Last fall our beloved cat died. I know for some this is not a big deal. A lot of people don’t even like cats. But, if you have pets you understand. Our pets are part of our family. Octavius was a beautiful cat. He looked part Maine Coon and had a gorgeous coat—he looked like a lion in the winter. He was also super chill. He loved Winston, our dog, even though Winston would often ignore him. Probably my favorite thing about Octavius was how calm he was with Titus. When Titus was an infant he would often lay beside him while he was laying on his play mat. As he got older, Titus would try to pick him up, sit on him, fall on him, and all sorts of things that clumsy toddlers do. He never hissed, pawed at, or scratched him. He actually acted like he liked Titus.
So, when I got the call from Emily that our cat was laying in our living room and not moving, I rushed home. I’ll never forget seeing our beloved cat laying lifeless in our living room. He was only four years old, and seemingly healthy. I assume he died of feline cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart disease that is the most common cause of sudden cat death. Thankfully, Titus was down for a nap and we were able to remove Octavius without Titus ever knowing. As a kid, I had several pets that passed on, but I never had to deal with their bodies. For whatever reason, having to remove and bury Octavius really bothered me. I cried. A lot. I remember bawling my eyes out and simply saying, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
I honestly don’t know what I was sorry about. We gave Octavius a good life and there was nothing we could have done to prevent his death. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that his death was somehow my fault. I am not sure if this makes sense to other people, but death just feels wrong. Even in animals. Death is just not supposed be able to steal our pets from us, or even more so our loved ones. I heard someone say once that death is a villain. I felt sorrow for Octavius’ death and I felt responsible. Like the death in our world is somehow my fault.
Sin and Death
My faith confirms this sense. Death entered our world because of sin. Sin isn’t just some failure to meet some arbitrary moral standard. Sin is that thing in us that makes us prone to be really selfish. Sin is that thing in us that will lie, gossip, and slander someone else’s value so that we feel better about ourselves. Sin is that thing in us that will selfishly pursue pleasure even if it cost our own kids the security and stability of having an unbroken family. Sin is that thing in us that will defend its right to be right even if it means lashing out at someone we have declared our love to. Sin is that thing in us that will secure our own fat pension plan even if it means essentially robbing countless other employees and crippling their future. Sin is that thing that will walk into a public space and unload a firearm completely unconcerned with the collateral damage being inflicted. Sin is that thing in humans that has produced racism, genocide, sex-trafficking, and poverty.
The Apostle Paul wrote that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. I used to believe the death penalty was dealt out by God. Paul is actually saying that sin deals out death. Death is the payoff of sin. God is the one who wants to rescue us from sin and thereby rescuing us from sin’s consequences—namely death. Theologian and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright states it like this:
The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. (The Day the Revolution Began)
Whether one believes the testimony of the Scriptures or not, one cannot deny the reality that there are some actions and even dispositions that lead to death and brokenness. We know our actions have consequences. The sad reality is that some actions have consequences that cannot be undone. Simply talk with a person who one night decided they were sober enough to drive this one time and made one choice they wish they could undo. Whatever you believe about sin or the Bible, you have to admit that our choices have consequences and some of them, quite literally, lead to death.
Does Death Win?
The radical claim of Christianity is that death doesn’t get the final say. The question I have been wrestling with lately is how this claim works. The cross accomplished something that even the biblical authors have multiple ways for describing. Many Christian circles have made one or two of the metaphors in Scripture a dogmatic doctrinal essential. I am not sure that is helpful here.
For example, the context of the biblical audience was familiar with sacrifice. Even the Gentiles had a framework for sacrificing to the gods to appease their wrath. For the Israelites, sacrifice was this symbol act that demonstrated simultaneously the horrific nature of sin and the removal of it. Ultimately, the focus was on how they could exist in relationship with God. Sin disrupts our relationship with God and other people. I don’t think God needed an animal to die in order for Him to forgive Israel because God needs nothing. It seems that we actually need some sort of concrete way to understand how forgiveness and reconciliation works. John Walton writes about sacrifice in the Old Testament this way:
…sacrifices were an integral part of life in the Ancient Near east…We can therefore conclude that Yahweh built on existing sacrificial customs in the ancient Near East…This mechanism not only provides a way to deal with impurity that builds up in sacred space (remedial action necessary), but it also provides a tangible means for God’s people to interact with him at a positive, constructive level. (Old Testament Theology for Christians)
In other words, God enters into our world and communicates His desire to be in relationship with us in ways we can understand. For a person in the Ancient Near East, blood sacrifice made sense.
