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Reversing the Verdict

May 28, 2012

I suspect that I may be talking to a small camp of people who are reading the exact same books as I am when I bring up the issue of choosing between the substitionary atonement model of salvation and the Christus Victor model. Substitutionary atonement (the normal model amongst Protestants) talks about how Jesus steps in to take God’s wrath for us. He substitutes himself for us and makes atonement for us. Christus Victor (which is more common in Eastern Orthodox circles) focuses on how Jesus is victorious over sin and death and has broken their power over us by defeating them. Personally (and I stand with a number of theologians in thinking this), I don’t see any reason to choose between the models as neither prevents the other from also being true. However, there have been some rumblings in theologically conservative circles about this issue. Does Christus Victor strip away the sense of our sin and cave in to a liberal idea that everyone is basically nice but damaged? Does substitutionary atonement fail to capture the full breadth of the gospel (not to mention the early Church Fathers)? I think that this particular fight has been treated much better by N.T. Wright in this article than I could ever hope to, but I do want to address a wider issue that this fight brings up: does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean more than one thing?

I think the answer is rather obviously “yes”. The central mystery of the Christian faith is not a simple thing. It accomplishes many different things, all of which intersect into a much broader and more beautiful picture than any single facet provides. Today I wish to focus on a single small facet that is not normally discussed: the fact that Jesus’ resurrection can be seen as a legal action that reverses the verdict handed down by the courts that condemned Jesus.

On the face of it this is a simple claim. The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus under Jewish law and brings him to Pilate who condemns him under Roman law. As a condemned man Jesus deserves death. If Jesus were innocent then his death would be an unjust action. However, the appeals process is rather brief in first century Judea and so Jesus is executed within hours of Pilate’s verdict. Three days later Jesus is alive again. If this were something he did on his own it would be a really spectacular jailbreak but would say little about the verdict that made Jesus dead in the first place. However, Jesus is raised by God’s own power. Depending on which gospel or epistle you are reading, this is either God’s direct action or the action of Jesus using power God has granted him. (This touches on another issue, that of implicit Trinitarian claims, where the lines between God and Jesus are blurred without any explicit statement about the unity of the two.) Regardless, whichever lens one views the action through, Jesus is raised by God’s authority. Critically, God’s authority is what backs the verdicts of the Sanhedrin and Pilate. God is the Jewish law-giver and so the authority on which all Jewish legal verdicts hang. The Roman law gains its authority through Rome’s ownership of its Empire. However, while might makes right in Rome, God is mightier than Caesar and therefore “righter”. In truth, God owns Caesar’s empire (and Caesar himself) and so he is the law behind the Roman law, the greater law.

Given this, Jesus’ resurrection does not merely represent Jesus cheating his due verdict. Instead, we see that God, the higher court, has overturned the verdict issued by the lower human courts. If Jesus deserved death on the charges for which he was crucified then God should not, and would not, have undone Jesus’s sentence. The fact that Jesus is raised from the dead means that Jesus was right and his accusers were wrong.

This brings us to the interesting part of all of this. In Matthew the Sanhedrin condemns Jesus because he claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man, all claims they believe are false. Mark tells a similar story, using the phrase “Son of the Blessed One” instead of “Son of God” (but these are probably identical phrases since God would be the Blessed One). In Luke the Sanhedrin condemns Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and, in their arguments to Pilate, a king. In John the charges of the Sanhedrin are not mentioned, but in all four Gospels Pilate condemns Jesus on the same charge: claiming to be King of the Jews. John mentions that the Jewish leaders are unhappy with Pilate putting a sign saying “King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross. They want the sign to read that Jesus only claimed to be King of the Jews – in other words, that he is being condemned for making this claim falsely.

A number of features point towards this idea of a verdict about to be overturned. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the crowds mock Jesus and tell him to save himself if he is the Son of God (Matthew), the Messiah (Mark and Luke), the Chosen One (Luke), the King of Israel (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). All of these phrases point towards a simple idea: if Jesus were to be saved from death then this would verify his claims. In Matthew and Mark the teachers of the Law even add that Jesus should do this so that they might believe in him. In Matthew the teachers of the Law go so far as to say that God should rescue Jesus “if He wants him”. In fact, Matthew lays it on pretty thick. Both Matthew and Luke record the death of Judas but Matthew chooses to tell us about it between Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and Jesus’ trial before Pilate while Luke does not bother telling us about Judas’ death until the beginning of Acts. In Matthew Judas tells the high priests that Jesus was innocent and gives them their money back. At this point the high priests admit their own guilt by saying that the money paid to Judas is unclean blood money. Now, while all of this has to take place once the high priests have returned to their normal duties, Matthew chooses to tell us about this right after he tells us about the trial before the high priests so that we read about the trial and then immediately that even the traitor Judas realizes that what he was done is wrong and that even the high priests recognize that there is some issue with their actions.

All of this comes together when Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus was right. God supports his claim to be Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the King of Israel. Moreover, if Jesus was right then his accusers are wrong. They have condemned an innocent man and deserve to be punished themselves. Problematically, Jesus’ accusers represent everyone: the religious authorities of the Jews and the political authorities of the Gentiles. Fittingly, all the Gospels claim the same thing: to avoid condemnation one must avoid or recant of this mistake. One must recognize Jesus as Messiah and King.

Now, I understand why you might say at this point, “Eric, that’s a lot of words to tell us something we already knew.” However, I believe that this is all important for two reasons. First, it ties together parts of the Gospels. There is a flow to the narratives of the Gospels and this is part of it. It enhances our appreciation of the Gospels and the evangelists thought it was important. Look at how Matthew and Mark highlight the theme. I’m not about to gainsay them (and I think the importance of Jesus as King of Israel is often overlooked when we try to figure out what to do with the Old Testament). The second important issue here is that we can easily allow the Bible to become a simple tale where we learn the answers, close the book, and leave it on the shelf. I did that for a number of years. I knew how the trial of Jesus went, I knew about the Exodus, I could discuss the Babylonian Exile and the prophets. Why should I read the Bible? I knew the material. When we see these smaller themes, perhaps new-to-us themes, we are reminded that the Bible has more than one thing to say.

Does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean that our sins are paid for? Yes. Does it mean that the power of Hell is broken? Yes. Does it mean that Jesus is the Son of the Blessed One? Yes. Does it mean anything else? Probably. Go read it and find out.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012 2:43 pm

    LOVED this: “…it would be a really spectacular jailbreak…” And I love your premise and conclusion that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished several things, not all of which God has necessarily revealed.

    The way I see substitutionary atonement is this: Jesus is no substitute for you and me. Rather, his atonement substitutes for our atonement. However, although Jesus opened the door, or made “the way” to escape Death possible, it is we who still must step through it by following his instructions. (“If you want to enter life, obey the commands.”) There’s no substitute for that.

    This touches on the common Christian catch-phrase, “When God looks at you, He sees Jesus.” I know it’s meant as a compliment, but when God looks at me, He always sees me—the good, the bad, all of me. On the day I stand before Him to be judged, He won’t be judging Jesus. He’ll judge me. I’m the one accountable.

    I mention this because it’s related, and many Christians believe that salvation is a matter of being forgiven so as to avoid judgment, which they understand strictly as condemnation (forgetting that it can also bring acquittal).

    So, belief in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection “saves” them from judgment because Jesus already “took their place.” They need do nothing more. And they need not stand before God any longer than it takes to check the books of heaven, and they’re off the hook.

    Salvation is about new life. Of course, if we pursue that, avoiding Death/punishment comes along, so the point is to correctly pursue living that new life. But I digress.

    I also enjoyed your comment about reading the Bible to find the “answer,” then closing the book. For many, if they just get the answer right (say the right prayer, perform the right sacraments, etc.), all will be well. Another mistake, me thinks.

    Another nice article.

  2. Eric permalink
    May 29, 2012 4:39 pm


    I certainly think it’s important to keep a balance between remembering that Jesus alone is capable of bringing about our salvation (he alone can open the door into life) and that we continue to have responsibilities.

    I think your point about the focus on judgment is a solid one. If judgment is the only thing to worry about then Christ’s actions would need to accomplish much less. If salvation is also about a new life then there’s a lot more involved. Interestingly, this is reflected in the Eastern/Western split in the Church. In the West we focus on crime and punishment and are much more likely to see salvation as a thing that happens to one at a particular point in one’s life. We can ask someone “When were you saved?” and it makes sense. In the East the focus is generally more on healing and new life and salvation is viewed as a process, theosis, in which one is gradually transformed. I doubt that the question “When we you saved?” would make much sense against that background. (Of course, Eastern Orthodoxy has not avoided the faults common to all humans and so I suspect that there are Orthodox who would assume that baptism or another sacrament stood in for a faithful life.)

    • May 29, 2012 7:08 pm

      Ah. I didn’t know that about the Eastern/Western split…thanks for that tidbit. Very interesting.

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