The past few weeks have been especially challenging for me. I am hoping that now the waters leading up to Easter will be calm ones! I am, then, thinking about Easter and preparing for the services over it. The coincidence of reading Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, and delivering a series of Lent talks on the Eucharist as a preparation for Easter has brought home to me how there exist two very different approaches to the death and resurrection of our Lord at work in the Church.
1. A Vindicated Martyr for Truth and Justice and an Example for All
The first sees Jesus' death as the inevitable outcome of his life and teaching. How he lived and what he taught inevitably brought him up against those in power who had to silence him. Jesus, however, refused to be silenced, but proclaimed the Kingdom of God accepting death as the consequence. God, however, vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating that Jesus was right all along, defeating death in the process.
Jesus thus sacrificed his life for the Gospel and God brought life out of death by the resurrection. Jesus died as a martyr, but God did not abandon him. We now are to follow the example of Christ trusting in the God who raises the dead.
The advantage of this explanation of the death and resurrection is that it is entirely intelligible and makes sense providing, of course, that you are willing to believe in a God who resembles the normal Christian understanding of him. After all, we know of modern examples of people who have stood for truth and justice, often at great personal cost, even suffering death as a consequence. True they may not have been resurrected in the way the Bible describes Jesus as having been resurrected, but it is not so great a leap of imagination to believe that God could raise Jesus and anyone else for that matter.
A further advantage is that it is a positive message that resonates with us. It is victory over death and the triumph of truth: an example of how we too should live trusting that God will look after us as he looked after Christ. The emphasis on this view is on the resurrection as sign of hope. It is a call to follow Christ in his life and sacrifice trusting that God will not abandon us either.
On this first view the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is essentially that of someone sacrificing their life for what they believe. There can be no doubt that there is that to it. Nor can there be any doubt that in the New Testament Christ's life and death is held up as an example of how we also should live our lives and not be afraid of the consequences of standing for the truth. But is that all there is to it?
2. An Offering for Sin and Victory over the Powers of Darkness
Not according to the second type of approach. On this view, Christ's death was not just the sacrifice of a martyr giving up his life, but was an objective sacrifice that achieved something in and of itself.
The trouble with the first view is that it moves too quickly on to the resurrection. Those who take the second view argue that Christ wasn't simply dying because of what he believed and how he lived, nor was he dying simply because of the human sin of those who crucified him, he was dying for our sin and behalf of our sin in an objective sacrifice offered to God to obtain the forgiveness of sin and to defeat the forces of evil which controlled the world and held all in their power.
This, in other words, was not an ordinary death. It was a unique, one off death that forever changed the nature of reality. God did indeed vindicate that death in the resurrection, but the death itself was where the primary action took place. This is why we still preach Christ crucified.
The problem with this view as opposed to the first is that it is much harder to explain to people today. It is certainly not easy for us to understand. In the ancient world, sacrifices were normal and understood in a way they are not today. However, I am certain that the second view is the foundational view of the New Testament.
The question, of course, is which should be foundational for us today. I imagine that this Easter most will go with the first.
Whether we are right to do so, however, is another issue altogether.