Scripture uses other metaphors to describe what Christ did on the cross too. Christ ransomed us from the powers of darkness, He paid the price for our freedom, and He triumphed over death and the powers of darkness. So what did Christ do on the cross? It’s like what Denzel Washington’s character does at the end of the movie Man on Fire when he exchanges his life for a kidnapped girl he had come to love. It’s like what Batman does at the end of The Dark Knight when he takes the fall for crimes he didn’t commit. It’s like what Katniss Everdeen does in The Hunger Games when she takes her younger sister’s place as tribute.
God enters into the human story by becoming human. Thereby fully identifying with the human experience. God, in Jesus, suffers a tragic, unjust death. A death that symbolizes both the way of the world and the horrific nature of sin. The way of the world is to grasp at power and make things right through force and violence. Crucifixion was Rome’s answer to insurrection. Crucifixion was Rome’s statement that she was in fact in power and could not be dethroned. Crucifixion is also a symbol of sin—of the human capacity to imagine horrific ways to treat one another. It is the ultimate example of how far humanity’s ability to relate rightly to one another had fallen. God triumphs over sin by assuming it; by absorbing it on the cross. He surrenders Himself to it because it is the only way to deal with it without perpetuating it.
These metaphors of ransom, redemption, atonement, and reconciliation are not metaphors in the sense that they are not real or true. Rather, they are Scripture’s and our attempts to articulate a mystery that is as real as the air we breathe. The goal is not to communicate some sort of doctrinal tenet that we affirm to get a ticket stamp to heaven. Doctrine is important, but something far more transcendent is going on here. I have found in my own questioning of things that “how” questions can often be answered, but all “why” questions eventually meet a law. There seems to be laws that govern our universe that simply just are the way they are. There is a law that exists in this world that sin must be dealt with in order for a relationship to be reconciled. There is also a law that exists that death must be dealt with, or else it wins.
Easter is Coming!
Death appeared to have won over two thousand years ago when humanity killed the author of life. But, the Christian claim is that in Jesus, God won. A number of people have argued the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. I do not intend to do that here. The hope of the resurrection is that all of our human longings for transcendence; all of our human questions about whether we’re loved, about our value and purpose; and all of our human hopes for life to win have found their answer in Jesus. Is there hope beyond death? Are you loved? Does life have purpose and meaning? Can you be forgiven for your past? Can God actually love you? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
The response to the resurrection hope is as simple as praying a few sentences, yet not as arbitrary as reciting a formula. What mean is this: What Christian’s call the “sinner’s prayer” is enough of a response for God’s saving grace to rescue a person, but it is not a magic formula that people should mindlessly recite. The biblical description of the response is to repent and believe. To repent simply means to change directions. If the way we are going is leading to death, the appropriate response is to change the way we’re going. We don’t change the way to earn salvation. We change the way to lean into the life Christ purchased for us.
We are also called to respond with belief. I used to think (and I think many Christians still do) that the belief was about believing Jesus died and rose again. It is certainly important to believe this is true, but one can believe it is true and still not have a reconciled relationship with God. I think the reality we are supposed to believe has to do with what Jesus’ death and resurrection means. We are invited to change the way we are going and to believe that we have been made right with God. Imagine how actually believing in the depth of your being that you were loved and accepted could change how you live and see yourself.This why it is called “good news.”
The term “good news” appears in the Old Testament Scriptures is in Isaiah 52:7: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Imagine this, you live in a village that is part of a nation at war. I should also mention that you are living during biblical times. During that time a messenger would come from the battlefront with news about the battle’s outcome. Let’s imagine your nation was victorious. How you respond to the messenger’s news has no bearing on the outcome of the battle. The battle is already won. Your believing this truth has no bearing on what has happened, but it does have a bearing on how you will live. If you refuse to believe victory has been secured you will live as a defeated and conquered person. This is the good news. Your right standing with God has already been secured—so believe it! Live as if this is true. Stop trying to secure your value and prove your worth in so many meaningless ways. Rest in God’s love for you.
