(The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of AtOne: The Difference the Cross Makes.)
On a spring day sometime around 30 AD, a group of Roman soldiers hastily crucified three Jewish criminals on a hill outside Jerusalem. Crucifixion was a torturous affair which usually took days to claim the life of its victim. This time, however, it was shortened to several hours so the execution would not interfere with the upcoming Passover festival.
Everything went according to plan. They beat one of the criminals so badly before crucifying him that he expired just a few hours after being nailed to the cross. Shortly thereafter, they broke the legs of the other criminals so they could no longer push themselves up to breathe, hastening their death by suffocation.
Several notable events occurred that day. From noon till 3PM, massive storm clouds moved in making the sky almost as dark as night. Some people reported feeling earthquake tremors in and around Jerusalem. One of the criminals, a controversial religious teacher, kept talking about forgiving those who were crucifying and humiliating him. Unusual behavior, for sure. And reports from the Jerusalem temple indicate in the middle of the afternoon a massive curtain in the temple inexplicably ripped in two from top to bottom.
While these events produced no small amount of conversation, they seem to have made no immediate lasting impact on the residents and festival goers in the city. By sundown the bodies had been disposed of, and life went on like it always had.
No one seemed to think much more about that day until a few months later as travelers once again streamed into the city for another festival, this one known as Pentecost. At that time, several former friends of the executed religious leader began to proclaim that his death had fundamentally changed the course of human history and humanity’s relationship with God.
As you might guess, most people who heard their message rejected it. Some even accused them of being drunk. Still, they kept at it, sharing their message in every language spoken within the city. Surprisingly, their persistence paid off. By the end of the day, three thousand people committed their lives to following the ways of the crucified preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they soon began to call Jesus Christ.
For the next three centuries, more and more people throughout the Mediterranean world came to believe Jesus’ death foundationally altered the human condition and began following his teachings. Eventually, even the Roman Empire — which oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion — took Christianity as its official religion, ensuring the story of Jesus’ death would spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Today, almost one third of the world’s population believes what happened that day on that cross changed the course of history and eternity.
According to the story Jesus’ followers tell, his death on the cross provided a way for humanity to be at onewith God. Christians describe the end of their estrangement from their Creator made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial death as atonement, which you might find helpful to think of as at-one-ment. Interestingly, while the Christian Church in all its diverse forms throughout the centuries has always based its foundational teachings around the work of atonement accomplished through Jesus’ crucifixion, Christians have never agreed on exactly HOW Jesus’ death set them at one with God.
In the earliest days of the Christian movement, followers simply described the difference Jesus’ death on the cross made in their own words. Over the centuries, these descriptions were expanded and codified by theologians who produced what became known as theories of atonement. Written with great detail as if to stand up in a court of law or a scientific journal, each of these theories describes an aspect of the difference Jesus’ death makes. Today, many Christian theologians identify seven main theories of atonement, though it is possible to identify as many as fifteen or more distinct theories of atonement in Christian history.
Thank God we do not have to understand every detail of every theory for our lives to be transformed by Jesus’ death on the cross for us. If there is one thing that binds together all these theories, which can vary greatly in their explanations of Jesus’ death, it is that in each explanation, Jesus dies for us.
Perhaps you already know the life changing power of Jesus’ death and you are reading this book to draw closer to the One who gave his life for you. If so, it is my prayer that these pages will fill you with a new appreciation for the depth of Jesus’ love which can only be found through a deep dive into the nature of his sacrifice.
Or perhaps you are amazed by Jesus’ ongoing influence, but unsure about the truth of the claims made about him. You may even be wondering how any of the claims his followers make about him can be true when so many of the claims vary so greatly. Rest assured, you are not the first nor will you be the last to ask these questions. In fact, you are asking questions which I believe God intentionally created every human heart to contemplate. My prayer for you is that this book will help you consider your questions within the context of what we know about Jesus’ life and the difference Jesus has made in the lives of billions of people over thousands of years.
Ultimately, I believe we will find it impossible to describe all that was accomplished through Jesus’ death in one or two or even fifteen neat and tidy theoretical descriptions. Exactly HOW Jesus changed the world through his sacrifice may be so great a mystery that human words will never be able to do it justice. When we come up against the limits of our language to describe the work of God, we do well to remember the wisest within the Christian movement have always cautioned us to be prepared for moments when our words will fail us in our attempts to describe a Creator who is greater than the minds of his creatures can comprehend.
I do believe, however, that is possible to understand and to experience WHAT it is that Jesus’ death makes possible for us. And it is to that task, of both seeking to understand and to experience the life changing power of Jesus’ death, that we now turn as we begin chapter one with a question first asked on that day long ago by those at the foot of Jesus’ cross: Why did Jesus have to die?