The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith

By Gerard S. Sloyan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Modern Soteriological Thinking:
Cross, Creation and Universal
Redemption

When Paul wrote that Jesus was handed over to death for our sins and was raised up for our justification (Rom. 4:25), he indicated, however unconsciously, that the death of Jesus had already become in his mind a fact to be believed in, and that God’s response to that death was another, greater fact tending to wipe out the memory of the first. Paul was no doubt convinced that the death was real. It was no mere appearance of death as the Gnostics would later have it. Indeed, he probably added the phrase “death on a cross” for emphasis to a hymn he quoted in celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection in his Philippian letter (2:8). His description of those who claimed belief in the crucifixion yet were set upon the things of this world (3:18–19) was that they were “enemies of the cross of Christ.” For him the ideal was to be committed to the cross, embracing it willingly. Still, the harshness of the way Jesus actually died seems to have eluded Paul’s attention. He had translated “cross” into “death,” humanity’s last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). Christ’s resurrection had effectively accomplished that destruction, at least at root. Consequently, Paul did not in any extant letter stop to reflect on the horror of death by crucifixion.

He wrote of Jesus’ offering of himself in sacrifice as life-giving for all under the legal figure of “justification,” meaning acquittal at law. At other times he used the figures “reconciliation,” “redemption,” and “sanctification.” Paul wrote that through Adam’s sin all humanity was made subject to condemnation. Through another human being all were released from that sentence (see Rom. 5:19). It happened “at the appointed time” (v. 6), meaning that it was God’s doing. The solidarity of the human race is essential to this mythic thought pattern, first under the headship of its progenitor in disobedience, Adam, then under the headship of one who by his obedience was the first of a new, figurative race of those released from sin. Paul consistently spoke of Jesus’ death on the cross in this detached manner. It had become for him a deed of God with cosmic implications.

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