As yesterday was Good Friday, I have been thinking about the significance of the day in our Christian year. It seems that all too often we want to rush ahead towards Easter, and forget about the day which solemnly commemorates Jesus’ anguished, agonizing death for our sins. Now it’s only natural to look forward to the joy of the Resurrection. But the glorious celebration of Christ’s triumph over the grave only has true significance if we are prepared to first take in the full magnitude of what it meant for the Son of God to be laid and sealed in a tomb. Reflecting in particular upon Jesus’ time on the cross allows us insight into perhaps the one aspect of Christian doctrine that makes it completely unique from other faiths. Now of course, the Resurrection of Jesus is the central event upon which we stake the entire truth of our Christian religion. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.” However, most other religions espouse some version of life after death, whether this involves resurrection, reincarnation, or an immortal spirit/soul living on. The Resurrection of Christ is unique in the fact that no other major world religion claims to have a founder who is still alive today! But the Crucifixion to me offers something that is utterly unparalleled in other major world faiths—and that is God suffering, and indeed dying on our behalf. As has often been remarked, most faiths involve some man-made efforts to reach the level of God, whereas Christianity has God coming down to our level. And never did the Lord stoop lower to embrace in our pain, shame, suffering, and sin than at Calvary.
Attempting to understand the profound mystery of the Crucifixion brings us into the realm of the Atonement. All Christians can agree that Jesus died for our sins, but how exactly did His death defeat sin, and reconcile us to God? Theories of the Atonement attempt to answer that question. When I think of Jesus’ death, I am drawn to two atonement theories in particular; penal substitution, and Christus victor. I think we need both theories in order to do justice to the expansive mystery of the Crucifixion; in particular the fact that it was both a universal and particular event. In other words, as a Christian, I recognize that Jesus died for me personally and also for all humanity.
I want to illustrate this point further with two outstanding examples of Spanish religious art. The first is Diego Velazquez’s 1632 Christ Crucified.
I love the stark elegance of this moving canvas, and the fact that Jesus is presented in total isolation. He breathes His last surrounded by blackness, with no disciples, soldiers, or bystanders present, nor does Velazquez include the other two thieves crucified alongside Christ. When we view the painting then, we are forced to confront Jesus alone, and think upon the enormity of our individual sin which was enough in itself to send Him to the cross. The penal substitution theory of atonement asserts that Jesus took our place on the cross. Our sin was deserving of the punishment of death, but Jesus inserted Himself in our stead, and took our rightful sentence, in the process canceling out the penalty of our sin, and allowing us the opportunity to be eternally reconciled with the Father. One of the most noteworthy Scriptures in support of this view of the atonement is actually found in the Old Testament—Isaiah 53:5—“He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” Paul then systematically explains for us in Romans 3:23-5 how Jesus’ death saves us from the just and certain penalty of our sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood”
The next painting is from the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. He’s known for his surrealist imagery and flamboyant persona, but Dali, like Velazquez was also a practicing Catholic, and produced a good deal of religiously-themed art. His 1951 painting Christ of St. John of the Cross is a remarkably different vision of the Crucifixion from Velazquez’s or indeed that of almost any other artist.
Dali gives us the cosmic Christ, elevated above the world, and a body of water that might be the Sea of Galilee. This version of the crucifixion prompts us to focus on the universal implications of Jesus’ death, which is also the emphasis of the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. This theory understands the crucifixion to represent Jesus’ victory over the power of sin, death, and Satan himself. Therefore at Calvary, Jesus did not only die for our sins, but He defeated death itself, and crushed forever the ability of the Evil One to separate us from God or cast us into hell. In Hebrews 2:14-15, we are reminded that Jesus “through death…might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Christ Himself then tells in John 12:31-32, prior to, and in reference to His crucifixion: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
As I’ve already mentioned, I think we need both theories of atonement in order to gain the fullest possible understanding of what took place at the Cross. The crucifixion for me is about the meeting of the particular (Christ died for me) and the universal (Christ died for everyone). I list them in that order intentionally, because only when we accept the particular implications of what took place at Calvary can we then appreciate its universal significance. Realizing that Jesus died for you personally should provoke an overwhelming awareness of God’s great love—a love which is extended to all humanity, and which is too good not to share with others. Happy Easter everyone!!!