Chapter 7: The Death of Jesus: Theological Test Case
The situations described in the previous six chapters represent typical experiences of death. They provoke a variety of questions that we want to respond to from the experience of our Christian faith as mediated by theology. In the first scenario, the grandmother’s death, the dominant question is one of meaning. This question is asked at three levels: the meaning of death for God, for those who survive, and for the person who dies.
The second example shifts from a relatively controlled, reflective experience of death to a traumatic, shocking experience -- the accidental death of a small child. Experiences of this type raise a different sort of question: Why? Behind that question is a feeling that some injustice is being worked or that God, who should prevent such things, no longer cares or is punishing the victims. At best, such experiences remind us graphically and painfully that we don’t understand God well enough yet.
Even in such circumstances, Christians have usually taken consolation in the expectation of immortality. This appears in the third case of the husband who feels his wife’s presence to be real in a new way. This raises the question of personal immortality: Is it real? What is it like for the person who dies? What connection, if any, is there between the immortal life of the dead and the mortal life of the living?
These questions are extended with consideration of our bodiliness and its ultimate value in God’s view. This concern figures prominently in the case of cremation, which is disturbing to the sister who interprets that act as a violation of her sister and a threat to her resurrection.
Closely aligned with our interpretation of death, immortality, and resurrection is judgment. This is especially acute when a person appears to have lived a morally evil life or to have committed suicide, as in the instance of the minister’s brother. Our anxious concern about how God judges our life is heightened in such circumstances because our responsibility for one another is more evident. Hence, judgment contains some additional questions: How will God judge us? When does judgment occur, immediately after death or at the end of the world or both? What are the ultimate, possible outcomes?
This level of questioning often remains centered on individuals and can overlook our social responsibility, indeed the interdependence of our individual lives with others. The social dimension is especially evident when we are reminded of how and why most people in the world die, a point made by the refugee in chapter six. This fact raises the question of the future as a time for final retribution, requiting of evil, and dispensing of rewards and punishments.
A general theology of death can be framed to respond to these questions, and that has been done here by combining a typical theology with a more relational one. The result is a theology that tries to be an appropriate expression of our belief and an adequate explanation of our actual experience of death. For any theology of death, the crucial test case is the death of Jesus. This is the central event around which the origins of Christianity pivot. By interpreting his death as both the revelation and empowerment of new life in God’s Spirit, Christians claim that God’s promises are fulfilled and our destiny made possible. Seen in this way, Jesus’ death is not taken in isolation from his earthly life or his resurrection. It is rather a focal point for viewing his life as a whole and for interpreting its meaning fully.
That meaning is typically supported by interconnected claims. One is that Jesus’ death is a unique event in human history. It is in a class by itself, a once-for-all event. Nothing like it had ever happened before and nothing like it can ever happen again. It should be remembered that Jesus’ death has this character because the same is true for his whole life. The uniqueness of his life culminates in his death, while his death is the culmination of his life. In other words, Jesus is unique, and his death is a special instance of this claim.
A second claim is that Jesus’ death has universal effect. This is part of its uniqueness. Although the actual event occurred in one place, at one time, and was limited by all the conditions of a historical setting, Jesus’ death is understood to be beneficial for all people, in all places, at all times. Jesus’ death focuses in a special way the paradoxical tension between the local and the universal, the individual and the many, the past and the present, which characterizes the Jewish and Christian experience of God in our lives.
The effect that Jesus’ death has is salvific. Salvation is usually understood as the fulfillment of persons, the realizing of all we can be, although sometimes salvation is presented in minimal terms. This occurs when we think of heaven as the place of salvation and when we ask what must we do to "get in," or when we think of heaven or salvation as requiring a way of life on earth that really limits our happiness or natural desires or human goals. So in an attempt to have the best of both, we can fall into the mindset of "how much can I get away with and still be saved?"
