Easter is an important time of year for Christians, yet for many it is also a time of conflicting emotions. Why are we celebrating a bloody execution? Why did God require his own son to die in order to forgive humanity? What does it even mean that Jesus died for our sins?
I have struggled with many of these questions myself and I have seen lots of other people struggle with them as well. On Friday I shared a post which expressed the struggle many people in Our Community have with the mainstream interpretation of the Easter message. We tried to answered the question Why Did Jesus Need to be Crucified
In that article we ended up asking more questions than we did providing answers. So, today I would like to try and give some framework to the history of where these ideas come from and suggest a way we might look at the story in our modern context.
To start off with, I think that one of the reasons Easter is such an important holiday is that it gives us a narrative framework in which we can ask these kinds of questions, because these questions have many broad reaching implications.
I think that we need stories about goodness and love and happiness but I also believe we deny the reality of life if we don’t tell stories about corruption, violence, and all the other human evils too. The Easter story does this beautifully. Somehow, Christians throughout the ages have blended what is good with what is evil and celebrated the unfair execution of their beloved God.
This is a masterpiece of non-dual thinking
But, it is not without its dangers. Whenever we bring ourselves into that foggy and dense cloud in which right and wrong freely mingle together we run the risk of emerging out the other side thinking that evil is good and good is evil. I believe this is what has happened to the Christian tradition. We took a beautiful story and made it into something which impedes spiritual progress rather than lifting us into Truth.
I would like to start by pointing out the fact that how Christians have understood the Easter story has undergone many changes throughout history. It is a common mistake that people in every age make to assume that their interpretation is the one that has always been.
If you tell someone that the ideas we have about the passion of Christ today are not the same ideas that Christians have had throughout the various periods of our history, they tend to get real defensive real quick. If you tell them that the Bible isn’t super clear on what the consequences of Jesus death really are, they often end the conversation right there.
So, here’s an incredibly short and inevitably over simplified history of how Christians have approached these questions. The best place to start is, of course, in the Bible itself.
The New Testament
As many of you will know, there are 4 canonical gospels and they don’t always agree with each other. We don’t have the time to go into that here, so I will take one very brief section found in both Matthew and Mark (Matthew likely got it from Mark) to show where all this idea of Jesus’ death somehow paying a price to bring freedom to humanity comes from.
Take a look at Matthew 20:17-28. You’ll see that Jesus mentions his death as a ransom for many but doesn’t actually explain what that means. The explanation will actually come later, with the writing of Paul. I do feel like it’s important to point out that while Jesus gives this one cryptic reference to what later became the ransom theory of atonement, he also gives many other mystical explanations, if you want an example of that, check out the article A Kernel of Wheat, a Cross on Calvary, and a French Mystic.
Paul picked up the idea of the ransom and gave it more of an actual theoretical framework. A ransom is a price paid to free a captive. If you were kidnapped your family might be asked to pay a ransom in order to set you free. The word has the same meaning in the Bible. So, what is the price, who is it being paid to, and who is being set free?
According to Paul, the price paid was the innocent blood of the lamb of God, it was being paid to sin and the law of the Jews which were tied up together and were both holding God’s people captive, and those who followed the new way of Christ were the ones being set free. There was a new covenant being made and the blood of Jesus met all the requirements of the old covenant, which involved the blood of bulls and lambs.
If you want to see where this is coming from check out Hebrews 9:11-15 & Romans 8:1-4
Paul also understood the crucifixion as a mystical process by which people can draw near to God. If you want to learn more about that check out the article Death and Resurrection: The True Meaning of Easter.
While Paul offered more of an explanation about what this ransom was, it still relied heavily on poetic language and ideas that required a Jewish world view in order to really make sense. As the Gospel was spread to the Gentiles (since Paul had declared that the law was no longer needed and that the Gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews) it encountered the rigorous and logical tradition of classical philosophy.
The poetic language of Paul did not fully satisfy those Roman and Greek intellectuals who were used to thinking in depth about the nature of the cosmos. So, something vague like the ransom being paid to sin didn’t make sense to them. Sin isn’t even a person, how could it be an actor is this situation?
While some of the early theologians, like Pelagius, were more comfortable with the poetic language and simply believed that the ransom was paid to “death”, the majority opinion was that the ransom was being paid to the Devil. Satan was holding humanity hostage and Jesus bought our freedom from the Devil, and therefore from sin.
