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The Logic Of Good Friday

Web posted on April 08, 2017

Hey Jude!

With Good Friday coming at the end of this week, I'm remembering an article in February's Niagara Anglican, titled "Change or atrophy", about "obsolete beliefs including propitiatory sacrifice and substitutionary atonement." In less fancy language, that's a proposal to scrap the idea the Jesus died for our sins - which, for the past 2000 years, is what we thought Good Friday was all about.

Or at least, that's what every writer of the New Testament thought it was about. Paul says that "Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3). Peter says that "Christ died for our sins once-for-all, the just for the unjust" (1 Peter 3:18). John says that "The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).

It's also what Jesus thought when, even though he knew how that Friday was going to end, he still "set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51). Nor is there any doubt that he was thinking of his personal sacrifice when he blessed the wine at that final Passover meal and said, "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24).

So when the Niagara Anglican says the idea that Jesus died for our sins is an "obsolete belief", I have to disagree. But I also have to acknowledge that I get it. I get it, because there's a sense in which Jesus' sacrifice was "too successful".

Jesus' death, according to the New Testament, was the sacrifice of all sacrifices. It achieved conclusively a reconciliation of believers with God that no other sacrifice, Jewish or pagan, ever had achieved nor ever could achieve. Because of who Jesus was, his sacrificial death made all the sacrificial rites of every religion forever obsolete and unnecessary. But because religions in the ancient world had systems of sacrifice, people in Jesus' day - both Jews and pagans - had a cultural background against which to understand the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death.

But in saying that Jesus' sacrifice was "too successful", I want to emphasize the following point. As faith in Jesus' ultimate sacrifice spread to peoples around the world, many former systems of religion fell into disuse, and former sacrifices ceased to be offered. Accordingly, the cultural background against which to understand what Jesus accomplished has disappeared, with the result that the modern mind no longer feels any no need of atonement, and so dismisses the idea as obsolete and irrelevant. Such a dismissal may be overly hasty.

Certainly one can raise objections to the idea of "penal substitutionary atonement". If I have hurt my neighbour, I may be able to repay him for his damages, but I can never take back the fact that I did the deed. That's toothpaste that I can't put back into the tube. There's also something about guilt that seems inherently non-transferable. So we moderns may have difficulty understanding how the death of any man, even a sinless God-Man, can "pay" for the sins of another, let alone for the sins of several billion others.

And yet, despite these and other conceptual difficulties, the language of atoning sacrifice is the language of Scripture. It was not a pious invention by Jesus' followers. Nor was it added to the Christian tradition by a myth-making early church imitating contemporary paganism. "We have not," they tell us plainly, "followed cleverly devised myths" (2 Peter 1:16).

It was Jesus himself who taught his disciples to see an analogy between his death and the Old Testament sacrifices. That analogy was so central to his purpose that, just hours before that year's Passover sacrifice, he gave his followers a ritual of bread and wine, and announced: "This is my body, this is my blood" - thereby ensuring the transmission of this key idea to succeeding generations. Jesus' command to "do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24-26) effectively guaranteed that the knowledge of his death, and the purpose of that death, would pursue us down the centuries.

So we are caught in a bind: we cannot avoid the language of sacrifice, and yet because the Lamb of God was not literally a lamb, we have to recognize that this language is in some way metaphoric. The anonymous writer of the epistle to the Hebrews helpfully explains this metaphor by another metaphor, which the rabbi Philo of Alexandria had borrowed from Plato: "The Torah [which prescribes sacrificial rites] has but a shadow of the good things to come, and not the true form of those realities" (Hebrews 10:1).

In Plato's philosophy, the "forms" were what's real and eternal; the "shadows" that they cast were fleeting. The readers of the epistle to the Hebrews would understand that the death of the Messiah was the true and eternal Form that had been casting temporal shadows down through history long before the decisive event ever occurred in time and space on a hill called Calvary. So the sacrifices that the Torah prescribes are imperfect shadows of something infinitely greater, with the result that the Torah "can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near [to worship]. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4).