Clearly, this is not the outcome that our theological explanation of salvation desires. In its best expression, salvation has been understood as the fulfillment of our humanness, of our best selves, and not as inhibiting our human potential. This is made clear with regard to our capacity for freedom. Salvation, which is what we were made for, is freely offered and elicits a free response. No one is forced to be saved (by God anyway, even if some church persons exert pressure), and no one is saved automatically. Through Jesus, a real, attainable possibility has been inserted into the horizon of human becoming, but it must be appropriated by us.
God certainly wants all people to be saved, and in Jesus God has done everything divinely possible to see to it that all people are saved. But one thing God won’t do is take away our freedom. This leads to two specific questions: How is God’s desire that all people be saved actually worked out, and what role does Jesus’ death play in that working out? The second question is also sometimes asked in terms of how explicitly or consciously one must identify with Jesus in order to be saved. These further questions result from the prior claim that Jesus’ death has a universal effect.
The third claim undergirds the previous two. Jesus’ death is understood to be a unique event and have universal effect because of Jesus’ divinity. Who Jesus ultimately is clarifies what Jesus actually did and what value that action has. To understand Jesus’ divinity is a constant challenge for Christian theology. In one sense, the persuasiveness of the claims made for Jesus’ death stands or falls with the adequacy of theology’s explanation of Jesus’ divinity. At the same time, these claims and the original experiences that generated them are a source of insight into who Jesus is. So the theological task must be met holistically, by relating experience and interpretation continually and reciprocally.
A relational approach should be in a good position to do this. The rest of this chapter will present the potential of a relational view for explaining Jesus’ death -- the crucial test case. This explanation clusters around the three claims just discussed: uniqueness, universality, and divinity. The implications of a relational interpretation for the dominant questions raised in the cases will be discussed briefly at the conclusion.
A Relational Christology
On the surface it appears that a relational view is unable to affirm the three theological claims made for Jesus’ death. Regarding uniqueness, a relational approach affirms different degrees rather than different kinds of experience or event. This is evident in the basic view of God’s relationship to us. God is the perfection or fullness of what actually is, but God is not understood as an exception or radically other kind of being. God’s uniqueness is explained in terms of God’s fullness, the most complete degree of actuality that is possible. If this is true for God, it is no less true for an event like Jesus’ death.
The emphasis on degree of difference is also seen in a relational understanding of immortality, resurrection, judgment, heaven and hell. Everything that is actual participates in the same kind of existence, what might be called the essence or nature of actuality. There is a great range of degrees within the nature of actual existence; a relational approach affirms this range of degrees as adequate to explain reality as we experience it. That is consistent with its own principles, but is questionable as an adequate explanation of the uniqueness of Jesus’ death as we have typically understood it.
In a similar way, the universal effect of Jesus’ death seems to be undercut by the relational view that God includes all experiences and all events and all people in God’s relation to the world. This means that nothing actual is ever really lost as far as God is concerned. If this is so, what does it mean to say that Jesus’ death is the unique event that has universal effect? From another point of view, our customary approach assumes that there are mutually exclusive options. Our freedom is exercised in regard to these options. We choose either for God, salvation, Jesus or for ourselves, our existence, this world. Such absolute exclusiveness is not really conceivable in a relational view. Rather, there are degrees of choice. If we can’t really choose not to relate to God, what universal effect does Jesus’ death have? By our relational nature, we are already and always included in the realm of freedom where we can truly choose, but among options that are ultimately compatible, not exclusive.
Finally, both of the previous claims are grounded in Jesus’ divine relation with God. As developed typically, this claim embraces equally the humanity and divinity of Jesus. What this means is often seen more sharply in the interpretations that have been rejected than in the positive formulations of orthodox dogma. Nonetheless, a thoroughly relational view poses two problems. It tends to be rigorously monotheistic. As presented in this book, relational theology deals with God and the world. Reflection on the nature of God apart from this relationship falls outside the scope that relational theology can address.
In addition to its monotheistic stress, this approach affirms God’s relationship to everything and everyone that is actual. This would seem to suggest a degree of divinity in everything, or that everything has a divine character in God. Once again, it is a matter of degrees. But is that sufficient to explain the divinity of Jesus as it has been believed by Christians? Is such a superior-degree-of-divinity Christology not one of the false interpretations previously considered in Christian history and rejected?
