Monday, April 5, 2010

Reprint: Why Did Jesus Die? (Parts 10-12)

Why Did Jesus Die? (10) Substitutionary Themes in the Atonement

A certain theme of substitution runs throughout all the ways of thinking about the Cross. That is, since Christ has died for us, we no longer have to die. "I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die”. (John 11:25-26) He means souls and bodies that have become separated will one day be reunited, having first been perfected and glorified. He also means, by saying “shall never die,” that neither our souls nor our bodies will ever be separated from God.

He died to rescue us from death, as a fireman might die to rescue a child from a burning house. This is how we read such verses as:

4 He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction. 5 But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed. 6 All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins. 7 And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. 8 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth: because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. (Isaiah 53:4-8, Septuagint)

Another place in the Bible where we can discern an element of substitution – or at least role reversal – is 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Christ remained righteous at all times, else we could not become “the righteousness of God in Him.” That is why St. Paul is careful to add, “who knew no sin.” We do not imagine that a person, especially a divine person, could literally morph into a thing, especially into sin. Rather, St. Paul means that in Jesus’ dying, sin died. He and sin died together on the Cross. (See Part 04 of this series.) St. Peter means the same thing when he writes of Him “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes you were healed.” (I Peter 2:24)

If we are circumspect about it (circumspection being necessitated by heterodox teaching), we can also describe this same thing, the necessity of dying to destroy death, metaphorically and say Christ bore the penalty of our sin upon the Cross. We do not mean the Father was literally punishing the world through the Son; for this is not the kind of unmerciful God we worship.

We do mean that what happened, like what happened to a sacrificial animal, had the same effect as if it had been for punishment; this, together with the fact that we indeed deserved punishment, is why the metaphor is apt. God allowed His sinless One to suffer and die exactly as a sinner would; in fact, the same way a criminal in those days did die. (Indeed, He was crucified with two other men who really were criminals.) This, although we were the ones who deserved to suffer and die, while He did not.

Christ assumed our nature; He voluntarily submitted to all the consequences of sin. He took on Himself the responsibility for our error, while remaining a stranger to sin, in order to resolve the tragedy of human liberty and in order to bridge the gulf between God and man by leading him into the heart of His person where there is no room for any division or interior conflict. (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church, p. 153)

Another verse whose irony gives us at least a hint of substitution is, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')." (Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23)

The curses here are prescribed by the Law of Moses. Again, they do not have to do with God the Father blaming His all-righteous Son for our sins. St John Chrysostom explains:

In reality, the people were subject to another curse, which says, ‘Cursed is every one that continues not in the things that are written in the book of the Law.’” (Deut. xxvii. 26.) To this curse, I say, people were subject, for no man had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole Law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other, ‘Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree.’ … It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians, Chapter 3, emphasis mine.)

God the Father, then, is not transferring our curse onto Christ. Christ is taking upon Himself a different curse. He subjects Himself to one curse in the course of freeing us from another.

It was indeed “like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” – one readily sees the simile – but this is a simile, a figure of speech, for besides such a substitution being legally unacceptable, punishment is not in question where there is forgiveness. To forgive is to rescind the punishment, to overrule the penalty, to cancel the debt, to give up ones claim against another. Forgiveness and punishment are opposites and mutually exclusive. Where punishment is exacted (except in the case of chastisement), there is no forgiveness. And no loving either, but only self-serving, which is something in which our God never indulges. "God is love," and "love seeketh not her own."

Let the Pharisees grumble if they think it unfair, or let the elder brother of the Prodigal Son howl for “justice”; the unkindness is theirs. (And so is the error regarding the nature of justice.) As for us, let us simply fall before Christ’s cross in tears of overwhelming, grateful, joyous repentance.

“For scarcely in behalf of a just man does one die; yet perhaps one might bring himself to die for a good man. But God demonstrates His love towards us, because when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-9)

* * * * *

Why Did Jesus Die? (11) Jesus Didn’t Have to Die to be our Scapegoat

Ever wondered where the term “scapegoat” came from? No? Well, please allow me to tell you anyway.

In the Old Testament, we read of Aaron, Moses’ brother, being commanded to
take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle…Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD's lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:7-10)

Then Aaron was to sacrifice the goat upon which the Lord’s lot had fallen, according to specific instructions that occupy the next ten verses of this story, and after that was done,

Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

As a model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the scapegoat has its pros and cons.

One of the cons is that this passage, running through verse 26, is the only mention of the scapegoat in the whole Bible (that I have found, at least). The scapegoat simply isn't a very big deal. He provides a minor type of Christ, in that he carries away sins. But there is no major prefiguring going on here, no big billing given the scapegoat, as you would expect if it were to be a central way of thinking about Christ. Nobody says, "Behold, the Goat of God, that takes away the sins of the world!" even though the scapegoat did. This is very little here to make into Pen-Sub Atonement.

Here indeed is a clear instance, unique as far as I know, of symbolic transfer of guilt to the goat. (Does anyone know whether the meaning of the priest laying his hand on the head of sin offerings is anywhere specified?) But the scapegoat wasn’t ritually slaughtered for that guilt! His flesh was not offered up on the altar and he gave no blood. He was released alive. Granted the goat’s life-expectancy in the desert was short; still, the point obviously wasn’t whether he lived or died. The point was to get rid of the nation’s sins by taking them off into never-never-land (as it were).

Death has to be combated by death, specifically by the death of the God-Man, who alone can destroy it; but guilt is something God simply takes away. He is the Scapegoat. He is the King in the parable, who forgave his servant’s great debt. He is the Owner of the vineyard, who paid his late-coming workers more than their bargain called for; in fact, there wasn't actually any bargain at all! He only said, "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive." (Matthew 20:7) He is the Father of the Prodigal Son, who required no payback or punishment, but immediately ordered up a feast and said, “Let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'

And they began to be merry. (Luke 15:23-24)

Shall we?

* * * * *

Why Did Jesus Die? (12) To be our Immanuel

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)

“Immanuel,” in Hebrew, means “God with us.” The Lord was not only with us, but was and is one of us. Born as one of us, He lived as one of us, accepting even hunger and thirst, fatigue and temptation. Now He also accepts torture and death, both to experience and to display complete solidarity with the human race. In fact, He accepts even to die as a criminal, between two real criminals.

He even, as a Man, shares the feeling sinners have of being lost and alone, which they interpret as being godforsaken. Quoting Psalm 22:1, He cries, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

We may rightly interpret this in several ways, for instance:

* that Jesus was praying the first words of the Psalm (which ultimately becomes a Psalm of victory)

* and/or that He was reminding the onlookers of that prophetic Psalm

* and/or that, humanly speaking, He was referring to God’s having let this happen

* and/or that He was sharing sinners’ experience of feeling lost and godforsaken

What we must not do, however, is suppose God the Father could ever in truth reject God the Son. That same Psalm 22, the one that begins with, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" later on (v. 24) tells us explicitly that from the Father's point of view, this did not actually happen.

For He has not despised nor abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from Him;
But when He cried to Him, He heard.

When He cried to God (not later), God heard Him. Nor is it even possible that the Father should have abandoned the Son in the sense of turning away from Him in anger or disgust and separating Himself, for Father and Son share a single essence. Moreover they share a single, divine will, meaning if the Father had turned away from Him, the Son would also have had to turn away from Himself. Nor could the Father and the Son together be abandoning the human Christ only, for in Christ, humanity and divinity are united inseparably and without partition. Whatever is done to Christ is done to the Person, the Bearer of both natures.

So from God the Father’s point of view this forsaking did not happen. God, in His infinite love - infinite! knowing no limits - never forsakes anyone. He is sometimes said to give sinners up to uncleanness, as in Romans 1:24, or to give them over to reprobate minds, Romans 1:28; but in none of these cases is God abandoning anyone. He is allowing them to go their own way, abandoning Him. St. Paul also writes that God “delivered Him [Christ] up for us all…” (Romans 8:32) but again, this means He allowed wicked men to crucify Him. It emphatically does not mean, cannot mean, God somehow withdrew from His own, incarnate Self!

In fact, paradoxically, the fact that God never abandons anyone is the very point of Jesus’ cry -- for if, in His humanity, God shares even this, the existential loneliness of sinners, worse than death, then it is certain that God is with us forever in all things. Even in this, we are never abandoned. Christ died to share our human lot to the last, bitter dregs, and to redeem it. “Whatever is not assumed,” say the Fathers, “is not healed.” But Christ shares every single thing it means for us to be fallen human beings, except blame. (Hebrews 4:15)

He is with us always and in every way, as our beloved, our hope, our joy and consolation, in all sorrows, in all trials, even in death, even in our feelings of godforsakenness. In life and in death and beyond, He is our Immanuel, our God-with-us.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me,"
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
(Psalm 139:7-12)