When I was growing up the death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross was the defining centre of my understanding of Christianity. Jesus’ death was God’s solution to the estrangement between humankind and God that was caused by our sin. Our wrongdoing demanded punishment of the most severe kind – eternal death. As long as that sin was unpunished it was impossible for anyone to share in eternal life with God. The death of Christ was God’s solution. God’s commitment to justice meant he could not allow my sin to go unpunished, but his commitment to me meant he could not leave me to be punished. So God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and in his death substituted himself for me, taking on himself the punishment I deserved. This meant my punishment had taken place and I was free to accept God’s offer of eternal life.
It was only later that I learned this was not the universal understanding of Christians and never had been. As theologians through the centuries have grappled with how God puts us and our world right there have been a number of explanatory models developed, of which my view, “penal substitution”, was but one. Discovering this made me realise that penal substitution was not the gospel. The good news is that through Christ God is putting us and the world right with himself, with each other and within ourselves. Christ-as-substitute-for-my-sin is but one way to explain how it is that God does this.
Moreover, as an explanation of something as unique as the mechanism by which God sets the world right, Christ-as-substitute-for-my-sin was, like most explanations, not without its problems. For example, the Christ-as-the-substitute model treats reconciliation as transactional rather than relational. At the heart of the Christ-as-substitute model is the idea that wrongdoing creates a debt that demands payment, and that it doesn’t really matter who pays that debt as long as it is paid. On this understanding moral debt can be externalised from the wrongdoer and paid by another.
As powerful and elegant the idea may be, is it appropriate to describe how reconciliation is effected? Isn’t the act of reconciling inherently relational and in this realm do transactional models make any sense? Certainly, the act of reconciling might involve recompense – if I have smashed up your car justice demands that I fix it – but in most situations where relationships have broken down there is no recompense that can be offered. How does a murderer compensate the victim and the victim’s family? How does an adulterer compensate their spouse? How does a slanderer repair the damage to the slandered? In situations like these there is no debt that can be externalised and applied to another party. There are only three possibilities – vengeance, distance or forgiveness. Doesn’t reconciliation occur when the wounded party agrees to put aside any claims to vengeance and instead chooses to forgive? If breaches in our relationship with God are like this there is no recompense to be offered and no debt that can be externalised and paid. We stand guilty before God and the only thing God can offer is to either extract vengeance on us, remain distant from us or forgive us.
But perhaps where my childhood understanding proved most inadequate was the way it abstracted the life of Christ and the resurrection of Christ from his death. On the Christ-as-substitute model, at least as popularly expressed, aren’t Jesus’ life and resurrection secondary dimensions of God’s work in redeeming the world? Most often they are used for apologetic purposes – Christ’s miracles and resurrection vindicate his claim to be the divine Son of God and thus a worthy substitute for us – but they are merely supporting parts to the real drama, Christ’s death on a cross. It was Christ’s death that reconciled us to God, that made it possible for our true selves, our souls, to go to heaven when we died.
Yet in the New Testament the emphasis is not on Jesus’ death but on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Take the preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts. None of the evangelistic sermons in Acts run the on-the-cross-Jesus-paid-the-penalty-for-your-sins line. Rather they consistently declare that Jesus lived a good life, was executed by his opponents but that God raised him from the dead, making him Lord of all. In taking this approach the early Christian evangelists focused not on what Jesus did for me (pay the penalty for my sin) but on who Jesus is for me (the One designated by God as the leader, prototype and creator of a new humanity).
Or consider the four Gospels. They tell of Jesus’ life and teaching, that Christ travels to Jerusalem to die, but is raised from the dead.
Or take Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 15
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
The good news is not that Christ died for our sins, but that Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day. These must be held together, and any theology that treats the resurrection as an afterthought is not the theology of the earliest Christian writers.
What then does the resurrection of Christ from the dead mean and how does it effect salvation? First, it represents a reversal of the verdict of Rome and Jerusalem. Jesus came to Israel declaring that God’s kingdom was arriving through him. The prophets of Israel had looked to a time when God would reorder Israel and through Israel the whole world. The violent, idolatrous centers of power that exploited the poor, crushed dissent and promoted idolatry would be overthrown and replaced with a new power structure where God was king. The poor would have their own land that would produce sufficient to satisfy their hunger, all would be free from exploitation and violence, bodies would be whole, communities just, inclusive and equitable, sin would be forgiven and God known and truly worshipped. Jesus radical claim was not only that this kingdom was coming but that it had begun in his ministry. And so he forgave sin, healed bodies, called people to renewed relationship with God and built a communal life around justice, equity, love, grace and inclusion. In doing this he challenged the violent ordering of the world imposed by Rome and its idolatrous claims that the Emperor represented the gods. He also challenged the ordering of community life that Jewish sects and leaders controlled.
The cross was the attempt of these groups to silence Jesus and extinguish his claims. The Roman State asserted its right and might by executing this would-be king. The Jewish leaders opposed to Christ did away with the threat to their conceptions of God and to their way of ordering life and community. They ensured that this false teacher and false prophet was prevented from further infecting the people and received the due penalty for his sin.
In the resurrection God reversed the declaration of the Romans that Jesus was a false king, of the Jewish leadership that he was a false prophet, and made the alternate declaration that Jesus was the true king, God’s true prophet. The resurrection declared that those who want to side with the God of creation, Abraham, Isaac and Israel should side with Jesus.
But the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was more than the vindication of Jesus’ claims. It was a new stage in his mission to bring God’s kingdom into being. Jesus took everything the old orders could throw at him – violence, humiliation, extreme suffering, death. But these were not able to extinguish the coming of God’s kingdom nor of God’s designated king.
It was a common expectation among those of Jewish faith that at the end, when God’s kingdom arrived, human beings would be raised from the dead to participate in God’s new, healed world. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead indicated this new era in which God was healing the brokenness of the world had begun and that all who gave their allegiance to King Jesus could be forgiven and start living out the values of his kingdom.
In George Orwell’s novel 1984 violent totalitarianism crushes human freedom. At one point a representative of the totalitarian state utters the chilling assessment that the future is “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” The resurrection of Jesus from the dead says “no it’s not”. The future is the kingdom of God that began with Jesus and will be brought to completion by Jesus. In Jesus’ life and his resurrection from the dead we discover that violence, inequity, oppression, brokenness, dysfunction, alienation and death are being overcome by God, that we are invited to join the revolution, that God forgives sinners and calls us to a new way of being and a new hope.
Theologians will no doubt continue to debate how Christ reconciles us and the world to God, and it may be that there are good answers to the questions surrounding the Christ-as-substitute explanation, but whatever they may be they must not cause us to lose sight of the fact that it is Christ in his life, death and resurrection who redeems the world and that any explanation of how God is saving the world must hold these together.