These initial reservations are not, of course, the final word. But they must be addressed before turning to a more direct presentation of a relational view of Jesus’ death. What makes anything unique? Is it in being an exception, strictly speaking, to everything else, or is it in being like everything else but more fully, more completely? In the latter case, uniqueness is also a model, an ideal, a possibility to aim at. We can see ourselves approximating what is like us. In the former case, uniqueness is eccentric, curious, distracting. We can’t see ourselves wanting or needing to be like it.
Uniqueness as fulfillment and model is how Christians have viewed Jesus’ life and death. He is the supreme model that is attainable because he lived our kind of life and died our kind of death. In him we can see ourselves. To the extent that he appears as a totally other kind of person, we lose connection with him. This has sometimes happened in the past when Jesus’ divinity was stressed in a one-sided manner, making him seem like someone so unique, so unlike us that he ceased being a realistic model. In that respect, others took his place: Mary his mother, saints, church practices, etc.
Another way of expressing the uniqueness of Jesus’ death is by analogy. Analogy is a comparison or relationship in which differences are viewed within a more fundamental sameness. The relational view put forth here is akin to analogy. Within the fundamental sameness of death, Jesus’ death is unique because it expresses everything that a human death can really be. We may not be able to grasp all at once or simply what that is, but if we proclaim Jesus’ death to be unique in this way, that is one of the implications.
Another implication brought out clearly in a relational view is that a uniquely complete event like Jesus’ death is not static. It is not an isolated moment to be viewed and imitated. In a relational view, everything is related to everything else in an actual way, as mutually influencing and being influenced. The degree of active relating depends on the completeness of the events, experiences, persons experiencing. From our side, this means that Jesus’ death enhances our own death when we are united to him. From Jesus’ side, this means our death reenacts his to some degree and gives it a new, though never more complete, expression. Thus, the uniqueness of Jesus’ death does not separate that event from us but brings it closer, drawing together still more intimately the union between Jesus and us. How this is explained in a relational way leads to the second claim for Jesus’ death -- its universality.
In a relational view, the key to universality is in the activity of God. It is God who draws from every occasion all the possibilities for continued experience, and it is God who offers us those possibilities in the order of what is best from God’s point of view. In this way, any previous event can exert some influence on any subsequent event. Now, in a relational approach, activity acquires value insofar as it becomes something definite. While an event is happening, it is not yet clear what its value will be because it is not yet finalized. In this sense, it is only as things come to an end that they have a value that extends beyond their own experience of becoming.
To speak of Jesus’ universality is to speak of a value that extends beyond Jesus himself. It is a value that God mediates to all, once Jesus has completed the event in his own experience. Regarding death, at least human death, Jesus’ experience is the most complete experience that is possible. From this definite occasion, God can now derive new possibilities for everyone else who dies. The fact that Jesus’ death is the fullest expression of what it is to die does not mean that people after Jesus die a lesser death than he did (experientially), but that they can die a fuller death than they would have otherwise. Other events in Jesus’ life would have the same effect for the equivalent events in our life, like love, freedom, self-giving, etc. But all such events are part of the whole person’s entire life. It is death that uniquely (in the sense of fullest) concretizes, makes final, and unifies our whole lifetime of such experiences.
Thus, the universality of Jesus’ death is mediated by God to all people, but Jesus’ death has the effect it does because it is a unique experience of what death for a human person can be. What that is will be spelled out shortly, but first a word about Jesus’ divinity is in order. The basis, once again, is God and God’s activity. In ordering or ranking the best possibilities for every new occasion, God’s overriding value is creativity. Creativity implies a degree of newness, but it also implies a change or transformation in order to achieve newness. The divine principle that constantly seeks creative transformation in everything may be described as God’s Logos -- the divine, creative Word that expresses the very life of God.
