Good Friday Reflections on the Meaning of the Crucifixion

We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.

(from the New Creed of the United Church of Canada)

“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

In the first centuries following the earthly life of Jesus, gatherings were held to discern which documents Christians would cherish as scripture, to define the nature of the Trinity, and to affirm the divinity of Christ. Creeds were formulated. Doctrine was debated and heresies refuted. It is interesting to note that no conference was held by the early church to make an official pronouncement on the meaning of the Crucifixion.

Over the last two thousand years there has been a range of answers to the question, “How are we saved by Jesus’ death on the cross?”

As a person of faith, and as a preacher, I struggle with hymns, and anthems, and prayers and faith statements, that tend to reflect one particular approach to answering the question. It has been my observation that some interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross are actually a stumbling block.

During the Good Friday service this year, we looked at some quick snapshots of some perhaps lesser known theologies of the cross.

The Ransom Theory

Before the American Civil War, a physician in the South, in his effort to explain the behaviour of African American slaves claimed many his subjects suffered from mental illness. He said two disorders were prevalent. An uncontrollable urge to escape, and willful destruction of property, disobedience, and refusal to work. His way of seeing the world, and people, was shaped and clouded by his culture.

To borrow an image from a Good Friday hymn, we survey the cross from a distance, something like a surveyor takes a sighting. In order to get an accurate measure, the surveyor needs to know where they stand.

Depending where we stand, we may have different perspective on the crucifixion, and its significance. The various ways of thinking about the crucifixion reflect the culture and spirit of the age in which they emerged, and build on assumptions that may seem strange to us.

The earliest idea was the “Ransom Theory”. It said Jesus offered himself as a ransom, to secure our freedom. The human condition was viewed as one of enslavement to Satan because of the “Fall” of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

It was not always clear to whom this ransom was paid. Many early church fathers said the ransom was paid to Satan. This understanding assumes that Satan is not a mythological figure, but an actual being that cannot be overcome by God, and has to be bought off.

The Commercial Theory, and the Penal Substitution Theory

In the ancient Middle East social and business relationships were based largely on reputation. Honour had a value like a commodity that could be traded. A development beyond the ransom theory was the idea that God rewarded Jesus for his sacrifice, and the reward was passed on to humanity. The reward gained by Jesus can be applied against humanity’s debt, for our sinful condition.

Over a thousand years after the earthly life of Jesus, an eleventh century theologian from England named Anselm of Canterbury picked up on this approach. Anselm lived in the midst of a medieval, feudal society. If a servant stole from the lord of the manor, the crime was not only larceny, but an offense against the honour of the lord, and the feudal system as a whole, that demanded to be set right. A debt must be paid, to preserve the honour and integrity of the feudal lord.

Anselm saw the relationship of human beings to God in feudal terms. The offense of human sinfulness, as expressed in the concept of original sin, was so great, humans really ought to pay a great price. Jesus death on the cross, the shedding of his blood, was understood as a substitute sacrifice, to satisfy the honour of God.

The Moral Example Theory

Another way to look at the death of Jesus on the cross is that it saves by offering a powerful showing of God’s love, by which we are inwardly stirred to respond with gratitude and service. Jesus’ death demonstrated the depth of God’s love, by the extent God is willing to enter into our reality.

In this view, Jesus’ death is seen as an heroic, inspiring act, rather than a required part of a business transaction. Modern proponents of this theory see Jesus as the example for us of self-giving love, and what the world might see as foolish vulnerability, is described as holy living. Jesus set aside concern for his own well-being to live and die in service to his people, and calls us to do the same.

Closely related to this theory is martyrdom, the idea that some things are worth dying for. Often references to contemporary figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., are made.

The Governmental Theory

This theory suggests Jesus death was required as retribution, to show that sin is displeasing to God. In order to sustain the moral government of the world, God found it necessary to demonstrate holy wrath against sin. Jesus’ death is accepted by God as sufficient, only because God is merciful, and does not require exact justice.

This view, as well as the substitution theory mentioned earlier, depend on the idea of “Original Sin”. This is a shorthand way of saying that because Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden chose to disobey God, every human is tainted or marked by their sin of disobedience.

