Jesus' Death and Resurrection: Review of Rob Bell (Part 4)

In chapter 5, "Dying" to Live," Bell writes about the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is important in any serious discussion and exposition of the good news to expound the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. The first disciples very early in the development of the Jesus movement interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus in a redemptive way. Even though the powers that be crucified Jesus, the early disciples believed that God was at work in and through the cross, using it as a means of redemption. But the crucial question: In what sense is Jesus’ death redemptive? How does Jesus’ death have saving efficacy? How does it work? I was disappointed that Bell did not offer an explanation.

Bell rightly acknowledges that there are different metaphors and images employed in the New Testament to speak of Christ’s death. Bells writes: “Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled or a guilty defendant who’s been set free or a battle that’s been won or the redeeming of something that was lost?” (p. 127). Bell says that the cross is about all of these things. And in one sense he’s right; all of these images are employed by the biblical writers. But what is desperately missing is an adequate atonement narrative that can bring these images together, so that there is some unity in the diversity. There is no attempt by Bell to connect his commentary on the cross with his understanding of heaven and hell and God’s desire to redeem the whole creation. This chapter, then, is somewhat disjointed, interrupting the flow of the narrative.

In the Gospels the death and resurrection of Jesus are presented as the culmination of his life, so that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus form one piece that has redemptive significance. The contextual and particular historical situations that occasioned the New Testament epistles were not as conducive to a narrative exposition of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Gospels, but there are hints in them that the death of Jesus should not be segregated from his life, that the theological significance of the death of Jesus must include the life he lived that led to his death. In other words, it is the entire Christ Event (life, death, resurrection/vindication, and reality of the living Christ) that has saving power and significance.

In my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, I attempt to show how the redeeming significance of Jesus’ nonviolent atonement fits hand-in-glove with Jesus’ nonviolent life and his proclamation and embodiment of the kingdom of God. I also offer a short explanation and critique of the substitutionary atonement model that continues to prevail in evangelical Christianity, but is now being more frequently challenged. My approach is pastoral and practical, as well as theological and biblical. For a more scholarly presentation I recommend J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, and for an approach that combines scholarly and pastoral considerations I suggest Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

Bell does a better job connecting the significance of the resurrection to the good news of God’s intent to reconcile all things to God’s self. He writes: “The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation” (p. 133). Bell argues that God “inaugurated a movement in Jesus’ resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven.’ (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it” (p. 134).

I certainly concur, though I would say it a little differently. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitute one movement. Jesus’ resurrection by God (a key point in the early Christian preaching) constituted God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death (his message and ministry, his nonviolent, humble, compassionate way of life that culminated in death.) It was the Christ Event in it’s entirety that inaugurated the new creation, though Jesus’ resurrection was the crowning, confirming, validating aspect.

Bell concludes the chapter with an important commentary on how the process and pattern of death and resurrection constitute the process and pattern of Christian discipleship and authentic spirituality. This is a theme emphasized over and over in one way or another in the teachings of Jesus and powerfully exemplified through his own life, death, and resurrection.


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