Excerpt from James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong, the sixth section of chapter 3, "The Search for a Soteriology" (New York: Crossroads, 1998), pp. 94-102.

Creation in Christ

It is often noted by scholars that the various indications to be found in the Pauline corpus, (1) and elsewhere, (2) of the pre-existence of Christ, and his involvement in some mysterious way with the creation of all that is, must be part of a very early understanding on the part of the "primitive Christian community." (3) The hymns are regarded as pre-pauline, inserted by Paul (perhaps with alterations) into his epistles. However, there is a great resistence to regarding as plausible the affirmations of the same reality put into the mouth of Jesus himself by John: "Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), and "Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made" (John 17:5). Here it must be noted that it is not the exactitude of the words that is being doubted, for I know of no scholar who considers the Johannine speeches of Jesus to be verbatim accounts; rather it is notorious that it would in no way be considered strange for authors of antiquity to put speeches into the mouths of their protagonists. What is considered highly implausible is whether Jesus could have held the opinions that are imputed to him.

That is to say, we have a strange disjunction: on the one hand agreement as to the extreme antiquity of the understanding of Christ's pre-existence and mediation of creation in the Christian community, and on the other, the denial that this understanding could have been that of Jesus himself before the Crucifixion. The apostolic group is held to have been able to understand something that Jesus was not himself able to understand, and this despite the insistence of the Gospels, and particularly John, that Jesus understood things before the apostles, and they were only able to understand what he had already understood after his resurrection and the coming of the Paraclete. The teaching of Christ's pre-existence can therefore be presented as an overflowing of the primitive Christian community, which is to suggest that is, in a certain sense, "mythical" -- a sort of exercise in posthumous sacralization of Jesus, but not something literally true. At the same time, I am aware of no scholar (4) who can indicate positive reasons why this sort of understanding or this particular type of posthumous florilegium should have flowed from the Resurrection.

It seems to me that in the light of the elaboration of the intelligence of the victim which I have been attempting, it does become possible to see why the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified-and-risen victim should have recast their understanding of creation. I will attempt, in what I am aware is a highly tentative and experimental way, to set out what seems to me to be an internal coherence between the intelligence of the victim amid the recasting of creation.

The reader will remember the Girardian generative scene: the scene which gives birth to representation. It will also be remembered that for Girard this is probably a scene repeated very frequently over many centuries or millennia as the conditions of hominization (the development of mimetic desire and the forging of cultural controls) are brought about, before the actual time of hominization and the birth of properly human culture. The scene involves a group in which growing mimetic rivalry leads to the collapse of differences, and the resolution of the resulting violent chaos in an aleatory and unanimous act of victimization. This victim, having been expelled, is held to have produced the resulting peace, whereas in fact it is the unanimity against the arbitrary victim that is the reestablishment of peace. Thus a certain sort of misunderstanding, the illusion of the persecutors, of what has been going on is vital for the production and maintenance of the peace: the victim must be held to be truly guilty, but also, because it has produced the peace, to enjoy a divine quality. Where before there was violence and chaos, now, thanks to the departing divinity, peace and order has been established. So, in the development of the myth and the rituals that flow from this, we have a two-faced divinity, both disturbing and pacifying, who produces order out of chaos.

It is this that is important for the understanding of the re-casting of the perception of creation that followed the resurrection. We start, in pre-Jewish (and abundantly, in extra-Jewish) mythology with an understanding of creation that is intrinsically related to the divine production of order out of chaos. It is this same extra-Jewish material that is reworked, in the light of the Covenant, in the first chapter of genesis. It is interesting that the reworking is not complete: the account of creation is not entirely recast in the light of the Covenant, and there are signs of the remains of a creation-out-of-chaos myth in the description, as the words tohu wabohu (Gen 1:2) attest. Particularly the Jahwist editor(s) have undertaken a re-reading of the origins of the world in the light of Israel's experience of salvation: the true "direction" of everything is known from its finality, the revelation of God at Sinai and the election of Israel. It is this re-reading in the light of an experience of salvation which led to a subversion of pagan world views, and permits an understanding of creation which accords with a single and a benevolent God.

