Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #2: Does God Want to Undo All Human Evil? Or Does He Require It to Exist?

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In my first post of this series, I explored why penal substitutionary atonement leads us to the surprising conclusion that you would not be able to tell your non-Christian friend, ‘God loves you, in particular, you.’  The second reason why atonement theology should matter to everyone is it shapes how we think about God interacting with human evil.  Is God complicit with human evil or not?

In the penal substitution theory, Jesus absorbs the punishment for sin, but it is less clear what he is doing about the source of sin internal to us.  Some argue that we should attribute ‘forgiveness’ to the atoning work of Jesus, and ‘transformation’ to the subsequent work of the Spirit in the believer, and therefore they can say that God as a whole is acting to undo some human evil.  But even if that dichotomy were true, which I doubt, it would only be true for some people.  In both the Calvinist and Arminian frameworks of God’s interaction with human choice and time, the fundamental problem which I have raised remains:  What about the ‘non-elect’ or ‘unsaved’?  Has God so arranged the mechanics of salvation so that He is only saving some of humanity, which means that He only wants to undo some human evil?  If so, then it becomes disingenuous for a Christian who subscribes to penal substitution to claim that God wants to undo, heal, and transform all human evil, injustice, and brokenness at its very source:  within each and every person.  The theology simply does not support it.

So, penal substitution advocates have difficulty explaining what God is actively doing about all human evil.  The chief problem they encounter is the question of why God apparently grants salvation (from God?) to some but not all.  One way or another, this makes it impossible for us to say, ‘God wants to undo all human evil.’  This is simply an extension of the problem of not being able to say, ‘God loves you in particular.’  For penal substitution offers very little explanation for what Jesus/God is actively doing to address all of human evil.

High federal Calvinists take an additional step, and in my opinion, take on an additional burden.  They say that human evil is necessary so that God can demonstrate His wrath and retributive justice against it.  For example, five point Calvinist theologian John Piper says:

‘How is God made more glorious by ruling a world or creating a world in which people by His permission, or His design – however you want to describe it – will wind up in hell justly?… God created the universe so that the full range of His perfections – including wrath and power and judgment and justice – will be displayed.  To do that, there is a dark backdrop of the history of redemption called the fall and sin.  The acts of grace and the acts of mercy and the experience of salvation shine the more brightly against the backdrop of the fall and of sin.  Two effects happen that glorify God.  One is that His grace, which is the apex of His glory, shines more brightly because it is against the backdrop of judgment and of sin.  So at least those two senses are the answer to his question.  How does God get glory?  His grace and mercy shine more brightly against the darker backdrop of sin and judgment and wrath.’[1]

In this framework, since ‘judgment and wrath’ and ‘retributive justice’ are elevated to being character qualities in God, God must display them.  And for God to have certainty about displaying them, He must guarantee that certain things happen.  He must guarantee that human beings fall into sin from the beginning.  He must guarantee that they commit evils both petty and egregious, and He must guarantee that at least some people resist Him so He could punish them eternally.  John Calvin even said:

‘God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.’[2]

This is quite a statement.  I am aware of attempts to ‘nuance’ or ‘balance’ these statements, of course.  At the very least, however, the question is whether Christians should feel the need to defend these statements in any sense.  In the next post, I’ll consider in more detail the question of whether God is partly evil, and how atonement theories affect our answers.

Penal substitution actually makes God complicit in human evil – if not actively, then at least passively.  For this theory posits that at the heart of Christian theology – the atonement – God is solving a problem internal to Himself in relation to some people, rather than a problem internal to us in relation to all people.  As a result, practically, penal substitution makes God sound like He cares more about the next world than about this one.  Perhaps at least every sin is punished in some sense.  But being passionate about punishing sin is not the same thing as being passionate about restoring every person.  So one consequence is this:  When we are approaching a non-Christian human rights activist, or someone who would like to reach out to at-risk youth as pro-active prevention, then penal substitution advocates might have to admit that God does not care enough about every injustice and every person in this world.  Logically speaking, a passionate non-Christian might care more about healing people and fighting human evil more than God does, at least within penal substitution.

