Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
If you have not read The Worm at the Core by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynscki, I would highly recommend it. At the core of the books is a basic principle: that our fear or mortality is one of the primary shapers of human behavior, culture, our need for self-esteem, etc. One of the observations they make about the fear of death is how it impacts the way we uphold our values:
Reminders of death don’t just provoke more negative reactions to those who fail to live up to our values. They also spawn more positive responses to people who uphold them. In one study, death reminders tripled the monetary reward people recommended for someone who reported a dangerous criminal to the police. And the effects of death reminders aren’t limited to those we judge to be immoral or noble. They also increase our general desire to fortify our faith in the correctness of our beliefs and the goodness of our culture. So after being reminded of death, we react generously to anyone or anything that reinforces our cherished beliefs, and reject anyone or anything that calls those beliefs into question.1
Feelings of vulnerability to death motivate us to reward and punish, to honor and to shame, to include and exclude. Our cultural values guide us as to how we interact in the world from childhood, as we move from seeing our parents as the source of trust to our surrounding culture.2 This leads us to then place strong value within specific, highly valued cultural symbols that help us to stave off fears of death.3 If this thesis is correct, then at the core of most cultures are a set of inter-subjective values and external symbols that ground our sense of safety and security in the world. For instance, the values of freedom and the symbolic status of the American flag in part help to stave off fears of mortality. These values and symbols were especially important during the Cold War, where the existential threat of the Soviet Union lead people to unite under the banner of American capitalism and democracy to feel safe and secure in a threatening world. Similarly, these values and symbols also helped protect our fears of mortality after 9/11, with the uncertainty as to what would come next from terrorists. Such cultural values and symbols serve a very helpful and useful purpose in trying help people feel safe in a world that seems threatening.
However, at the same time, staving off feelings of mortality comes at a social cost: it often comes at the cost of judging ‘outsiders’ as dangerous4. Harm is inflicted upon those people who we perceive to be a threat to our cultural values. Communists/Marxists were deemed evil during the Cold War. The way African-Americans were kept perpetually on the outside of society made them the repeated target of racist derision. Muslims were often stereotyped as potential terrorists at the beginning of the 21st century. Outside of American politics and into religion, passionate reformers who challenged the status-quo, such as Martin Luther and John Wesley, were regularly persecuted and excluded. In each of these cases, all these people are considered potential threats to their political or religious cultures that they were a part of. The threat is perceived not because the people were actually a threat, but because these people fell under a label of people who were deemed threatening in the past or they had specific practices that caused others to see them as tearing down their values.
So it was also for Jesus, as he warns in the Beatitudes that those who seek righteousness would come under persecution, just like Jesus did. For instance, Jesus was deemed a “sinner” because he healed a man on the Sabbath and the Pharisees rejected the testimony of the blind man because they rationalize his condition meant he was born in sin (John 9.13-34). As is so often the case, when people present threats to cherished values, the threat of people is vastly exaggerated beyond their actual actions. This is what happens when our cultural values become challenged. Witness how people who disagree on social media may perceive each other as mortal threats and evil, even though most people on social media are otherwise decent, albeit imperfect, human beings. At the core of cultural values is the tendency to become highly judgmental and characterize people who present some challenge to one’s values as morally tainted and threatening.
In such a condition, grace and mercy can not really thrive and grow. This is where the Gospel comes in. As the Gospel of Jesus Christ beckons us to bear our own cross, we no longer rely upon our culture as a source that protects us. We are no longer caught in a fear of death that makes us avoid the prospects of our vulnerability by harsh judgments and derision. Instead, following Jesus to the cross leads us to become anti-fragile, to grow resilient in the face of potential threats without feeling the need to react to the first signs of vulnerability or potential danger due to the fragility of our feelings of mortality. In this case, culture no longer binds those of us who follow Jesus. Instead, we are freed to bring the message of God’s reconciliation in Christ to others and free to receive people from other cultures as part of the Body of Christ. As Christ’s liberation from death in the resurrection begins to define our own story in facing our own crosses and overcoming them, we make the transition from our cultural predilection towards protecting ourselves from mortality to being able to receive the “sinner” in grace, mercy, and love, not seeing them as threatening simply because they have been regarded as a deviant but as one beloved by God.