However, this subversion in the light of the experience of salvation is still only partial in Genesis: we still have elements of a story of creation by the suppression of pre-existent chaos. What I would like to suggest is that the partiality of the subversion is related to the still partial subversion of the mythology which covers over the founding victimization at the basis of human culture. Very close to the story of the creation, we have also the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve by God from Paradise, a story in which there is still an involvement of God in victimizing, on the way towards the understanding that expulsion is a purely human mechanism, and that God is its victim rather than its instigator (John 1:1-18). Then we have the story of the foundational assassination, where it is revealed that what we have is simply a sordid murder, in which God is not an accomplice. Yet, in his posterior treatment of Cain, God is seen as involved in the setting up of the (ultimately fatally flawed) cultural mechanisms by which humans protect themselves from the spiral of internecine violence the beginnings of the link between God and the Law whose caducity will be so forcibly argued by St. Paul.

We have, then, a partial intelligence of the victim at work: the founding murder is revealed as a sordid crime, and creation is the beneficent work of a single God, but there remain some elements proper to the vision produced by the founding murder, the persecutory illusion. My suggestion is that these two work in tandem: the re-vealing of the real sense of creation, and the complete setting free from the illusion produced by the founding murder are part of the same process. The Old Testament itself seems to point to this. To the degree in which the arbitrary nature of victimization or persecution becomes apparent in the Old Testament, so it becomes possible to tell the story of a foundation or creation which does not involve a god in the suppression of chaos. It became possible to give a non-mythological account of creation, because it became possible to see that God is anterior to any human violence, and thus anterior to chaos. Thus it becomes possible to understand creation as ex nihilo. It seems to me to be enormously important to indicate the huge cultural process of discovery, of the overcoming of the victimary illusion, which made possible what appears to be an abstract piece of philosophical reasoning.

The signposts for this process are relatively late documents of the Old Testament period: These are Daniel 12:2:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
and 2 Maccabees 7:23:
Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.
These documents from the Hellenistic period where, for the first time the faith in the resurrection of the dead is clearly taught. (5) Faith in the resurrection is derived here from an understanding of God as vindicating his persecuted faithful ones, either the persecuted Maccabees or those who remain faithful in the midst of persecution in Daniel. That is to say a perception of God has been developed as vindicating persecuted victims raising them from the dead: belief in the resurrection is intrinsically linked with God as not allowing his persecuted ones to be forever silenced. This is simultaneous with the perception that the violent means by which social order is being maintained (by the persecutors) is just that, and no more: God is not involved. Now it is no accident that the understanding of the non-complicity of God in this victimary violence, even though it be colored by the way in which God is seen as partial to his own (chosen) people, permits the Jewish thinkers to see through the victimary illusion with sufficient clarity to be able to affirm in the same period the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. That is to say, even though the vision of God in Maccabees is evidently partisan, and God is vindicating his own over against wicked persecutors, the intelligence of the victim has advanced sufficiently for it to be possible to separate the perception of God as creator from any complicity with the suppression of chaos.

I am suggesting that the development of the understanding of the resurrection of the dead and that of the creation ex nihilo is a simultaneous development, and that it is the intelligence of the victim that makes it possible. This is a vital part of the praeparatio evangelica, for it provides the clue to the way in which the resurrection of Christ, by completely revealing the mechanism of foundational victimage, also completely revealed the understanding of creation. I am speaking of a simultaneous recasting of the two understandings: that of the resurrection of the dead, and that of creation, in the light of the same understanding: the intelligence of the victim. Thus, in the resurrection accounts of Jesus there has disappeared the element of a divine vindication of Jesus over against his enemies. Jesus' resurrection is not revealed as an eschatological revenge, but as an eschatological pardon. It happens not to confound the persecutors, but to bring about a reconciliation. God is revealed as not partisan, not interested in vindicating any particular group over against its enemies. Rather God is revealed as the self-giving victim of the remaining victimizing tendency of even the chosen people, thus permitting the definitive demythologization of God. God, completely outside human reciprocity, is the human victim. The Father is the origin of the self-giving of the human victim. Thus, far from creation having anything to do with the establishment of an order, what is revealed is that the gratuitous self-giving of the victim is identical with, and the heretofore hidden center and culmination of, the gratuitous giving that is the creation. There is no Christian perception of creation which is not forged through the intelligence of the victim, and principally by the gratuitous self-giving which underlies, and makes possible that intelligence.

