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The reasons are many and profound for the death of Christ on the cross. I believe Paul and the gospels deeply probe the depth of this event and draw out rich meanings expressed through symbolic, but real, language.
One way to better understand this teaching is not to restrict the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ to only the view that the justice of God required a sacrificial propitiation for our personal sins before he could forgive us. It has been said that the value of divine life exceeds the penalty that ought to be paid for sin, therefore God was willing to enter into time and space, through the medium of Sonship, and die in our stead so as to balance the demands of universal justice. G. Aulen has examined this “substitutionary” view in his Christus Victor as early as 1931. Aulen shows that the New Testament offers additional views that expand the meaning of the death of Christ. The New Testament offers many images, symbols, and metaphors that probe the meaning of the cross for Christians.
It is likely that the earliest Christians pondered the death of Jesus and sought how best to relate it to the salvation and redemption they found in Him, especially in view of the presence of the Spirit that they were experiencing daily in their transformed lives. Paul draws on many symbols and motifs of the Hebrew Bible to express how the death of Jesus Christ, the faithful son of Israel, on the Roman cross brings redemption and reconciliation to God’s people. He is not limited to just the image of a lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world. He ponders the cross to explore its meaning expressed through many rich and profound images. Related to the cross are also his comments about the power of sin and death. A constellation of ideas emerge which illumine our understanding of why Christians believe that it was necessary for the salvation of the world that the Son of God would be born of the seed of David and then perish horribly on the Roman stake.
There is a neglected reason that the death of Christ saves the world. This hidden reason has been ignored and misunderstood by many. But God understood it and knew that humanity needed the death of His Son in order to be saved from the ravages of sin.
To grasp this reason, we must first contemplate how the effects of our individual sins are not limited to the confines of our own circumference. Instead, they radiate out from the center point of our guilty act and expand the circle of contamination to taint areas not originally within its space. This means that one sin can and often does harm others as its pernicious effects tumble throughout the space time continuum. What may commence as a somewhat limited sin may, and often does, gain momentum and corrupting power as its effects cascade like fallen dominoes through the corridors of time and being.
For example, the sin of adultery by David expanded in epic proportions as its dastardly effects infected, not only Uriah and his murder, but future generations, leading to rebellions, wars, and destruction of the kingdom. Or, it is well known that the murder of a friend on the streets of Houston sets in motion other effects that foster more pain and suffering, which, in turn, produces reactions that are destructive to others not involved in the original murderous deed.
Sin yields compound interest.
In that sense, the sinner is responsible not only for her specific and particular sin, but also, in large part, for those sins that follow from her original offense. Note, too, that those who later become part of the wave of sin and evil following from this “first” offense are also responsible for maintaining the evil and for adding propulsion to this ”Sin-Wave” as it is propelled down through time to untold future generations of persons. The entire wave catches many into its drama, and all are suffused with partial guilt for the suffering that comes from sin. Like children rolling their wheels along, each of us has his hand in the spin.
For example, a German Lutheran minister may have kept silent when Nazis harmed innocent Jews. This one act of sinful omission may have affected someone in his congregation to keep silent also, which, in turn, may have empowered another to join in the harmful acts against other Jews. As months and years go by, the evil is compounded and the wave grows more ominous and destructive until great wrong is done.
So, from God’s point of view, a man’s individual sin includes more than his specific sinful deed or act. His first note of sin actually contains dark reverberations that cascade down the corridors of time creating havoc and ruin for many in God’s creation. This wave of sin and its effects are not even known or realized by the sinner who is asking for forgiveness for his individual sin. Unbeknown to him, an entire train wreck of misery and woe may be down the track for others as a direct result of his sin. His sin is much darker and more foul than he can easily contemplate. Long after he is dead, his sin may have reached epic proportions in the broken lives of others. For example, we may want to ask if Wagner’s music, or Nietzsche’s thought, or Luther’s diatribes fomented some of the waves leading to the sins of Hitler. Or, perhaps the incest of a perverse father, torturing the life of his daughter and her children for years to come.
Now we come to the hidden way the death of Christ saves the world. I believe that the incarnation, life, suffering, and death of Christ 2,000 years ago injected into human history an Antidote to this Sin-Wave rampaging in space and time. Personal identification with the story of the death of Christ empowers transformation of the cosmos. When the Logos of God entered into space and time as Jesus, it fell prey to those of us who resisted the divine light. Upon this Just One humanity imposed injustice. Contemplation of our capacity for such violence leads to participation in this Story and to the possibility for identificaton with this crucified Christ. Once identified, participation in His life and power empowers transformation as we received this antidote. This dramatic event unleashed in space and time an Antidote to the Sin-Wave that reverberates through created being. It is more than a legal exchange of the Son’s life for the sinner’s. That is, this great act of divine mercy where the perfect One is slain by sinners contains within it such a rich reservoir of healing power that it can, if utilized, neutralize the destructive effects in history of the multiple sin-waves moving through the corridors of time.
How does the life and death of the Son on the cross do this? Since the cross evokes the powerful image of God’s own dear Son’s suffering and death, it contains infinite depths of meaning, inviting us to contemplate and draw deeply from this infinite well. It is replete with great insights and spiritual power. By surveying this wondrous cross event, persons of faith are elevated to a new and higher spirituality in contradistinction to the self-centered life enslaved to sin. As we recoil in recognition of our own failures to stand by the crucified one in ways too many to number, we are driven closer to become more like Him in in cruciformity. In this way, the power of the Sin-Wave is undermined in space and time by the transformative energies that enter us when we profoundly probe this moment when the Son humbled Himself even to death on the cross. There is real “power in the blood” for the cleansing of the Sin-Wave and its devastating effects, radiating from each one of us who gleefully adds his own bit of dark momentum to the speed and power of that Wave.
When Christ died on the stake, the power of sin to gain ever increasing momentum to infect created being with the Sin-Wave had been countered by the Word of God incarnating to live and die in space and time. The powers of sin began to weaken now that the healing antidote of sin and death had been injected into the very fabric of space and time. What was inserted into the cosmos at the Incarnation was injected into the bloodstream of the world at the cross event. From that kairos moment, created existence would begin to rid itself of the virus of sin and death. This act of God demonstrated his faithfulness to us even to the point of death–done for us, out of sheer mercy.
Again, how does this work? What is the exact process that makes the cross the Antidote for the waves of sin? By remembering, assimilating and communing with the Son’s death we drink from a cup of infinite power from which we are transformed and renewed by what can only be called the power of Spirit. The Son ’s death has redemptive power for us because it is the most effective way to inoculate against the rampaging power of the tsunami of sin that human history has unleashed in maniacal deeds of self destruction. To the wise of this world, this means of cosmic redemption from the Sin-Wave is foolishness. But to those who believe, the cross of Christ is the power of God unto personal and cosmic salvation. But one has to faithfully climb up, with all its deadly implications, on that cross to participate in that Christ.
These are some of the hidden insights, I believe, underlying Paul’s understanding of the cross and its power for “the reconciliation of all things.” The sacrifice of Christ is much more than a legal transaction in payment for sin. It is a wonder-working event whose magnitude contains transformative energies that repristinate the world when ingested through faith. Not through secular ideologies or natural world processes, but only through such an Idea as the Son crucified can the ontology of existence be transmuted into the “new creation.” This event is the engine that moves humanity from Alpha to Omega.
Dr. J. Phillip Arnold
January 1, 2007