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Did Jesus’ death actually do anything?

10:11 25/03/2024
Did Jesus’ death actually do anything?

Anne van Gend introduces her new book Restoring the Story

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Did Jesus’ death actually do anything?

We celebrate it every Easter, we remember it in every communion service, we even faithfully recite that it was “for us and for our salvation” when we say the creed – but, if we do believe Christ’s death achieved anything, how do we wrap our words around the “how” and “why” of it all?

Usually we don’t. This thing which theologians call “atonement” is central to the Christian faith, and yet we rarely discuss it. It’s easy to understand why. Atonement can be a slippery, uncomfortable sort of thing. It’s a sign of God’s grace and love, yet is often associated with punishment and judgement. Many Christians find themselves celebrating and thanking God for sending God’s Son to die for us, while simultaneously squashing their discomfort over the idea of a wrathful God seeking satisfaction through the suffering of his Son. And on what planet does it make sense to sing merrily about blood and death as if these were good things?

This state of half-apologetic confusion is not a stable foundation on which to build a relationship of trust with God, nor does it give rise to a confident proclamation of Good News to the world. The problem is that even when we know that Jesus’ death and resurrection were significant, as long as we are slightly ashamed of the explanations for that significance we are going to focus determinedly on other aspects of our faith. Those who assume there is only one (and, to them, unacceptable) “Christian” explanation of the “how” of atonement, for example, are likely to decide the only reason for Jesus coming to live among us was to set us an example of love to follow. The Cross, they argue, was an aberration, a mistake, evidence of what the world does to those who love.

Jesus did indeed set us an example of love to follow, and that is challenge enough for any lifetime. But is that the whole of the Good News of atonement? It seems a rather pallid version of the Gospel if it stands alone. The Bible would have us believe that Jesus conquered the powers of darkness; cleansed the world of the cloying imprisonment of death and death-in-life; inaugurated a new partnership between heaven and earth; opened the way for mere mortals to become children of God. The stories are vast and sweeping and epic: the sort to stir your heart and whip up within you wonder and awe and desire.

Those are the atonement stories that this book believes are worth exploring again, worth digging into in the hope that treasures old and new can be unearthed and dusted off, and the gleaming power of Good News be rediscovered for today.

My book is unashamedly story-based, because so is much of the Bible – even the New Testament. In fact, part of the book’s project is to rummage around in the New Testament writings to find what stories they were referring and alluding to in their multi-faceted attempts to convey something of the mystery of what Christ had done. These stories are then re-told so that they make as much sense to us as is possible 2000 or more years later. Along the way, various stories of our own time and culture are also drawn in. This is partly because it’s interesting to see the way so many of the imaginative concepts which give substance and mystery to contemporary books and films are essentially biblical. It’s also to help us along as we try to understand stories of a radically different time and culture. Boggarts and lions, rabbits and Babel fish accompany us on our journey and provide us with an imaginative “in” to what could otherwise be a purely academic exercise.

What you’ll find in Restoring the Story, then, is an exploration of four biblical atonement stories: an exploration that uses the map of Scripture, the compass of reason, and the heavenly realms of imagination for guidance. Each story is traced from its foundations in the Hebrew Scriptures, through its use by New Testament writers, and on to the light it may pour on the darknesses of our day. They are not all easy stories or even pleasant stories, but they are worth pursuing because they are stories of hope. Atonement, we find, is God’s grace poured into the world’s need, the lotion that heals the gaping wound, the love that enters the isolation and uncertainty and failures of our lives and brings us home.

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Restoring the Story: The Good News of Atonement is published this month, and available at a special launch discount until the end of March

The Ven. Dr Anne van Gend is Ministry Educator for the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand.