St Paul says that our beliefs about this are a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Today, we could say a scandal to Islam and foolishness to the new atheists.
A few weeks ago, Mr Badger asked for a discussion on the crucifixion – or rather, on the reason or reasons Jesus was incarnated in order to be crucified. (By the way, this conversation will stall on the doorstep if you insist on debating the central premise that Jesus was the Son of God, and was incarnated in order to be crucified. Can we please save that argument for another day, and instead stick to discussing the pros and cons of the various explanations that have been proposed?)
I’ve suggested shaping the discussion around three explanatory memes: ransom, judicial, and narrative – and I’ve since thought of a fourth, sacrificial, and a fifth, evolutionary. There is support for all of these in the Bible, and in the writing of the early Fathers and the Doctors of the Church.
I can think of no particular reason why there needs to be only one explanation – though they may well be ranked according to whether they are necessary to the mechanics of salvation or necessary to the psychology of salvation. In my considered view, no explanation is completely true, and all have something to offer. Different explanations will appeal to different people and at different times.
In the end, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection can’t be fully explained – to paraphrase KA, I am content to know there are some things I can’t yet understand. But it is interesting to speculate, and perhaps we may learn something from one another.
I propose to write a brief paragraph on each, then open the discussion to the floor. Then, maybe, in coming posts, I can add a bit here or there – from my own ramblings or from stuff I’ve found written by other people. I’m concerned I’ve summarised to the point of incoherence, but I hope you’ll bear with me and help me tease the ideas out in the comment box.
In the ransom and judicial models, I take it that the incarnation was a necessary prelude to his death. in the sacrificial, narrative and evolutionary models, the incarnation is part of the explanation. The resurrection is part of the explanation in all five models.
The ransom explanation basically suggests that we have sold ourselves to the sins of our choice, and through them to Satan. Our sins give Satan the right to demand our death (and, according to some accounts, our souls). Christ’s death, being the death of the incarnate God, is sufficient to pay the fee for all human beings throughout time. By this explanation, I take it, we can accept or refuse to be ransomed. But the price has been paid, nonetheless.
The resurrection is a natural consequence of someone completely innocent willingly paying the ransom in full consciousness of what He was doing – Jesus couldn’t stay dead because He had not bartered Himself away to Satan.
CS Lewis had a particular affection for this explanation, using it in his Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe story, and in the sf series that began with Out of the Silent Planet.
I’ve also come across a variant, the down payment explanation – the suggestion that Jesus paid our first instalment, making it possible for us to stay out of spiritual debt long enough to build up some credit ready for the final reckoning.
The judicial explanation is one of St Paul’s favourites. We have done things we ought not to have done, and left undone things that we ought to have done. These failures of will – these acts of selfishness and pride – make us unable to approach God. We will be judged, and we will be found guilty because we are guilty. Christ’s death – the acceptable penalty for our crimes – won for us a pardon, if we wish to accept it.
Thus, when Satan – the prosecuting lawyer – outlines all the reasons we have earned our banishment from Heaven, saying ‘guilty’, Jesus – our Judge – will respond ‘pardoned’.
The resurrection is a sign that we are forgiven, a promise of things to come – our sins stay dead, but after the judgement, we rise again.
The sacrificial explanation has deep roots. The idea that God or the gods can claim our first fruits is an old one in most cultures. The idea that the King dies for the people in order to bring new life haunts our Indo-European mythic history.
In some ways, then, the sacrificial model is a non-Christian explanation for the power of the Easter story. Nevertheless, it is an explanation that was used from the very earliest days. Jesus was recognised as the High Priest who offered the Sacrifice and also as the Sacrificial Lamb. By this explanation, Jesus was the sin offering required in the law to remit all penalties and cleanse the giver. Our acceptance of this offering makes the offering apply to us.
The incarnation – giving up Heaven to become human – was part of the sacrifice. The resurrection is a sign that the sacrifice is acceptable, and that we too shall be raised.
The narrative explanation holds that God tells us stories through the lives of those who serve Him, and Jesus is the greatest story He has ever told. This one rings very true to me; we chattering hominids learn best through stories and example, and it is in our shared stories that we find and reinforce community.
From His incarnation, through His life, death and resurrection, to His ascension and Pentecost, the Christ story tells us ‘God loves you’, ‘God shares your pain’, ‘God thinks you matter enough to die for’, ‘Death is not the end and it will be worth it’. Other messages are there too: everyone is worthy of respect, everyone deserves another chance, love one another, forgive those who hurt you, don’t give up.
The incarnation and the resurrection, in this model, may have been part of the plan even without the Fall.
The evolutionary explanation suggests that we were always intended to be more than we are now, but that the next step in becoming truly human required the freely-willed co-operation of an adult human being that had not experienced the confusion of sin. This model sees suffering as being the crucible that forges the new species, the sons and daughters of humankind. Jesus came to finish the task that Adam failed – to take the next step on our behalf. Since then, the spiritual equivalents of genes have been passed on to the faithful through the sacraments, having greater or lesser impact according to the degree of openness to grace of the recipient.
In this model, the incarnation was required by the Fall, and the resurrection is part of our new nature.