The Logos is operative in everything God does, luring, drawing, beckoning the most creative (and therefore the most divine) experience possible out of the actual accumulation of experience up to this point. This framework suggests that the Logos of God has always existed with God and always seeks concrete expression in relation to the created world. As Christians, we believe that in Jesus the fullest possible expression of the Logos in human experience is manifested. From a consistently relational point of view, this is explained as the relationship between God’s Logos and Jesus as the twin poles of one, actual existence. The same two poles or dynamic factors are operative in all of our lives, but not to the same complete degree as in the life of Jesus. Whether this difference of degree is because the Logos is uniquely related to Jesus from the beginning or because Jesus uniquely responds to the Logos throughout his lifetime is part of the mystery of the incarnation.
A typical theology would opt for the former position. Because the Logos is uniquely with Jesus at his very conception, Jesus is the divine one. A relational view could also assert this, but it would not consider the relationship at the beginning to be the exclusive emphasis. Rather, the relationship of the Logos to Jesus from the beginning was and continued to be the fullest unity possible throughout Jesus’ lifetime. At any given moment (when he was twelve, when he was baptized, when he first began preaching, when he chose his disciples, etc.) the actual potential for the relation between the Logos and Jesus was different from any other given moment. This is simply what a relational view means. At every moment, however, the relationship of the Logos and Jesus was all that it could be. There was a perfect, full, complete congruence between the Logos of God and Jesus.
This complete congruence was as much Jesus’ doing as it was the doing of the Logos. That is, Jesus had to respond to, had to actualize the best possibility that the Logos offered him. Jesus’ unique response in every situation made possible new, creative opportunities that the Logos received from Jesus’ actual actiondecisions and fed back into Jesus’ life-possibilities. In this way, the real, dynamic relationship between the Logos and Jesus sustained a unique harmony or congruence that is called Jesus’ divinity. Viewed from the side of the Logos, Jesus is the incarnation of the divine principle of creative transformation. Viewed from the side of Jesus, he became the Christ, one with the Logos of God, through a lifetime of congruent actiondecisions culminating in his death. Both views must be affirmed simultaneously to have an adequate understanding of Jesus’ divinity.
A relational approach affirms the uniqueness, universality, and divinity of Jesus and of Jesus’ death. It understands these claims consistently with its own principles and view of reality. This view is unmistakably different from that of typical theology. At one level, the difference may be seen as only one more indication of the pluralism that abounds in today’s world. But at another level, the importance of that difference must be tested. For a different explanation that expresses the truth of Christian belief is one thing; a different explanation that distorts or misrepresents or falsifies the truth of Christian belief is another.
Ultimately, the criterion for deciding such an essential point is not logic and intellectual argument. It is whether a given explanation enables us to live the meaning of our belief. For Christianity is above all a way of life before it is a formulation of belief or a set of doctrines. What sort of meaning does a relational view of Jesus’ death enable us to live? How is the meaning of Jesus’ death to be understood? To answer these questions, it may be helpful to go back to the first chapter in which the general question of death’s meaning was raised and to ask the same question of Jesus’ death. What does Jesus’ death mean for God, for Jesus himself, and for us?
A Relational Theology of Jesus’ Death
The primary meaning of anyone’s death in a relational view is the meaning for God. In general, everyone’s death is a contribution to God in the sense that death finalizes each person’s novel experience of life. As an actual, unrepeatable experience, this is something God desires and uses to foster continued advancement in the lives of others. Even though everyone’s life and death is a contribution to God, the contributions are not equal. In fact, each person’s contribution is relative to that person’s possibilities in life (personal judgment) and relative to the actual accomplishment of others (general judgment).
What contribution does Jesus’ death make to God? Typical theology asserts that this is the unique, decisive event that has effected salvation for all people. One of the familiar ways of saying this is that Jesus has reconciled us, as sinners, with God, who is holy. Various explanations of redemption or satisfaction have been developed to clarify what this reconciliation is and how it was accomplished. All such theories grapple with the fact of human sinfulness as the primary, disruptive element in the relationship between us and God.
A relational approach also asserts that Jesus’ death is the unique, decisive event that effects salvation for all people. This is explained, however, not so much as restoring a relationship once established and subsequently broken, but as contributing a uniquely complete experience of the ideal relationship with God. From this experience, God is able to derive and offer to us uniquely complete opportunities for actualizing our own relationship with God. Thus, in a relational view, the ongoing, ever-new, interdependent quality of our relationship with God is given strong emphasis.
At the same time, Jesus’ death has a once-for-all character and is understood as overcoming sin. The once-for-all aspect, the ultimate decisiveness of Jesus’ death, means that this experience remains unsurpassable and always present as an operative part of God’s relationship with us. it is from this unique event that God chooses new possibilities for our future. No other event gives God the same full range of experience to draw upon. That is part of its contribution to God. In addition, this view explains how Jesus’ death overcomes sin and redeems us. The new possibilities that God derives for us from Jesus’ death are offered to us in the midst of our real circumstances. These include sin. But sin is never able to obliterate the possibility of good, which God constantly offers us through Jesus. Without Jesus’ death, God could draw upon only our own previous good acts to offer us new opportunities. Because our goodness is mingled with sin, the ultimate, decisive power of the possibilities we could generate for God would always be dubious. But Jesus’ death, lived out in the midst of a sinful world, also settles the doubt once and for all.
In this way too, the universal effect of Jesus’ death is seen through God’s mediation. A person need not be consciously adhering to the memory of Jesus to benefit from Jesus’ death. God derives possibilities for all people from the experience of Jesus. How effectively they may be communicated or how fully they may be enacted will depend on particular circumstances. At this point, being in conscious, explicit affiliation with Jesus may enhance the likelihood of a person’s perceiving and following the best course of action, but it would not simply determine whether that person benefited from Jesus’ death,
Thus, the contribution of Jesus’ death to God is that it gives God an actual, complete experience from which God can always draw new possibilities that, if we enact them, will enable us to overcome sin, fulfill our own destiny, and intensify the relationship between us and God. If this is the contribution of Jesus’ death to God, what was there about his death that made this possible? What was his experience that gives God this unsurpassable source of opportunities?
To answer this question we need to take a closer look at any experience in a relational view. It was mentioned earlier that God’s overriding aim in everything is creativity. This may also be expressed as the newest possible experience, given the reality out of which it emerges. A new experience, a creative experience, changes or transforms what is already there. In doing so, new feelings are generated. The newer, more creative the experience, the more intense the feelings. Such intensity is not a pressure or burden or neurotic emotion.
The most helpful analogy is aesthetics. Intensity of aesthetic experience is satisfying, uplifting, energizing. It excites and freshens and carries us beyond ourselves. We feel everything else a little differently after a good symphony or an engaging novel or a challenging play or a striking sculpture or a colorful painting. Our feeling for everything is intensified, enriched, deepened, made more sensitive and perhaps more sensory.
This intensity occurs when different elements are brought together in a new way. The bringing together requires some basis of compatibility. Within that compatible range, the goal is to find the most different elements. The history of art is, in one sense, the story of the effort to keep searching for new ways to bring together the most different elements imaginable. The same process underlies life itself. The fact is, however, that the immediate past has an extremely powerful influence on the immediate future. Most of us tend to repeat what we have once done. If it is familiar and if it seems effective, we stay with it (whatever "it" may be: where we sit at meetings, what kind of car we drive, where we go to eat, what we do to celebrate, etc.).
Now there are obvious advantages to routines or habit, especially for the more insignificant things we do (like shopping, hygiene, getting to work, etc.). In fact, habits can free our creative energy and imagination for more important things (like sustaining friendships, expanding personal interests, cultivating family, etc.). Here is the challenge: not to let our whole lives be channeled into routines, into expectations others have set up, into habits that limit our creativity. If God’s overriding aim is creative transformation, that should be ours too. When we do act creatively, we give God more of what God wants, and that enables God to give back more to the world.
What has all this to do with Jesus’ death? Jesus’ death is an event that, like any other event, seeks the most creative experience possible. This is achieved when the greatest differences are brought together on a compatible basis. What differences does Jesus’ death bring together? A relational view might describe these as the human capacity to receive and the divine capacity to give. The contrast lies in the fact that this exchange is carried to its fullest without the human capacity being absorbed into the divine or the divine capacity being wasted on the human.
