In the Gospel of Mark, the story is told of Jesus’s encounter with a blind man at Bethsaida.1 Jesus touches the man’s eyes, and as a result the man begins to see. However, his sight is not fully recovered. He can see people, but they look like walking trees. So Jesus lays hands on him a second time, and the man is able to see clearly (Mark 8:22–25).
The economy of desire—capitalism—produces a kind of virtual reality, and as a result we do not see what is really going on around us. Just as the capitalist division of labor conceals from us the conditions of commodity production, so we do not see the divine economy that is taking shape and already active all around us, even in the church. We may see a little—we may see walking trees. We may recognize that capitalism is not “the end of history,” as one pundit has claimed. But our vision is corrupted; we do not recognize the things God has given and is doing now to heal desire of its capitalist distortions.
Our consideration of what God is doing now to heal desire of its economic distortions begins with the Christian doctrine of atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross. In particular, it begins with what is commonly called the satisfaction or substitutionary account of Christ’s work on the cross. This doctrine is typically identified with the early chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and was developed most notably by the medieval theologian St. Anselm (1033–1109), whose interpretation of Christ’s work on the cross in his classic treatise Cur Deus Homo has become widely influential in Western Christianity and is well suited for highlighting the economic character of God’s incarnation in the world to overcome sin.
Most permutations of the satisfaction or substitutionary understanding of the cross hold that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the debt to God which humanity incurred on account of sin: Christ is the sinners’ substitute on the cross, paying the penalty of that sin. Anselm’s argument can be summarized as follows: in the face of human sin, which is an offense against God’s honor, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict accounting of what is due. However, because humanity already owes God everything, we have no surplus with which to repay our debt. In this situation, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, and pays the debt through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is the result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.
At first glance, this account of Christ’s work on the cross might not seem particularly relevant either to the matter of economics in general or to liberating desire from the distortions of capitalism. On the one hand, it appears to have little to do directly with economics, with the circulation and use of scarce resources; on the other hand, insofar as it might have some indirect relevance, it does not appear to present a serious challenge of any sort to the capitalist economy of desire. Indeed, to the extent that Christ’s work of redemption on the cross seems to work entirely within a logic of scarcity and debt, commutative exchange, equity, and strict accounting of what is due, it would appear to reinforce the material logic that underwrites the capitalist economy of desire. Divine accounting, it seems, is not that different from capitalist accounting. Just as capitalism functions according to a contractual logic of debt, equality/equivalence (via the dollar and dominance of exchange value), retribution (as in an exact accounting and rendering of what is due), and finally death (for it is death that gives scarcity its power), so too, apparently, does the atonement. Redemption requires a full settling of accounts, commutative justice. Christ’s death is an exchange accounted equivalent to our debt that settles the divine-human balance sheet.
Yet, notwithstanding its widespread popularity, this reading of Paul and Anselm is a profound misreading. It reflects not the divine economy of salvation revealed in Scripture, expounded in the tradition, and lived out by the church, but rather the way that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire that was beginning to emerge during Anselm’s time. As a result, we have blurred vision (like the blind man at Bethsaida) and so misinterpret the work the crucified (and resurrected) Christ was doing; we misconstrue the character of God’s economy that heals desire of its sin.
When understood rightly, the atonement is neither irrelevant to economy nor a tacit endorsement of the logic of the capitalist economic order. Rather, rightly understood, the cross reveals the gift of Christ as the incarnation of a divine economy that turns the capitalist order on its head. In particular, Anselm discloses how Christ’s work on the cross cannot be correlated with a capitalist economic logic that revolves around scarcity, with its calculi of debt, equity, and death, but instead illuminates a divine economy of charity, an economic order characterized by plenitude and generosity that exceeds the strictures of capitalism as surely as Christ burst the bonds of death.
Anselm provides the first hint that a different kind of economic order is operating in Christ’s work of atonement when he observes, in keeping with the teaching of the church, that God needs nothing and that no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that some necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin. Anselm then goes on to say that God does not demand bloodshed, that divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and that God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. All of which is to say that whatever is happening on the cross, it is not about a strict settling of accounts and a rigid enforcing of commutative justice. Indeed, as Anselm argues, in the work of atonement, God in Christ both dismisses every debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created.
What is going on, Anselm says, is not God collecting on accounts receivable but rather making good on God’s intention in creating humanity. This is the key to understanding the claim that sin is an offense against God’s honor. Anselm argues that sin is indeed an offense against God’s honor in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted. To put this in the idiom of Augustine, Aquinas, and Westminster, sin is an offense against God because it is the thwarting of God’s desire that humanity enjoy God or find its rest or communion in God. The injury to God’s honor that is effected by sin is a matter of the absence of humanity from full communion with its Creator. Thus, rightly understood, God’s honor is not a barrier to humanity’s reconciliation with God—as though God were an aristocrat whose pride was offended. As such, honor is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. God’s honor demands not that someone pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions for humanity not be thwarted.
