For some years it has been easier to attract non-churchgoers to attend Christmas services than to Easter ones. While there is a residual awareness that Christmas is to do with the birth of Jesus, this is much less so in the case of Easter and his death. Indeed in a recent discussion on Sky TV reviewing the daily papers the two ‘experts’ went unchallenged when they asked in relation to one news item: ‘What’s Easter got to do with Christianity anyway?’
The historical fact that Jesus died on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago is disputed by few today, other than the wilder elements of campaigning atheism (who discount the relevant extra-biblical Roman writers as well as the New Testament) and those Muslims who adhere to the Qur’anic view that Jesus didn’t die on the cross.
What is more disputed is the significance of the crucifixion. The minister of a well-known Edinburgh congregation recently caused something of a social media storm when he posted a video link to one of his sermons, in which he maintained that saying Jesus died for your sins was ‘ghastly theology’ which was ‘well past its sell-by date’, ‘an obstacle to evangelism’ which ‘obscures the core message of inner transformation.’
For good measure he also claimed that the concept of substitutionary atonement only began with the medieval theologian Anselm (1033-1109), that it ‘does not go back to the Bible,’ and that the Old Testament sacrifices ‘had nothing to do with sin.’ A more public onslaught on similar lines came a few years ago when Steve Chalke infamously charged evangelicals with portraying the cross as ‘a form of cosmic child abuse’ (a singularly inappropriate rhetorical battering ram: Jesus was an adult at the time of his death, and went to the cross voluntarily as Gethsemane shows).
If the message of the cross is precious to you, then you may be at a loss to know how to deal with such attacks – especially from those who profess the Christian faith. But we can use their criticisms to sharpen our own understanding of the cross. And if by doing so we learn how to communicate that message more effectively in our mission to those outside the church, then good will have come of it. God is, after all, sovereign in all his purposes.
So how central is the traditional view that ‘Christ died for our sins’? Starting with scripture and moving through the broad tradition of theological reflection of most of the past 2,000 years, it is abundantly clear that this message is a mainstream one and is by no means confined to some imagined conservative evangelical backwater.
In one of the earliest passages of the New Testament to be penned, Paul maintains that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3). He repeats the point in Galatians 1:4, speaking of Christ as the one ‘who gave himself for our sins.’ Peter also says of Jesus that ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.’ (1 Pet 2:24), while the writer to the Hebrews very clearly draws on the rich Old Testament record to show how the sacrifice of Jesus is informed by those earlier sacrifices for sin in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
One of the clearest statements of the teaching comes from the lips of Jesus himself, when he says that ‘even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mk 10:45).
Despite the fact that the message of the cross was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:24), it nonetheless overturned the Roman world and took deep root there. The early Church Fathers taught it, both those in the Greek tradition such as Athanasius (c.296-373) and the Latin such as Augustine (354-430).
While no council of the early church adopted a formal statement on the atonement – as happened for example with the Trinity or the person of Christ – this merely shows that the meaning of the death of Christ had not been seriously questioned and thus did not have to be defended. Whatever the differences in detailed understanding of the atonement between, on the one hand, Anselm, Aquinas and the Roman Catholic tradition and, on the other, Luther, Calvin and the Reformed tradition, it is clear that all are agreed that Christ died for our sins.
But can this message be meaningful today? It would be a mistake to give the impression that we have ‘worked out’ the cross. The forsakenness of God the Son for the hours of the crucifixion is the most solemn of matters, as is the pain of the Father in forsaking him. But the message of a holy God reaching down to us in love, taking on himself all the guilt and pain that our consciences tell us (when we are honest with ourselves) should really be paid by ourselves, is one that is incomparably Good News.
An obstacle to evangelism? Without the message that Christ died for our sins and rose again, there can be no evangelism, since the cross is a key part of the Gospel, the Evangel. And without the Evangel there can be no lasting inner transformation either.
Donald Macleod Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Nottingham: Inter Varsity Press, 2014).