For Easter, I've been looking at the theology of the Atonement – our understanding of why Jesus died and rose again and how this brings about our salvation. This kind of study can be helpful, but good theology should never be merely academic. It should have application; it should affect our lives. So, as we better understand the theology of Jesus' death and burial and resurrection – the cost and the greatness of what he did for us, the love that he showed and its moral influence, and his victory over sin, death, and Satan – how does it impact our lives?
First, and most obviously, understanding Jesus' death and resurrection should lead us to love and worship Jesus for his love and his sacrifice, for offering us “so great a salvation” (Heb 2:3).
And the resurrection in particular means that this isn't just a historical event, something that we need to merely give intellectual assent to. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then he's alive today, and we can know him just as surely as Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene did in Jerusalem on Easter. We can know the living Christ, instead of merely studying the historical Christ. And we have to know Jesus. Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’” Jesus doesn't deny that they did any of these good actions, but his response is utterly devastating nonetheless: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” (Mt 7:22-23). Good actions are ultimately meaningless if we don't know the living Christ.
Second, our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection affects how we live our lives. I went to Johnson Bible College (now Johnson University) for undergrad, then I went to UT for grad school. Johnson's a small private college; it had around 400 students at the time, we had chapel two or three times a week, we opened every class with prayer, and so on. UT has somewhere around 27,000 students, and it's just a bit less religious than Johnson. So I had some culture shock, to say the least, when I started school there. One of my fellow students had heard about my background, and so he emailed me to let me know that if I ever wanted to talk or if there was anything he could do, to let him know, and I really appreciated this.
One part of his email really stuck out in my mind, though. My friend said in his email that he himself was Methodist, but that he wasn't particularly devout. I don't understand. I can understand being an atheist, not believing in God at all. But I can't understand believing in God – believing that the Creator of the universe loves you, that God loves you so much that he'd rather die than live without you – and not being devout about it. I can't understand believing it and not really responding, not having it affect your life from top to bottom.
If I'm honest with myself, though, I have far too many not-particularly-devout moments in my own life. If I think about how complacent I so often am with my spiritual life, how selfish I so often am with my time, how unmotivated I am to make changes that I know would be worth making, and if I compare all of that with what I believe about what Jesus did for me, it's disgusting. It's simply inexcusable. I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip or set up some legalistic standard of “This is what following Jesus really means” or any of that – I've done that and seen it done enough to know it's not the way to go – I'm just trying to say that our beliefs need to affect our actions, that this kind of love deserves a response. And, really, this kind of love is the best motivation for our actions; our devotion should be motivated by our love and should be a response to Jesus' love.
Third, Jesus' death and resurrection affects how we think about Christianity and how we present Christianity. It's so incredibly easy to get confused in our priorities here. In Searching for God Knows What, Christian author Donald Miller talks about how, as an experiment while teaching a class of Bible college students, he presented “a form of the gospel but left out a key element”:
When I was done, I rested my case and asked the class if they could tell me what it was I had left out of this gospel presentation. I waited as a class of Bible college students… sat there for several minutes in uncomfortable silence. None of the forty-five students in the class realized I had presented a gospel without once mentioning the name of Jesus… Nobody noticed, even when I said I was going to neglect something very important, even when I asked them to think very hard about what it was I had left out, even when I stood there for several minutes in silence. To a culture that believes they “go to heaven” based on whether or not they are morally pure, or that they understand some theological ideas, or that they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. (p. 157-159, emphasis added)
Jesus' death and resurrection, and his invitation for us to know him, needs to form the core of our Christianity, but instead of presenting Christianity as Jesus, we so often present Christianity as Jesus plus something else. Francis Collins is a world-renowned scientist who led the U.S. research efforts for the Human Genome Project. He's a Christian – he wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which spent several weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list – and he believes in evolution. He said that there are students who grow up being taught that Christianity is Jesus plus a seven-day, 24-hour-a-day creation. Then, when they get to high school or college and start learning more about science and the evidence for evolution, they feel like they have to choose between Christianity and science, so a lot of them end up choosing science. In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman explains how this perception that the church is anti-science, the perception that Christianity is Jesus plus a particular view on science, is a major reason that nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect from church life after age 15.
This is messed up. People are turning their backs on Jesus – turning their backs on the One who died for them – because we've decided to make an argument over how (not whether) God created the earth, because we've said that God had to create the earth in a particular way and that, if you don't believe that, you're not a real Christian, or you're an inferior Christian, or you're just plain lacking in common sense. And the question of origins is important, and it has consequences for how we understand God and the world and the Bible, and it's worth studying and debating, but it's not as important as Jesus. It's not something you reject this kind of love over, and it's not something that we should demand that someone accept before they can receive this kind of love.
Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, suggests that we sometimes make the same mistake with our view of the Bible: instead of presenting Christianity as Jesus, we present it as Jesus plus a particular conservative or fundamentalist view of Scripture. Then, when Bible students who've been taught in this way go to seminary and get exposed to a wider variety of scholarship that challenges their particular view of the Bible, Wallace says all of their beliefs fall like a row of dominoes. This happened to Bart Ehrman, one of the better known Bible scholars today (his book, Misquoting Jesus, has been a bestseller on Amazon), who considers himself “a fairly happy agnostic.” Just as some people do with evolution, others are turning their backs on Jesus because of their view of their Bible. They're rejecting a Person because of a Book – and it's an incredibly important Book, and it's worth studying and debating and figuring out how to view it, but no good to turn your back on this kind of love over the question of how exactly to view this Book.
The theology of the Atonement can help us in many ways, but most importantly, it reminds me to hold on to Jesus' love. It reminds me that, even if “the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines [and] the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food” (from Hab 3:16-18), even if “I doubt my heart, I doubt my eyes” (Rich Mullins, “My Deliverer”), I must never turn my back on the love of the One who died for me.