Did Jesus only become God at Easter?

ARTHUR ASKS:

Christians observe that the Son of God died to atone for human sins. But St. Paul says (Romans 1:4) that Jesus was “declared … to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” So apparently Jesus wasn’t divine when he died (or before). How then does atonement work?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

A timely inquiry as Christians reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and also due to the clash between two new scholarly books, “How Jesus Became God” by skeptic Bart Ehrman, answered simultaneously (!) by an international team of conservatives in “How God Became Jesus.” Arthur cites a sentence Paul wrote only a couple decades or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, and “form critics” think the apostle was quoting from a previous creed so these words date back to Christianity’s earliest days.

Thanks to www.biblegateway.com, The Guy compared 46 English translations and found “declared” is the typical wording. Other versions say that by the resurrection Jesus’ divine Sonshop was “openly designated,” “publicly identified,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” “marked out,” and “shown,” while Bible commentaries add “displayed,” “proclaimed,” and “manifested.”  So the expert consensus agrees with the 8th Century theologian John of Damascus that Paul meant that by the resurrection “it was made plain and certain to the world that Christ was the Son of God.”

Note that all the translators say “by” the resurrection, not “at” or “with” or “upon,” which could indicate Jesus’ divinity originated only at Easter. All this agrees with the early belief found elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus was divine in his earthly life and beforehand (for instance Matthew 27:54, John 1:1-3, I Corinthians 2:8, Philippians 2:6).

But get this: A favorite conservative Bible could be read as suggesting Jesus only became God at Easter. The 2011 edition of the New International Version says Jesus was “appointed the Son of God” by the resurrection, vs. “declared” in earlier N.I.V. editions. Similarly, the first edition of U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible (1970) said Jesus was “made” the Son of God by Easter. The 1986 N.A.B. revision changed that to the ambiguous “established,” which to average English readers could mean either newly established or established for everyone to see.

Then, how does atonement “work”? What does it mean that “Jesus saves” or “Jesus died for our sins”? Arthur suggests what Christian tradition teaches, that Jesus would have to be God for his death on the cross to be effective for sin. Otherwise he was just another victim of unjust execution. Theologians pondering this have proposed theories known as “ransom,” “recapitulation,” “satisfaction” “penal substitution,” and the modern liberal favorite, “moral example.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church avoids such formulations and  sticks to familiar New Testament phrases: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”; “taking our death upon himself”; as a “ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin”; God “made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”‘ “God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”; we are “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”; “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”; and Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Michael Root, a specialist in ecumenical theology at Catholic University of America, tells “Religion Q and A” that the various concepts of Jesus’ atonement for sin never divided Christianity the way other issues did. “Some branches of the tradition have emphasized some images more than others, but some mix of images is probably needed to capture comprehensively the meaning of Christ’s death.” Unlike the extensive debate about how Jesus is both human and divine, “the precise sense in which he died ‘for our sins’ has never been defined. That is itself, I think, highly significant. There is something here that resists precise definition.”

Root, a Catholic convert, was formerly a Lutheran delegate who helped write the significant 1999 Lutheran-Catholic accord that overcame the old dispute over the role of “faith” and “works” in salvation, which included this: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

The “how” question looks this way to Peter Bouteneff, former executive secretary for theology at the World Council of Churches now teaching at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary:  We can’t grasp the atonement without acknowledging humanity’s “brokenness” and then understanding who could bring healing. He says what’s needed is someone “outside the situation, someone perfect and whole already — otherwise it’s the blind leading the blind.” In other words, the divine Christ.

“But it also has to be someone who reaches us at the point of our needs, in the depths of our fallen situation.” Bouteneff says only Jesus Christ, fully divine and also fully human,  can heal us “as the human Son, experiencing the depths of human need and vulnerability.” “In his self-offering on the cross” Jesus “shows us what God looks like: loving creation unto death” so that “death and suffering don’t have the last word. Life does … This sacrifice restores balance to a terrible imbalance, the rift between a wandering humanity and a faithful God.”

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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