Traditional portrayals of the death of Jesus often have Jesus as a lamb sacrificed by God substituted in our place to take the punishment due to us for the sin we have committed. But, the logic of God’s punishing Jesus for our sin does not stack up. Punishment is profoundly about restoration and the move towards reconciliation. If we ourselves have sinned, then logically we should be punished in order that we should be challenged, encouraged, motivated, and inspired back into relationship with God.
We cannot repay a debt to God
But, what also appears to be true is that whichever way one looks at it, we could never repay God for the sin of which we are apparently guilty. We could neither repair the ‘damage’ we have done to others, nor the damage we have done to ourselves, nor the injury we have apparently done to God and his open offer of relationship for us. While it may in some way be possible to calculate the sin we have committed against others I frankly doubt how anyone can possibly begin even to quantify the damage that is done to God by our sinfulness. How do we know, and how can we know how our acts of sinfulness, most often committed through sheer ignorance of a better way, be calculated as causing damage in some way toward God? Of course, this can play into the hands of power-seeking preachers and religious gatekeepers to speak of the guilt we are drowning under; for they, in turn, benevolently offer us a way out and we are forever grateful. But therein lies another (sordid) tale.
We require forgiveness
But the fact is that we require God’s forgiveness. There is no hope either for us, or for our neighbours, our friends, our family, let alone for those millions whom we do not know unless God graciously moves toward us to forgive the wrong we have done. We require God to do whatever is necessary to awaken our souls to begin the journey back home.
Indeed, if the definitive destiny of all creation is reconciliation as suggested by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17 ‘…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ then forgiveness is an essential element of that process. We require God’s forgiveness.
Moreover, because justice is an essential element of reconciliation then it is not enough to punish the wrongdoer. Yes, the wrongdoer needs to be forgiven and to be brought back into relationship with God, and the one he has wronged, and perhaps even the wider community, and any others who are implicated in the wrongdoing. Additionally, the one who has been wronged needs to be restored, personally and relationally.
The cross as imperial propaganda
Where then does this leave the cross? The death of Jesus, executed by the Roman Imperial forces, was an effective propagandising episode. It reminded the Jerusalem populace that Rome was all-powerful and the consequence for challenging their power would be execution. From the perspective of its immediate aftermath the crucifixion of ‘Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews’ appeared to be yet another nail in the coffin of love and justice and another medal pinned on the chest of power and violence. The death of Jesus was not, and cannot (it seems to me) have been, punishment by God brought upon Jesus to pay the penalty for our sin.
‘Sin’ … put Jesus to death…?
If we personify sin, as the Apostle Paul does in Romans 6, then perhaps we should consider that Sin can be a way of speaking about entire culture, ethos and value systems that are opposed to God – his love, justice and peace. The power and strength of such Sin lies in their opposition to God – his love, justice and peace. Whereas God is life and leads into fullness of life, Sin destines all to death and perhaps we could say that from birth Sin has already marked the individual for death.
Thus Sin, manifested in the despotic and violent power of the Roman Empire, put Jesus to death.
The power of forgiveness
There are then two responses by God that weaken and ultimately nullify the power of Sin – the culture, ethos and value systems that are opposed to God. First, the freedom with which God forgives weakens the power of Sin, which is opposed to God and requires avoidance of justice in order to sustain its power. Forgiveness is a deliberate and proactive move toward reconciliation. The reconciliation to God of powers, cultures, ethos and values systems that are opposed to God would require a transformation of those powers and systems.
When Jesus prays from the cross, ‘Father forgive them…’ he is calling upon God even as Sin – opposed to God, his love, justice, and peace – seeks to annihilate love that is manifested, lived out, and exemplified in Jesus. Forgiveness of Sin in this context – the openness to reconciliation – may well be a deliberate and proactive that is intended to subvert and even emasculate the power of Sin rendering it impotent.
The power of love
Second, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead transforms death – the ultimate display of the tyrannous power of Sin. However, it is important to note that resurrection does not avoid death, nor does it transform death into something that is it not. Death remains death, and when we die we are dead; death is still unavoidable. To say the obvious, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead takes place in the existential space beyond death. We cannot and should not minimise the reality of death and dying. We should not, I don’t think, for example dismiss death as a nothingness, or as a dream, or as a mirage – ‘it looks real, but when we get there death evaporates…’. Death is still death. We all still have to suffer and die. We will still all experience the nothingness of death, if indeed we can speak of the experience of death, for in death we will experience nothing, as we will be dead.
However, in the world of God, in which resurrection can or may be normal and ordinary, death is no longer final, no longer the closing full stop determining the conclusion of life’s narrative. In the realm of God resurrection proclaims the provisionality of death and thus the provisionality of the reign of Sin. If death is the decisive horizon against which Sin determines that all things are to be measured then resurrection re-evaluates this horizon as love. For the great power, which is manifested by God in raising Jesus from the dead, is love.
*Salvador Dali, “Corpus Hypercubus” (1954)