[Crosswalk, January 2000]
Q. I was raised in a nominally Jewish home, then spent some time as a proudly “confessing atheist” before turning to non-theistic Eastern religion. I now honestly believe that historic Christianity is the faith with the most universal application to all mankind, but there are some questions I can’t get over. How could the Father send the Son, if they are one? How could God the Son die? Why was it necessary that his *body* be resurrected? Please, please, please don’t take this as being argumentative; I would really like to find some way to understand. As much as I love Jesus’s teaching and person, no matter how I turn it around in my mind, no matter how much I read, I cannot understand what it means to say that Jesus died for our sins.
A. God bless you, Stan, these are really good questions. Nor are they new questions—Christians have struggled to figure out exactly how these mechanisms work for two thousand years.
I picture this awareness being like the knowledge farmers have always had, that light makes plants grow. For many millennia, certainly, they couldn’t explain exactly how it worked; they didn’t know the term “photosynthesis.” As early Christians discovered that the Cross and Resurrection had somehow changed everything, they worked out theories to explain what was happening to them. Two main theories came to hold sway.
The most prevalent explanation in the early church was that Jesus went into hell like every other human who dies—then busted it open and set the captives free. The ancient icons show him standing on the broken gates of hell, holding Adam and Eve each by the wrist, and pulling them up out of their graves. The theory was: we all live in a muddy wash of sin, we are powerless to extricate ourselves, and we all are deservedly destined for enslavement in Satan’s kingdom forever. But Jesus followed the path we all trod, went into hell, and vanquished Satan completely. The Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom, read in every Orthodox church every year on Easter, says: “Hell took a body and met God face to face.” We “ride Jesus’ coattails”, so to speak, into freedom; it is a gift he gives us because of his overwhelming love for us.
Another theory wasn’t widespread until much later. Here the action is directed toward God the Father rather than Satan. The idea is that our sins offend the holiness of God and make us unworthy of dwelling in his presence. With each sin we run up a debt so great that we could never pay it. A single sin requires death, but we have only one death to give for all our many sins, and the life we could offer is pretty shabby. The only death that would be perfect enough to pay this enormous debt would be that of the Son of God himself. Jesus’ death pays the penalty for all of us, and is given as a free gift because of his overwhelming love.
The first theory focuses on the Resurrection and is more prevalent in the Eastern Church; the second focuses more on the Cross and is more prevalent in the West. As an Eastern Christian I lean toward the first, but whichever we choose I’m afraid we haven’t gotten far off square one as far as answering your questions goes. Neither theory answers every question a sincere, well-intentioned person could pose.
Look again, though, at what these theories have in common. What was it that early Christians were sure of? That Jesus loves us. That he is *able* to save us. That somehow this is already done once-for-all (by the Cross, Resurrection, or both), yet it is also something that we have to continually receive and move deeper into.
In your question I hear two things: good, logical, “but how can these things be?” questions, as well as a “love for Jesus’ teaching and person.” It’s the second, probably, that will gradually answer the first. After all, the first thing Jesus told his disciples was not “Here’s the way things are,” but “Follow me.” As they followed they came to understand all they were able; some things will ever be too big to comprehend. As he told them at the Supper before he died, “I have other things to teach you, but you cannot bear them now.”
As we follow, we are seeking a goal that is neither emotional nor intellectual, but ontological; we are being actually *changed*. It a process of *transformation,* not merely enlightenment or consolation. Along the way we recognize other people who “get it” and say, “You, too?” And we puzzle over those who don’t seem to get it at all, who look at Jesus and shrug. It is as if we have a sense in addition to sight, hearing, touch, etc that enables us to pick up his presence. We bloom like plants in the light of his love. After all, plants can’t explain photosynthesis, either.