The Passion, the Cross, and Sin
So I’ve been working my way through the Synoptic Gospels in conjunction with a few texts on Church history! April’s a boatload of fun.
On the whole, the notion of sin has been played very loudly when in reference to Christ’s death and resurrection. In Protestant circles, Christ’s death has been so individualized that certain denominations argue that our sins are Christ’s wounds. The understanding of Christ’s death as a repayment for our sins comes from a long line of thought inspired by the Roman idea of the underworld. In this perspective, Satan has used sin to imprison Creation in Hell and Christ’s death needs to provide the ransom payment to free Creation. In a sense, a lot of Christian theology has evolved around this concept, especially the idea of Christ’s salvation as being a washing away of sins.
Alright, so salvation being freedom from sin is a concept taken largely from the Gentile understanding of death and the underworld. And yet it’s also considered deeply important to read the Gospel in context with the culture in which Christ lived, so where’s the middle ground?
Imagine Christ as a Jewish man living in a very bad time to be Jewish. The temple had begun an extreme exclusionary era in a hope to find out why God had abandoned the Israelites. The Romans had taken control of what was once Israel’s land. In a sense, the Israelites felt as if their frequent struggles were a sign of the mistakes that they had made in the past — a sign of the initial rejection of God’s love by Adam and Eve carried out over the generations. And yet, given the Biblical narrative, God’s saving love was always present. Christ’s teaching, in effect, tells the Jews that they were denying God’s relationship by focusing so deeply on perfecting themselves. Think of how deeply Christ protested the strict adherence of the Pharisees to the Law.
From the perspective of the Hebrews, then, Christ would have existed to restore the people to their relationship with God. Christ essentially erases the initial rejection — the distrustful “No” of Adam — with his own “Yes.” By achieving God’s will in all his actions, Christ showed it was possible for humans to be in relationship with and trust God. Ultimately, with His acceptance of death on the cross, Christ sends us back to the beginning, before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This idea is summarized in recapitulation theology, an earlier idea from the Byzantine Church. Christ’s death gives us the choice to trust God again. Where Adam and Eve had put man out of relationship with God by effectively fooling them into believing only bad choices were possible, Christ, by acting with human free will, showed what it meant to trust God.
In this sense, Christ’s action wasn’t so much to free us from sin but to tell people, “You’re not screwed, just look to God.” Christ is a reminder of what it means to be in relationship with the Divine, and his death is the ultimate example of letting God’s will be carried out through a person.
Whether or not there’s value in the idea of Christ repaying all of mankind’s sins through his death, there’s certainly a lot of value in this. After all, whether or not we’re sinners, as Christians we choose to accept the offer of being in relation with God.