In my Sunday school class this past Sunday, we moved on from discussing who Jesus was to discussing what he did, and how it relates to the Christian experience usually placed under the heading of “salvation”.
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I began with the story of a child who, in church on Good Friday, asked her parents why anyone would crucify a 3-month-old baby. Apparently the church’s year, celebrating Easter a few months after Christmas, was being taken somewhat too literally. My reason for telling this story is that, for some Christians, if Jesus had died at 3 months old it would apparently not have much of an impact on their understanding of what Jesus had come to accomplish. He had come to die, and between birth and death Jesus was simply “killing time” waiting to die. Any view of the cross that ignores the life that preceded it is going to be problematic.
It is not surprising that some Christians view Jesus in this way. On the one hand, since Paul had not followed Jesus in the pre-Easter period (although he may have become aware of the movement centered on him as soon as it reached Jerusalem, whether before or after Easter), and because he was writing to individuals who could be presumed to have had Christian tradition passed on to them, Paul never fills his letters with stories about Jesus’ life. The cross was also the part of the story of Jesus that was potentially the most troubling, and thus the early Christians had had to make it central, and come up with an explanation that would regard the cross as a necessary and intelligible part of God’s plan, and so they had found a way of interpreting it as salvific.
Another key focus in the Sunday school class was on what theologians call the “penal substitution” view of atonement. It is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is based on a view of justice that no one would otherwise accept. If the U.S., failing to apprehend Osama bin Laden, claimed that it had nonetheless accomplished its mission because they executed some other innocent individual in his place, I doubt if anyone would be happy with this as a resolution of the matter.
It is also a view of the cross that is not found in the Bible. Sure, it can be read into it, but it cannot be found there unless one is already looking for it. For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “one died for all, and therefore all died”. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, “one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die“. Even if we conclude that Paul’s language of “dying with Christ” is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of “salvation” expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they’ve also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.
Next week we’ll begin a new topic, spending some time in the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 and discussing matters of creation, cosmology, evolution and science.