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09 conclusion

The death and resurrection of Jesus in progressive Christianity

The death of Jesus was an event in the ancient past. 

It is the kind of event we can explain and date, assuming we have sufficient ordinary information about those with the motive and the capacity to seek his death, as well as a handful of chronological reference points from with to calculate the most probable date of his crucifixion.

The development of Christian ideas about the death of Jesus is also an ordinary historical problem. We have a limited number of ancient sources, some of which (the authentic letters of Paul) appear to derive from the very first generation of Christians; even before the term itself had developed. We would like to have more sources, but we have more than sufficient to trace the probable trajectories of early Christian thinking about the death of Jesus.

Early Christian beliefs about the resurrection, together with early Christian beliefs about the divinity of Jesus, are not ordinary historical problems. Tracing the trajectory as these beliefs are expressed in successive waves of literature is a simple history of ideas project. But explaining the origins of these beliefs, and evaluating them, is a very different "problem."

For many traditional expressions of Christianity the religious value (and the truth-claim status) of the resurrection tradition rests on the historicity of a resurrection event and the further assumption that such an event is an irrefutable demonstration of the divinity of Jesus.

For many progressive Christians, neither of these assumptions hold. 

The resurrection is seen as a complex interpretative process that reframes the tragic events of Jesus' death by crucifixion in April 30 CE so that it becomes a remarkable act of faithfulness by Jesus in response to God's call on his life, and of matching faithfulness by God in response to the faith-filled naiveté of Jesus. 

In such a progressive revisioning of the Christian myth, God is not "satisfied" by an heroic act of "atonement." No cosmic transactions were taking place at Golgotha. Rather, God can be imagined as choosing to be present in the tragic events, and taking into Godself the fear, hatred, death and suffering that was the shared reality experienced by all those present at the crucifixion; whether impaled on a cross, or holding a hammer.

While she may decline the label "religious progressive," preferring instead to identify herself as standing within the Chalcedonian tradition, Elizabeth A. Johnson offer some poignant revisionist perspectives on the significance of the death of Jesus in light of recent historical Jesus research:

The metaphor's narrative focus on the cross, moreover, leads to the idea that death was the very purpose of Jesus' life. He came to die; the script was already written before he stepped onto the world stage. This not only robs Jesus of his human freedom, but it sacralizes suffering more than joy as an avenue to God. It tends to glorify violent death as somehow of value. (p. 156)


Johnson notes that historical Jesus research contributes to redressing that imbalance in Western theology as it assigns value to the whole of Jesus' life and ministry, not just final hours. In such research, the resurrection is seen as the definitive action of God in not allowing death to have the last word.


Herein lies the saving power of this event death does not have the last word. The crucified one is not annihilated but brought to new life in the embrace of God, who remains faithful in surprising ways. (p. 157) 


Jesus' death can then be seen as what happened to the prophet sent by God when historical human actors make free decisions in particular contingent circumstances:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus' death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (p. 158)


Johnson suggests that the view of salvation then moves its focus on to God rather than Jesus:

... the view of salvation fed by Jesus research shifts theological emphasis from a sole, violent act of atonement for sin before an offended God to an act of suffering solidarity that brings the compassionate presence of God into intimate contact with human misery, pain, and hopelessness. (p. 158)

Part of the difficulty with the atonement/satisfaction metaphor, especially as it has played out in a juridical context, lies in the way it valorized suffering. Rather than being something to be resisted or remedied in light of God's will for human well-being, suffering is seen as a good in itself or even an end necessary for God's honor. Not only has this led to masochistic tendencies in piety ... but ... it has promoted acceptance of suffering resulting from injustice rather than energizing resistance. (p. 159)

Rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (p. 159)




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