The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
All of the Above
Today's pop quiz in Easter theology has just one multiple-choice question.
Christian theology proclaims Easter as the culmination of the Christ event, "the atonement". God's dramatic actions in and through Jesus are heralded as the pivotal moment of all time, because we believe that those actions speak to, and provide an answer to, the world's most important questions.
Through the years and in various Christian communities, though, several answers have been lifted up as the "correct" choice on the Easter test. Christians have agreed that Easter is the highest holy-day of the church year, but we have not always agreed about the reasons why our festival is so joyous.
A year ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, set people to arguing in churches, classes and homes about which slant on the atonement is most important. Gibson emphasized one perspective on the saving work of God in Christ. Much of the heated reaction to his film dealt with what was left out.
The Passion dealt almost entirely with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and as such, it was a classical expression of substitutionary atonement. In that view, the critical thing about Jesus is that he -- a genuinely blameless man -- suffered and died for us. The film's graphic portrayals of brutality and blood are essential in that theological stance. Gibson would check option (b) on the quiz without hesitation.
Many commentators complained that Gibson largely ignored the life of Jesus -- his teachings, his acts of kindness, and the quality of his compassionate relationships. There's a substantial contingent of Christians who find the core of Jesus' redemptive work in his prophetic, mentoring ministry, and who would select (a) as their preferred choice.
The Passion had only one brief scene indicating the resurrection, which was a serious flaw according to those who would select (c) as the correct answer on the quiz. This dividing line in theological perspectives is revealed clearly in religious art and architecture. In some traditions, the cross is portrayed as a crucifix, keeping the focus on the suffering Jesus; in other traditions, it is generally shown as a resurrection cross, empty and triumphant. The empty cross places the primary emphasis on a cosmic transition, a change in the human condition -- Christ's victory over the power of death itself.
In its varying expressions through the ages, the Christian church has emphasized answers (a), (b) and (c) in today's quiz. It has affirmed the significance of the atonement in addressing the problems of ignorance, sin and death.
As generally interpreted, those classical atonement problems deal exclusively with the human condition. They are powerful, urgent questions for us because we all encounter them in very personal ways.
(The matter of death, and Christ's victory over it, has generally been addressed in relation to death and eternal life for humans. That's why a child's question about their pet dog going to heaven has so often been answered with "no". There are larger theological implications to this point that I'll address at some other time.)
Within the last 40 years, though, a new question of ultimate importance has entered our collective awareness and personal experience. How is the whole of God's creation engaged in God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ? The question is not new, but it has become more evident and urgent in out thinking. Ecological understandings that have become mainstream since the 1960s have opened our eyes to the problem. A new global situation of ecological collapse -- created by the rapid growth in humanity's numbers, our technological power, and our ever-more consumptive lifestyle -- has moved this profound theological question into new prominence.
As we become aware of the suffering and alienation of the creation itself, our traditional theology is challenged. If the saving work of God in Christ is the pivotal event, not just in human history, but for the cosmos, then surely it must speak to this matter, as well.
Indeed, the biblical faith does speak to it. John wrote, "For God so loved the cosmos". Paul wrote that "the creation itself will be set free", and "in Christ God was reconciling the world". Colossians affirms, "through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven".
As we celebrate Easter this weekend, and as we deal with the meaning of the Christian faith throughout the year, may we wholeheartedly affirm that the answer to the Easter quiz is "all of the above" -- that God's saving work in Christ is for all of the creation, and not for humans alone.
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