Taking Easter Apart and Putting It Back Together Again

I’m easing my way back into blogging with some quick thoughts about Good Friday and Easter.

Growing up Evangelical, I learned to think about Holy Week within a certain framework (for one thing, we never called it “Holy Week,” we called it “the week before Easter”). Here’s what I used to believe about Easter. Not that I could necessarily have articulated all or any of this, but these were the assumptions and implications of our beliefs:

  • Jesus died as part of God’s Master Plan to assuage His wrath via human sacrifice, a plan that came together with precision in fulfillment of very specific ancient prophecies. None of the players in the story was acting outside of God’s Plan.
  • God needed Jesus to die so He could legally forgive our sins, so we can also say that we helped to kill him by committing the sins that necessitated the sacrifice. If we had not sinned, Jesus would not have had to die.
  • The shedding of Jesus’ blood propitiates (satisfies) God completely, but not universally and not automatically. For the sacrifice to be effective, one must convert to Christianity and believe in the sacrifice. Anyone who does not do this cannot enter Heaven when they die, since they have not taken advantage of the legal mechanism provided by the sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection was miraculous and triumphant without diminishing the effectiveness of his sacrificial death. God raised Jesus once the sacrifice was complete as a proof of his divinity and of afterlife. God brought Jesus back to heaven to prepare an eternal home for true believers.

Here are just some of the problems that swarmed my mind and heart as I grew up and learned to think through these beliefs:

  • Why does the God who (according to the Old Testament) ABHORS human sacrifice and who ultimately (according to the prophets and Jesus himself) REJECTS all sacrifice hatch a Master Plan that involves manipulating humans to carry out the horrific execution of a truly innocent person? Do we really believe that shedding the right blood was the key to pleasing God all along? What does this say about the character of God and the nature of the universe He created?
  • How can anyone (even God) conceivably satisfy their own anger, legally or otherwise? How does orchestrating a sacrifice for Himself “deal with sin” and make God happy enough to absolve a few humans of their guilt?
  • What is the level of accountability for the human pawns in God’s Master Plan? The priests and crowds demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate ordered it, and the Roman soldiers carried it out, but weren’t they carrying out the holy will of God? In this way, weren’t their actions strangely sacred? Is it wrong for God to hold them responsible for fulfilling the ancient prophecies He arranged “from the foundations of the world”?
  • If the death of Jesus has the power to heal and save, how is that power limited to only those who “believe in it” in a certain way? Doesn’t this put the onus of salvation onto humans and their decision to think or not think certain thoughts? And how does the salvation of a small remnant of humanity fit in with the Bible’s vision of renewal and rescue for all of creation?
  • If Jesus’ death was legally satisfying to God, does the resurrection in any way dilute or complicate its effectiveness? If the death of an innocent is required to “pay for sin,” how could God be pleased and placated by a death that is not “final”?

Here are some fresh thoughts about Good Friday and Easter. These are not the “correct” beliefs, they are my current best attempts at interpreting and appreciating this story I’ve inherited:

  • God did not kill Jesus. We did. And we did it not by committing isolated and disparate personal sins but by ACTUALLY KILLING HIM. The violence of human religion and empire conspired to murder Jesus. And if a prophet appeared among us today preaching empathy and a forgiving God, we’d murder him or her too. That is the scandal of Good Friday.
  • Resurrection is not the triumphant epilogue that gives the story a happy ending, assures us of heaven, and helps us win the culture war by following the correct religion. Resurrection is both a vindication of Jesus’ legacy and God’s non-violent rejection of our attempt to scapegoat and sacrifice His Son. It’s God’s “no thank you!” to our disgusting rituals and violence which were exposed on the cross.
  • Jesus does not come back to seek revenge or “settle the score” (as his followers clearly expected), he comes with “peace” on his lips, announcing a new world. His followers still didn’t get it, so he promised that his spirit would always be with them to guide them, if only they’d listen. If only we’ll listen.
  • Salvation is not achieved by rolling around in the magic blood of an innocent scapegoat. It is found in the light of Easter morning, in the hope of New Creation, and a willingness to follow in the Way of selflessness and vulnerable love. Jesus saved us from our sins by exposing their true nature, absorbing our hate and offering us the opportunity to repent of our violence and self-destruction.
  • We seek the presence of the Risen Jesus, not as our Holy Emperor leading us to conquest, but as the One who announces shalom and the end of violence and sacrificial thinking. Each Easter, like every new day, is another chance to open our eyes to this astonishing reality.