Paul gets in trouble in the New Testament because his message was offensive. What was so offensive about it? It was not, as some people assume, because he was talking about hell all the time (don’t check out here, I’ll address hell next). His message was so offensive to people because he was proclaiming that people were made right with God and all they had to do was believe it was true! No more sacrifices and no more law keeping. Just read his letter to the Galatians. Throughout the letter he is adamant that the works of obedience in the flesh do not make the Galatians right with God. The radical claim we are invited to believe is that God loves us and we are made right with Him because He made us right. This is counter intuitive because we don’t settle debts the way God does. We don’t reconcile or distribute justice the way God does. Jesus demonstrated this upside down reality too. He was constantly interacting with people the Law said were too far from God’s grace. He demonstrated that God had come near and the Kingdom of God was available to those people who didn’t deserve grace.
The good news is an invitation to live in a different way and to believe you can be right with God. It is an invitation, not an ultimatum. However, love and relationship is a choice. In the same way that there are some people who will stay in their homes even though they know a hurricane is coming, there will be some people who do not accept the invitation God offers in Jesus. The rejection of this invitation means we stay on the trajectory of death—this trajectory leads to separation from God which is ultimately what we would call hell. The good news is not built on the reality of hell though. The fundamental essential of the Good News is Resurrection.
Are You Saying Sin Isn’t a Big Deal?
Well, what about sin? Paul foresaw this question when he wrote about grace in Romans. He writes about the radical nature of God’s grace. He says, “where sin kept multiplying, grace was multiplied more.” So, should we live in sin? Of course not. When we come to know Jesus through our relationship with Him, we come to love the things He loves. We come to love God and others more deeply and more purely. As we come to love more authentically, sin increasingly loses its power. We get legalistic with this though. We try to make everyone’s journey with sin fit into some sort of mold. God’s Spirit works with each of us differently. Parents who have more than one child understand this when I say, every kid is different. God knows this too.
Sometimes we get really hung up on the obvious vices in people’s lives. We began to categorize them and even marginalize them. As if we have the right to say to another human being, “You can’t be ‘in’ and act that way. You can’t be right with God and have that sin in your life.” Wait a second. Who gave you the gavel? Who said you can undo what the cross has already secured? Further, God looks at the heart. I know a person who has a number of outward vices (chewing, drinking, and a past with drugs), yet he understands God’s compassionate love for other people better than a lot of longtime church goers I have met. For us to say either person is more or less wrong is not our place. My point is this: God is working on our hearts and as he does sin loses its power, but God works on people at different paces.
As our hearts are transformed, as I already mentioned, we begin to see things God’s way. We began to understand that God created every human being in His image therefore we begin to care about biblical justice. Our eyes become opened to the ways Jesus showed loved to society’s outcasts and we begin to look for opportunities to love modern day outcasts. We read Jesus declare “Father, forgive them for they do not know” over his enemies and we are challenged to forgive generously—even extravagantly. We begin to realize that what the Scriptures call “sexual sin” is sin because it is our attempt to use love for our own gratification rather than to be love. We begin to realize that all of our attachments and addictions actually leave us less fulfilled and more enslaved. We begin to realize that gossiping, cursing, and slandering other people isn’t some arbitrary “law,” but that our words have power. We begin to realize that generosity is life giving. Serving is meaningful. Forgiving is liberating. Loving is good in the deepest sense of the word.
As we follow Jesus we realize that we have been invited to participate in the reclaiming of creation from the powers of darkness. We realize that “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” We realize we are salt and light here on this earth. We are meant to be a foretaste of the coming Kingdom, meaning we are to live now as if we actually believe Jesus is King.
Creation is Pregnant
This hope, at face value, looks like pie in the sky. If all this is true then why is the world still the way it is? The Good News is like a pregnancy. When my wife was pregnant with Evelyn, our daughter’s life (we believe) was really and actually there. Her life existed two months ago as much as it exists now. Evelyn was “here,” but at the same time not “here” in the same way she is now. She was actually alive, but the fullness of life’s expression was veiled by the womb.
We are, in Christ, now new creations, yet we are not fully who we are meant to be. The Kingdom of God has come near in Christ and through the Resurrection, but the Kingdom is not yet fully realized. I believe this to be true. Pregnancy points to this. The changing of the seasons point to a pattern of death and resurrection. The Good News is written into the fabric of creation and eternity has been set on the hearts of men.
Repent and believe the Good News.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope