Signs of a Delusional Mind
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
reflections on lent: atonement, part 1
Tuesday morning, and all of us were getting up early again, sitting in traffic again, and punching the clock again - we were all getting back to the ol' grind. Yes, whatever it may look like for each of us, we've begun returning to the same routine we lived through before Good Friday, with nothing seemingly different. Life is the same, nothing has changed - except perhaps our bellies are more full.
'Doubting Thomas,' by Caravaggio (1602)
Driving to work, one car among many, my mind couldn't help but move towards the apostles and what that first day, that first week would have looked like following the day they witnessed their master resurrected from the dead. The day prior, the apostles' lives were turned upside down as they watched Jesus die on the cross; they hid behind closed doors, dejected and hopeless. But then, at the beginning of the week, their lives were flipped over once again but in a wholly different way as they moved back into the world renewed with the knowledge that Jesus did not remain entombed. They were no longer defeated - nay, exactly the opposite.
Jesus' resurrection changed everything for the first disciples. But our modern minds don't fully understand why. We're aware of the physical aspects surrounding Jesus' crucifixion - as well as, for the most part, all the political scheming. Yet, aside from the obvious fact that their beloved rabbi was executed and then raised from the dead, what was the significance of the event for the apostles? And why is Jesus' death and resurrection so important for all disciples throughout the ages? What did it mean that God hung nailed to a cross as a human male and then was brought back to life?
These are questions hotly debated by believers throughout every century since it happened; as a result, there were three major models that developed to give some level of understanding - to grope for the divine - thereby facilitating discussion about the event and its significance - the atonement - with a common language.
This model came into popularity largely during and after the reign of Constantine in the fourth century, as Jesus increasingly became depicted in parallel fashion to the emperor (and as a result, became theologically distanced from His followers, perceived more like a high and lofty king than a personable teacher), but was around as early as the second century. This model states that when Jesus died He defeated the power of death and thereby freed every human from the hold of the devil. Thus, Jesus gained the greatest victory.
Christ as Ransom
This particular theory, which arose in the twelfth century from the reflections of Anselm, posits the idea that Jesus died in the place of each one of us - we were all deserving of the punishment Jesus endured because of our sin, but He went through it for us, instead of us. Taking our iniquities, He paid the price we were unable to, therefore the punishment due to us because of our sinfulness has been satisfied.
Christ as Moral Example
Jesus' entire life and ministry are taken into account by this model, putting them forward as the examples for us of how to live our lives in complete union with Adonai. It is only by shaping our lives after Jesus' that we can obtain salvation, and doing so inevitably leads to a collision with the world and its powers, possibly ending in death (martyrdom). The foremost proponent of this theory was Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm, and he strongly argued that Jesus' atoning work was complete only when, by faith, it was appropriated and thereby allowed to transform one's life.
Certainly, these theories are inadequate on their own, and should be viewed as complimenting and informing one another.1 But what these models largely neglect is the first-century, Jewish context within which the crucifixion and resurrection occurred. Despite what some senior pastors I've encountered in class may believe, Jesus was a Jew - and a good Jew, no doubt.2
Pesach (or, as we know it, Passover) is not only the most important of all the biblical festivals, but also the first, and it was at this exact time of year Jesus' earthen ministry came to a head. Not coincidentally, many rabbis believed that the Messiah would appear at the time of Passover, and it is, I believe, through this lens alone we can come to an understanding of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
1. Historically, many have taken uncompromising stances in one of the theories, declaring that particular theory as the only and exclusive truth to the atonement. Even today such polarised battles rage, but this is an inappropriate view to take on these models; each of them have something to bring, as well as something to be cautious about.
2. This fact easily answers the question Sunday School never seemed able to of Jesus' whereabouts before he began his ministry: as a good first-born male Jew, he would've been devotedly studying Torah - surely surprising his teachers with his knowledge like he did as a 12-year old child - thus earning the right to be called 'rabbi.'