However, there is a difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to bear our cross, to accept the wounds that make us feel mortal, and the forms of religion built around Jesus where Jesus’s death is a substitute for our own. When Jesus’ death is understood primarily as a substitute, there you find people avoiding feelings of mortality. How much clearer can this be than in some form of evangelical theology that thinks Jesus’ death secures their eternal security from judgment. People feel secured from morality, include an existential, spiritual mortality. Is it any wonder, then that modern evangelicalism in the United States has become associated with various forms of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.? At the core of their religious form is a theology of avoidance of mortality.
However, the death of Jesus was not primarily understood as a substitute for the Apostle Paul. Rather, the death of Christ, along with the resurrection of Christ, defined the story of those who were baptized into Christ in Romans 6.1-11:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
When we touch the wounds of Christ in our own lives as we experience our own forms of resurrection, we discover a new freedom that we did not have beforehand. We find freedom from sin, as our fear of mortality not only leads us to be judgmental but it also drives so many pursuits of pleasures and powers, such as wealth, as a form of avoidance from and staving off mortality. This is the truth that Jesus sets out before us that sets us free (John 8.31-32), which eventually culminates in the command to love one another in the way that Christ lays his life down in love (John 15.12-14). In order to live truly free, we must face death for the purposes of love, either the direct threat of death or the various symbolic events that bring about our feelings of mortality and vulnerability. Otherwise, we are still enslaved to the fear of mortality, even if we are not aware of how much this fear motivates and directs us. Only by being set free can we then be free to show grace and mercy to others without putting a bunch of conditions on our kindness or pulling strings to keep us feeling safe.
So, in the Gospel call to bear our cross, we find the truth that sets us free to become part of God’s reconciliation of the world, to be agents of God’s liberating grace and mercy, to be people who learn to love as Christ loved. It is this that is the difference between those who believe in the name of Christ, as one who as power and God is present with, and those who believe in Christ. The former appeal look to Christ’s power on their behalf tp stave of personal feelings or mortality like the crowds that wanted Jesus to continue miraculously making them food on their behalf (John 6.1-59), whereas the those who believe in Christ go beyond that to see Christ’s love as progressively becoming their own love. The former expect something from Jesus on their behalf, whereas the latter participate with Jesus to experience what Jesus experienced. Perhaps this is why Paul said the following in Philippians 3.8-11:
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul connects God’s righteousness in Christ with his own sharing in Christ’s suffering as he knows Christ and the power of His resurrection. By facing vulnerability and mortality, Paul sees himself coming to obtain God’s righteousness in Christ. This is no picture substitution; this is participation. And, perhaps in so doing, Paul sees himself playing a role for the Church that is similar to Christ, but in a much more minor role in Colossians 1.24-26
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.
By becoming a servant of the Gospel through his own sufferings that are done to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” Paul sees his own sufferings as a demonstration of the word of God to make known the mystery of God in Christ. Perhaps in so doing, Paul’s own sufferings will minimize the sufferings that the Church as a whole must face, as they can become mature without having to face the degree of sufferings he faced by recognizing this truth of the Gospel as made known in Paul (this is speculation on my part though).
So, may the Gospel of Jesus Christ be heard clear and fresh again in our day as call for us to move out from the security of cultures and to face our own crosses, so that we may be the people who experience the liberating resurrection of Jesus’ death and resurrection and become its spokespeople. May we push back against the forms of religion that seek to tame this call to face our vulnerabilities with various forms of substitutions and avoidance and hear the mystery of the Gospel spoke loud and clear: the crucified and resurrection Christ lives in and forms us in our own lives and how we face the challenges of them.