There are many to-day who have come to regard both these positions as very strange; and their attitude towards them is one of indifference—towards the death, on the ground that no such significance can be attributed to a single event of this kind; towards the resurrection, because what is here affirmed to have happened is incredible.
It is not our business to defend either the view which was taken of the death, or the idea that he had risen again; but it is certainly the historian’s duty to make himself so fully acquainted with both positions as to be sensible of the significance which they possessed and still possess. That these positions were of capital importance for the primitive community has never been doubted; even Strauss did not dispute it; and the great critic, Ferdinand Christian Baur, acknowledged that it was on the belief in them that the earliest Christian communion was built up. It- must be possible, then, for us in our turn to get a feeling and an understanding for what they were; nay, perhaps we may do more; if we probe the history of religion to the bottom, we shall find the truth and justice of ideas which on the surface seem so paradoxical and incredible lying at the very roots of the faith.
Let us first consider the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was one of expiation. Now, if we were to consider the conception attaching to the words “expiatory death” in the alien realm of formal speculation, we should, it is true, soon find ourselves in a blind alley, and every chance of our understanding the idea would vanish. We should be absolutely at the end of our tether if we were to indulge in speculations as to the necessity which can have compelled God to require such a sacrificial death. Let us, in the first place, bear in mind a fact in the history of religion which is quite universal. Those who looked upon this death as a sacrifice soon ceased to offer God any blood-sacrifice at all. The value attaching to such sacrifices had, it is true, been in doubt for generations, and had been steadily diminishing; but it was only now that the sacrifices disappeared altogether. They did not disappear immediately or at one stroke—this is a point with which we need not concern ourselves here—-but their disappearance took place within a very brief period and was not delayed until after the destruction of the temple. Further, wherever the Christian message subsequently penetrated, the sacrificial altars were deserted and dealers in sacrificial beasts found no more purchasers. If there is one thing that is certain in the history of religion, it is that the death of Christ put an end to all blood-sacrifices. But that they are based on a deep religious idea is proved by the extent to which they existed among so many nations, and they are not to be judged from the point of view of cold and blind rationalism, but from that of vivid emotion. If it is obvious that they respond to a religious need; if, further, it is certain that the instinct which led to them found its satisfaction and therefore its goal in Christ’s death; if, lastly, there was the express declaration, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that “by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified,” we can no longer feel this idea of Christ’s sacrifice to be so very strange; for history has decided in its favour, and we are beginning to get in touch with it. His death had the value of an expiatory sacrifice, for otherwise it would not have had strength to penetrate into that inner world in which the blood-sacrifices originated; but it was not a sacrifice in the same sense as the others, or else it could not have put an end to them; it suppressed them by settling accounts with them. Nay, we may go further; the validity of all material sacrifices was destroyed by Christ’s death. Wherever individual Christians or whole Churches have returned to them, it has been a relapse: the earliest Christians knew that the whole sacrificial system was thenceforth abolished, and if they asked for a reason, they pointed to Christ’s death.
In the second place: any one who will look into history will find that the sufferings of the pure and the just are its saving element; that is to say, that it is not words, but deeds, and not deeds only but self-sacrificing deeds, and not only self- sacrificing deeds, but the surrender of life itself, that forms the turning point in every great advance in history. In this sense I believe that, however far we may stand from any theories about vicarious sacrifice, there are few of us after all who will mistake the truth and inner justice of such a description as we read in Isaiah liii.: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”—it is in this light that Jesus’ death was regarded from the beginning. Wherever any great deed has been accomplished in history, the finer a man’s moral feelings are, the more sensible will he be of vicarious suffering; the more he will bring that suffering into relation to himself. Did Luther in the monastery strive only for himself?—was it not for us all that he inwardly bled when he fought with the religion that was handed down to him? But it was by the cross of Jesus Christ that mankind gained such an experience of the power of purity and love true to death that they can never forget it, and that it signifies a new epoch in their history.