Confusion over Christ’s death provides a clue.

Somehow easter is different from Christmas. John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, writes: “Most people would genuinely like to believe the Christmas story, but wonder whether it can be true with the world as it is after nearly 2,000 years. But in the case of the Atonement, they ask with some impatience how anything done 2,000 years ago on the cross could ‘affect me now’.”

It is easy to see why this is so. Every child loves Christmas. Families come together to renew their bonds, and to give and receive gifts. No holiday fills the hearts of adults or children with nostalgia as Christmas does. But the celebration of Easter, with its Passion Week and Good Friday, creates no such joyful memories. And not even the Resurrection theme of Easter Sunday can begin to rival the appeal of Christmas.

Root Of The Problem

The basic reason for the relative unattractiveness of Good Friday and Easter lies in the nearly total eclipse of the biblical view of God. The Death of God theologians were almost right. The God of the average American never did exist. He is only a handy tool that can safely be allowed to lie unused on the workbench until such time as we need it. Then, for this and that purpose of our own, we call upon God. God is necessary for the preservation of democracy. Or the capitalist system. Or a stable society of law and order. Or a truly fulfilled life. In desperate moments of great sickness or overwhelming catastrophe, God is handy to have around. For then, he alone can sustain us and help us out of our difficulties.

But God, the occasional helper in time of need, is a far cry from the God revealed in Holy Scripture. The God of the Bible is certainly no tool to be used at our convenience, but is the sovereign Lord of the universe. He is the ultimate being in whom all of us live and move and have our being (Acts 17:29). The point is, we cannot really understand anything rightly until we first have a right conception of God. Naturally, therefore, we cannot expect to understand either Good Friday or Easter without recognizing the framework in which they occur.

God In A Red Suit?

For example, the God of the Bible is no Santa Claus. True, God loves. But we moderns tend to see this as meaning that God gives us all good things but never makes any demands. Yet a God of all love and mercy alone would be unjust. The love of God must also be penetrated by the holiness of God.

On the other hand, some of the older theologians recognized holiness alone as the fundamental moral quality of God, and this led to an unbiblical view of God as stern and harsh, inadequately tempered by love. Yet the holiness of God is no more rightly understood than the love of God if we fail to see that his holiness is thoroughly penetrated by love. The God of the Bible is essentially a God of holy-love. To disconnect one aspect of this essential attribute from the other is only to create a false God who is not there.

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From the divine perspective, holiness is a distinctive attribute of God that uniquely sets him off from humans. In biblical language, the very word “holy” means “separate,” and it is this quality of God that uniquely creates a distance between God and man. But we mortals do not see it that way. From our perspective, the distinctive thing about God is that he is omnipotent, while we have little power, or that he is omnipresent, while we are bound in space. But that only shows how badly our sin has warped our understanding of our own sin, and of the gulf between God and us created by our sin, and of the importance of this distance to God himself.

The Christian doctrine of the Atonement deals with this moral gulf between God and man. It seeks to answer the question, How can an absolutely pure and holy God …? No! The question must not be put that way! The question is, How can I—a sinner who has sinned against God in what I think, say, and do, and who therefore rightly stands under divine judgment—how can I find forgiveness and acceptance with the God who is, the God of infinite holiness?

Heart Of The Solution

The biblical answer to that question is the blood of Christ. Even the term falls harshly on our modern ears. But Scripture is replete with references to the blood of Christ and his death in our behalf. The blood of Christ—his sacrificial death—is God’s way of bridging the gulf between a holy God and sinful humans. At first glance it may seem strange that the death of Christ and events leading directly to it should take up nearly half the pages of the four Gospels. But the New Testament places the death of Christ at the center of its message. Paradoxical as it may seem, the death of Christ is good news. The apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Theories Of The Atonement

Exactly how the blood of Christ brings us God’s full forgiveness and restores us into perfect fellowship with him is enshrouded in the mystery of the infinite God of holy-love. But it is not all mystery. For though we see only in part, and even that part obscurely, God in his grace has seen fit to break through the darkness sufficiently to give us comfort and hope. On the basis of Scripture, Christians have formed several theories of the Atonement. Each is based on a piece of truth, but none contains within itself the whole truth, and all together do not begin to exhaust what the death of Christ means to the sinner who finds life and forgiveness in the biblical God of holy-love.

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Popular in recent years is the theory of Christus victor, defended by the Swedish bishop Gustav Aulen. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered the demonic forces of evil that destroy man and keep him from God. This understanding of the Atonement prevailed widely in the early church and has persisted across the centuries. As some have presented it, God made a bargain with Satan, who agreed to release believers from his bondage if God would give his own Son into Satan’s hands. Jesus paid the ransom agreed upon, but rose from the dead and so in the end escaped Satan’s clutches. (Satan, fortunately, kept his part of the bargain, even if Christ did not.)

Relieved of such bizarre aspects, the idea finds solid support from Scripture. By his death and resurrection, Christ crushed Satan’s power and won for mankind a great victory over death and hell (see such passages as Gen. 3:15 and 1 Cor. 15:57–58). However, this view is inadequate because it fails to take into account the overwhelming moral emphasis in the New Testament teaching on the death of Christ. This death was no payment to Satan, but in some way his sacrifice made it right for God to forgive us our sins. So the apostle writes, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement.… he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be [both] just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25–26, NIV).

