We are heading towards Easter, a high point in the year for Christians around the world. So today I offer my reflections on the central theological elements of Easter: sacrificial death, and liberating life.
First, the death of Jesus is interpreted as a fundamental theological event of significance for all Christian believers. “Jesus died for us” is a New Testament phrase which came to form the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology—understanding the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers.
This area of Christian theology has become a debated and disputed arena. One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus?
Another element of the debate is the claim that “Jesus died in my place, sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I often hear this view expressed, often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. In my mind, there are a number of points at which this kind of statement narrows the understanding of faith too much. It focuses intensely on a personal dimension, to the detriment of the wider relational, societal, and political dimensions. It plays off the will of God over against the actions of a devil figure. Easter faith, to me, is broader, more expansive, more encompassing, than just the focus on my personal eternal destiny. It is based on an understanding of God that is different from a wrath-filled, vengeance-seeking God.
Appreciating the sacrificial dimension of the story of Jesus dying on the cross is important. Jesus went willingly to his death. The option of taking up a violent path was rejected by Jesus. His preaching offered a vision of a kingdom in which justice is dominant and peace is evident. His manner of death was consistent with this vision; his complete commitment to this vision meant that his death, unjust and violent as it was, provides a glimpse into the way of faithfulness for each of us in our lives. Following the way of Jesus is treading this path of nonviolent affirmation of the greater vision.
Second, there is the affirmation that “God raised Jesus from the dead”. The resurrection is regarded as the pointer to a new form of life, a liberating life, lived in the transformed state of resurrected being, which was first experienced by Jesus, and which is then promised to all believers. This promise is a liberating promise. The life of resurrection is a liberating life. Claims about the resurrection also bring points of contention and discussion within contemporary Christian thinking.
Contemporary debate has canvassed a number of options as to the nature of the resurrection: Must it be in a bodily form? Was Jesus raised ‘in the memory of his followers’, but not as a physical body? Is resurrection a pointer to a transcendent spiritual dimension? What was meant by the reference to an “immortal state” in 1 Cor 15?
Some believers aggressively promote the claim that we must believe in the boldly resurrection of Jesus, that we must adhere to a literal understanding of what the biblical texts report. I prefer to advocate for ways of responding to the story which are creative, imaginative, expanding our understandings and drawing us out of our comfort zones into new explorations in our lives. The resurrection is both an invitation to affirm our bodily existence in this world, and to explore fresh ways of renewal and recreation in our lives, in our society.
It is the apostle Paul who, most of all in the New Testament, provides evidence for the way that early believers began to think about these aspects of the Easter story—death on the cross, newness in the risen life. Paul probably did not begin such ideas; indeed, in both arenas, there are clear Jewish precedents.
The sacrificial understanding of the death of Jesus draws heavily from the Jewish sacrificial cult. The notion of resurrection was developed first by the Pharisees, a teaching group within the Judaism of the time. From this, it is Paul who most clearly and most often articulates and develops these central ideas in his writings as we have them in scripture.
These ideas sit at the heart of what traditional Christianity has regarded as its distinctive theological understanding: that God became human, suffered for us, died for us, and was raised to inaugurate the new way of being that will characterise the kingdom of God. This expression of belief comes to form the core of the emerging doctrinal self-understanding of early Christianity, into the following centuries of theological debate.
A further observation regarding the theological significance of Easter is the way that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus forms the end point—indeed, the climactic moment—of the story of his life, as it is reported in all four canonical Gospels. There were about 50 Gospels written in the early centuries of Christianity, and most of them do not lead to this dramatic conclusion.
The fact that the four Gospels which were chosen for inclusion in the canon of Scripture each end with the passion and resurrection narrative, indicates the way that this part of the story of Jesus came to have a central and defining purpose in the development of Christian doctrine. “Jesus, crucified and risen” became the centerpiece of Christian theology. That is at the heart of the Easter story. That is at the centre of Christian faith. And that comes clearly into focus in this current Easter season.