Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Jesus' Death as the Death of Everything You Know

The death of Jesus is the second most important event in Christian history, and the meaning of that death is debated long and hard throughout the ages. The conventional meaning ascribed by Western Christianity is as substitutionary punishment on behalf of humanity, that Jesus was punished for what the rest of us have done and will do. This understanding is based on a particular eschatology, that God will preside over a Final Judgement in which the divine status of all humans will be assessed, and those who have the heavenly accounts balanced will go to an everlasting conscious existence of close contact with the divine, and those who don't will go to an everlasting conscious existence of torture (lakes of fire and such things). It's a real "Get out of jail free" card.

That particular eschatology has some stringent criticism levelled against it from lots of directions. My favourite is a hermeneutical argument about reading the Revelation to John as spatial apocalypse rather than temporal. In other words, the symbols of the Revelation applied to the people, place and time of the document's production, rather than it being a prognostication. With that basic shift in reading the book, a Final Judgement eschatology is on uncertain ground.

We are left, then, to look for another meaning behind the death of Jesus. From memory, here are some of the colourful options I've encountered over the years.
  • Crucifixion was the standard Roman execution for (Jewish) political insurrectionist, therefore Jesus' death was the death of divinely-appointed nationhood
  • Being hung on a tree was the judgement of the Torah against Jesus, therefore Jesus' death is the rejection of God by Torah.
  • In the trinitarian construct Jesus is God, and prior to Jesus, God was only known to be transcendent, therefore Jesus' death is the death of God-as-transcendent-God.
  • Jesus' death is the "better" sacrifice than those prescribed under Torah, therefore Jesus' death is the sacrifice of sacrifice.
  • Jesus died to defeat death, therefore it is the death of Death.

It soon becomes clear that either theologians are in the business of making a name through deducing the meaning of Jesus' death, or that Jesus' death may as well be the death of everything you ever knew. And if we are to give theologians some credit (rather than tar and feather them with the reputation of egomania) then we can probably say that Jesus' death is actually the death of everything you ever knew. From here it is fair to say that Jesus' resurrection (the most important event in Christian history, in case you were wondering what #1 was) is therefore the creation of every thing, and the meaning of those things.

Now I recognise that all I've done here is extrapolate on a debate that has raged ever since the tomb was found to be empty. What did the death mean? Of all the things that have been proposed, I can say for certain that the meaning of Jesus death is hollow if it only applies after my neurons stop firing. Jesus preached the kingdom for now. Paul laboured to build the church for now. Jesus' death and resurrection must have meaning for now if it is to have any meaning at all.
Post a Comment