This can be traced back that familiar story from Genesis. Adam and Eve were tricked by the snake (who could be interpreted as Satan, though the text does not actually say that) and death and sin was the result. In this sense, the new covenant is a new kind of Eden and Jesus was a new Adam. This too comes from Paul, you can read it in Romans 5:12-21.
This was the beginning of the doctrine of original sin and Jesus’ sacrifice was the cure. The Devil had been defeated by Christ and no longer had control over the world.
In the middle ages Western European society had changed a great deal. The image of God as a humble and meek sacrifice started to make less sense to people. People began to understand God in their own context and so the kingly aspect of God became the main focus.
Around the year 1000 a man by the name of Anselm of Canterbury came up with a new theory. One which wasn’t about paying a ransom to anyone but instead satisfying God’s honour. The sin of humanity was seen as an affront to God’s authority and so a fitting punishment was required. Jesus stepped in and paid this debt of honour to God on our behalf. So, rather than a ransom being paid to an impious Satan, Jesus paid a debt of honour and satisfaction to a king demanding retributive justice.
This idea is still very common today. It was taken up by the Calvinists and other reformers and expanded in numerous ways. It was also expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas and is still the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
What Justin Thinks
The beautiful thing about our modern age is that the internet has changed everything. In years gone by our ancestors really only had access to the religious ideas preached from their local pulpit. Today we have all of history and indeed the world to learn from. So, when talking about a modern interpretation of the Easter story it seems only fitting that I share my own perspective, which is one among many and is built upon a wide and diverse set of ideas from throughout Christian history.
I personally like the poetic approach. I like the idea of a new Eden (kinda obvious from the name of this blog). I like the understanding of the Easter story as an allegory for our spiritual journey towards God. That we must let our false self die so that our true self can be resurrected. That the way to God is not an accumulation of good ideas but a descent into suffering and pain. That even the wickedness of the world can be transformed into a blessing if we are willing to offer ourselves to God.
I also like the way the Easter story shows God as someone we can abuse and mistreat. When I think about how Jesus was treated back then, how his words were twisted and how his call to radical equality, denying wealth and power, and nonviolence made the religious people and the political power afraid and angry, I see the same thing happening today.
When colonialism was able to be carried out in the name of Christ he was crucified again. When the church lies in bed with empire and military he is crucified again. When we gather in luxurious churches and pat ourselves on the back for our token efforts in helping the poor he is crucified again.
The message is clear, we choose to abuse God rather follow in Christ’s footsteps. The path which Jesus laid out for us is one of service and humility. It is one which sacrifices the self for the sake of the other. It is one chooses to die rather than fight. When I think of the Easter story I am filled with sadness that we are still killing in the name of God.
If we truly want to be an Easter people we must be ready and willing to let go of the ways of this wicked world. We must follow Jesus to our death before submitting to the status quo. We must ourselves pick up our cross and follow the Prince of Peace, even if it hurts.
I think there’s a genuine need for gruesome stories in our sacred texts and traditions. If we don’t include the horrific and violent then we are denying real life. We can use these stories as metaphor for inner mysteries and dynamics, but we can also use them as starting places for discussions about these common ideas.
Yesterday we shared a post from Michael Petrow, The Angel of Death and the Bloody Doorway. In it he discussed the story of the Passover and how it affects Christians today. He looked at our inherent desire for death and destruction as well as some poetic interpretations of that story from the church fathers. The Judeo-Christian tradition is only one of many which has stories of their god destroying their enemies and satisfying their need for vengeance and death.
I like the crucifixion story because it inverts those narratives (if we’re actually paying attention). God doesn’t enact vengeance but instead offers God’s self as a sacrifice for humanity. Instead of a God of victory, we have a God of self sacrifice and forgiveness. The story speaks to the violence, oppression, and ignorance of real life – but offers an alternative ending.
We don’t have to win, we can be saved by dying. We don’t have to have retributive justice, we can find God in suffering. We don’t have to worship the old gods of the false self, we can step out of all that and be freed by Jesus instead.
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One thought on “A Brief History of Easter: What Does the Crucifixion Mean For Us Today?”
This is an excellent piece! Puts many difficult concepts into a clearer and more solid theological perspective. I appreciate the manner in which you relate Christianity to historical happenings—something all too often overlooked or ignored!
So glad I read this. Thank you!