Understanding Christ’s Death

June 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

How are we to interpret and understand Christ’s death?  By itself, this question looms large in Christian philosophy and theology and also touches on and relates to many other fundamental issues of the faith including the Incarnation, Trinity, Resurrection, God’s Grace, Mercy, and Justice, Sin, Atonement, and Eshatological claims about the end of times.  Perhaps all of these will be addressed in due time, but for my present purpose, I will focus solely on one of these – Atonement.  In doing so, I hope to effectively deconstruct and examine Atonement’s individual and constitutive parts, address some of the more well known theories of this concept’s interpretation throughout the history of the Church, and relate its meaning to my purpose in life to know and Love God (see the prior Page “The Qualitative Meaning of Life).

Christ’s death is typically viewed as fulfillment of God’s requirement that we be reconciled to Him through Christ’s sacrifice.  Due to Man’s Fall and the taint of Original Sin, I fall short of fulfilling God’s Will.  Christ was fully human yet fully divine.  As the former, he adequately represents humanity and its sufferings and temptations although sinless himself.  As fully divine, Christ represented a worthy sacrifice for all of man’s sins.  This outlines is an admittedly generalized summary of Atonement which I will try to flush out further as I proceed in this inquiry.  But it is at least a basic start to which most would hopefully agree.

Of what then does Atonement specifically consist?  In breaking down this complex topic, I see that it is comprised of Sin, God’s Mercy, Grace, and Justice, and Reconciliation.  In this context, Sin can be understood as my turning away from God.  It characterizes my thoughts and actions carried out with a self-centered and selfish perspective.  My sinful perspective is adopted based on how people, places, and things affect, benefit, or relate to me as an individual instead of, properly considered, my relationship with God.

Intention is the key factor, for sin is not necessarily that which God abhors but, rather, the motive with which it is manifest.  Quite possibly, a seemingly altruistic, benevolent, and selfless thought or action still may be denounced by God.  For example, consider the good Samaritan who pulls over their vehicle on the roadside to assist a stranded fellow motorist.  This apparent good deed is only worthy of God’s Praise by degree with which it was intended.  Perhaps our Samaritan loathes the thought of spending any more time at work than is absolutely necessary and views the opportunity to be of service to another because of its potential to shorten his day in the office.  Maybe he has a date accompanying him whom he would like to impress.  He’s possibly a “gear-head” who prides himself on his knowledge of cars and dares to impress whomever he can whenever the opportunity arises.  Perhaps he just feels good about being able to help others.  In the first 3 of these examples, clearly our Samaritan’s actions would not garner praiseful acknowledgment in the eyes of God.  But even in the last of these scenarios, the Samaritan has missed the mark.  In it, as clearly in the case of the prior 3, he has turned away from God by self-centeredly and selfishly thinking and acting according to how his involvement with the stranded motorist stands to affect, benefit, or relate to himself as an individual rather than its impact on his relationship with God.  The Samaritan has turned away from Him.  He has approach his opportunity from the perspective of self.  He has sinned.

Then what does a sinless response to this situation look like, exactly?  Isn’t it enough that the Samaritan derives satisfaction from helping others?  Might our criticism of him be a bit extreme and self-loathing?  The example calls for a response from the Samaritan.  If he responds from a viewpoint of self, he has fallen short.  But how would the Samaritan’s response be characterized if he not only stopped to assist the motorist but did so out of a gratuitous and selfless Love for God and fulfillment of His Will?  Could he be charged as manipulative, slothenly, or proud? Or would the Samaritan be viewed as sinless, the epitome of piety and righteousness?  Admittedly, though the idea is simple, attaining the result is difficult.

What results from Sin?  For the sinner, an ever widening and impassable gulf between himself, a contingent and imperfect being, and God, a Necessary and Perfect One.  This spells an inability to fulfill my purpose in life to know and Love God and dilution of the effects of God’s Grace and Mercy in my life.  For God, however, no effect follows.  His Perfect Nature, regardless of any of my thoughts or actions, cannot be added to or taken from.  Thus, God is not harmed by any Sin of mine.  Nonetheless, depending on the seriousness of the Sin, the honor, reverence, and respect rightfully due God is at least mitigated, if not negated.  But as He cannot be affected by this sleight, God’s potential response should not be viewed as consisting of anthropocentric feelings of offense, anger, and desire for justice.  That Sin does not affect or offend God does not entail His being unaware of its existence, for He knows omnisciently my every thought and action.  But aside from God’s knowledge of Sin due to His All-Knowingness, He is also aware of it based on the effect it has on my relationship with Him.  It is not merely myself and God to consider when contemplating Sin.  It is also necessary to account for my relationship with God; the relationship as distinct from myself and God individually.  Thus it is not God affected by Sin but, rather, my relationship with Him.  To put the matter succinctly, I Sin.  This affects me and possibly other people as well.  It also affects my relationship with God, but not God Himself.  God’s response to Sin follows not from the Sin itself or my withholding of honor from Him but, rather, to its effect on my relationship with Him.

