Thursday, November 10, 2005

So why did Jesus have to get whacked?

A question arose in our Adult Ed class Sunday about the purpose of the cross in salvation. Not about the fact that we are redeemed by Christ; rather the question of how. In other words, we all sort of understood the idea of the incarnation, but why did Jesus have to suffer on the cross? The standard answers regarding substitutionary atonement seemed to come apart.

Man is condemned by sin to death and separation from God – got that. Death puts a limit on sin, and impurity cannot exist in the presence of God.

There’s nothing we can do ourselves to change that fate – got that. The best we can do is always flawed by self-centeredness.

Satan thinks he’s hit the jackpot: God loves us but we can’t be in his real presence. Checkmate, he thinks. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo to the Creator. Got that.

God responds in a way Satan can’t even conceive – evil being by nature unable to truly comprehend good. God enters into creation and thus all material things are sanctified; the only potential exceptions being those material beings who are capable of refusing and do refuse – namely us. Got that, too.

So why did He have to be killed? There’s the old idea that His death buys us back from Satan. Satan thinks he’s got a bargain, but Jesus – being God – just can’t stay dead. Satan fumbles on the goal line and winds up in the Locker Room of Eternal Darkness. I could sort of buy that, but it seems to give Satan almost equal footing with God, like God has to make a bargain with him. There’s got to be something wrong with that.

There’s the standard thing you hear today that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross redeem us from the wrath of God by suffering punishment in our place. At the risk of being declared anathema, there seems to be something wrong here as well. The wrath of God doesn’t seem like something that can be “paid off.” The “wrath of God” in that sense is separation from the Creator – eternal dying – because of our sins. Julian of Norwich, in her visions, "saw that their is no wrath, save on man's part." We are still subject to temporal wrath – s~~t still happens, and as far as I can understand the Revelation to John, there’s a whole lot of that kind of “wrath” still to come our way. But eternal wrath is a product of our corruptness which is excluded from the presence of God, not by Divine anger but by Divine nature. We just can’t see the Face of God and stay intact.

So why did Jesus have to get whacked? Assuming He had to die at all, why not die at a ripe old age in a comfortable cottage on the Levantine coast?

Two answers seem to come out. One thing that was pointed out was that, whether the crucifixion was necessary, it certainly was informative. It tells us, on the good side, a lot about the self-giving capital-L Love of God for His creation – that He would not only enter His creation but lead a rather meager life and suffer a horrid death in the process, just for the sake of puny, rebellious, stinky old us. On the bad side, it tells us a lot we’d rather not know about ourselves. The Creator Mundi, He who made the Big Bang go bang and the first DNA duplicate, came here to pitch His tent among us. And we couldn’t stand it. And we killed Him. And if He came again the same way, we’d for sure kill Him again. And if I’d been there, I probably would have tossed dice for His cloak just like they did. Ouch.

But I can’t help thinking there’s another part to this. Jesus entered into creation to raise it up into the divine Life. His death is part of that just as much as His life is. He took everything we – and through us, Satan - could dish out and redeemed all of it. He didn’t just participate in creation – He took everything about our lives and redeemed it. He took death itself and wrested it away from Satan. He took the most savage thing that humanity could come up with – Deicide, the murder of the incarnate God by torture – and transformed it into an act of giving that leaves ages of people trembling in awe. Even our worst sin is brought into God’s world – not accepted or ignored, but changed. Our corruption is transmogrified into His glory. Evil loses completely – and Satan and those who merge their wills with his are left with absolutely nothing – an eternal now of staring at themselves slack-jawed and drooling in a one-dimensional mirror.

In the Maronite liturgy, there is a beautiful prayer of praise that reflects this transformation of creation.

You have united, O Lord,
Your Divinity with our humanity
And our humanity with Your Divinity;
Your life with our mortality
And our mortality with Your life.

You have assumed what is ours,
And You have given us what is Yours,
For the life and salvation of our souls.

To You, O Lord, be glory for ever.

Amen, and amen.

Lest anyone be misled, I have no illusions that there’s anything original here (I once believed I had come up with an original theological thought – I was wrong by 1500+ years). I had just never really thought this through before – if I don’t blog it, I’ll forget it.