Fire from the Depths

“A death has occurred that redeems [us] from transgressions” (Heb. 9:15).

It may only be Monday of Holy Week, but these words from the Letter to the Hebrews carry us into the very heart of the mysteries of Easter. In response to this passage, one might be inclined to wonder: How, exactly, does the death of Jesus relate to our redemption? Was his death necessary, or could we have been redeemed in another way?

When I was young, the death of Jesus made a powerful impression on my mind, and I, like many, deeply wondered why it happened. I recall after one Good Friday service when I was eleven or twelve; I thought I had finally figured it out. As my family and I left the sanctuary and journeyed out into the quiet darkness, I rejoiced (somewhat inappropriately, it being Good Friday and all) because the death of Jesus finally made sense to me. I concluded that it must have been required by the God the Father; so it had to occur. It was just that simple. Problem solved.

I did not realize at the time that I had stumbled my way into something quite like the so-called satisfaction theory of the atonement, which was initially articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the medieval period. According to this highly influential view, God the Father has been dishonored by human disobedience, and he demands satisfaction for the offense we have caused. Because of the magnitude of what is owed to God, only the death of one who is sinless can satisfy. Jesus’ death, then, atones by restoring God’s honor to him. This theory is intensified among major Protestant figures such as Luther and Calvin, who claim that, on the cross, Jesus substitutes for us and bears the penalties that are due to us.

Now, if you have concerns about these ideas, you would not be alone. Indeed, few Christian doctrines have inspired as much criticism as the satisfaction theory of the atonement. In the modern period, Christian teaching has keenly felt pressure to meet the moral standards of the times, and the notion that a sinless Christ would bear our sins has seemed unjust to many. The heart of the issue, some figures insist, is the requirement set forth by God the Father. The Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver goes so far as to claim that a God who could only be satisfied by the death of his Son is an inherently violent God. In response to these criticisms, many modern theologians have claimed that it the life of Jesus, not his death, that makes us at one with God. They have looked at the love for God and neighbor that Jesus inspired, and they have located our atonement in those teachings.

As morally “clean” as such an approach may be, it ultimately leaves the role of Jesus’ death unclear. Indeed, if it is in fact Jesus’ life that redeems, his gruesome death and the unbearable suffering that preceded it would do no actual work in our salvation. They would be superfluous add-ons to an inspiring ministry tragically cut short.

I would like to explore a third option with you all this morning, one that is, on the one hand, uneasy with a God who demands satisfaction, but that, on the other hand, does not want to reduce the work of Christ to an inspiring ministry. It seems to me that the death of Jesus must play a role in bringing us into union with God; however, that role may be different from how it has been conceived. Instead of satisfying a divine requirement, what if the death of Jesus was the final, most profound moment in a lifetime of God entering into the human condition with painstaking thoroughness, proceeding step by step through all of the travails of this mortal coil, until, finally, death itself is tasted by the divine? According to this view, the death of Jesus is the necessary outworking of the logic of the incarnation; it is what it means, ultimately, to be human. In Jesus’ death, God achieves an unprecedented level of solidarity with humanity, and we are left with no uncertainty about how thoroughly, how very intimately, God knows our condition. In the events of Holy Week, God probes every last corner of human experience, down to its final, most God-forsaken moment, and we know that there is no aspect of our humanity that has not been touched by the divine.

And, just when God can go no deeper into the human condition, when he has reached the outermost point on his “journey into the far country” (as Karl Barth would put it), at an unbearable distance from all life, light, and love, something happens. A fire is lit, and death itself is consumed by the blazing fire of divinity, which has not decreed from on high that death should be eliminated, but instead has entered into death, tasted of its bitter fruit, and transformed it from the inside.  Amen.

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