Accordingly, Christ’s work on the cross is a display of the plenitude of divine charity (John 3:16), of God’s giving and giving again. The atonement is not a settling of accounts, an exaction of payment, or the calling in of a debt. Rather it is a matter of God’s ceaseless generosity, of God’s graceful prodigality. It is a matter of donation, of divine donation for our sake. Thus, Christ is not our offering to God but God’s offering to us (Rom. 5:8). God has always given to humanity in the form of love, and when humanity rejected that gift, God forgave and gave again in the form of love incarnate, which is the Son. Christ’s work is that of giving again, of communicating God’s prodigious love and grace (which has never ceased to flow) to humanity again (and again). The work of atonement is God in Christ forgiving, bearing human rejection, and extending the offer of grace again, thereby opening a path for humanity to recover beatitude, communion. In Christ, God reconciled the world (2 Cor. 5:18–19). In Christ, God has refused to render to humanity what is due sin but instead graciously endures humanity’s rejection and extends the gift of redemption and reconciliation in Christ (Rom. 3:25). (This, not incidentally, is entirely in keeping with Paul’s argument in Romans, where Jesus is put forward as the justice [righteousness] of God because Jesus is the incarnation of God’s faithfulness to the redemptive promise made to Abraham for the sake of Jew and gentile alike.)
This is the context for rightly understanding Anselm’s claim that it is not fitting for God to simply forgive sin. Contrary to the first impression such a statement makes, that it is unseemly for God simply to forgive sin without satisfaction, Anselm’s claim is not a rejection of the entirely gratuitous nature of Christ’s atonement in favor of a strict accounting of what is due. Rather, what Anselm rejects is a construal of redemption as sheer negative pardon. By this I mean conceiving of Christ’s atonement as simply letting sinners off the hook, as God simply ignoring our sin as we are left otherwise unchanged.
The problem for Anselm with casting redemption in this way is that it would be both untruthful and unjust. It would be untruthful because it would elevate or equate (pardoned) sinful humanity with sinless humanity. But this is a falsehood because sinful humanity is not the same as sinless humanity. Sinful humanity is constitutionally incapable of enjoying blessedness, and a purely negative pardon, whatever it might accomplish, would not change this. This is the logic behind Anselm’s striking claim that he would prefer to be in hell without sin than in heaven with sin. Redemption construed as sheer negative pardon would result in humanity gaining entrance to heaven but still in need and thus devoid of blessedness. As a result, heaven would be hell.
Such an act of pardon would, likewise, be unjust because it would fail to accomplish God’s desire for humanity. If, as we have seen, the point of the atonement is fulfilling God’s intentions for humanity, a sheer negative pardon is insufficient; it does not restore or renew human nature. Here we might draw on the analogy Anselm develops of a pearl fallen into the mud. Would it be wise, he asks, for one to pluck that pearl from the mud and store it, dirty and unwashed, in some clean and costly receptacle? Of course not. It would be far better to preserve the pearl clean rather than polluted. So it is with humanity. A sheer negative pardon would be equivalent to placing humanity, stained and corrupted by sin, in a clean and costly receptacle.
This is the meaning of “satisfaction” that runs through Anselm’s argument. Thus, in contrast to the dominant modern reading, which tends to render satisfaction the equivalent of a strict settling of accounts by means of punishment and retribution, Anselm consistently posits satisfaction as a gracious alternative to retributive punishment and a strict settling of accounts. Satisfaction is a matter of God’s desire for humanity being accomplished. In this sense, Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us. The Father’s love and the Son’s faithfulness to the desire to redeem us is such that God will even go to the cross rather than withdraw the offer of reconciliation. As such, the atonement is not a propitiation offered to appease an angry God but an expiation—a removal of the obstacle to communion that is sin—effected by the Father in the Son through the Spirit for us in our sinful obstinacy.
There is a sacrifice involved in this atoning work, and there is a substitution. But the nature and end of these are not rightly grasped when they are accounted movements in a commercial drama, that is, the due processes of an economic order that disciplines exchange according to a strict calculus of equivalence and retribution. Rather, Christ’s sacrifice is the donation of obedience and praise (the return of love) offered by the Son to the Father, and his role is substitutionary in that the Son offers the worship we cannot.
This is all to say that Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice is an instantiation of the divine plenitude and superabundance that created, sustains, and now enables us to return to our source, to participate in the divine life, in the reciprocity that is the Triune circle of love, our true end and for which we were created. So understood, the atoning work of Christ is indeed an economic act. It is a movement of the divine economy of plenitude, ceaseless generosity, and superabundance. As such, it runs counter to every economy that operates on the basis of scarcity, debt, desert, and a strict accounting of what is due. In the economy of salvation, Christ is given not to pay a debt or appease an angry God but so that God’s desire for communion is satisfied. Christ gives, even to the point of death on the cross, that desire might recover its rest, its true end, its enjoyment in the communion of charity that is the divine life. For this purpose, this mission, in Christ we are empowered to give ourselves—all that we are and all that we have—in love of God and service to our neighbor. In Christ our life is so ordered economically that we reflect the divine economy of ceaseless generosity, of unending charity. The Christian (economic) life is a matter of living life as the gift that it is.
1. This essay is adapted and condensed from the chapter “The Economy of Salvation,” in Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2012). Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.