What happened on the cross when Jesus died? What is the relationship between the scriptural accounts of the raising of Jesus from the dead and his subsequent encounters with disciples (with their messy, difficult if not impossible to resolve inconsistencies) and the risen Jesus (i.e. with the fact that Christian witness, from the Day of Resurrection until now is that Jesus has risen from the dead).
These questions continue to be raised because we continue to work out in each generation what it means to read Scripture and to live lives as sinners (in need of the cross) and as believers (convinced that we may be a people of hope for an always better future because Jesus has risen from the dead).
So, a few reflections today, next Monday and Easter Monday.
First, I note some links in comments above re theories of atonement as well as reference to an article in our Diocesan magazine, AnglicanLife (not yet online).
Then, in an "I've been thinking" mode, a thought or two about "penal substitutionary (theory of) atonement."
In favour of this theory is all that we read in Scripture about the possibility that God will send (Old Testament, especially Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12) and has sent (New Testament, e.g. Romans 3:21-26) one who will bear our sins and the punishment for them in our place.
Something I have noticed, contra those who (understandably in today's world) feel diffident about ascribing notions of anger and wrath to God is that there are many references in the Old Testament to God's wrath against unrighteousness.
Against this theory, or, at least, against this theory receiving a focus such that other theories of atonement are maginalised rather than being held together, is concern that we avoid anthropomorphising God so that God becomes the angry father of our own lives who dispensed way too much corporal punishment on us and our siblings. Or, as the cell group leader in my Christian Union in my first year at varsity memorably said to me, 'We mustn't think of God as waving a cricket bat, wanting to hit us, and Jesus steps forward and says, "Don't hit them, hit me instead".'
Why might we continue to explore what it might mean that God is wrathful against wrongdoing and Jesus' death on the cross in some way (according to some theory of atonement) removes that wrath from the equation while simultaneously changing our status from wrongdoer to rightdoer?
One reason, it strikes me, is that we humans, even when we have done our best to eradicate notions of penalty from life (a jail sentence as a penalty for breaking the law becomes a place of rehabilitation; corporal punishment, detentions for breaking the school's rules gives way to something constructive for the community life of the school; etc) are still determined to punish people!
Unfortunately, with various ramifications for the quality of life in Aotearoa New Zealand in respect of free speech, civility in the public square and de-powering polarization as a force to divide us, during this past weekend a visiting speaker, Posey Parker, led to an enormous amount of violent talk/words on placards as well as to actual violence. A flavour of what happened is captured in an article by Rachel Smalley who makes the important point that what is at stake these days is whether women are being silenced or not.
What is going on here?
I suggest something deeply "penal" is at work in such events.
On the one side, the sheer act of inviting a provocateur such as Posey Parker, knowing this will bring out the worst of certain kinds of supremacists, in an unholy alliance, is an act of punishment towards those who are different, in this case the trans community. It is simple analysis of our society to recognise that the trans community are vulnerable enough in everyday life without organising rallies and visiting speakers to enhance this vulnerability.
On the other side, the resort to violence, whether of language or of actual acts of violence, is an act of punishment against a range of people who, whether or not they agree with everything Posey Parker says (supposing she even gets to say something!), wish to make a protesting point that concern for the trans community should be held in tandem with being able to (e.g.) refer to women as women and girls and girls. Effectively the counter-protest against those aligned with Posey Parker at the weekend was a punishment for daring to think differently in the public square.
Imagine this is Jerusalem in the build up to the final Passover for Jesus. He dies on the cross bearing the penalty for all sins: be wrathful against me, his death says, and not the trans community; and be wrathful against me and not those who think differently to the current "establishment" - let my death take away your anger and malice, and let me set you free to be reconciled to one another.
Ok - a lot, lot more goes on in the actual crucifixion of Jesus: the transaction in the event of the cross concerns God's wrath against wrongdoing and God's action to reconcile us to himself. But can we better understand that God might be wrathful against wrongdoing when we reflect on the one thing both sides of the conflict at the weekend shared: a deep belief that their wrath was justified because what "the other side" were doing was utterly wrong?
Though I appreciate that - in human terms - substituting the analogy between God and an angry human father for an analogy between God and an angry human mob might not be much of an improvement!