A legitimate objection need be dealt with at this point.  If God takes no offense, is not roused to anger, and seeks no revenge despite my sinful ways, what of His Scriptural portrayal as vengeful, wrathful, and the punisher of Sin?  What ultimately is Sin’s standing with God and how, in fact, does He respond to its effects on my relationship with Him?  The answer lies in recalling God’s reason for having Created and its corollary of my purpose in life.  God Created to be known and it is my life’s purpose to know Him.  As is the case with all of God’s Actions, this context need be considered when evaluating His response to Sin’s effects on my relationship with Him.  Further, when attempting to understand God’s Actions, His Attributes need be kept in mind, particularly in this case His Grace, Mercy, and Justice.  Regarding God’s Grace, His response is constructive and provides us with opportunities to mend my sinful ways.  His Mercy precludes retribution and punishment for punishment’s sake.  God’s Justice, while potentially punishing, is only such with the end result of deterrence of future Sin in mind and is always tempered by His other Attributes.  His Actions, combining the power of all of His involved Attributes, is corrective and attempts to realign my thoughts and actions with His Will so that I may fulfill my purpose in life whereby, in turn, His Reason for having Created may be realized.

Tghe deconstruction of Sin into its individual component parts now allows Christ’s death to be addressed.  For it was as a result of man’s sins that he acted as sacrifice.  Alongside this need be continually kept in mind God’s reason for having Created to be known and humanity’s purpose in life to know Him.  In these contexts, Christ’s death seems most accurately described according to the Moral Development Theory of Atonement.  In essence, this theory states that Christ’s death served as an inspirational example for man to follow in rightly and justly honoring God, abstaining from sin, and ultimately fulfilling humanity’s purpose in life.  Contrary to the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement, Christ did not die as sacrifice for the honor due God as a result of our past and future sins.   And similarly, in opposition to the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement, Christ did not die as sacrifice for the punishment of these sins.  Rather, for us the sinless Christ portrays the epitome of honoring God and fulfills the ultimate example of doing so by willingly dying on the Cross.  My Salvation through Christ is accomplished by my faith in, love for, and emulation of him.  His salvific action is profound, shocking, and garners my admiration which, in turn, compels me to live a pious and upright life in the eyes of God.  Such a drastic voluntary action on Christ’s part is certainly attention-getting and inspires me to take a hard look at my thoughts and actions and whether they are in line with my purpose in life and God’s reason for having Created.

The Moral Development Theory also satisfactorily explains Christ’s resurrection.  Continuing his example of the epitome of a sinless life worthy of man’s imitation, Christ’s raising from the dead provides humanity with a glimpse of the reward to which we are to attain for our efforts.  In the event that his life and death don’t compel me to avoid sin, a difficult notion to comprehend, his resurrection at least provides me with future hope and a pragmatic goal towards which to strive.  In this sense, moral Development’s explanatory power with respect to Christ’s resurrection is more effective than that of the Satisfaction or Penal Substitution Theories.  But regarding these, all things considered, persuasive arguments can admittedly be made in their support, particularly in the case of the latter as evidenced Scripturally through God’s Punishment of sin.

The Moral Development Theory also relates effectively to another popular understanding of Atonement – the Christus Victor model.  Christus Victor states that through Christ’s death our sins were defeated and overcome.  Although not identical to, it is related to yet another theory, the Ransom Model.  The latter argues that through Christ’s death God effectively paid a ransom to Satan who had his grip on fallen man due to the stain of Original Sin.  Ransom is problematic in its portrayal of God paying anything, let alone a ransom to Satan.  But we are capable of drawing some useful parallels between its Christus Victor spin-off and the version of Moral Development which I am proposing.  Christus Victor’s defeat and overcoming of man’s sins corresponds effectively with Moral Development’s example of Christ as one worthy of humanity’s emulation and imitation to attain Salvation.

Because of Moral Development’s strengths, as hopefully demonstrated above, it seems to be the preferable theory of explanation.  But there doesn’t seem to be any reason that an understanding of Atonement be limited to just one theory.  All agree that the fundamental importance of the doctrine is that Christ’s death was salvific in its effect on man, regardless of whether the reason be due its rightly honoring God, vicariously suffering the punishment for humanity’s sins, or acting as an inspirational example of a sinless life.  In this sense, a hybrid view of sorts seems justified in which the explanations of the proposed version of Moral Development acts primary to those offered by the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories.

To summarize then, and hopefully clarify:  1.)  Sin occurs when I turn away from God in thought or action.   2.)  Because of Sin, my ability to know God is compromised 3.)  and the effects of His Grace and Mercy are diluted in my life. 3.)  God is not affected by Sin in itself and thus is not offended or angered nor does He desire Justice for it.  4.)  But He is aware of Sin as a result of His Omniscience as well as 4.)  its impact on our relationship with Him.  5.)  God responds to Sin’s impact on our relationship, not to Sin itself.

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