When God Became the Devil

When God Became the Devil November 26, 2014

I thought I should share what Richard Beck wrote about the penal substitution theory of the atonement, which is very popular today, particularly among conservative Evangelicals:

Prior to Anselm, the main atonement theory used by the church was Christus Victor. Specifically, humanity was being held captive by the Devil and Christ died to free us from this slavery. The Harrowing of Hell icons in the Orthodox church, which are their Easter icons, depict this. In the Harrowing of Hell icons you see the gates of hell broken down and Satan being bound while Christ reaches out to a captive humanity with Adam and Eve first in line.

The thing to be noted here is that the evil, violent and diabolical aspect of salvation history was external to God. The problem was the Devil. Humanity was being rescued from an evil that was external to God’s character and nature. 

But with Anselm a change happened, a theological twist still alive today. Worried as he was about the role of the Devil in Christus Victor schemes Anselm shifted the problem away from the Devil and toward the character of God. The drama of salvation was no longer an external conflict between God and the Devil but an internal conflict within God’s own heart, a conflict between God’s wrath and God’s love.

In short, the problem to be overcome in the atonement was no longer external to God’s character. The problem–the evil, violent and diabolical forces arrayed against us–had been internalized, absorbed into God’s character. The Devil was no longer the problem to be overcome in the drama of salvation. Having absorbed and internalized the diabolical aspects of the drama the problem became God’s newly conflicted character.

We are no longer saved from the Devil. We are saved from God.

With penal substitutionary atonement God had become the Devil.

Beck’s post was inspired by Adam Kotsko’s book, The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation.

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  • Beck argues in another post that, while liberal Christians are drawn to Christus Victor and the idea of Christ as our rescuer, they lack a “robust theology” of the powers of evil – Satan, death, hell, etc. – from whom Christ is to rescue us in the first place:


  • Is there significant difference between God and Satan? Even the Bible conflates them.

    II Sam. 24:1 And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

    I Chron. 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

    • I think that in the Hebrew old testament, Satan is a word roughly translated “adversary” or “accuser”. I’ve read some scholars who argue that the role of the adversary or accuser was an important, and not necessarily evil, role originally. Certainly the original role of Satan is far removed from the horned, pitchfork wielding prince of hell depicted in medieval texts.

      • You’re correct, the Dualism of Zoroastrianism influences our thought more than the ancient Hebrews. Satan was just the “bad side” of God, apparently when he got up on the wrong side of bed or something.

        The term “devil” is a development into English of the Greek word diabolos…Diablos was used to translate the Hebrew word satan…Diablos and its related words denoted something or someone “slanderous.” Socrates declared that the reason he had been condemned at trial was the “slanderers” (diabolai)….

        ~Gregory Riley (2001) The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins. Chapter 4: The Devil, the Demons, and the End of the World. HarperCollins. pp. 95-96.

        At least the older idea of God having both good and bad roles holds monotheism together a little better. A “good” chief “God” and a bad deity (Satan) and multiple other deities, Jesus, H.S., angels, etc. is exactly the same as any pagan polytheistic system of gods.

      • arcseconds

        I’ve heard him described as ‘God’s DA’.

  • Dan

    As an outsider looking in, I am sometimes at a loss in understanding the nuances of the various atonement theories. I have some inkling of PST because of its influence on current evangelical thought. I have read on Christus Victor Theory but find it a bit confusing. And then there’s the Ransom Theory, the Moral Government Theory, the Moral Influence Theory (how is this different?), the Recapitulation Theory, Anselm’s own Satisfaction Theory, the Example Theory, etc. How about progressive Christians? Do you accept any of these theories or do you have other ones? Or do you reject the idea of Atonement altogether?

    • I think that you will find a range of views among progressive and liberal Christians – from Abelard’s view of the death of Christ as example and influence, to Beck’s own preferred stance of a demythologized Christus Victor in which the powers defeated are not personal demonic beings but the power structures those symbolized, to the view that Jesus sought to teach and his execution was simply the kind of death that those who oppose the powers that be and challenge the status quo face.

      Personally, I find the symbolism of a crucified messiah powerful, even though it is impossible to answer many important historical questions about Jesus’ own viewpoint. The idea that God sent a supreme representative not to conquer us with force, but to defeat our very attitude by forgiving us when we thought we were conquering him by force, is a powerful symbol, one that has an ability to challenge and to change lives without needing to appeal to concepts of blood sacrifice or analogies with either a judicial or a banking system.