The Beauty, Goodness, and Truth of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, by Chad Thornhill
One of the most powerful chapters in James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Story is also one of the most personal. Smith opens the seventh chapter by recounting the difficult experience of learning that their unborn child had a chromosomal disorder which likely meant their daughter would die soon after birth. As Smith recounts, the experience raised emotionally-charged questions about God. Why would God allow something like this to happen to his family when they were faithful Christians? As he sat in solitude, he recalls:
“I began screaming at God. “How could you do this to us! How could you make us decide whether to keep her alive? It’s not fair!” I shrieked. “How dare you, God!” I seethed. There was only silence. It was a piercing silence. The God who had spoken to me for the last seventeen years, whose presence I felt every day, had abandoned me in my darkest hour” (110).
Though their daughter Madeline lived longer than the doctors predicted, she died at the too young age of two. Smith reflects, “Madeline made me look life’s hardest questions in the face, not as theory but as reality. How could a good God do this? How could God make a world in which this could happen? Why does God allow evil and suffering?” (111)
As perhaps now expected, Smith finds answers not in philosophical inquiry or doctrinal assurances (though helpful or necessary they may be), but rather in the good, beautiful, and true story. As he suggests, referencing Hans Frei, “doctrine is not the meaning of the story but rather story is the meaning of the doctrine” (112).
Smith challenges here atonement theories that affirm only part of the larger story of Jesus’ death (e.g., penal substitution as the only facet of the atonement). These individual theories are only fragments of how the Bible talks about Jesus’ death. Smith, following N. T. Wright, sees Jesus’ kingship and coronation as a more prominent framework for how the New Testament talks about the significance of Jesus’ death. In addition to being a sacrificial Lamb (Smith does not deny the biblical basis for a substitution model), he is also the Victor over sin and death and the King who possesses all authority over creation. The cross means ransom, reconciliation, satisfaction, an appeal of love, and substitution (115). It means all those things because the New Testament says it does.
Smith also wants to call attention to the reality that the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus were Trinitarian events, not the Father pitted against the Son, or the Son working on his own, but the Triune God self-sacrificing for the good of his world and his creatures. “The Trinity had a mission: to do for humankind what they could never do for themselves” (114). The cross was, however, only the first part of the divine act. The second act Smith focuses on is the Son’s descent, in which he actually tasted death and experienced all which it entails, experiencing a distancing from God in order, for our sake, to overcome it.
Here Smith brings the story back to his own personal journey. “I felt abandoned by God when we learned about our daughter’s condition. Jesus felt and experienced a far worse abandonment. I felt alone and suffered in silence on many days. But Jesus, I know, was with me all the time—in complete solidarity. He experienced it with and for me” (123).
The third act of the divine mission through the work of the Son is the resurrection. Jesus’ death empties sin and death of their power, and his resurrection transforms humanity, vindicates his ministry, and offers life and resurrection to all who are his. “Jesus descended to the dead to rescue those who were alienated from God. He experienced utter desolation and alienation from God in order to stand in solidarity with all who have experienced the same. He bore our sins on Friday, buried them in hell on Saturday, and defeated sin and death on Sunday.” (125). And so, “In Jesus’ crucifixion, descent and abandonment, and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for us to participate in trinitarian life” (125).
How does embracing the descent of Jesus deepen our understanding of his humanity and the divine mission?
Does a more intentional focus on the Trinity provide important correctives to thin or insufficient ways of thinking about the atonement?
How is this fuller story of the good news relevant to dealing with pain and suffering in the Christian life?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University