Last week, we talked about the four gospels and how they each paint a different picture of Jesus. The authors of each gospels wanted to help their community believe in Jesus and discover what the story of Jesus means for the challenges and struggles they face each day. Both Mark and Matthew wrote to Jewish communities experiencing conflict and they portray Jesus as very, very human. One who suffers, experiences pain, and cries out on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Luke, on the other hand, is writing to a primarily gentile community of new Christians, and he portrays Jesus as very compassionate and forgiving of all people. In Luke, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” John writes to a community of Jewish Christians who have been kicked out of their synagogue and he portrays Jesus as strong and confident. Strong enough to bring us through any situation.
Now, these are not just descriptions of Jesus’ story. These are interpretations of Jesus’ story. For example, have you ever read a book and then saw the movie version? Which one is better? Usually, people say the book is better, because the book allows you to come up with your own interpretations of what characters look like and sound like and how a particular seen looks. And if that doesn’t match the film director’s interpretation, then we usually don’t like the film.
Now that we have these four different stories and interpretations of the cross, we are going to look at how theologians over the centuries have tried to explain what happens on the cross, based on these stories and interpretations from the gospels.
These theologians are putting forward what are called atonement theories. That’s a funny word atonement. Any guess at what it means? What does it mean to atone for something? It means to make amends. To repair. To fix something that is broken. How to make something that is broken “at-one” again.
The basic Christian belief is that the relationship between God and humanity is broken and needs repairing and the cross somehow fixes that broken relationships. But the question then to ask is: how? How does Jesus’ death on a cross repair our relationship with God?
We are going to look at three different categories of atonement theories over the next couple of weeks. Three different ways in which theologians throughout Christian history have interpreted the Gospels and the story of Jesus crucifixion and what it means for the world. With each theory, we will ask and attempt to answer four questions: what is broken about the relationship between God and humanity? How does Jesus’ cross repair what’s broken? What is God like? And what picture of the Christian life is given?
Tonight, we are going to start with the atonement theory of the cross as ransom and victory. This view was very popular for about the first 1,000 years of Christianity.
Back when this theory came about, the primary view of the world was as a battle between good and evil. God and Satan. God creates the world good. Satan tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and now, Satan has a claim on all of humanity. Humanity continues to sin. Satan is winning. The punishment for humanity is death. Those are the rules. You disobey God and you belong to the devil.
So that is the problem, that is what is broken between the relationship of God and humanity: Humanity is property of Satan because of sin and now no one will get eternal life with God.
On top of that, however, God still loves humanity so much that God does not want the devil to own us, even though those are the rules. So how is God going to win us back and still play by the rules?
This is where Jesus comes in. God becomes human in the person of Jesus. Jesus is fully human and fully God.
Now, at this point, the theory breaks into two branchs: ransom and victory. Some says that because Satan was holding humanity hostage, God gave Jesus as a ransom. As a way of buying back humanity. Because Jesus is human, when Jesus dies on the cross (Satan’s punishment) Satan thinks he owns Jesus. But Jesus is also God. Which means Jesus has not sinned, and cannot be owned by Satan. So when Satan grabs a hold of Jesus, he grabs something that does not belong to him. Satan, therefore, breaks the rules. God has tricked Satan into losing the battle, just like Satan tricked Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. People used the text from Mark’s gospel that we just heard – that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many.
But some people didn’t like this idea of God tricking the devil. It is like God stooping to the devil’s ways. So others said that God became human in Jesus not to fight the devil’s punishment of death, but to actually embrace it and be victories over it. So Jesus came knowing Jesus would die. But then after Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus is raised from the dead and therefore defeats death. And thus defeats the devil and the devil’s claim on all humanity. You can get the sense of this in the gospel of John, when Jesus is on the cross and says, “It is finished.” That phrase is better translated “It is accomplished.” As in, mission accomplished. Jesus came to do what he needed in order to defeat the devil.
So, once again, the problem, what’s broken between humanity and God: death and the devil are holding humanity hostage because of sin.
How does Jesus’ cross repair what’s broken? This theory would say by tricking the devil with Jesus as a ransom or by Jesus entering into death and defeating it.
So if this is the meaning of the cross, what does it say about God? What is God like in this view? It says that God desperately wants to win us back from the devil. That God loves us so much that God would do just about anything, even trick the devil or entering into death, in order to do it.
What does it say about our lives? What does the Christian life look like? Well, if because of the cross we are free from the clutches of the devil, we are free, even called, to stand against the forces of evil in this world. To resist oppressing other people, to fight addiction, tyranny, busyness and anything else that wants to hold a claim on our life and the lives of our neighbors.
A way of making this atonement theory personal is to ask yourself: what holds me hostage in my every day life? What am I captive to? What do you struggle with every day of your life? Is it depression? Is it chronic illness? Or chronic anger? Joblessness? Is it arguing with your partner or is it addiction to alcohol or pornography? Or is it feeling like nobody ever really pays attention to you? And then, is it meaningful or life changing at all for you to hear that in the cross, Jesus has entered into the struggles of this world, the places of death, the places where the devil holds us hostage, and Jesus conquers it. Jesus has tricked the devil and defeated death. Therefore, the devil has no claim on your life and you now belong to God.
If that is meaningful for you in your life right now, then maybe this is the atonement theory for you. If not? Then tune in next week, where we will explore another theory that came about a little later.
If there is anything of God in these words that have been spoken, then may they settle and take root in our life. Amen.