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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Can we find meaning in Jesus' death?


I am not an academic theologian. At seminary I absorbed enough theology to be able to navigate without getting too lost. In the years since, I have tended to follow my curiousity into specific areas, and avoided others. I would compare it to my knowledge of the City of Toronto- I know the broad layout, and how to get around, but could easily make wrong turns in neighbourhoods I have not explored.

The theological neighbourhood of “the meaning of Jesus’ death by crucifixion” is not one I have spent a lot of time in. I know some of the major intersections- the “cross” streets, if you will, but not the intricacies of all the back alleys and cul de sacs, the developments and re-developments that have emerged over the centuries.

I have usually steered clear of this neighbourhood. It has a horrible reputation, because of the predominance, at least in Western Christianity of what is called the ”substitutionary atonement theory”. This bully on the block makes me want to stay away. This theory, which scholar Mark Heim says, “came in fact to seem almost identical with the image of the cross itself”, is laden with guilt and shame about being human, and abject fear of God.

Heim summarizes the theory this way: “God’s redemptive plan revolves around offering an innocent Jesus for punishment and death in place of a guilty humanity, allowing a just God to practice mercy by saving sinners whose debt had been paid by God’s suffering on their behalf.” (Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross, Mark S. Heim, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2006.)

More recently I have been challenged by the fact that some of my spiritual heroes consistently look to the cross in their writings, and have found tremendous help and meaning there. I am cautiously looking into this neighbourhood again, not ready to move in, but willing to check it out.

It has been helpful to be reminded that the substitutionary atonement theory is not the only route that Christians have taken, and that many Christians have never gone that way.

In his book, “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg says that while the ingredients for the atonement theory are present in the New Testament, they were not brought together in the theory’s present form until about 900 years ago. Borg also notes that Jesus did not see his own purpose as dying for the sins of the world. (The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 2003.)

Borg sees at least 4 other interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross present in the New Testament, and makes the important point that all of these are “retrospective”- written by members of the Jesus movement who are looking back at the cruel suffering and death of Jesus, and trying to find meaning and purpose.

1) The Resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus, in response to the “No” of the worldly authorities who had him killed.

2) The death of Jesus on the cross exposes the moral bankruptcy of the world’s powers, and the power of evil. Jesus triumphs over evil by not resisting it.

3) In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the “Way” of spiritual transformation, of dying to an old way of life, and being raised to the new, that is the heart of Christianity. (I am most drawn to this view, and would go further, to say that this is the “Way” of all the major spiritual traditions, not just ours.)

4) Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of God’s love for us. This reading depends upon the theology of the “incarnation”, the belief that God assumed human form in Jesus, and lived and died as we do.

Mark Heim makes the point that most Christian teachers and preachers draw on elements of one or more of these theories when constructing their own theology of the cross. We can probably see signs of these different theologies in the hymns and prayers we encounter in worship.