Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2011

I recently read and discussed with my Contemporary Theology class three books on atonement theology. Each answers the question of the meaning (or lack thereof) in Jesus’ death.

Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, sees the most meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus in his defense of traditional atonement models (his is not simply a straightforward defense of traditional satisfaction and substitutionary views, though).

J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement challenges the view that Jesus’ death is necessary for salvation, but as he does still work with the language of atonement, there is some ambiguity in his treatment of Jesus’ death. The death was strictly an act of evil, not something God in any sense willed. But Jesus’ death is part of the story of salvation that in some sense is dependent upon Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the saving act, but—though Weaver does not state it like this—there had to be a crucifixion for there to be a resurrection. So Jesus’ death has meaning in relation to his resurrection.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, utterly reject any kind of positive role for the story of Jesus’ death. They believe that Christian theology that valorizes Jesus’ death, especially that sees his death as necessary for salvation, is actually advocating a kind of “divine child abuse” where the “father” requires the violent death of the “son.”

As it turns out, Boersma’s view is pretty complicated. He tries to hold together all three of the tradition models: satisfaction, moral influence, and Christus Victor. There are other arguments for the satisfaction model and its substitutionary atonement variant that are stricter. One recent example is this book by British theologians Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach: Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The subtitle makes the stance of the authors clear.

The two approaches: Satisfaction or mercy “all the way down”

One way to approach this topic is to note that, at bottom, there are basically two ways to think about Christian salvation: the satisfaction view and the “mercy all the way down” view. Continue reading “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”