The medical or ontological substitution atonement theory does not have this problem, for two main reasons.  First, God’s goal in atonement is to achieve a union between Himself and humanity.  God’s purpose from the creation had always been union with Himself.  But after humanity’s fall, God had to address a problem.  He also had to destroy the corruption of sinfulness within each human being so that His love could be received as love and not as torment, since our self-centeredness would resist and resent the call of God to be as other-centered as He is.  So God saves us from our own rebelliousness and the source from which that rebellion flows:  the corruption in our human nature.  He does not save us from Himself.  He saves us for Himself, for union with His divine nature.  And second, God, by definition being a Triune God of love, has to heal the problem of human evil in a loving way.  That is, God has to take human beings into His own relational and tri-personal nature personally, lovingly, and respectfully of our own choices.

In the medical, or ontological, substitution theory, the first question that must be answered is what is the nature (‘ontology’) of human beings?  We are made in the image of God (Gen.1:26 – 28) and God never stopped upholding our being (Col.1:17; Acts 17:28), calling for our partnership and participation in all things.  Therefore, because humans fell, we now inherit the obligation to defeat the corruption of sin within ourselves (Gen.4:7).  We must partner with God in the restoration of our human nature, individually and relationally with others.  This is what we ‘owe’ Him.  But since none of us could conquer the problem within, God substituted Himself for human beings.  God became a human being in Jesus to do it Himself.  Then He shares Jesus’ new humanity with us by His Spirit.  But I am telling the story too quickly.  Since I don’t want to assume people know this already, I’ll go into more depth to explain it.

Jesus inherited the long story and struggle of Israel, and any interpretation of him must integrate Israel’s story as well.  The Old Testament is the written medical diagnosis of the human condition and the analysis of the problem of evil.  It also testifies to Israel’s desire and longing for God’s transformation and healing, which is remarkable.  The Sinai covenant pointed the Jews towards the necessity of an internal, spiritual transformation.  For throughout Israel’s long relationship with God, those with prophetic insight pinpointed the reason for their repeated failures and betrayals of God:  the corruption of the human ‘heart’ (Lev.26:41: Dt.29:4), which they shared in common with every other human being (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21).  They could not blame bad circumstances, since they were in the Promised Land.  How much better could it get?  Nor could they blame bad laws, since God gave them the laws of the Sinai covenant.  It was a pretty good set of laws – the problem was they failed to observe it.  Why?  The authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had to logically conclude that the problem was internal.  Hence, Moses said, ‘The Lord will circumcise your heart’ (Dt.30:6).  David cried out, ‘Create for me a clean heart’ (Ps.51:10).  Through Jeremiah, God said, ‘I will write My law upon their hearts’ (Jer.31:33).  Through Ezekiel, God promised, ‘I will give you a new heart’ (Ezk.36:26).  The apostle Paul recalled his Jewish experience struggling under the Sinai covenant.  He recalls reaching a point of clarity about his true ‘I’ which wanted to obey God, versus ‘the sin which indwells me’ (Rom.7:16 – 23), which he termed ‘the flesh.’  He realized he was a prisoner in his own body, and had cried out, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?’ (Rom.7:24)  Thus, the Sinai covenant served Israel not as a blunt legal tool for her to condemn herself, as penal substitutionary theory suggests, but as a theological context for Israel to diagnose herself medically, and hope in God that He would one day judge the disease and heal them.  Paul says so in Romans.

Israel’s vocation on behalf of all humanity was also clear in a basic sense.  Yes, Israel had been taken into exile by Gentile empires because of their sinful actions, influenced by the Israelites’ corrupted human nature.  Yet if Israel needed the same heart transformation as the rest of the Gentiles, and if Israel’s prophets had also foreseen the Gentile world benefiting from God’s transformation of Israel (e.g. Isa.42:1 – 4; Zech.9:6 – 7), then the Jews would have to look past their hostile attitudes towards the Gentiles.  They would have to completely reevaluate what it meant to be ‘separate’ from them (e.g. Isa.2:1 – 4; Mic.4:1 – 5).  It’s not that such a distinction would no longer exist, but the way it was defined would be fundamentally changed.  Jesus reoriented it around himself because he was the solution to the problem of corrupted human nature for every single person.

