**This post follows the initial discussion in Dismantling Substitutionary Atonement.
[F]or Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: what does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?
– Dr. Marcus Borg, in Christianity Divided by The Cross
Did Christians, over time, read meaning into the cross that didn’t initially exist?
As we unpacked, penal substitution theory does not explain the imagery portrayed by the Gospel writers of Jesus’ death. More importantly, the theory of penal substitution fails to explain the resurrection. That is, if Jesus’ death substituted for ours — that somehow His death paid our ransom — is the resurrection even necessary?
If it’s all finished on the cross… what’s the point of resurrection?
Maybe, Jesus’ life isn’t just about death.
But, if penal substitution doesn’t explain the reason for the resurrection, then what does?
Well, in Dismantling Substitutionary Atonement, we showed that the language and imagery of the crucifixion sound and look a lot like that of the metzora purification process and the Passover instructions.
One thing is for certain… the Passover offering had nothing to do with atoning for sins. Instead, that process resulted in God covering His people as a protective shield and birthing them into a national community.
So, does the idea of ‘reconciling community back together’ better explain the resurrection?
Maybe the death and resurrection aren’t telling different stories, but showcasing a single, connected narrative.
For me, it’s impossible to tell the story of [resurrection sunday] without also telling the story of the cross.
– Dr. Serene Jones, NYT Article
[B]oth Jesus’ death and resurrection matter. They are intrinsically linked.
– Dr. Marucs Borg, The Real Meaning of The Cross
The Power of the Death, Burial, & Resurrection:
Here’s the thing, if Jesus’ whole time on earth was solely about substituting Himself for sinners deserving of death then why, after the resurrection, aren’t His disciples asking questions to that effect? Like, do we have to slaughter the Passover lamb next year? Do we still need to immerse in the mikvah? Moreover, why aren’t they ecstatic that Jesus just died for them?
Instead, they seemed obsessed with this notion of redeeming and restoring Israel. For example, after the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, two of them said, “we were hoping He (Jesus) was the One who was about to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21).” And, again, we find Jesus’ disciples, minus one, back in the same upper room they celebrated Passover asking Him, “Lord, at this time are You restoring the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6)?”
It’s as if what Jesus just did on the cross didn’t match their ideas for what redemption and restoration look like.
Could it be the disciples had read, heard, and hoped in the Cup of Wrath (see Footnote #3 from the last post). The connected Hebrew scriptures have verses that detail a desire for God to pour out His wrath on the nations oppressing Israel (Footnote #1). Maybe the disciples expected Jesus, whom they followed believing He was the Messiah, to topple Rome, rid the Jewish people of their oppressor and the Land of Israel of its forced occupation.
But Rome doesn’t fall in Jesus’ lifetime. In fact, the opposite is true–it flourishes. A few decades after Jesus, the Roman Empire actually destroys the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Now, it’d be one thing if Jesus’ disciples missed the point. Jesus enlightens them a couple times throughout their discipleship — after all, discipleship is a learning process. But it’s quite another if John the Baptist (whom some argue is actually Jesus’ teacher) misses what’s going on.
And so, we return to the question left hanging in Section Four of Spiritual Leprosy. What is John asking when he says, should we expect someone else? What if John, sitting in prison with the reality of death certainly looming is asking… are you going to overthrow the powers at hand any time soon? Or, should we be putting our hope in someone else to do it?
If these undertones to John’s question are true, the Barabbas juxtaposition is brilliant. Barabbas is in prison for leading a violent revolt on Roman occupants (Mark 15:7). Arguably, Barabbas is a zealot. Just the sort of person it seems everyone is looking for in the Messiah.
Jesus did sacrifice Himself on the cross. But, what if it wasn’t a substitution for the wrath God wanted to impose on sinners. What if, instead, Jesus was after reconciling community through resurrecting hearts. Remember, hearts pondering violence drive wedges into the fabric of community. God’s community, especially the vision for the Messianic era, is one in which “all nations stream to the Lord’s house…walk in His paths… [and] turn swords into plows and spears into pruning knives (Isaiah 2:2-4).”
What if the Messiah doesn’t actually come to overthrow the oppression, perversion, and violence of empire by the same means?
What if Jesus knew the hearts around Him had anger toward their Roman oppressor? What if Jesus knew He had to swallow the cup full of their anger and indignation to liberate His people–and the world?
To answer Dr. Marcus Borg, maybe that’s the significance of the Cross — that Jesus willingly swallowed our anger and violent ponderings — so that God’s people could be reconciled back into community.
And while there’s an argument for death being our greatest spiritual teacher (think about people with near-death experiences re-orienting their lives), resurrection offers something more. You see, death as a teacher is fear based. An encounter with death can change lives, but it’s out of fear losing it all.
Instead, resurrection conquers death.
I think death is humanity’s greatest fear. In the face of death, people are willing to take life from another. Anger, indignation, and violence manifest from fear. If humanity can be liberated from it’s greatest fear there’s nothing in the way of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. Maybe the resurrection frees God’s people from making decisions out of fear.
That’s powerful. That’s the kind of power that dissipates anger and strengthens one to reconcile with their enemy.
Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 19:1-20:27; Luke 7:36-50
- I think we’re clued into the stark contrast between the Kingdom Jesus is modeling and that of the Cup of Wrath. In Psalm 69, “they gave [the psalmist] gall (i.e. sour wine)” to which the psalmist responds, “Pour out Your wrath on them, and let Your burning anger overtake them (Psalm 69:24).” Yet, when Jesus received sour wine on the Cross He responded with: “it is finished (John 19:29-30).”