Jesus who died and rose
This is the third in my Jesus series. This one is about Jesus’ death. To begin with, here’s an excerpt from the latest ‘Chick track’ www.chick.com
Miss Johnson: Jesus is God’s Son! He made the universe…and he loves me.
Miss Johnson: And he loves you too…and he did something very important for you.
Betsy: for me? What’s that?
Miss Johnson: first, everybody does wrong things…
Betsy: even you Miss Johnson?
Miss J: even me. God calls all bad things ‘sin’. And He won’t allow any sin into heaven.
Betsy: God won’t let me in…just as I am?
Miss J: No, you’ve got to get clean first.
Betsy: with soap and water?
Miss J: No, Betsy, He has a much better way! God loved Betsy so much, He sent His son to become human – just like you and me. His name is Jesus. And he taught us how to love and forgive.
Betsy: even my mean brother?
Miss J: even him. God has to punish sins, but Jesus said: ‘punish me instead’. He took our punishment, so we don’t have to. But taking everybody’s sin on Himself cost Him His life.
Betsy: Ohhhh. Then what happened?
Miss J: They hurt him terribly, Betsy, and he died. They buried him. But then…Three days later a miracle happened…Jesus rose from the dead! He shed his blood to wash away our sins, so that we could go to heaven. Do you want to go to heaven?
Betsy: Oh, Yes, Miss Johnson!
Miss J: Well, Betsy…Jesus is the only way to heaven. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. Want to pray Betsy?
Betsy: YES! Jesus, I believe you died for me. Please forgive my sins, and take me to heaven.
Most of us will have one stage in our lives formulated the meaning of Jesus’ death in a similar way. Crudely, the most popular Christian understanding of what was happening when Jesus died is this: human sin - God’s displeasure - God, being ‘just’ must punish sin – when he died, the sinless Jesus was receiving God’s punishment of our sin - if we believe Jesus died in our place, our sins will be forgiven, God’s wrath averted and we can get into heaven…
The short name for this is the doctrine of satisfaction or penal substitution, where the punishment due for sin is averted by the death of a sinless substitute: Jesus. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice on our behalf, so that we could be allowed into heaven.
What not very many people realise, is that this explanation of Jesus’ death is fairly recent, as Christian history goes. It wasn’t the dominant understanding of Jesus’ death for the first 1000 years of the church. Even now it isn’t the understanding of Jesus’ death in Eastern Orthodox churches. The early church didn’t have a fixed doctrine of the cross – more a narrative of images and dramatic metaphors that flowed out of their understanding of the incarnation. The substitution doctrine that we have today emerged from medieval ideas about law and justice, and then was intensified by John Calvin after the reformation.
It is my sense that many Christians today are struggling to accept the notion of Jesus’ death as a mechanism that allows God to forgive sin. Some people might continue to draw life from this interpretation of what was happening on the cross. If that’s you, great. I don’t want to get in the way of that conviction. But I do want to draw out some of the problems with this doctrine as some people experience them today. And I want to offer some alternatives to how we can understand the death of Jesus. Not just to inform our thinking, but because what we believe shapes what we experience.
So, some problems with the substitution or satisfaction view:
- It sets up Jesus’ death as part of a great master plan: Jesus came into the world in order to die. It makes Jesus’ violent death necessary, rather than being a consequence of the life he lived and the Way he modelled. What this does is draw our attention away from Jesus’ life and teaching. His death loses its political implications, and becomes an expression of God’s intention rather than an example of the workings of corrupt power. The humans involved are simply agents of God’s purpose, and Jesus’ teaching and living become a side issue, an interlude before the big event.
- In its more Calvinistic form, it puts a requirement into a message of grace. In order to receive the benefits of Jesus’ death, we have to believe that he died on our behalf. This belief then immediately becomes the hurdle that decides who’s in and who’s out.
- The satisfaction view comes out of some culturally determined ideas about what God is like. The character of the ‘satisfaction God’ is based on the judge of the legal system. Because society sees punishment as a morally good response to crime, then God must need to punish sin in order to be both good and just. God ‘needed’ the cross in order to be able to forgive us. This puts a limitation on God’s power to forgive, which sits uneasily with instances in the Bible where God and Jesus forgive people prior to Jesus’ death. It also assumes a view of justice that is about balancing the scales rather than the biblical view of justice which is a compassionate vision to do with restoring, making whole and putting right, rather than simply punishing wrongdoers. Unfortunately, what we end up with by emphasising the legal rightness of God is a tyrant God who can only be satisfied by the shedding of blood.