This means, of course, that when we speak of creation we are not speaking in the first place of the process by which things came, or come, to be. That description is proper to scientists, especially when they are not limited in their empirical observation by the hidden filters of pagan theological notions (normally held implicitly and unconsciously). (6) It means that when we speak of creation we are speaking of a relationship, a relationship of purely gratuitous giving, without motive, with no second intentions, with no desire for control or domination, but rather a gratuity which permits creatures to share gratuitously in the life of the creator. The relation of gratuity is anterior to what is and has ever been. This perception, the perception that the giving in gratuity is anterior to what is, was made possible by the presence to the disciples of the crucified-and-risen victim, whose self-giving was thus seen to be the way in which creation is a reflection of God: it was the intelligence of the victim that opened up for them the structure of the universe.

Seen in this light, the New Testament evidence makes abundant sense. It is already clear that John alludes to creation in his account of the first day of the Resurrection. This becomes even clearer in his prologue, which can be seen, as can the whole of the Johannine re-casting of God, as the consequence of the shift in perception permitted by the intelligence of the victim. The resurrection of Jesus made it possible to see that the same self-giving towards victimization present in the life of Jesus was the perfect image and imitation of the Father, revealing the Father as he really is, fount of all self-giving. The self-giving of Jesus was then the Word, the Logos, the full self-revelation of the Father. Furthermore, the self-giving of Jesus exactly reflects (but does not exhaust) the self-giving of the Father, and this means that the relation of gratuity anterior to all that is, is common to both of them, Father and Son.

From this it follows that the gratuitous self-giving of God into the hands of humans (the Johannine "handing over") as far as to become a human victim, so that humans can learn to cease killing each other, and come to be participants in the imitation of God, is the true perspective on creation, revealed by the intelligence of the victim. Just as in the case of the editors of the pre-Genesis myths, it is from an understanding of the end, or purpose, of the act that its beginnings are understood. So here, the resurrected victim, by revealing the purpose, or finality of the whole act, also simultaneously reveals the dynamic behind its beginning....

This is affirmed also in the pre-pauline hymns of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, the Origin of all things is the Father, He who has given all things. However, all things are made in imitation of, through, the Son, who is the perfect imitation of the Father. If the Son is the perfect, and uncreated, imitation of the Father, then everything which is a created imitation is made in the image of, through, the Son. The presence of the Son, and his victimary death made accessible as forgiveness, reveal the whole "why" of creation. We find the same thing in Hebrews 1:2-3:

...but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
So the intelligence of the victim, by purifying the perception of God as involved in the establishment of order, and revealing at the same time the God who gives himself as victim so as to make possible a totally different order, at the same time reveals the whole drift, direction, and purpose of creation.

The same message is to be found in Colossians 1:15-20. The hymn proceeds from the new comprehension of the Creator to the reconciliatory death. That is to say, it proceeds in the order of logic, not in that of discovery. The order of discovery is the inverse: it begins with the blood of the Cross, and moves backwards until it comes to be understood that the crucified-and-risen Lord reveals the full sense of creation. The same, finally can be found in Ephesians 1:3-14, where the structure of the hymn begins and ends in heaven, passing, in the middle of the hymn, through the victimization on the Cross, which has revealed the plenitude of the project.

What I have tentatively explored, then, is the way in which I take the intelligence of the victim, made present to the disciples after the resurrection, to have been part of the same intelligence that was at work in the Jewish people permitting the overcoming of the victimary illusion, and the understanding of God as creator. I hope that I have shown that there is an internal coherence between this intelligence, the resurrection of Christ, and the way in which the apostolic community came to understand that creation was in Christ, and that Christ pre-existed creation. That is to say, the doctrines of the pre-existence of Christ, and his mediation of creation are not sacralizing "extras," tacked on to a doctrine of salvation that doesn't really need them. They are internally coherent with, and the necessary premises of, the understanding of salvation that was made available by the intelligence of the victim. (7)

There is, it seems to me, a rather important consequence to this approach. This is that the Christian doctrine of creation, that creation happened in Christ, is not a piece of abstract information, which can removed from the story of how it was discovered, and used to found an abstract anthropology about our ur-Christlichkeit. It is a discovery that is part of the intelligence of the victim, that is to say, that it came into our hands as part of our understanding of salvation. I bother to labor this rather obvious point because, if we proceed forward from the creation in Christ as from an abstract metaphysical definition towards an understanding of who we humans are (the order of logic, of the Greek Logos, rather than the order of discovery), rather than moving backwards, from the intelligence of the victim which illuminates a violent and bloody murder, we more or less fatally underestimate the drastic nature of the human violence which produced the circumstances which made possible the revelation of God. The tendency is to banalize the human condition, and end up with a human theory about God, creation and humanity which has no space for all our experience of treachery, envy, lies, violence, exclusion, and so forth. Yet it is this experience which has to be recognized if we are going to experience the life of forgiveness which is the life of the risen human victim.

