I’ve recently found it a tad unusual that we Christians place the crucifixion of King Jesus at the center of our faith. Any cursory reading of the four Evangelists’ renditions of the gospel coupled with St. Paul’s writings on the matter should yield the conclusion that it’s the resurrection of King Jesus, not his death that should be central to our faith.
Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of centering my faith in Jesus on his death for almost my entire Christian life.
Recently, however, it’s become somewhat clear to me that God’s work in the world is reconciliatory, and that it manifests relationally rather than transactionally.
Here’s what I mean by that.
The foundation of a penal substitution theory of atonement is the idea that our offense to God creates a debt that we owe him. That debt demands payment, and thanks to King Jesus, we don’t have to pay that debt; rather, he pays it on our behalf. In other words, the debt we owe to God can be removed from our account and placed on King Jesus’ account. For example, let’s say I ran my car into someone else’s car. I don’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but a friend steps in to pay off my debt. In case you missed it, my benevolent friend plays the role of Jesus in this analogy.
Here’s the problem with that. Reconciliation has not actually taken place. The debt has been paid, yes, but God is not in the business of debt relief. He’s in the reconciliation business.
Let’s draw up another analogy. If I were to cheat on my wife (I’m unmarried, so this example falls a bit flat in reality, but I believe it works in theory), no one can come in and “pay my debt” to my wife. There’s no transaction that can repair and reconcile the broken relationship. There are only two things that can reconcile this relationship: my hypothetical wife’s forgiveness and my repentance. (Again, if you missed it, my hypothetical wife plays the role of God in this analogy.)
Throughout the Old Testament, God uses marriage metaphors to describe the broken relationship he has with Israel. He’s summoning his wife. He’s telling her that he forgives her and that their relationship can be restored if she would only repent.
But here’s where penal substitution theory does the most damage to a full understanding of the gospel. It minimizes King Jesus’ life and resurrection to little more than abstractions that exist in the story to support his death. His miracles and teachings are simply there to prove that he is the Son of God and thus someone worthy to pay our debt. His resurrection is simply there to show us how powerful he is.
But to the observer of King Jesus’ life, it was clear that he was doing something more than simply paying humanity’s debt. And that “more” isn’t just supplemental material. The point of King Jesus’ arrival on earth must not be missed or misplaced. It was to announce and usher in a new kingdom—a reversal, if you will, of the imperialism that had dominated Israel’s thinking for generations and was now dominating Israel herself through Roman rule.
Jesus was showing us that the kingdom of God was coming—rather, had already arrived—by way of his teachings and his miracles. At every turn, Jesus was upending the common power structure, both at a small scale in the way he treated children and at a larger scale in the way he treated law enforcement (the Pharisees).
His crucifixion, as crucial as it is to our faith, is not the bloody masterpiece that God had ordained would be the vehicle for our salvation (as proponents of penal substitution theory would have you believe). Rather, it was the necessary means to his ultimate inauguration as King. Trial by fire, perhaps. More fittingly, I believe, it was the stage for his final and most glorious act.
You see, to a Jewish mind, the resurrection is the culmination of Israel’s story. At the end of time, Jews—and indeed the whole world—would be raised to life again after death. No other belief system outside Judaism held to any idea that resembled resurrection. To be certain, some Greeks and Romans (and others, I would assume) held to some sort of afterlife, but resurrection was an ideology limited to Judaism, and then even a limited subset of Jews until the late-biblical to early-postbiblical periods. (Daniel, the latest of the biblical writers, was the first to exhibit a belief in resurrection. Earlier writings, such as the Psalms, denied such a doctrine.)
The resurrection of Jesus is a distinctly Jewish act. While it certainly had reverberations outside Judaism and into the Roman world, it had its greatest impact in Jewish theology. If the resurrection meant the end of all things, what then did it mean for only one man to be resurrected?
The answer lies within the existence of something called the Church. Resurrection is the beginning of our story—the Church’s story. Resurrection is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which the Church bears witness. The King has taken his throne, and we, his ambassadors, have received our charge: reconcile this world to its King.
Resurrection serves as a message that God is no longer going to tolerate the savage, oppressive imperialism that our world thirsts for. Whereas penal substitutionary atonement theory places a violent act of retribution at the heart of the gospel, a resurrection-centered gospel, which St. Paul appears to adhere to, declares an end to violence and injustice and ushers in a kingdom where a loving, good, and just King sits on the throne.
As Scott J. Higgins, Director of Community Engagement at Baptist World Aid, puts it:
What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?