- Another problem is that the emphasis of this doctrine is on moral purity. It assumes that our sense of estrangement from God is only because of sin. I don’t want to minimise the reality of sin, even though I might be wary of the language, or how some people define sin. But it seems to me that the pain of the human condition is actually made up of a number of factors that alienate us from God, many of which are not our fault, and that need healing, rather than forgiveness. The substitution formula is just that, a formula, an equation, a one size fits all approach to salvation. It doesn’t affirm God’s responsiveness to each particular person’s life story. And yet we see in Jesus that he responded to individuals in their unique situations. He responded to people’s blindness, or their captivity, or their rage, or their marginalisation, or their despair, not just mechanically addressing all these as sin. I suspect that this doctrine also leads to an unhelpful emphasis on moral purity within the church.
- Following on from this, the substitution doctrine as it was developed by Calvin, which is the version most of us are familiar with, focuses very much on individual moral guilt, not addressing the evil that can animate cultures, systems or institutional environments. The problem, and its solution, are individualistic.
- And finally, ‘salvation’ in this doctrine is about getting into heaven and avoiding hell, rather than a transformed life now. This has a limiting impact on what we understand the Christian life to be about. The consequence is that most people who are evangelised under this doctrine enter Christianity out of fear, rather than out of a joyful response to God’s love and vision of reconciliation.
For these reasons and others, many Christians struggle with the dominant idea of atonement that we have been taught.
I want to offer two alternatives to the satisfaction/substitute approach. The first I consider to be helpful as a swing of the pendulum, but which doesn’t quite satisfy me. The other is the classical model for understanding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that was around before the satisfaction paradigm.
So firstly, the pendulum swing notion:
This approach puts the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, before focusing on the divine significance of his life. This view sees Christ as martyr, a social prophet and movement initiator whose vision of the good life and whose compassion and spiritual power was so radical that the powers of his day had to execute him. His death, rather than being part of the grand plan of God, was a shocking, and disruptive end to a life lived in resistance to the dominant stories of his time. The reason that I find it helpful to mention this understanding is that often, the abstractness of theological talk can domesticate the political dimension of Jesus’ life, and can draw attention away from the fact that he was executed under a particular religious and political regime. Doctrine can take us into abstract territory removed from the passion of blood, sweat, tears and fear that Jesus and his followers would have experienced.
But I want to go further than this. Because I affirm the incarnation as an important metaphor for saying that God was uniquely present in Jesus, I also need to affirm that his death means something more than the death of any other human martyr.
My main basis for believing that there is something more to Jesus’ death is his resurrection. Jesus’ followers experienced him as alive after his death. They were convinced that the same Jesus who lived among them and was killed before their eyes, did not stay dead, but was raised to an eternal life with God. They were transformed by that conviction, and their testimony has passed on to centuries of other Christians who have experienced this same reality of the ongoing life of Jesus.
For the first roughly 1000 years of the church, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ was seen more as a dramatic story than as doctrine. And this dramatic story can be broadly described as the narrative of Christus Victor. This story is a love story and a story of rescue. God’s great love seeks us out, and grieves over our experience of sin and struggle in this life and our distance from God’s love. In order to identify with us, Jesus empties out his God-power and privilege and comes to be with us as a human. But, in entering our experience, Jesus suffered the world’s worst excesses of hate and power. He was killed, buried, and descended into the underworld, where he gathered up those held in captivity and burst back through the gates of hell, bringing lost humanity with him.
It doesn’t matter what one believes about the literal details of this story. The good news of the story is that because of who he was, when he died and rose, Jesus broke the cycle of human bondage and beat a path to life beyond the grave – a path that others can tread as we follow in his footsteps. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates his identity as the one sent from God, and proclaims the defeat of all the forces that killed him, including sin, evil and death itself.