The risk is higher on the human side. The sense that we might be engulfed by the divine, swallowed up in the transcendent, thereby losing our identity and very being, is an abiding feeling that remains part of our human experience and grounds our religious expression. At no point in our human experience is that possibility more acute than at death. In this event preeminently, we face the possibility of our extinction. To face that possibility in its fullness with the most complete openness and receptivity to God is to push the contrast to its limit. This is what happened in Jesus’ death. Through it, Jesus gave God the experience of how far the human capacity can reach and still be human. By holding nothing back, Jesus allows God to feel what the human-divine relationship, contrasted in this way, stretched to its maximum, can be.
At the same time, God takes a risk. Offering the fullness of divine life is no guarantee it will be accepted. The gift could be refused. In a typical theology, this would not ultimately affect God because God is understood as perfect apart from any relationship to creation. But in a relational view, this is not so. God is interdependent with us and needs our experience to know actually what an ideal, complete relationship with us would be. So the death of Jesus has a definite contribution to make to God in terms of God’s experience of the human capacity to receive as well as the divine capacity to be received, i.e., to have the gift that is offered actually received.
Such an experience is not simply the result of sin. Even if human beings had never sinned, there would still be the desire to extend the mutual capacities of us and God, to see how far they could go. In terms of God’s relationship to us, this could even be understood as the ultimate aim in God’s creative purpose. Once fulfilled, this experience becomes the norm according to which all human-divine relationships are evaluated and the ultimate source from which the new possibilities for the human-divine relationship are drawn.
This explanation does not radically alter the biblical affirmation that Jesus died for us, that he gave himself up on our behalf, that he carried out his Father’s will. A relational view seeks only to express in relational terms how that proclamation may be understood. The interdependent, cocreative relationship between us and God reaches a unique, complete, full actualization in the death of Jesus. Because of this event, God now knows experientially how far the human capacity can reach, And God knows experientially how full the divine capacity is to give when the human capacity is at its maximum. This divine, experiential knowledge is manifested best in what Jesus’ death means for Jesus.
Jesus’ Death for Himself
If Jesus’ death contributes to God a unique experience of the human capacity to receive God, then Jesus’ death also allows God a unique opportunity to give. What does God give? The divine experience. There are two points to make here. One concerns how the experience is given; the other concerns what the experience is.
God gives to us by relating to us, and to relate is to enter in, to become part of, to feel together. These very human words are applicable to God in a relational view. God relates to us by feeling or experiencing what we feel, sharing new possibilities with us communicated as new feelings, impulses, attractions for our own enactment. Throughout, God is with us, indeed within, in the midst of our total life experience. God’s presence is woven all through our experience. Our relationship with God is fashioned out of real, mutual, internal relations.
God’s presence is not all we sense, and for some, God’s presence may be one of the last things they sense. But for Jesus, God’s presence was always primary. God’s feelings became Jesus’ feelings; God’s vision became Jesus’ vision; God’s aim in all things became Jesus’ aim. This perfect congruence is how a relational view understands Jesus’ divinity, although saying it this way may suggest that Jesus only gradually became divine, whereas he was always human. A relational view would say that Jesus was always as fully divine as his humanness allowed. If humanity and divinity are really distinct (as typical theology expresses with two natures, human and divine), then these two distinct elements are related to each other. In a relational view, this means they are mutually related; they are interdependent; each conditions what the other is or can be at any given moment.
As Jesus developed humanly, his capacity for divinity developed as well. Whereas a gap opens up between these two poles for the rest of us, a perfect congruence or harmony characterized Jesus. His was always a perfectly actualized capacity for divine experience. And what was the divine experience? As noted before, the experience of creativity, or more pointedly in a human context, the experience of freedom. As Jesus experienced and acted on the divine freedom that coconstituted his own identity, he revealed certain characteristics that give us, who are at more of a distance from God than Jesus was, a glimpse into divine freedom.
