Stand on Holy Saturday.
Behind you is Good Friday. Before you is Easter Sunday.
You are post-death but pre-resurrection.
Jesus is dead. His body is going cold in the tomb.
Jesus cannot raise himself from the dead, because he is dead.
Ask the question: ‘in what way does the death of Jesus differ from say, Ghandi, MLK, the Maccabean martyrs, Polycarp…etc’
Taking inspiration from Gestalt Therapy we might call this reading of the death of Jesus a gestalt reading. A ‘what-does-this-mean-in-the-moment’ reading; A ‘here-and-now’ reading. Such a reading requires that we enter into the moment. Too often, and all too easily we interpret the historical event of the execution of Jesus from a post-resurrection perspective. The problem with this interpretation is that we already know that ‘it’s all going to end up happy in the end’ and we read positive outcomes back into the event of the death of Jesus.
If we are to read the death of Jesus as a key – or even the key – to atonement then we do need to explain the mechanics of how Jesus’ crucifixion brings about the reunion of God, humanity, and creation. If we think that atonement comes about through a combination of death and resurrection then it seems appropriate to critique this assertion and ask pertinent questions: What does the cross contribute to atonement? What does the resurrection contribute? What do either of these contribute that the other doesn’t? Is there an overlap? And critically, it seems to me that any good theology of the cross / resurrection / atonement must seek to explain the mechanics of how it all works. As Robert Jenson intimates, ‘theology…born of the urge to demythologize’ insists on such a critique.
The death of Jesus was one among many thousands who were crucified by the Roman Empire in their pursuit of power and their preservation of power and privilege…but now he is dead.
Jesus lived a wonderful life. Full of love, compassion, beauty, kindness, forgiveness… but now he is dead.
Jesus lived as one who took up the missional mantle of Israel – Jesus was the light of the world…but now the light has been extinguished. Now he is dead.
Jesus lived as a prophet – revealing in his words and in his actions the reality and truth of God… but now he is dead.
The story of the life of Jesus resonates with joy, and love, and laughter, food and friendship…but now a full stop has been placed at the end of story. Now he is dead.
At this point – post death, pre-resurrection – does the death of Jesus have meaning and significance other than that which we can ascribe to the death of any other (good) person…?
- if the death of Jesus was a sacrifice – to which god was the sacrifice made?
- if the death of Jesus was for the atonement of sin, what are the mechanics of the transaction and who is to say it is valid?
- if the death of Jesus was a revelation of the love of God…just, how?
- if the death of Jesus was a victory…just, how?
And, there’s another strand here: if Jesus was dead do we really believe that Jesus was active – in death – ‘preaching to the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3:19)? What then does it mean to be dead? Are we dead – body, mind and soul? Or are we only partially dead? (A previous blog post discusses this: ‘What does the resurrection say about the body…?’)
Post-death, pre-resurrection: Possible options for understanding the death of Jesus.
- From the perspective of the Roman Empire and the ruling religious authorities:
- The death of Jesus ensures that the power wielded by the Roman Empire and by the ruling religious authorities is undiminished.
- The death of Jesus is a reminder that the Roman Empire is (still) in control.
- The death of Jesus is an ancient billboard advertising the success of intimidation.
- The death of Jesus confirms that violence is the ‘Power’s’ preferred method of pursuing and preserving power.
2. The death of Jesus from the perspective of the disciples of Jesus:
- The death of Jesus marks the end of hope.
- Another prophet is dead.
- The ‘Messiah’ has failed.
- Return from exile is just a pipedream.
- ‘Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us…?’
- Power and violence maintain their unrelenting grip.
3. The death of Jesus from the perspective of Jesus:
(Accepting that we cannot know the psychology of Jesus and get ‘inside his head’…)
- ‘It is finished’ Mission accomplished? That is: if the mission of Jesus was to live a life for God; a life of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.
- Victory? A life undefeated by ‘Sin’. A life lived free from the values of the world. A life lived to the full as a blessing to all. A life lived without resorting to violence. ‘Love no matter what.’
(Le Christ au tombeau (1883) de Henner Jean Jacques)
 Robert W. Jenson ‘On the Doctrine of the Atonement (2006)’ in Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation. Eugene, OR : Cascade. 2014. p.132. This is an excellent essay, well worth reading. Jenson’s critique in this essay suggests that without the resurrection ‘a crucifixion would be anything but beneficial.’ p.129. This essay can also be accessed here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/on-the-doctrine-of-atonement-by-robert-w-jenson/