In the medical, or ontological, substitution atonement theory, Jesus brought about the radical transformation of human nature itself that Israel and her Scriptures longed for, first in himself, then in us by his Spirit.  This makes sense of every aspect of Jesus’ life, giving each proper weight.  At conception, he took to himself the ‘flesh’ (Jn.1:14), human nature in its fallen and corrupted sense (Rom.7:14 – 25), to personally engage with the disease.  As he grew up, Jesus beat his way forward in his flesh.  Luke describes Jesus’ growth at age twelve (Lk.2:52) with the word ‘proekopten,’ which is a word used to describe the beating by which a metal-smith would shape a piece of metal with blows.[3]  As a full adult, Jesus wrestled with his flesh and the devil for forty days (Mt.4:1 – 12, Lk.4:1 – 13), before coming to a mountain (Mt.5:1 – 2), reliving key moments in Israel’s story to show that he was embodying Israel’s vocation under the Sinai law.  It also was an illustration of Jesus’ life being filled with struggle and suffering, shown again at Gethsemane (Mt.26:36 – 46; Lk.22:39 – 46).  The wilderness and Gethsemane experiences serve as literary brackets characterizing his whole public ministry.  Then at his death on the cross, he enacted with finality the wrath of God with unyielding surgical precision to the corruption within himself:  he killed it.  What the law could not do, weakened as it was by the flesh of Israel, God did through His Son.  He ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Christ (Rom.8:3).  God did this throughout Jesus’ life by Jesus’ personal, moment-by-moment decisions to never yield to temptation, and then climactically at Jesus’ death as Jesus killed ‘the flesh,’ ‘our old self…our body of sin’ (Rom.6:6; 7:21 – 8:4).  When Jesus rose from the dead, he rose with a new, purified humanity, fully and completely united to God, to be the source of salvation from sinfulness.  The author of Hebrews describes the arc of Jesus’ earthly life, death, and resurrection this way:

‘In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud cryings and tears to the One able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered.  And having been made perfect (i.e. in his resurrection), he became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation’ (Heb.5:7 – 9).

Wait a minute.  Jesus had to be made perfect?  Yes, because in his resurrection, Jesus walked out of the tomb as a new, perfected kind of human being, ‘raised for our justification’ (Rom.4:25).  Wait a minute again.  The resurrection justifies us?  Yes.  Paul does not say Jesus was ‘crucified for our justification’ as penal substitution advocates might prefer that he said.  While that is true in a chronological sense, the wording of Romans 4:25 suggests that the ontological change (‘he was raised’) serves as the logical ground or foundation of the forensic change (‘justified’), not the other way round.  For Paul did not think of the resurrection as merely ‘proof’ that God was ‘satisfied’ by Jesus’ supposed absorption of a certain amount of ‘punishment’ otherwise targeted at us.  For God is not ‘satisfied’ with anyone while human nature deteriorates in them, in any form.

Paul knew that Ezekiel, for instance, saw being resurrected as equivalent to being justified (the raising of dry bones in Ezk.37:1 – 14), which is the equivalent to the heart transformation (hearts of flesh in place of stone) signaling the end of the exile (in Ezk.36:22 – 38).  If Jesus took on Israel’s vocation, then he was the true Israel embodied through and through.  If he was resurrected, and now stood on the other side of Israel’s exile, then he must have enacted that heart transformation within himself.