I would suggest that it is particularly important to see the doctrine of creation in Christ as the end of a long process of discovery, rather than a metaphysical starting point from which abstract deductions about human nature can be made. For only if it is remembered that it is the end of a process of discovery, can it be seen that the discovery of creation in Christ was made as part, as a necessary part of the discovery of our salvation. Furthermore it can be seen that this discovery was simultaneous with the discovery not of our ur-Christlichkeit but of our complicity in violence, our ur-Kainlichkeit. If there is an abstract metaphysical step to be made, it is to be made backwards from the historical reality of our being revealed as murderers to the conviction that the humanity of Christ shows that this state as we live it out is not our ontological state. To detach the doctrine of creation in Christ from its discovery as part of the intelligence of the victim, and then to build a theological anthropology from it seems to me to be a sure recipe for semi-Pelagianism. (8) Against this, it is a matter of historical fact that the discovery of the Christian sense of creation was made as part of the discovery of the forgiveness of sin.


1. 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15-20; Eph 1:3-14; I do not include Phil 2:5-11, because I consider this very early hymn to be concerned with the way in which Christ is the un-falling of Adam, rather than being centered on his pre-existence. It contains no reference to his mediation of creation.

2. Jn 1:1-2; Heb 1:2-3.

3. See, for example, M. Hengel, Jésus, fils de Dieu (Paris, 1977), pp 13ff

4. Other than F. Dreyfus, who attributes the understanding to a teaching of Jesus himself, probably to the select three disciples -- Peter, James and John (Jésus savait-il qu'il était Dieu? [Paris: Cerf, 1984], 57-71).

5. There are more than mere hints both of a resurrection of the dead, maybe even in the flesh (thus indicating a new understanding of the Creator), and of a non-involvement of God in human victimization, in the book of Job, 19:25-27; however, textual difficulties make the reading less than completely clear.

6. For an example of the way in which pagan theological notions underpin the attempts of a theologian and scientist to talk about creation in modern idiom see A. Peacocke, Creation and the world of Science (Oxford UP, 1979). In ch 3, 'Chance and the life game' (esp. pp 106-110), Peacocke speaks with approval of the way in which the scientific notion of creation he is advocating is compatible with that shown in Hindu myth by Shiva "the Creator-Destroyer" and the dance of Sakti. He seems entirely unaware of the regression he is making, in the name of "science," to a notion of creation that involves the divinity in violence: his notion is incompatible with the degree of demythification present in Genesis, let alone that present in John or Paul!

7. A small excursus. It is possible to take a further, rather obvious, step in this line of thought. The apostolic group was able to understand, in the light of the change of their understanding wrought by the intelligence of the victim, the internal coherence between the self-giving of the victim they had known historically and his pre-existence and mediation of creation. If we can accept that Jesus possessed the intelligence of the victim before his death, as the apostolic witness unanimously indicates, then there is no reason in principle why Jesus before his death should not have known (and maybe taught), as part of the human intelligence of the victim (and not as part of some divine illumination utterly unconnected with a human process of knowing), that he was pre-existent, and the mediator of creation. I am not here seeking to prove that he did know or teach such a thing. However, once one has understood the full implications of the understanding that I have called the intelligence of the victim, it does, fascinatingly, become possible to imagine how such human knowledge might have been held. Simply to refuse this option is really to say that Jesus just wasn't as bright as the apostolic group; they managed to draw the conclusions from the intelligence of the victim which Jesus himself hadn't managed to get to. Now, all the apostolic evidence is that Jesus had a human intelligence and a dense teaching that was markedly more profound than what his disciples could grasp. The grounds for a new approach to this age-old question are now available.

8. This seems to me exactly what has been reached by J.L. Segundo in his treatment of grace and sin, following on his borrowing from K. Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, and G. Bateson, in his Evolución y culpa, vol 5, of his Teología abierta para el laico adulto [Buenos Aires: Carlos Lohlé, 1972]; in English see Jesus of Nazareth, Yesterday and Today, 5 vols., Orbis, 1984-1988.