God’s freedom is paradoxical in the sense that it calls into question every previous expression of divine freedom that becomes settled, habitual, routinized. God’s freedom remains free only by transcending itself, by going beyond its own actualization. A more relational way of saying this is that God’s freedom must be reenacted to be free -- not repeated slavishly, with full attention given to the particular details and circumstances, but reenacted, taken up anew in fresh acts of free, creative activity. This paradoxical thrust is evident in Jesus’ intention to fulfill the Law by, at times, violating the specific precepts of the Law. It is not unfree repetition but free enactment that fulfills, and Jesus experienced this from God.
Divine freedom is threatening because nothing is immune from it. If God relates to everyone and everything and if God’s way of relating is through free, creative transformation, then God’s future remains essentially open. And so should ours. But we find it hard to live that way. We want to have assurance, foreknowledge, guarantees, and we don’t want to feel that our previous efforts have all been for nought. So we tend to preserve and defend rather than push our capacity to receive God’s next creative lead. In this respect, Jesus was clearly perceived as a threat by others. But he also must have felt himself and his ministry threatened by God’s freedom. And yet, he responded with an ultimate openness and trust, even when he faced the seemingly contradictory outcome that God’s freedom required Jesus’ death. In fulfilling that last step, Jesus became forever the final threat to everything we claim in order to protect ourselves from God’s freedom.
Jesus’ experience of divine freedom is self-validating because there is nothing more from God to experience. If God’s overriding aim in every occasion is creative transformation, freedom, then no relationship to God can experience anything more than that, although it is possible to experience less. Those who experience less often put the burden of proof on those who experience more. They want to be convinced on some other grounds that divine freedom is what it appears to be in the life of one who experiences it fully. Because they take their own partial experience as the norm, anything more seems to be blasphemy or a reckless disregard of tradition. But divine freedom has no other argument than itself when it is experienced, and if it is not experienced, no argument is adequate. Thus, God’s freedom remains always an invitation to be accepted freely, not by the compulsion of argument or proof.
Finally, the experience of divine freedom is hopeful because it constantly pushes beyond the immediate, the given, the known to what else is possible. Divine freedom is never merely settled or permanent. It moves; it is active. To experience that and to make it the center of life, as Jesus did, is to be driven with urgency and filled with hope. It is to be discontent with the present as the sum total of all that can be. The experience of divine freedom means that we are constantly freed to stretch our dreams and hopes and efforts so they may be matched by God’s creative response.
Jesus’ death meant for Jesus that he experienced God’s creative freedom not as something external to him, like an ideal or goal, but as the very innermost drive of his own life. There were many counterforces to that freedom, but he never replaced God’s primacy with anything else. His lifetime of experiencing God’s freedom culminated in own final act of openness to what God could do with his death. And the story of that creative transformation has been told ever since.
Jesus’ Death for Others
In the telling and retelling of Jesus’ resurrection, the focus tends to shift toward its implications for us. This is certainly understandable and acceptable as long as the primary focus (God’s creative transformation of Jesus’ complete openness) is not obscured or subordinated. Jesus’ death does have meaning "for us." A relational approach explains that meaning in terms of the field of influence that Jesus’ death generates.
Jesus’ death culminates a process of mutual, internal relatedness between Jesus and God that stretches the human capacity to receive and the divine capacity to give as fully as possible. This relationship actually occurred. It becomes part of the total accumulation of what actually is, not just what could be. As an actual occurrence, it is always available as a source from which God can derive new possibilities for others to experience and make actual in their own lives.
The relative effect of any new possibility depends on several factors. It depends first of all on the quality of the experience from which the possibility is derived. In the case of Jesus’ death, that quality is the highest (most intense). The effect also depends on the nature of the experience. If it is a rare experience, which few people are likely to reenact, its effectiveness is lessened. We all die; Jesus’ death has maximum relevance to human experience. The effect is also dependent on the compatibility of one experience with another. What Jesus and God experienced to the fullest is the basic structure of the relationship between God and all of us.
