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Searching Sabbath 09: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ

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Here it is: this week’s Searching Sabbath. There’s a lot to wrestle with here in what I think is really the FIRST fundamental belief — how we view the role of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I understand why the SDA fundamental beliefs put the Bible as belief #1 (because, as I’m learning more and more in exploring this, what you believe about Biblical inspiration really shapes all the rest of your beliefs). But to me it seems obvious that the heart of Christianity is what you believe about Jesus.

There’s so much to say here and I’ve only scratched the surface in the video above by talking about Penal Substitutionary Atonement and some of the different views people hold on Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us. I didn’t even get to talk about whether those who don’t explicitly state belief in Jesus can still be saved by His sacrifice and death, which is a huge issue when we think of faithful godly people in non-Christian religions. Nor did I get to touch on the fact that it’s hard to hold the “life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” in balance. So many Christians seem to emphasize one of those (in the case of conservative evangelicals, usually His death) at the expense of the others. N.T. Wright’s work has been really influential in helping me think about what Jesus’ life means. It was more than just a prelude to the Crucifixion!

As always, I’m very interested to see what emerges in comments. So far, my post about Jesus as “God the Son” has had the most active comment section of any of these, so I’m hoping some people will want to continue that discussion in comments on this week’s topic.

For anyone who’s been enjoying my conversation with Ed Dickerson about Genesis and Creation, Ed has posted a new video here. However, I won’t get around to posting a “Sunday Supplement” until next  Sunday — I haven’t had time yet to finish watching, absorbing, and formulating a response. Stay tuned for more!!

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7 thoughts on “Searching Sabbath 09: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ

  1. I went to church and sat through a service today for the first time in three years, the last time being when I spoke for the main service at KC alumni weekend.

    The reason I did so was because a friend of mine (the former SDA ambassador to the UN) spoke on this very topic. Wouldn’t you know it; he said the traditional view is wrong! Naturally, I concur.

    In truth, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this one. I can certainly see how Christ’s death and resurrection is central to standard Christianity. But the theological explanation of the reasons for this event can become mind numbingly convoluted to the point of being unreachable for the common person.

    Penal Substitutionary Atonement as an explanation is certainly reaching that point. Say that to even a college graduate and they may well look at you cross-eyed, let alone anyone less educated! As you know I have an interest in the physics of how the universe works. I just wish I had an understanding, but anyway, there are leaders in that field who are guided by the principal, “if it isn’t beautiful, it isn’t true.” I find this tremendously compelling. Of course, one has to define “beautiful.” Adherents to this view define beauty has having two major components: simplicity and symmetry. E=MC2 is simple and symmetrical and therefore true. String theory is astoundingly complex and some would argue, lacks symmetry. Therefore it is still open to question and probably not a true explanation of the universe.

    As far as Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I’d say it certainly lacks simplicity. From a judicial or legal viewpoint, however, it does have symmetry – what goes around comes around! While intuitively attractive, I have trouble with where this ends up: A price must be paid! Blood must flow! Really? Who put that law in place? Is this truly a foundational rule upon which the entire universe stands – someone must die!

    Romans 2:25 is from where much of the complexity explaining Christ’s death comes. Read it in its entirety, I’ll just quote a key phrase here.

    The NIV says, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement”
    The RSV: “God put forward as an expiation”
    The ESV: “God put forward as a propitiation”

    All of these contain the meaning of paying a penalty, of making amends, of mollification. The etymology of the word Atonement, however gives quite a different meaning which is close to how it’s made up: “at one ment” or in other words to bring into harmony.

    Naturally, to find the heart of the meaning here one needs to go to the original Greek. The word in question is ἱλαστήριον (ilast-hrion or something near that). It is a rare word found in just three or four other instances in ancient Greek writing. Thus determining a final meaning is problematic and it is entirely possible that the meanings as listed above are the result of bias passed down through the ages. An equally true meaning and one I find most appealing is this: “the gift that brings peace.”

    So the text could read “God presented Christ as a gift to us that brings peace.” Indeed, there is a new translation that has it as follows (with the surrounding texts as well):

    Yet through the free gift of his grace God makes us right through Christ Jesus who sets us free. God openly presented Jesus as the gift that brings peace to those trusting in him who shed his blood. God did this to demonstrate he is truly right, for previously he would hold back and pass over sins, but now at this present time God proves he is fair and does what is right, and that he makes right those who trust in Jesus. (vss. 24 – 26)

    This, I think, sheds an entirely new light on things. Christ’s death is not a substitution but a demonstration. To paraphrase Job, “Though you slay Me, yet will I love you.”

