Death and Resurrection

Tomorrow we will memorialize Jesus' suffering and his death on the cross.

I don't pretend to know how to explain that death and suffering. Does penal substitution, moral influence, divine satisfaction, ransom, scapegoating, or some other theory best do that job?

When I made a study of atonement theories, I liked that of Eastern Christianity best: Jesus died to transform us so that we could receive his divine attributes. By choosing to live in a fallen world, we also chose to take on ourselves a nature that is open to evil. Having done so, however, we cut ourselves off from God.

Taking on humanity, emptying himself of his divine status for our sakes and becoming human (Phil. 2:7), the Lord brought together human and divine being in his person. In the Incarnation, Jesus revealed the true image of God. In the Incarnation he reversed the effects of the sin of Adam and Eve, and that reversal makes it possible for us not just to return to our paradisiacal state, but to go beyond that and become as he is. Of course we do not become God, but we can become like him, bringing together both the human and the divine in our being, in imitation of Christ's Incarnation.

As I said, I liked that theory best (at least my shallow understanding of it). I probably liked it because it seems most similar to my understanding of Latter-day Saint belief about Christ's atonement. But I long ago learned the easy lesson that my preference for something doesn't increase its likelihood of being true. So I still don't understand this central teaching of Christianity, that Christ suffered for my sins and died on the cross for my salvation.

But I believe what I do not understand, not because I do not understand, but though I do not understand. Why do I believe? On the authority of the Holy Spirit who has born witness and teaches me that it is true.

So on Friday I will bear witness of Jesus' death for us, though (imitating the Protestant forebears from whom most early Mormons came) Mormons don't have any formal rites or worship services for Good Friday. I have holy envy of those who have a formal way of commemorating the day, but I will do so individually rather than communally.

On Sunday, however, I will do as Mormons do almost every week: I will memorialize Jesus' suffering and death by eating and drinking the tokens of his body and blood in the ordinance (rite) of the Lord's Supper.

Because it will be Easter, on Sunday we will also celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the tomb.

Part of our celebration will be the same rite by which we weekly memorialize his death, the Lord's Supper. In that rite we find not only the tokens and memorials of his death, but also the remembrance and celebration of the new life he makes possible through his atonement and through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Moroni 4:3).

I don't understand Jesus' resurrection any more than I understand his suffering and death for humanity. But there are things I can say about the resurrection.

For me, as the sacrament of the Lord's Supper teaches, the primary meaning of the resurrection is spiritual: Jesus' resurrection insures that I can be brought to new life, the life of a new person, through him.

Taking on himself the persona of the sinner, Paul asks, "Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24), a death that he experiences in his inability to escape from sin. Paul's answer is that we are freed from the death of sin by the Holy Spirit, who causes us to live anew (Rom. 8:2, 11). As a sinner, spiritual resurrection is the most relevant form of resurrection.

At the same time, however, it is important not to reduce either Jesus' resurrection or mine to only their spiritual meaning. I ought not to think of Jesus' resurrection without attention to its spiritual meaning. But the resurrection is not only spiritual.

With most other Mormons I believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the literal resurrection of all people. We are who we are because we are embodied. We are the histories made flesh in our bodies: scars and bulges and warts and all.

Like others, Mormons have often spoken of being resurrected in bodily perfection, whatever that means. But I wonder. Would I be the person I am now if I had the body I had when I was twenty-five (which even then was far from perfect)? I doubt it because at twenty-five I had much to learn, things to learn that have informed the shape and heft and look of the body I now am.

But regardless, we are our bodies and, so, must be resurrected bodily as well as spiritually if eternal life is to have any meaning. Jesus' resurrection testifies of our eventual resurrection. On Easter I will testify of both.

12/2/2022 9:09:20 PM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
  • Atonement
  • Good Friday
  • Mormonism
  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.