over lunch the other day, he asked what Jesus meant when He prayed, "Let this cup pass from me." My friend wondered why Jesus would dread the cross if it were not a place of punishment. In a similar vein, we might ask why Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" If the cross was a place of obedience and victory, why would Jesus dread it, and why would the Father turn away from Him?

    As Hebrews 4:15 states, Jesus was tested (tempted) in all things just as we are. By summarizing humanity and living the un-Adam life, He had to experience human death. He had to know what it is like to dread torture and to dread dying. Perhaps God could have just told us Jesus felt all of that, but when we hear His cries in the Gethsemane garden, we understand that He was tempted and tried as a human. God could have just told us that on the cross Jesus felt as if He were separated from the Father since separation from God was the condition of all who died before Jesus. Did God really forsake Jesus as He died? Can the Trinity part ways? Perhaps instead, Jesus felt the emotions of separation and the despair of the soul that every human before Him had felt in death. If so, then He expressed the anguish of His human testing. Hebrews 2:10 says Jesus was made perfect through suffering. Lest we should think He died an unhuman death, He cried out in the human sensation of separation from God even while pleasing His Father in obedience to the point of death (Eph 2:8).

    Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb. He suffered and died for our sins. Scripture does not however, say He was our penal substitute. Neither did 1,200 years of Christianity say such a thing. If belief in the penal substitution is an essential of Christianity, then there were no Christians until Thomas Aquinas. The Lamb of God died because we are sinners, but perhaps the Lamb of God did not die under the vengeful wrath of His Father.
    If you're curious about the change in Western Christian theology in the 1200's, click here for "Augustine on Atonement."
-----   Continue the conversation by replying at   -----

"The Last Adam the Cross" by Matthew Bryan was first published at on February 1st, 2015. All rights are reserved.