    • I can definitely accept Christ’s death as a demonstration of God’s love. However, I think the concept that “a price must be paid” comes more naturally if you focus on the victims of sin and suffering. It helps me to remember that some of the more bloodthirsty and vengeful-sounding parts of the Bible (like the cursing psalms) were written by people who had experienced oppression and injustice. It’s easy for ME to say, Oh, God can just forgive sin without any price being paid, but what if I’m the only surviving member of a family of Holocaust victims (or victims of some other horrific act of cruelty and injustice)?

      I also think there is something powerful in the idea of God taking this punishment upon Himself — after all, if God ultimately allowed evil into the world, isn’t He the one who ultimately should pay the price? This brings us back to the Great Controversy topic, and of course is not really the traditional view, but it does make a kind of sense to me.

  2. I’m not sure your analogy works. If I’m a holocaust survivor, I have no interest in an innocent person taking the punishment for what a camp guard did to me. I don’t see justice in this case as some arbitrary standard where a price must be paid and “Oh, OK, everything is fine now because an innocent party has been punished for what you and your Nazi cohorts did to me.”

    No, if a debt is to be paid, I want those responsible to pay the price! Cosmically speaking anything else just doesn’t add up. Naturally, as the prison guard I’m grateful to have a substitute, but as the prisoner, I’m really pissed off. Frankly I’m not interested in a God who is so unjust! Yes, the argument can be made that he is ultimately responsible, but in the real world this means nothing. The man that raped and murdered my daughter goes free because someone else stood up and said, “Hey, I’ll go to prison for him.” I have no interest in that somehow now there is balance in the universe because of this stand in.

    However, if I have a lesson in ultimate forgiveness, I then have a chance to say, there’s no need for a penalty because I’ve been taught how to forgive. Ultimately the cross is about forgiveness and not a price being paid. The holocaust survivor, the victim of injustice finds peace only in forgiveness not in the execution of justice.

  3. OK, I guess I’ll keep quiet now. I thought I was presenting a solution. . .

    • You don’t need to keep quiet just because I don’t agree with you! I think for some people, what you propose IS a solution. I’m just not convinced it’s a solution for everyone. Indeed, I’m not convinced there IS a solution … I almost think it’s necessary that there are many models of what “atonement” and “salvation” mean because people respond so differently to them.

      I’m interested in discussion, but for context’s sake I should point out that I’ve been posting on the religion debate discussion forum Ship of Fools for 9 years, and for 7 of those years I was a moderator on their “Purgatory” board where most of the serious debate takes place, which means that I was required to read every single post on everything thread. Lengthy debates about PSA versus other theories of atonement cropped up about three to four times a year, which means that over the course of several years I’ve read every imaginable iteration of every possible argument on the subject. That doesn’t mean (I hope) that I’ve closed my mind to further discussion, but it does mean that sometimes I have a certain amount of “atonement fatigue” on this issue.

      Also, there are times (as today) when I’m trying to catch up with blog comments, Facebook discussion and sometimes Ship of Fools debates too, all in the midst of writing and parenting, so sometimes I make do with a shorter answer. To be more thorough, I should say that I do understand the point you’re making — for some people, the idea of substitutionary atonement will never be satisfactory — either from the perspective of a person receiving forgiveness, or from the perspective of a victim wanting justice.

      But to other people, the idea that “a price must be paid” is very powerful and important to their sense of justice. And on the one hand, to say, “some other human being is going to take this punishment instead of the person who hurt you,” is obviously meaningless. But for God Himself to come before me and say, “I am taking on that punishment Myself — I have borne all this suffering on behalf of the person who hurt you and on YOUR behalf as well” — well, as I say, I can see why that leaves some people cold, but for others it has a huge impact.

      I really think it’s as much to do with how we respond imaginatively to one model of the atonement, as with what’s “right.” If the idea of PSA turns a person off Christianity because what they see is a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity torturing his son, then I would never want to preach that to them. But if the idea of PSA makes someone feel loved and valued because Christ suffered so greatly so that their sins could be forgiven, then who am I to question that? Some mysteries are beyond our understanding and any human attempts we make to put them into language or imagery we can grasp, will always fall short. I think the Trinity is like that. I think atonement is like that, too.

  4. If ever I leave a comment lacking in detail, or is vague leaving one to wonder about it’s tone, the default with me will always be “written with a smile on my face” or tongue in cheek. Sorry to force a lengthy replay. In fact, my first thought was, “well, she does have a lot on her plate!”

    A thought just popped into my head, the “response” you mention, I wonder if the “price must be paid” relates to Maslow’s hierarchy? No need to respond. I’ve done some interesting reading on the “Christian hierarchy/needs.”

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