For millennia the Christian Church has sought to understand and explain the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, and to appropriate it’s meaning in different settings to each new generation. Our own prophet E. G. White has counselled; “As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit.” (The Desire of Ages, p. 83), and; “Our work in all its lines is to demonstrate the influence of the cross" (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 235).
Yet, in the thought life of our church, we seldom move beyond the ‘Penal Substitution’ theory, which came to prominence in the Reformation period. It is worth noting at this point, that this theory is not without Biblical evidence.2 Yet, by a narrow and crystalized focus on one particular interpretation, we not only fail to engage with a great cloud of Christian witnesses from our past, but we risk future theological anaemia, as we fail to grasp the progressive revelation of the significance of the blood of Christ, which can; “purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! Hebrews 9.14 (NRSV).
What we learn as we consider different theories of the atonement is that each has a unique perspective on understanding the origin, and nature of evil, and about how Jesus death brings redemption, and new life to humanity. Consider the Ransom Theory, first expressed in the thinking of Origen (185-254). It is the belief that Christ’s death is a ransom in exchange for a humanity that finds itself under the ownership of Satan. In this theory, the origin and nature of evil is wrapped up in the idea of a cosmic conflict which is external of humanity. Contrast this with the Moral Influence theory of Abelard (1079-1142), the belief that Christ’s death was a revelation of the love of God in order to soften the hearts of humans, to lead them into a fuller awareness of repentance, and form in them a greater expression of the character of God. In this theory, the nature of evil is one that is within humanity, and at the very core of being. Now contrast this with the Governmental theory of Grotius (1583-1645), that sin in the world needed to be upheld as wrong and punished as such. In this theory the nature of evil requires a legal solution.
It would be impossible to list the many atonement theories in an article of this size, but what we learn from these three examples is that there is not one perspective that adequately explains, in its entirety, the origin and nature of evil, and its solution in the Crucifixion of Christ. What we need is the belief that Christ rescues us, in a way only He can, from sin. Far from stifling the further revelation of God, we should instead be encouraged to listen afresh to the Spirit’s work in our time. To rely instead on fossilised doctrine, is to cast the shadow of death over our theology, and to confess a lack of dependence on God for our future thought life.
With this in mind, let’s turn again to prophecy, to the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, in further contemplation. This is a perspective we could label: “Umbrum Mortis”; the shadow of death.
Isaiah 25.7-8 (NRSV) reads:
“And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
It would be hard to overestimate the power of death on human thinking and action. To quote W.H. Auden: ‘Death is like the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic’. Death is one of humanities oldest enemies. We all live under its ‘shroud’ as Isaiah describes it above. We all know it is on its way, and if possible many of us would do anything to escape, or postpone it - absolutely anything. Publilious Syrus (c. 100 B.C.) reasons: ‘The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself’.
At the crucifixion of Jesus we find the fear of death at work in the power and agency of evil, in the actions of the crowd, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman forces governing Jerusalem. But in Jesus the power of the fear of death is resisted, and in his resurrection the fear of death is defeated.
The crowd present at Jesus crucifixion had called for the release of the zealot: Barabbas. The fear of death prompted by Roman occupation had driven some to exchange aggression for aggression. Barabbas was of a long line of populist rebels including the likes of Simon of Peraea, and Anthronges who, afraid of the Roman’s wanted nothing more than their destruction.
The Jewish leaders knew all too well the risk that was posed by this populist uprising against Rome. This was epitomized in Caiaphas words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” John 11.50 (NRSV). The fear of death hung heavy over the religious establishment, prompting them to seek Jesus’ crucifixion.
In a foreign land, the Roman Soldiers were also at the mercy of the fear of death. They no doubt had seen Jewish uprisings before. Some of their friends may have even died at the hands of Jewish rebels. At the crucifixion of Jesus, they may have been set on edge at the great crowd gathered in Jerusalem. Being heavily outnumbered by the locals, at the height of a Jewish festival celebrating freedom from another oppressive nation (the Egyptians), having been mustered in the early hours of the morning because of a man claiming to be the Messiah, the Roman soldiers were probably afraid for their lives, and ready to kill to save their own skin.
As we turn to the cross we see two criminals caught in the grip of death. One chooses to lash out at Jesus, the other recognizes his innocence. Jesus, instead of calling down fire from heaven, or asking God to avenge him, turns instead to break the web of aggression, with one of its greatest motivations; the fear of death. Jesus, instead of inciting hatred of any group present, breaks the cycle of hate by asking for their forgiveness.To the spiritual death of the religious leaders, the moral death of the crowd and of Pilot who had called and commanded innocent blood to be shed, and to the physical death the soldiers, the crowd, and the religious leaders feared so much – Jesus chose to be the antidote. He had prophesied about his resurrection and had promised ours.
This is not just a past reality in light of the way the fear of death has cast its shadow on the psycho-social reality of our time. Perhaps the greatest expression of the fear of death has been the development of nuclear weapons, developed by the United States of America, because of the fear that Nazi Germany, who had split the atom in December 1938, was developing nuclear weapons that could wipe out entire cities in America. To quote Albert Einstein: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
To this reality, and to future expressions of the fear of death casting a shadow over human existence, consider the thoughts of Colossians 1.19-20 (NRSV):
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Jesus words and actions are the sacrificial antidote that disarms the fear of death, through the power of the resurrection. Jesus resurrection is the reason why we should no longer let it reign in our thinking, our social life and our political policy. Jesus death and resurrection is then, a unique salvation which cannot be replicated by any other worldview, and it is timeless in its relevance to our World. But like all theories of the atonement, it cannot be held up as the primary means of describing the meaning and relevance of the death of Jesus Christ. God’s thinking is far greater than we can imagine.
Grenz, S., Guretzki, D. & Nordling, C.F., 1999. Pocket dictionary of theological terms, p.90.
2 Isaiah 53:4–6, 10-11; Romans 3:23–26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18.