This basic, similar structure is the human capacity to receive divine experience and the divine capacity to give it, culminating in the final act of human openness to God -- death. It would not be too far-fetched to imagine the actual fulfillment of this relationship between Jesus and God as a kind of magnetic field attracting our own still possible relationships with God. Such an attraction is not a controlling or usurping of our own free determination of how that relationship will actually turn out. It is, rather, a support, a contribution, a reinforcement of our own best possibilities and impulses in relation to God. Moreover, we can choose to enter more or less fully into the influence of this field. Specific action-decisions like prayer, intercession, memory of Jesus, funerals, preaching, Scripture accounts, devotions, etc., all have relative value in orienting us toward a fuller reenactment of Jesus’ death in our own lives.
The underlying conviction in a relational view is that everything is related to everything else. An event as central and complete as the death of Jesus is not only related to everything else, but it has the power to attract other events like it (human death) and contribute them to its own perfected experience. In this way, Jesus death can coconstitute our death. Or to put it another way, we can die with Jesus. To the degree we enter into Jesus’ death experience or let his experience enter into ours, we die a fuller death, i.e., we open wider our capacity to receive all that God has to give us.
In this sense, the extent of our salvation can be increased by the death of Jesus if we understand salvation as our final relationship with God. The degree of intensity that we could experience in that relationship is always greater when Jesus’ experience of that same divine relationship is included in our own. Whether we want to do this or not is our own choice. Whether we recognize the offer, the potential that Jesus’ death represents for us depends on our sensitivity to being open to God and God’s free activity in our lives. However we perceive it, Jesus’ death is always for us. Whether our death is also for Jesus and through him for God is the ultimate question each of us must answer for himself or herself.
With this understanding of Jesus’ death, how would a relational approach respond to the questions raised by the cases seen earlier? The meaning of Jesus’ death has been spelled out already. From his death we can strengthen our own desire to contribute further to God’s experience of us and our capacity to receive from God. This in turn enables God to continue interacting with those still alive by drawing from our experience new possibilities for others.
Regarding the question why, Jesus’ death illustrates how God is able to bring new possibilities for life out of tragedies when they are experienced in relationship with God. No one was more unjustly killed than Jesus. God’s response to this event was not to explain why or to punish the wrongdoers. God’s response was to transform that event, give it a creative, new meaning by the possibilities God drew from it. But the new possibilities were (and are) available to those open to feeling them, willing to trust God and experience what God would do with their human capacities stretched to the extreme point. Jesus’ death shows us that the greater our capacity to entrust ourselves to God, the more creatively God can transform us toward our fulfillment.
The creative transformation God worked in Jesus is a further indication of what we may expect for ourselves if, like Jesus, we remain open to what God can and will do rather than predetermining what God should do or what we want God to do for us. When we take the latter direction, we limit God. We narrow our capacity to receive and therefore God’s capacity to give. Often this means that both we and God are disappointed. But if our primary focus is on God, not ourselves, and if we trust that God will do all that God can do, then immortality and resurrection are gifts we hope for and enable God to give to us in the fullest possible degree.
In the same way, the field of influence generated by Jesus’ death allows us to enter into a deep, internal relationship with God wherein our relative contribution to others, through our contribution to God, is already occurring. The value of this contribution is God’s judgment of us, or evaluation of how our actual experience furthers God’s creative advance. When our contribution is united with and influenced by Jesus’ contribution, that judgment is already positive and remains only a question of degree.
The same may be said for our social responsibility. By intensifying every present occasion as fully as possible and staying open to what God can and will do freely with it for the future, we contribute to a hopeful future, one that God can effect to the degree our present actions allow. The ultimate shape of the future is not ours to give. Ours is to do what is right in the present, to respond to God’s best aim for us here and now. Out of that will come the best possible future.
The present chapter has aimed at explaining Jesus’ death in terms of the general relational view put forward in this book. A relational explanation is quite different from a typical theological explanation. Whether the differences are acceptable variations on our common belief or mutually exclusive alternatives is an important question, although it may still be too early to decide. In any event, it will be helpful to summarize the contrasts noted in this book and draw together some final conclusions about when the becoming ceases.