When Death Died
Posted by BrianJ on June 24, 2010
Lessons on the Atonement discuss two hurdles that Christ helps us overcome: sin and death. In terms of sin, regardless of which atonement theory we’re discussing, I can follow the thinking about what Christ had/has to do to overcome sin, but I don’t understand the equivalent for conquering death.
I confess up front that I haven’t thought much about this and that my thinking is influenced (tainted?) by how I imagined it as a teenager. When I heard things like, “[Christ was] possessed of power to conquer death,” I pictured a scene like in one of my video games where the hero confronts boss monster after boss monster until finally facing off against Death himself: an epic battle ensues and, multiple explosions and health potions later, Death lies dead on the rocky ground.
This thinking unfortunately relies on a personified Death—which, however incorrect, is nevertheless a nice parallel to a personified Sin in the form of Satan. But even if I throw out this Nintendo-inspired thinking, I’m still left with the question: What exactly did Christ do to overcome death that he could not already do if he hadn’t performed the atonement at all?
Backing up a bit, I’ll explain my question in terms of sin. Without the atonement, we would be unable to overcome the effects of our sins. I think that statement holds up regardless of which atonement theory we use. Moreover, whatever Christ did/does to free us from sin, he is only capable of doing because he completed the atonement. In other words, this isn’t like healing the sick or stopping the flow of the River Jordan—miracles accomplished before any suffering in Gethsemane. God couldn’t just want to be able to redeem us from sin, he actually had to do something (the atonement) to make that possible. Different atonement theories attempt to describe what exactly Jesus did and how it enables redemption from sin—or how it enables God to forgive us—(Substitution Theory says that Christ paid in our place, Moral Influence Theory suggests that Christ’s sacrifice influences us to be righteous, etc.). Never mind the strengths and weaknesses of each theory; the point is that each illustrates why the atonement is necessary—not just why forgiveness or an otherwise-willing God is necessary.
What I haven’t seen, however, is any explanation of what Christ had to do for us to be resurrect-able; I don’t know of any “Resurrection Theory.” My video game experience says that there is some monster that wields control over our souls, and only by slaying or subduing that beast can we be reunited with a physical body. Or perhaps there was something experiential about it: Christ would only know how to accomplish resurrection if he figured it out first hand. Or maybe it was just his privilege to be the first one resurrected; God had the ability to resurrect before the crucifixion, but he waited to use it first on Jesus. Or, as a little twist to Compassion Theory of Atonement, possibly God felt no desire to see us resurrected until Christ experienced “the pains of death” (I have no idea what those are!).
If indeed God possessed power to resurrect all along, then it seems to me that Christ did not technically overcome both sin and death during Gethsemane-Golgotha. On the other hand, if Christ unlocked, inaugurated, conceived the power to resurrect, then it seems like there should be some theory of how he did that.