On the Death and Resurrection of Christ

The Resurrection of Christ, Glasgow Cathedral

The Resurrection of Christ, Glasgow Cathedral

Growing up in the Anglican church, somewhere between the ages of twelve and sixteen, I had a serious problem with the resurrection of Jesus. It wasn’t, as you may suppose, that I doubted such a thing could happen, I have never seriously doubted that He rose. Instead, it had to do with the meaning of it.

I was taught, as, I suspect, almost all modern Christians are, that Jesus died in my place, that is, that god somehow substituted Him for me to satisfy divine justice. Or, to use the other common metaphor, that my sin had racked up some sort of cosmic fine that I couldn’t pay, so He paid it for me. Hence my problem: If He died instead of me, does His resurrection mean He changed His mind? Having paid my fine, did He decide it wasn’t worth it and took it back? And if so, am I not left in sin and death?

I grew up and put these questions behind me, some of the mysteries we would, perhaps, only understand when we see Him and “know as we are known”. But it never went away completely. There was always a feeling that a three-day death (taken with the foreknowledge of resurrection) was a cheap payment for the earned eternal death of all mankind. Yet there seemed to be no alternative.

The churches I have attended, and others that I know of, preach a lot about the cross, the death, the blood of Christ. The crucifixion is presented as the central event in the salvation story. The resurrection, if mentioned at all, is seen as an afterthought or minor detail, a sort of reward for Jesus for being so obedient.

Then, recently, several things happened that opened up a new possibility, a different understanding of the whole thing.

First, I re-read C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and then read Austin Farrar’s “Saving Belief”. Amazingly (to me) here were two serious Christians who both seemed to have problems with the common understanding of the crucifixion. And not intellectual liberals who were looking to dismiss it, but deeply spiritual men who were grappling with it to understand its true importance. Farrer even goes so far as to say that the “fine” idea is, at best, meaningless and at worst blasphemy. I will admit that at first I reacted quite negatively to Farrer, but I couldn’t get away from it, and as I re-read and thought about what he had written, the more sense it made to me. However, neither writer had what I found to be a satisfactory answer.

Then, in a daily bible study I was part of, we started going through Acts and it struck me very forcibly again how little the apostles talk about the crucifixion. They talk a lot about the resurrection and, in fact, when they do mention Jesus’ death it is only as a prelude to the resurrection. How different their message seems from the one most preachers preach in modern churches! Why was this?

So I carefully read the New Testament looking for how both the crucifixion and the resurrection are used. What I found is that the pattern of Acts holds right across the epistles and apocalypse! The central teaching of the New Testament is that it is through the cross, Jesus’ death and blood, that we have been redeemed and justified, but that it is the resurrection that is God’s seal on it and the source of our hope.

What then of the ideas of substitution and cosmic fine? Neither seems to exist in the New Testament. Yes, Christ died for us, but not one text suggests He died instead of us. Yes, He paid the price and bought us, but not once is it suggested that this price was some divinely imposed fine for our sin.

The closest one comes is in the idea that Jesus was our perfect Day of Atonement sacrifice, most fully explored in the letter to the Hebrews. Clearly the Old Testament sacrifices were substitutionary in nature: the animals died in place of the people. But does that mean that Christ’s death was also substitutionary or was that aspect part of the imperfect nature of the old system? The writer to the Hebrews makes a major point out of the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice is better than those offered by the priests because the blood was His own, not that of a substituted animal. Could it be that the idea that He died as a substitute for us reflects a similar, imperfect understanding?

But if His death is not a substitution, where does that leave us? Paul tells us that the wages of sin are death, and we have certainly earned them. If God isn’t playing some divine shell game, pretending that Jesus was us (an idea that I find quite horrific: Surely God is the ultimate realist! Can He really pretend? And who would He really be fooling?) then how are we saved?

The answer, I believe, lies in the resurrection and helps to explain the early church’s emphasis on resurrection and also satisfies my youthful questions. What Jesus offers us is not a way to avoid death, but a way to escape the power of death! We have earned death and so we must die, but Jesus holds out a choice to us: We can accept the death we originally earned and be subject to the power of death and eternal separation from God, or we can join Jesus in His death and escape the power of death as He did, finding resurrection and a new life!

It is amazing how, after seeing this, one sees it writ large throughout the New Testament. From Jesus’ sayings such as “He who would save his life must lose it”, and, “take up your cross”, through the writings of Paul and the Apostles. Perhaps the clearest exposition is in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. In chapter 2 verse 19 he writes “For I through the Law died to the Law that I might live to God”. Death is the only way to get free of the Law, as he has explained elsewhere (see Romans 7:1-4) and so here he declares he is legally free. How did that come about? “For I have been crucified with Christ”! There it is: Not “Christ died in my place” but “I died with Him”. Paul had accepted Jesus’ offer to share in His death. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me”. Paul is living in the power of the resurrection.

Now Paul’s statement that “if Christ is not risen, ten our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty…we are of all men most pitiable” makes sense. If Christ’s death is not substitutionary but participatory then it is, in many ways, no better at paying for our sins than our own death would be. But the difference is that His death leads to resurrection! And the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to wait! It is not that in our physical death we will be united in His death, but that we can participate now. “I have been…” Paul says. Elsewhere he talks about how his old man was nailed to the cross so that he can live in the Spirit, that is, he can begin to live now the resurrection life.

Here is the power of the Gospel! If Christ’s death is just about the forgiveness of sins how are we any better off than the faithful under the Old Covenant? OK, we are spared the blood and gore of repeated animal sacrifices, but our standing before God is no different. Our sins are forgiven and thus we should try harder to live right? But we know that all of our best efforts are futile in that regard. We will find ourselves in that awful state so well described by Paul in Romans 7, and with him find ourselves crying out for salvation (v24). I know many Christians seem to believe that that is, indeed, just where we are, that Paul is describing his experience as a Christian, but such a view does not stand up to a careful reading of the text: Paul starts out by pointing out that he is speaking here to “those who know the Law”, then he points out that the only way to escape the Law is to die, he shows how the Law provoked the sin in him to become exceedingly sinful which brought him into a spiritual death, and that is the state he is in when he cries out that he cannot do the good he desires. Finally he cries out for a real salvation, found in Christ, that he describes in the next chapter.

The real salvation comes through death, our death. The resurrection life cannot co-exist with our old life. Paul, in talking about the bodily resurrection, uses the image of a seed which must die before it can come to life in its new, better body. So too our inner man must die so that it can come back in its new life—the resurrection life of Christ.

Many Christians say things like “when God looks at us He doesn’t see us, He sees Christ”. There is a sense in which this is true, but most people who say it seem to be implying, yet again, that God is involved in make-believe. He really sees us, poor unworthy sinners, but just pretends to see Jesus. Or perhaps He is like old, blind Isaac who cannot tell Jacob from Esau and blesses the wrong one! Can we really make such an accusation of God with a straight face? Surely not. God is the only one who always sees what is, and sees it perfectly. If He sees Jesus when He looks at me, it is because “it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me”. Not in some divine fantasy, but in fact.

This new life in us takes time to reach its full expression in us, we are not transformed (as our physical bodies one day will be) into full-grown “Christs” in an instant. We are born babies and must grow, but that is a subject deserving of its own consideration.

In summary then: The death of Christ is critical because through it we can die and so the whole issue of sin can be dealt with. But that is only preparatory for what God really wants, that we should be born again, that the life of Christ might become ours, that we should receive, here and now, a real resurrection into the kingdom of God. And this is not some smoke-and-mirrors trick performed by a self-deceiving God, but cold, hard fact attested to by the God of truth. This is the meaning of the resurrection and why it was the key doctrine in the early church.




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3 Responses to “On the Death and Resurrection of Christ”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    If God, looking at us, sees ‘Christ’, then that’s what’s there.

    The Accuser sees filthy sinners — but then “The Devil always was a liar.”

    The point of resurrection, to Jesus’ immediate followers, was first: “He isn’t dead!” And as an immediate consequence, their belief in his calling as the Messiah (not “Christ”! — not at all “the same” concept, despite the oil involved!) was still tenable. That God had intervened on such a scale was vindication both of Jesus and the work he’d been doing. And so they could continue!

    To me, his death meant — that “death” is not a category that God finds any great significance in. That “violence” is. That God would let his most advanced student die, rather than use violence against people to put him “in power” — and to help people understand that we’ve all been “forgiven” from the beginning. (Though hardly fully grown!)

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      I totally agree with your first two statements, which is basically my point. It is truth, not some game God plays.

      Sort of agree with the third. Certainly the disciples saw Jesus’ resurrection as proof of His messiahship initially, and that is the thrust of the preaching in Acts. I think though that it developed very quickly into more than that, which is what we see in the epistles.

      Can’t argue with your last bit, since you introduce it with “to me”! However, while our views of Jesus probably diverge quite a bit, I find I can agree with a lot of what you say. Certainly Jesus rejected the violent way again and again in various forms. And I think we probably agree, though we may voice it a little differently, that God is not at all interested in sin, but in life, less in what we have done (or not done) and more in what we are becoming.

  2. First, You Die | Broken Believers ♥ Says:

    […] On the Death and Resurrection of Christ (thoughtfulspirituality.wordpress.com) […]

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