Veronica Zundel unpacks the differing views on the cross, and provides her own take on the meaning of Easter


As a child, Easter meant little to me other than chocolate eggs and some rousing hymns in school assembly. Growing up with one Jewish parent and one lapsed Catholic, I was much more interested in Christmas, which was my first experience of what I would now call the numinous – the way my dad ran the ritual part of Christmas gave me a sense of something beyond the everyday; something holy.

It was not till in my late teens, when I began to visit a Lutheran conference and retreat centre, that Easter came alive. First on Good Friday there would be the seven short ‘Last Words’ services in the little Baroque-style chapel. Then the blankness of Easter Saturday, the ‘day between’, where we waited with the disciples and the women. Then on Sunday the sunrise service, at a rough log altar up a little rise in the extensive grounds, and finally a celebratory breakfast of Finnish ‘pulla’, yeast pastries flavoured with cardamom and sugar still hot from the oven. Nothing before or since has tasted as good as that breakfast! 

Different views on the atonement

I didn’t think in much detail about what Easter meant. To me it meant simply the triumph of life over death, the knowledge that even if the worst happens – that humans kill God – God can still conquer. It was not till I simultaneously encountered evangelicals and charismatics at university that I was faced with theories of the atonement and, in particular, encouraged to embrace one particular theory: that Jesus died for our sins at the hands of an angry God who chose to punish his Son instead of us. This has never made much emotional or spiritual sense to me: it smacks of taking John 3:16 and turning it into “God was so furious with the world that he sent his only beloved Son.”

This is not by any means the only way the atonement is described or addressed in the New Testament. Paul uses the image of the law court where a defendant is acquitted, the image of debts being cancelled, the image of a widow being freed from obligations to her late husband. The earliest Christians favoured the idea of the cross being a ransom paid to the devil who had humanity in captivity – and the resurrection was then a demonstration that the devil had been tricked, because the ransom payment of Jesus’ death is immediately claimed back by God.

The understanding of the atonement that has always spoken to me most is the idea of Jesus on the cross identifying with all our sin and suffering (and the latter is as important as the former) and absorbing it into himself, so that it no longer has any power over us – and because he is God, it has no power over him either, so that he can rise again as Lord. Perhaps one of the other models speaks more to you – or perhaps you find it perfectly easy to relate to penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that God punished Jesus for our sins. I have my own theory about this: if you come from a family where discipline worked entirely by reward and punishment, this approach to the cross is likely to make more sense to you, but my family was liberal and not at all like this.

I remember writing once in my Bible reading notes for Bible Reading Fellowship, “I don’t know how the cross ‘works’.” When it was published, I got a grateful letter from another Christian writer, saying that reading my words had released her from a long-term struggle with conventional understandings of the atonement, which had never made sense to her. You might say “But surely if you don’t understand the cross, you don’t understand the gospel!” Only if the gospel to you is entirely contained in the statement that Jesus died for your sins. To me the gospel is so much more than that. When Jesus began to preach, he didn’t announce “I am going to die for your sins.” He announced “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Surely the good news is that a new world is coming, God is creating it and we can be part of it. Yes, Jesus confided to his closest friends that he would have to die, but the cross is only the door to the kingdom – if we were given a new, wonderful land to explore, just by passing through a door, wouldn’t it be stupid to hang around at the door forever? Something vital happened at Easter, certainly; we don’t have to understand it for it to work.