Similarly, Moses lamented that God had not yet granted Israel ‘a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear’ Him (Dt.29:4).  Moses understood that only on the other side of exile would God ‘circumcise your heart… to love the Lord…’ (Dt.30:6).  So if Jesus stood resurrected, evidently restored from exile as Israel’s messiah and representative, then he had to also be the Israel whose heart has been spiritually circumcised.  He cut something away from himself that needed to be utterly judged and surgically removed, spiritually speaking, which explains the Jewish language of circumcision.  Significantly, Paul alludes to Dt.30:6 (‘the Lord will circumcise your hearts’) in Rom.2:28 – 29, as the goal of the Sinai covenant in defining a true Jew, and then quotes from Dt.30:11 – 14 in Rom.10:4 -8 when he says that Christ himself is the climax (telos) of the covenant.  Jesus is the truly circumcised person, and therefore the resurrected one, and therefore the truly Jewish one, and therefore the truly human one, and therefore the justified one.  All these interconnected meanings pile up around Jesus.  Israel by itself could not fulfill the covenant on humanity’s behalf.  So Jesus undertook the role of Israel upon himself, fulfilling the covenant on behalf of Israel and all humanity.  This is why Paul says that we shall be saved – not by Jesus’ death – but by his life (Rom.5:10).  Saved from what?  From the corruption of our own human nature.  The resurrected, perfected Jesus is the source of eternal salvation, not from some retributive justice of God, but from the corruption in our own human nature.  Indeed, the resurrection saves us.  Jesus shared in our fallen humanity, so that we might share in his healed, new humanity.

In ontological substitution atonement, and in Eastern Christian thought especially, the work of Christ is the person of Christ, and vice versa.  The person of Christ is not simply the staging ground for some further work of Christ, which all Protestant reflection tends to assume.  For example, the Contours of Christian Theology book series has a volume called The Work of Christ by Robert Letham and another volume called The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod.  But can those two topics be separated?

Notice, there is still a very meaningful ‘wrath of God’ in medical substitution, which penal substitution adherents rightly say we must consider.  But the wrath of God was always directed at ‘the ungodliness and unrighteousness’ of people (Rom.1:18), not our personhood per se, as penal substitution advocates claim.  God’s wrath is the wrath of a surgeon who hates the cancer in your body because He loves you.  It is not the wrath of a courtroom judge who cannot distinguish between your personhood and the corruption in your nature, such that He must inflict retributive punishment on you as a person.  As such, God’s role in Israel’s Sinai covenant has been largely misinterpreted because of the influence of the Western legal tradition (more on that later).  In the medical or ontological substitution theory, the wrath of God and the love of God do not have the same object.  The love of God is directed at our personhood and our original human nature, to lovingly restore it.  The wrath of God is directed at the corruption of our nature, to utterly remove it.

To shift into simpler language:  The eternal Son of God loved humanity so much, he embraced human nature at his incarnation, by the Spirit.  But he also hated the corruption in his human nature so much that he fought every moment to overcome it, and after gathering mature disciples to himself as witnesses and partners in mission, to defeat and kill it by the Spirit.  The wrath of the united Trinity was poured out – not upon the person of Jesus – but within the person of Jesus, and upon the corruption in his human nature.  Put another way, seen through the experience of Jesus:  the Son of God, by the holy, loving will of his Father and by the power of the Spirit, forced his humanity to adjust to the radical nature of God’s other-centered love.  Then and only then could Jesus offer the Spirit of his atoned-for-human nature to all, genuinely (Lk.24:49; Jn.20:22), without any reservations or limits from God’s side.  For if he is our medicine and true nourishment, then of him there is no limit.  And of his Spirit there is no end (Jn.3:34).

God continues His healing of human evil in us.  Healing implies love for the person, and hatred for the root problem.  God loves us so much that He shares the perfected, purifying Jesus with us, by his Spirit.  And He hates the corruption in our human nature so much that He pours out His wrath against it, too, which is also the Spirit of Jesus.  But His wrath serves His love.  His wrath actually is His love in direct action against something in us which opposes His love, and obstructs Him.  So when we experience God’s convicting judgment, and say, ‘Yes, Lord,’ so He can surgically root out some sin in us, we call it growing in Christ.  How does God fight human evil?  By bringing each person to Jesus, then helping us struggle against our own evil by the Spirit (Rom.6:12 – 23; 7:14 – 8:4; 5 – 17).  He will complete that when Jesus returns and shares with us renewed physical bodies akin to his own resurrection body (Rom.8:18 – 25).  That is God’s way of healing human evil.  So medical substitution can be just as ‘tough on sin’ as penal substitution, if not more so.  For why would God be content to merely punish sinful actions, as in penal substitution?  God’s healing requires the radical judgment and rejection of everything which makes us sick.  God also calls for us – every single person – to be willing partners in His efforts to retrain us back to health, back to our image-of-God constitution.  Which brings me to the second main point about human evil and the ontological substitution theory:  God’s partnership with us.

Second, ontological substitution explains God’s relationship to human evil by explaining His Triune character.  God must oppose human evil all the way down to its source, because He is love, and oppose it in a loving way, also because He is love.  If God is a Triune being made up of three divine persons in a radical fellowship of non-coercive love, then everything He does must be consistent with that character.  The love that God has inside Himself is the love He pours outside Himself, by which He relates to human beings, even fallen ones.  By seeing matters this way, the medical/ontological theory is not ‘Augustinian.’  The later Augustine, in his debates with the heretic Pelagius, posited monergism (literally, ‘one-will’), such that God’s will alone is the sole, mechanical determiner of human choices.  Augustine in the Latin West redefined words like ‘predestined’ in a way that no Christian had done before him.  Augustine’s contemporaries, notably John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins, held up in the Eastern Orthodox Church as among those who attempted to correct Augustine, held to synergism (literally, ‘working with’ God’s grace, with God’s grace being prior) passed onto them by earlier Christian thinkers.[4]  This is why Eastern Orthodox theologians are neither Augustinian, nor Pelagian, nor Semi-Pelagian.[5]  Consistent with medical substitution is human freedom within God’s Trinitarian love and fulfilled in it.  God by His grace constantly enables human free will rather than negates it, because it is against God’s character to stop lifting our human will from our corrupted human nature so that we might choose Jesus.  Paul called that the conscience (Rom.1:20; 2:12 – 16).  So if we choose Jesus, it is by God’s grace.  If we reject Jesus, it is also by God’s grace.  Those who truly reject Christ do so by their own free will, abusing God’s grace, to be sure.  At some point, they will bring their unhealed, sin-addicted human nature into the presence of the radically other-centered God, who calls us to renounce their addictions, and to become consistent with His character.  But that is for the next post.

What about the idea that the atonement is limited to some?  Within the medical or ontological substitution theory, God is not limiting the scope of the atoning work of Christ in any way.  Each and every human being must respond personally and affirmatively to Jesus.  His work of undoing human evil at its source in human nature is truly available to every human being, with no limitations from God’s side.  This is a much more fair reading of the Scriptures I quoted in the first post that seem to teach unlimited atonement.  And we can even logically hope that every person will say yes to Jesus when they see him at last.

But what about the idea that the atonement is automatically universal?  Conservative evangelicals have felt the pressure to say ‘yes’ to this from liberal Protestantism and the Western ‘you can’t judge me’ secular culture of friendship.  If God’s wrath is directed at our personhood (in a legal-penal paradigm), and is therefore poured out all at once on Jesus as a person, then there would be no wrath left over for people in hell, and this logically requires universal salvation, automatically.  While on first blush appealing, this automatic universalism brings with it insurmountable problems regarding human evil.  If we were dealing with a God who dawdled through the long ages of human evil only to divert all of His opposition to evil somewhere within Himself with no real requirement of personal human accountability, then we would run into the petulant child problem:  People who do evil knowing that they will have little to nothing to answer for, and no participation in a fairly demanding personal transformation.  Why deal with human evil in this way?  What would that mean about the character of such a God, if that is what He did?  But defining the wrath of God in the medical substitutionary sense avoids the universal, automatic ‘salvation’ of the universalists.  If there is a real wrath of God directed at the corruption in each person’s human nature, enacted first in Jesus, and then in each person’s conversion to Jesus, then the wrath of God unfolds with respect to each person’s choice to participate in Jesus’ new humanity or not, and thus does not imply automatic universal salvation.  There is full human accountability and personal responsibility here.

