If it looks like Jesus has lost on Good Friday, just wait until Easter...
What do modern people in the iPad age think when they read a sign that says “Jesus died to save you from your sins”? They ask, “How can the death of a criminal two thousand years ago save me from my sin, and what is sin anyway?”
They hear a preacher say, “Jesus’ blood washes away your guilt” and ask, “What am I guilty of and how does a dead prophet’s blood wash that away?”
Sometimes the questions are asked mockingly or even blasphemously, but I believe most of the time the questions are honest. In our modern age people have lost the idea of sacrifices that are substitutes for punishment. Apart from stories they might hear about local heroes, they don’t have any concept of one person dying for another. They certainly don’t have any idea how the death of one man in the Middle East two thousand years ago affects them.
From the beginning of the Christian age, theologians have struggled to explain what the death of Jesus means and what it accomplishes. Different theories were proposed that explain his death. One of the most prevalent theories is put forward by Protestant preachers. The theory of penal substitution proposes that because of sin mankind is under a death penalty. Jesus steps in and takes the legal penalty for human beings and therefore satisfies the angry judge (God) by paying the price for sin.
The problem with this is that God is presented as an angry vengeful judge–not only ready to consign all humanity to death, but he is satisfied instead by the torture and death of his own son. Many modern people reject this as barbaric, primitive and bloodthirsty.
Another theory is that Jesus’ life and death are all part of God’s plan to bring humanity to a higher plane of morality. Through Jesus’ teachings and example we are shown the way to make moral progress. We do this by living lives of sacrifice and service, and Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example. Unfortunately, this reduces the death of Christ to not much more than a heroic martyrdom.
An earlier view of the death of Christ combines two understandings of who Jesus and what his death accomplishes. First is the idea that Jesus pays a ransom to redeem humanity from Satan and the power of sin. It is as if the human race had been kidnapped and held hostage and threatened with death by an evil villain and Jesus steps in to rescue them. Combined with this is the idea of Jesus Christ as the conqueror over evil. Jesus engages Satan and the powers of darkness in a great battle. The villain seems to win when Jesus dies, but it is through the reversal in his resurrection that evil is defeated and humanity is saved.
This is the classic Catholic understanding of the death of Christ, and it is immediately the explanation which connects best with trends in modern culture, and by “modern culture” I’m referring to popular culture: the comic book and superhero movie.
In comics and superhero movies we see the same story being played out time and again. A supernatural villain with terrible destructive powers threatens the whole human race. A modest man who carries his own human frailty, but also bears supernatural gifts, arises who engages the super villain in battle. The battle is terrible and the risks are great, and invariably the superhero is at the point of defeat when the story turns in some way and he surges back to overcome the villain.
In addition to this story line the villain very often holds some innocent victim hostage. It might be the hero’s beloved or a boatload of victims or even the whole human race. The superhero has to pay some sort of ransom–inevitably risking his own life to redeem the hostages, rescue the victims and save the world. In the process his blood is shed so that they might live. He is wounded to overcome evil and deliver them from the power of sin.
C.S.Lewis once had a life changing conversation with J.R.R.Tolkien in which Tolkien explained to him the importance of myths–humanity’s great stories. Lewis came to understand that the story of Jesus Christ worked just like all the other great stories except that it really happened.
So as Christians celebrate once again the events of Holy Week and Easter the story of Christ the hero emerges as the way to explain what we mean when we say that “Jesus Saves,” “Christ died to redeem us,” or “Jesus’ blood washes away our sin.” In this story the battles of the superheroes really happened.
In the end the church teaches that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a mystery. Theological theories are not enough to explain the mystery. Instead a mystery is something that can be experienced even if it cannot be explained, and it is this amazing experience beyond the explanation that comprises true Christianity.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.