Animal sacrifices - whether those prescribed in the Torah or those performed instinctively by peoples of other religions - were shadows that pointed to the True Form that cast them. That's what shadows do, if we're paying attention: they make us aware of the real thing that they reflect. So the New Testament understands the Old Testament sacrifices as object lessons about what God was going to accomplish in Jesus.

Now, if you happen not to agree with Plato's view of reality (and many philosophers don't) this form-and-shadows analogy need not go to waste. You find across the cultures of the world a universal sense of right and wrong, a sense of what "ought" to be. We may disagree on the details, but we're generally agreed that offences against persons and property ought to be redressed. Not only do most of us feel guilty after doing a misdeed, and acknowledge a "felt need" to make recompense for it (or failing that, we make an excuse for it), but we also suspect that something is wrong with anyone who does not feel likewise. Fortunately, such a view is not confined to those of us who profess religion, which is why communities are able to function more or less justly despite a diversity of beliefs. This compulsion for recompense (or excuse) is a universal that's felt by all but the pathologically amoral.

In fact, we seem to be "hard wired" for such a compulsion. There's a universal sense that a moral balance, once upset, begs to be restored. You see it in the Buddhist doctrine of Karma, where the merit or demerit of a person's actions determines his fate in the next existence. You see it in the tragedies of ancient Greece and the Renaissance, where downfall inevitably comes to a character who, in an act of hybris, oversteps propriety. You see it even in our secular age where, with no intended reference to the supernatural, the man on the street can still be heard to affirm that "what goes around comes around."

But wherever you encounter people for whom the moral balance includes God, particularly if they perceive God to be the offended party, they feel a need of some moral credibility that might commend themselves to him. They may approach God as empty-handed penitents (as Christians do), or they may seek to earn credibility by rituals or good deeds. You can see this down through the ages in the fact that many of the world's religions seek by duties and rituals to appease the deity or obtain the deity's mercy. This sense of needing to be justified before the deity - whether by our own efforts or by divine mercy - is the inevitable inference from a powerful and universal sense of "ought".

I once heard a marvelous example of this from a missionary to the third world. He told of a woman who, coming to his mission, heard the gospel for the first time. As she learned about Jesus dying for her sins, she exclaimed, "I always knew there must be a God like that!" She "knew" it because her honest conscience, confronted by a righteous God, felt the imperative of guilt and recompense. But her spiritual intuition had taken her a step further: she also understood that she was incapable of offering sufficient recompense herself, and hoped that God might do for her what she knew she could not. Having previously discerned the shadow, she was able to recognize the True Form that cast it.

But an intuition is only as good as its fulfillment. And that fulfillment, in order to be knowable, must occur in time and space. Only in Jesus the God-Man, pleading for his executioners, pleading for all of us who in our willfulness or our ignorance crucify him daily, do those intuitions turn into sure knowledge. Only in the God-Man, "who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree," does the eternal transaction take place objectively and conclusively in time and space.

So what shall I say to those who would call Jesus' sacrifice "obsolete"? First - that the language of sacrifice need not be off-putting, if you recognize that it reflects a deeply felt need for restoring moral balance. Second - that it was not for nought that Jesus taught us to call God Our Father. For no good parent thinks it wrong to love his children so much that he is himself willing to bear the cost of their wrongdoings, even though he cannot condone them. Third, and most importantly - that Good Friday is validated by Easter Sunday. If some man were to conduct himself as if he thought he were God, and declared that his impending death would bring you eternal life, you would be right to doubt his honesty or his sanity. But if three days after his death you found yourself - in your right mind - having dinner and conversation with him, your former doubts would vanish, and your world-view - indeed, your life itself - would be forever changed.

May that change be your reality, through a very reflective Good Friday and a blissfully joyous Resurrection Sunday.


Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St. Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at nm@bbs42.net. Also check out stjudeguelph.ca.
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