In later posts, I will examine the important biblical passages, as well as the patristic and Nicene theologians, on the topic of atonement.  Back to the practical topic.  In our speaking about God and human evil, I believe that the uniquely Christian contribution to discussions about ‘evil’ is to maintain that humanity is the source of the evil in the world.  Human beings are not entirely evil, since there remains in us something of the image of God, however tarnished (‘you, being evil, know how to give good gifts’ says Jesus in Lk.11:13), because God never stops pursuing each of us internally, calling to us.  Is there any philosophy or viable theory that even claims to deal with humanity ontologically, in our very being?  Only the Christian story goes this deep and claims to have a loving God who is healing human nature itself.  Others, eager to redefine the problem and the solution, make huge mistakes.  Neo-conservatives tend to define ‘evil’ as external political structures that are ‘not democratic capitalism,’ as if placing democracy in Iraq will solve most problems there.  Secular liberals tend to define ‘evil’ as anything that inhibits individualism, as if stripping the person of constraints will lead to goodness, maturity, fulfillment, and healthy children.  And so on.  In the Christian view, the fundamental problem is ontological, concerning our very being, and relational, because we have been created to relate to God and one another in particular ways.  So the solution is not simply educational, as if we just needed to educate people in the correct way.  It’s not simply structural or political, as if we just needed to change structures.  Education and redistributing power are important in many ways, and I am not diminishing work in those fields, as Christians must also work to heal how human relationships are structured legally and economically.  But it begins in our hearts, infecting us to the very center of our human nature.

Can we say that God is trying to undo all human evil?  With medical-ontological substitutionary atonement, happily, yes.  With penal substitutionary atonement, sadly, no.

[1] John Piper, How Does it Glorify God to Predestine People to Hell?, March 21, 2013; http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/how-does-it-glorify-god-to-predestine-people-to-hell

[2] John Calvin, Institutes, book 3, ch.23, section 7.

[3] T.F. Torrance, Incarnation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.64

[4] See my compilation of quotes from the early church fathers here:  http://nagasawafamily.org/article-free-will-in-patristics.pdf.  This includes Clement of Rome, the Epistle to Diognetes, Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Melito of Sardis, Hippolytus, Novatian, Cyprian, Archelaus, Methodius of Olympus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Basil of Caesaria.  See also Augustine’s early work On the Free Choice of the Will.

[5] John Cassian’s Conference 13 is his best explanation of how God’s grace enables human free will and makes it genuinely free.  It is worth noting that John Cassian was a venerated theologian in his own day; he was asked to write an official church response to Nestorius during the Nestorian controversy.  For helpful discussion about Cassian, see Owen Chadwick, John Cassian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2008).  See also the dialog on Cassian and synergism between John Hendrix, founder of the website www.monergism.com, and Clifton Healy, an Eastern Orthodox lay theologian, at http://benedictseraphim.wordpress.com/2005/03/31/st-john-cassian-on-grace-and-free-will/.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. To a small extent, what you describe reminds me of CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce. The idea that we have to grow into the ability to stand before God as we were meant to seems imbedded in what you lay out, although his metaphor paints a slightly different picture. I agree that this seems to fit Scripture and the nature of God much better than penal substitution, and allows us to take a rightly firm stance on sin without having to sacrifice love. Thank you for writing this! I look forward to more posts.

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    1. makonagasawa says:

      Yes! C.S. Lewis was drawing from the older Christian understanding of hell and God’s character. If you’re interested, I wrote a paper for seminary on CSL’s theology of atonement, throughout all his books. It was the most fun I’ve had writing a paper: http://nagasawafamily.org/article-cslewis-paper-atonement.pdf

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    2. Glade Swope says:

      I find it interesting, that Narnia uses an illustration of penal substitution against the wrath of, not God, but the enemy! Was CSL “trying to tell us something”?

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      1. makonagasawa says:

        Thanks Glade. Yes, that’s an important distinction. I explore that in a paper I wrote for a seminary class: https://www.academia.edu/11922709/C.S._Lewis_Theology_of_the_Atonement

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