I want to briefly draw out five threads from this story:
- Firstly, the idea of the ‘powers’ is important. ‘Powers’ is a word that describes how evil can be present within human behaviours, and human systems. Some people see the powers in a supernatural way…such as the devil and demons. Others see the ‘devil’ as a metaphor for the way destructive tendencies manifest concretely through people or groups. These ‘powers’ together make up what Walter Wink has called the ‘domination system’, the intricate webs of power that oppress and dehumanise people physically, spiritually, and socially. This is the aspect of the world where lies, abuse, cruelty, hate and violence seem more powerful than the energies of life and love. It is this system at work when people full of rage bash others to death simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or when a person limps from day to day crippled by depression, or when someone begins a ‘P’ addiction.
Christ’s resurrection is a sign that these ‘powers’ need not have the final word in how our life will be, or in how the world will be. He suffered at the hands of the domination system, but was not defeated by it, he entered as light into the darkness, which could not overcome him, and in doing so he triumphed over the powers, not through violence but through submission to the deeper way – proclaiming that love is stronger than hate and death.
- The Christus Victor drama shows a God who was always on our side. While we might have made ourselves enemies to God’s love, and while we might feel estranged and disconnected from God, God has always been seeking our good. This God is not trapped by his own wrath, he does not require our punishment, even vicariously by means of his own self in Jesus. Instead God comes to our rescue, overcoming those things that alienate us from God, including our sin. Hell and death are not the punishment we deserve but the enemies that God fights against on our behalf. The basic problem is that we are enslaved…slaves to ourselves and slaves to the world in which we live. There is a vicarious element to Christ’s death…but this is not as a substitute for our punishment, but by absorbing and transcending the effects of evil to bring us freedom.
- In the Christus Victor story, Jesus’ death is consistent with his life mission. Jesus taught and acted in ways that released people from the effects of their own sin, and the evil in the world. As a healer, he restored people’s physical bodies to wholeness. He set people free from their demons, from their marginal status as despised or untouchable. He also challenged the rules and behaviours of those in power who kept people enslaved in fear or poverty. Jesus’ vision of justice was drawn from the prophets of Israel: release of captives…good news for the poor. His death is a continuation of this way of life. His victory over death is the point at which the things he did on earth were writ large on a cosmic scale, overcoming not just local instances of suffering but the powers that cause the suffering.
- Christus Victor is a revelation of the depth of God’s love, and God’s willingness to be weak. John 3:16, the most commonly used verse in evangelistic encounters, doesn’t say that God gave Jesus to die for our sins. It says that, in love, God ‘gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. This is a statement about Jesus entering the world, not a statement about Jesus dying in our place. The poem in the second chapter of Philippians describes the path of kenosis, the pouring out of self whereby Jesus enters human life in its fullness and redeems it. Jesus becomes like us, so that we can become like him…the seed of God in us flowers as we follow the path of the one who became the world’s first true human being. The ‘mechanism’ here is relational rather than legal. As we relate to and imitate Jesus, the image of God in us is restored. Some people are horrified at the idea that God suffered in Christ. But this is the good news of the Christian story, that our God became small, weak, naked, and broken as a result of sharing in our human experience. But that out the other side of smallness, weakness, brokenness and death is life, new life, restored life, and the powerlessness of ‘sin, death and the devil’ to harm us any more.
- In this way, the Christus Victor story is also a revelation of the ‘way’. It’s an embodiment of the path of spiritual transformation that lies at the centre of the Christian life…dying to self and rising into a new way of being. Because it’s blatantly clear that even though Jesus’ resurrection defeated the powers on some fundamental level, they still have enormous influence over our lives now. This is the familiar story of the ‘already and not yet’ – the kingdom of God that is among us, and yet not complete. Therefore the path of the Christian life is to enter this pattern of dying and rising in terms of ourselves and our habits, letting go of our lives in order to save them. It’s also a path of sharing in Christ’s sufferings as we seek to continue his mission of ushering in the kingdom of God, setting people free and working for the reconciliation of all things.
There’s so much I could say about this stuff. And, I’m aware that this has all been theology without much application to every day life. But, I’ve run out of time, so I’m going to stop here.
Next week, as a bit of a break from the Jesus series, Vernon is going to be taking the sermon slot and talking about the perplexing experience people have of the apparent changes of God’s character throughout the Bible. The week after that, I’ll resume with the last in this series, and draw out some of the implications of what I’ve said today for how we live now, in the company of the risen Christ.