Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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?

Atonement Theories
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.

Resurrection Theories
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.

6 Responses to “When Death Died”

  1. joespencer said


    Death theology is one of my consistent topics of research, and I have an essay about precisely the questions you’re asking here that is supposed to appear as a chapter in a book on atonement theology next year. I haven’t the time right at the moment, but I can spell out some of my thoughts here in response to your questions.

    At any rate, I think what you’re asking about is actually the core of Mormon atonement theology: we have more, in terms of scriptural resources, to say directly about death than we do about sin, in the end.

  2. J. Madson said

    Christus Victor model speaks to resurrection. Scholars like NT Wright also see the resurrection as a vindication (based upon a first century palestine world view). Jesus was who he said he was and God’s nature, character, and attributes are what Jesus personified and taught.

    Ill quote some of my favorite theologians on this

    NT Wright:

    “[The] message of the kingdom is the thing which resurrection is really all about—and, conversely, … resurrection is what the message of the kingdom is all about. In other words, Jesus came with a job to do, to complete the work to which Israel was called. This work, from the call of Abraham onwards, was to put the human race to rights, and so to put the whole creation to rights…Jesus was addressing the question, “What might it look like if God was running this show?” And answering, “This is what it looks like: just watch.” And then, “just listen.” In what he did, and in the stories he told, Jesus was announcing and inaugurating what he referred to as “the kingdom of God,” the long-awaited hope that the creator God would run the whole show, on earth as in heaven. Like any good Jew, he believes that if he faces this, in obedience to the divine plan, he will be vindicated. And the word for that is ‘resurrection’.

    Crossan and Borg describe the vindication thus God has vindicated Jesus:

    God has said “yes” and “no” to the powers who executed him. Easter is not about an afterlife or about happy endings. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus against the powers that killed him…. The authors of the gospel do not speak about Jesus’s resurrection without speaking about his crucifixion by the collusion between collaborators and imperial power. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.”

    Crossan and Borg again

    “Without an emphasis on Easter as God’s decisive reversal of the authorities’ verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony, and horror. It leads to horrific theology: God’s judgment means that we all deserve to suffer like this, but Jesus died in out place. God can spare us because Jesus is the substitution sacrifice for our sins.

    Without God’s reversal at Easter, Good Friday also leads to cynical politics. This is the way the world is, the powers are and always will be in control, and those who think it can be otherwise are utopian dreamers. Christianity is about the next world, not this one, and this one belongs to the wealthy and powerful, world without end.

    Easter without Good Friday risks sentimentality and vacuity. It becomes an affirmation that spring follows winter, life follows death, flowers will bloom again, and it is time for bonnets and bunnies. But Easter as reversal of Good Friday means God’s vindication of Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God, for God’s justice, and God’s “no” to the powers that killed him, powers still very much active in out world. Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. It discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun – but it will not happen without us.”

    Robert Jenson

    The Resurrection was the Father’s Yes. We may say: the Resurrection settled that the Crucifixion’s sort of God is indeed the one God; the Crucifixion settled what sort of God it is who establishes his Deity by the Resurrection. Or: the crucifixion settled who and what God is; the Resurrection settled that this God is.

    and NT Wright to close

    The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. …Jesus’ 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….

    And in the light of that, according to Jesus himself and his first followers, everything in the world looks different, is different, must be approached differently. With Jesus’ death, the power structures of the world were called to account; with his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was unleashed upon the world. And the question is: How ought this to work out? What should we be doing as a result?

    • ricke said

      Lately, I have been reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on by N.T. Wright. I think he is great! Just today I listened to his discussion of the corporal resurrection. He is completely convinced it was a physical event and one that will eventually come to us all.

      His idea of the atonement is much harder for LDS to accept, but I think it is worth pondering. He proposes that Jesus died for (read: because of)Israel’s sins (read: failures). Not so much in expiation, but as a result.

    • Matthew said

      Nice quotes. Thanks for sharing.

  3. BrianJ said

    Joe: Let’s have it then! I agree that there is something very interesting and important that Mormonism, compared to other Christianity, has to say about resurrection, given that we emphasize the importance of a physical body.

    J Madson: the quotes speak to the importance of the resurrection, the signal it sends, etc., but not to whether or not Christ needed to die in order for mankind to be resurrected. Nevertheless, the quotes are quite interesting, so thanks for posting them.

  4. J. Madson said


    “the quotes speak to the importance of the resurrection, the signal it sends, etc., but not to whether or not Christ needed to die in order for mankind to be resurrected”

    oh I apologize I missed the thrust of your post then. I assumed it was on whether the resurrection was necessary and what it did. I think it was necessary and the why was my purpose for the quotes.

    As to whether he needed to die for us to be resurrected. I doubt it. I see no reason to think so, but Im not sure I can point you to a scripture. The scriptures after all attest he overcame death.

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