A second attempt to understand the death of Christ is in the terms of an example. The Christian life is lived in imitation of Jesus so that we see what he did in his earthly life and are always to do the same. No doubt we would all be better if we followed this guide in our daily life, but New Testament teaching about the Christian life is far removed from this. We are to live our own genuine life—not just imitate the things Jesus did. True, in living our own lives, we are to be like Christ. Like him, we are to live out our lives in self-giving love for others rather than for ourselves. This is precisely the point of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 (v. 5ff.).

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More deeply imbedded in the heart of biblical ethics is the so-called love theory of the Atonement. God “loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.… We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10–11, 19).

Christian ethics rests at bottom on a conviction that love is stronger than fear, or hate, or greed, or anything. The most powerful motive for living a truly good life of self-giving service to God and to others is the love that wells up in our hearts in response to the overwhelming love of God in Christ. Isaac Watts captures this truth in what many regard as the greatest hymn ever written in any language:

When I survey the wondrous cross,

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

But even the love theory of the Atonement is insufficient when it stands alone, because it provides no moral ground for the shedding of Christ’s blood for our salvation. Christ’s death could not be interpreted as the ultimate tragedy—the best man who ever lived, trapped by the forces of irrational evil. It is only when his death is seen as the ultimate act of divine love doing for me what had to be done to save me that it gains its transforming moral power.

The Moral Necessity Of Christ’S Death

This leads us to the substitutionary-satisfaction theory of the Atonement, which has come under such heavy fire in modern times. In part, this view has suffered from the well-meant excesses by which it has often been explained. It has suffered even more because of the erosion of the biblical concept of divine holiness and human sin. In reality, it is only on the basis on the substitutionary-satisfaction understanding of Christ’s death that the love theory and all other views of the Atonement make any sense. The shedding of Christ’s blood as a necessary price for our redemption from sin runs, in fact, through all the Bible from the entrance of sin into the human race (Gen. 3:15) to the final triumphant song of the Book of Revelation: “… you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

In anticipation, the prophet Isaiah says, ‘The punishment that brought us peace was upon him … and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (53:5–6, NIV). The same theme resounds throughout the New Testament.

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“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Heb. 9:26). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; all quotations from the NIV).

The Scriptures, therefore, speak of the death of Christ as a redemption and as a price paid for our deliverance from sin. They speak of it as a “propitiation,” or, better, as an act that meets the demands of ultimate righteousness. It enables a holy God, who loves us infinitely, to forgive us without detriment to his moral nature and moral government.

Of course, the idea of any sort of substitutionary satisfaction to make it morally right for God to forgive our sins presents difficulties. It is alien to our modern lighthearted view of sin and the easy chumminess of a Santa Claus God.

We have no time to answer all these objections, even if we could. There is something ridiculous about the charge that an atonement is neither necessary nor appropriate for God. It smacks of spiritual arrogance, a covert claim to omniscience that borders on the absurd. The New Testament documents tell us that Christ’s death was the way God secured our salvation and became free to accept us. We either believe it or we do not. But who are we to psychoanalyze the infinite holy God and then pronounce on what he needs to do to receive sinners into his fellowship? If Scripture is not sufficient for us, then modesty at least dictates silence on such a mysterious topic.

Yet the most frequent objections can be answered fairly easily. For example: Is God a severe and angry deity who must be appeased by the sacrifice of Christ, rather as unfriendly pagan deities were either bought off from doing harm to their worshipers or bribed to do favors for them? Did God need to wait until the penalty at Christ’s death was fully paid before he could respond in love to us? Of course not. The Bible is clear that God loves all humans and, in fact, has always loved them. It was his eternal, self-giving love that brought him down into the world as God incarnate in Jesus Christ to redeem us. Moreover, we must never conceive of Jesus Christ as some innocent third party introduced to bear the punishment of the world. It is God himself who has redeemed us, for Jesus Christ is God.

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But why could not God choose simply to forgive us the way we forgive those who do us wrong? Again, the answer is to be found in the kind of God with whom we have to deal. He is not a sinful person who takes wrongdoing lightly and can therefore forgive lightly. He is holy and he takes sin with dreadful seriousness. He is also the sovereign judge of the universe, ultimately responsible for its moral order. What would we think of a judge who, with no recognition of the moral order, freely and easily forgave every repentent criminal? The shedding of Christ’s blood in our behalf is God’s solution to a dilemma. On one hand, he loves us infinitely and desires even at infinite cost to accept us into his loving fellowship and kingdom. On the other hand, he must uphold his own moral law and the righteousness of his sovereign rule over the universe.

The story of Easter would not be complete without the glorious conclusion of the bodily resurrection, and the present and future ministry of the living Christ. He shed his blood as a sacrifice of love to win us back to God. And that same life-giving blood by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit now works in us to give us spiritual life. Daily it nourishes, sustains, and strengthens us. By the power of Christ’s life, we conquer sin and come to spiritual health. And one day, that same life-giving power will transform us into the perfect Christlikeness that is promised to all who are willing to receive it.

KENNETH S. KANTZERThe best popular work on the Atonement is by Leon Morris, Glory in the Cross: A Study in Atonement (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1966).

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