Setting aside the question of whether the Genesis story Adam and Eve in the Garden should be read as factual, or as a truth-bearing parable, there are many contemporary theologians who work from a completely different premise, they call “Original Blessing’. Everything that God makes, including each person, comes into life with a blessing rather than a curse.

A Note on the word “Atonement”

The Penal Substitution Theory mentioned earlier is usually called the Theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and it is central to the teaching of many of the churches we think of as evangelical or fundamentalist. The thrust of this teaching is that God required Jesus’ death on the cross, to atone for the sins of all of us, the idea we heard earlier, called “Original Sin”. What may be overlooked in discussions of this theory is the word “atonement” was not originally found in the Bible.

Like many words that found their way into common language, by way of translations or paraphrases of scripture into English, the word “atonement” was invented, or “coined” by the translator William Tyndale. He originally meant for it to be two words at, and onement. He was trying to find a way to convey a number of concepts, including reconciliation, forgiveness, and one from the Hebrew scriptural account of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur. The Hebrew word is “Kaper” which means to cover, or remove, or cleanse. In the Yom Kippur ceremony, blood was sprinkled on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which was also called the Mercy Seat.

Christus Victor, or the Dramatic Theory

In 1931, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen published “Christus Victor”, in which he laid out the history of major theories of atonement. He revisited the most ancient, the Ransom Theory, which he retooled and gave a new name. Instead of Jesus’ death being a price paid as a ransom, Aulen said the Crucifixion was part of the larger conflict between God and the powers which hold humanity in bondage: sin, death and the devil.

Aulen moved away from the idea that Jesus’ death satisfied a debt in a legal, contractual sense. He argued the crucifixion was part of a drama in which Jesus subversively condemned the powers of evil, and revealed their unjust ways, by submitting to death. The victory of Christ came not in the Crucifixion, but in the Resurrection, in which God vindicated Jesus, ultimately clearing him of any wrong-doing.

The Last Scapegoat Theory

Contemporary theologians are greatly influenced by a man who died recently, a French scholar named Rene Girard. Girard observed that human societies advance as members learn to copy each other’s successes. The capacity to copy also causes us to want the same things as others, which leads to tension between individuals and groups.

For a society to thrive, and not be torn apart by rivalry, it occasionally needs to release the tension. Killing one person, or one small group, is a small price to pay compared to anarchy, or a bloody revolution. The society chooses a scapegoat, a minority or a villain to blame for its problems. The sacrifice of the scapegoat relieves the built up tension, and calm is restored, which seems to prove the occasional blood sacrifice is a necessary, perhaps even a divinely inspired thing.

Girard theorized that by his death on the cross Jesus did two things. He exposed the lie of scape-goating , because he was innocent of any wrong-doing that might have made his execution legitimate. He also became the ultimate scapegoat, and eliminated the need to ever turn again to this violent practice.

The Solidarity Theory

A German theologian named Jurgen Moltmann, whose thinking and faith was profoundly influenced by his experience of the second world war, wrote a ground-breaking book called The Crucified God. His view was that in Jesus of Nazareth, God entered fully into what it means to be human- including all the pain, confusion, mortality, and times of feeling totally cut off from hope, and even cut off from God. Moltmann said that in Jesus, God entered into even the feeling of “Godforsakenness”, as an act of ultimate solidarity.

This allowed Moltmann to proclaim that God is with us, even in our feelings of being distant from God. That is a hint of hope, that points towards the greater hope- if God is with us in the human condition as represented in the crucifixion, we are with God as Jesus, human as we are, is raised to new life in the resurrection.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

(from the New Creed of the United Church of Canada)

The above is a rough survey of some “crucis theologia”- theologies of the cross. It is not exhaustive, and the theories are not mutually exclusive. Many Christians are draqwn to aspects of more than one approach. Nuances have been omitted, for the sake of brevity, and by the limits of this writer’s intellectual grasp of each theory.

Resources consulted included; The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg; Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, by Mark S. Heim; and A Better Atonement, by Tony Jones. (Errors or misrepresentations of the theories are not a reflection on the usefuleness of these resources!)

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