The Controversy Over Jesus’ Death
ON THE day of Passover 33 C.E., a triple execution took place. Three condemned men were herded to a site outside Jerusalem’s walls and put to death in one of the most agonizing, humiliating ways: impalement on upright wooden stakes. Such executions were common in Roman times, so it might be expected that by now the Passover killings would long be forgotten. One of the slain men, though, was Jesus Christ. His death unleashed momentous religious change and controversy.
Nearly two thousand years have passed since that event, so you may be inclined to regard it as merely ancient history. However, are you aware that the controversy that arose is far from settled?
As you may know, millions hold that Jesus died for them. They fervently believe that Christ’s death is the key to redemption and forgiveness of sins, that faith in his death is the means to salvation. Surprisingly, though, an article in the Anglican Theological Review reports that this cherished tenet is “in trouble.” And the “trouble” is coming from religious leaders.
Explains the Anglican Theological Review: “The doctrine of atonement in Christian thought is in trouble because its biblical bases are in question, its formulation has become overladen with ephemeral [short-lived] notions . . . , and its expression in popular spirituality has taken on the form of personal emotionalism and uncritical self-justification.” Indeed, both Protestant and Catholic theologians have failed to reach any sort of agreement as to what, if anything, the death of Jesus Christ means.
You might feel that this is just squabbling by a few theological specialists, that it does not relate to your life. But give thought to this: If Jesus’ death really does tie in with your standing before God and your prospects for everlasting existence (in heaven or anywhere else), then this controversy demands your consideration.
Why are the theologians still arguing the matter? Consider, for example, the Roman Catholic Church. It has well-defined dogma on the immortality of the soul and on the Trinity. Yet, the church is curiously indecisive regarding redemption through Christ’s death. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “Many and divergent systems have been developed to explain how man is delivered from the evil of sin and restored to grace . . . But none of these systems has been totally successful. . . . The theology of the Redemption is in some part unachieved and continues to pose itself as a problem in theology.”
It should not be a surprise to you, then, that of the millions who fervently intone that ‘Jesus died for us,’ few have more than a vague idea as to what that really means. As the Anglican Theological Review puts it: “When pressed . . . the believing Christian is often unable to cite the biblical source of the doctrine, or to explain how it works.” Burdened with a teaching they neither understand nor can explain, worshipers in the churches are hard-pressed to see how Christ’s death is relevant to their lives.
Christendom’s failure to articulate a clear doctrine on redemption has also hamstrung her efforts to reach Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others with the Christian message. While many of such ones admire and respect many of the teachings of Jesus, the confusion surrounding Christ’s death and what it means stands as a roadblock to faith.
Is the significance of Christ’s death simply a mystery—beyond human comprehension? Or is there a reasonable, Bible-based explanation of it? These questions deserve your consideration, for the Bible makes this astonishing claim regarding Christ: ‘Everyone exercising faith in him will not be destroyed but gain everlasting life.’—John 3:16.