Umbrum Mortis

For millennia the Christian Church has sought to understand and explain the significance of Christ���s death and resurrection, and to appropriate it���s meaning in different settings to each new generation. Our own prophet E. G. White has counselled; ���As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit.��� (The Desire of Ages, p. 83), and; ���Our work in all its lines is to demonstrate the influence of the cross" (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 235).

Yet, in the thought life of our church, we seldom move beyond the ���Penal Substitution��� theory, which came to prominence in the Reformation period.[1] It is worth noting at this point, that this theory is not without Biblical evidence.2 Yet, by a narrow and crystalized focus on one particular interpretation, we not only fail to engage with a great cloud of Christian witnesses from our past, but we risk future theological anaemia, as we fail to grasp the progressive revelation of the significance of the blood of Christ, which can; ���purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! Hebrews 9.14 (NRSV).

What we learn as we consider different theories of the atonement is that each has a unique perspective on understanding the origin, and nature of evil, and about how Jesus death brings redemption, and new life to humanity. Consider the Ransom Theory, first expressed in the thinking of Origen (185-254). It is the belief that Christ���s death is a ransom in exchange for a humanity that finds itself under the ownership of Satan. In this theory, the origin and nature of evil is wrapped up in the idea of a cosmic conflict which is external of humanity. Contrast this with the Moral Influence theory of Abelard (1079-1142), the belief that Christ���s death was a revelation of the love of God in order to soften the hearts of humans, to lead them into a fuller awareness of repentance, and form in them a greater expression of the character of God. In this theory, the nature of evil is one that is within humanity, and at the very core of being. Now contrast this with the Governmental theory of Grotius (1583-1645), that sin in the world needed to be upheld as wrong and punished as such. In this theory the nature of evil requires a legal solution.

It would be impossible to list the many atonement theories in an article of this size, but what we learn from these three examples is that there is not one perspective that adequately explains, in its entirety, the origin and nature of evil, and its solution in the Crucifixion of Christ. What we need is the belief that Christ rescues us, in a way only He can, from sin. Far from stifling the further revelation of God, we should instead be encouraged to listen afresh to the Spirit���s work in our time. To rely instead on fossilised doctrine, is to cast the shadow of death over our theology, and to confess a lack of dependence on God for our future thought life.

With this in mind, let���s turn again to prophecy, to the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, in further contemplation. This is a perspective we could label: ���Umbrum Mortis���; the shadow of death.

Isaiah 25.7-8 (NRSV) reads:

���And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.���

It would be hard to overestimate the power of death on human thinking and action. To quote W.H. Auden: ���Death is like the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic���. Death is one of humanities oldest enemies. We all live under its ���shroud��� as Isaiah describes it above. We all know it is on its way, and if possible many of us would do anything to escape, or postpone it - absolutely anything. Publilious Syrus (c. 100 B.C.) reasons: ���The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself���.

At the crucifixion of Jesus we find the fear of death at work in the power and agency of evil, in the actions of the crowd, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman forces governing Jerusalem. But in Jesus the power of the fear of death is resisted, and in his resurrection the fear of death is defeated.

The crowd present at Jesus crucifixion had called for the release of the zealot: Barabbas. The fear of death prompted by Roman occupation had driven some to exchange aggression for aggression. Barabbas was of a long line of populist rebels including the likes of Simon of Peraea, and Anthronges who, afraid of the Roman���s wanted nothing more than their destruction.

The Jewish leaders knew all too well the risk that was posed by this populist uprising against Rome. This was epitomized in Caiaphas words: ���it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.��� John 11.50 (NRSV). The fear of death hung heavy over the religious establishment, prompting them to seek Jesus��� crucifixion.

In a foreign land, the Roman Soldiers were also at the mercy of the fear of death. They no doubt had seen Jewish uprisings before. Some of their friends may have even died at the hands of Jewish rebels. At the crucifixion of Jesus, they may have been set on edge at the great crowd gathered in Jerusalem. Being heavily outnumbered by the locals, at the height of a Jewish festival celebrating freedom from another oppressive nation (the Egyptians), having been mustered in the early hours of the morning because of a man claiming to be the Messiah, the Roman soldiers were probably afraid for their lives, and ready to kill to save their own skin.

As we turn to the cross we see two criminals caught in the grip of death. One chooses to lash out at Jesus, the other recognizes his innocence. Jesus, instead of calling down fire from heaven, or asking God to avenge him, turns instead to break the web of aggression, with one of its greatest motivations; the fear of death. Jesus, instead of inciting hatred of any group present, breaks the cycle of hate by asking for their forgiveness.To the spiritual death of the religious leaders, the moral death of the crowd and of Pilot who had called and commanded innocent blood to be shed, and to the physical death the soldiers, the crowd, and the religious leaders feared so much ��� Jesus chose to be the antidote. He had prophesied about his resurrection and had promised ours.

This is not just a past reality in light of the way the fear of death has cast its shadow on the psycho-social reality of our time. Perhaps the greatest expression of the fear of death has been the development of nuclear weapons, developed by the United States of America, because of the fear that Nazi Germany, who had split the atom in December 1938, was developing nuclear weapons that could wipe out entire cities in America. To quote Albert Einstein: ���The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.���

To this reality, and to future expressions of the fear of death casting a shadow over human existence, consider the thoughts of Colossians 1.19-20 (NRSV):

���For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.���

Jesus words and actions are the sacrificial antidote that disarms the fear of death, through the power of the resurrection. Jesus resurrection is the reason why we should no longer let it reign in our thinking, our social life and our political policy. Jesus death and resurrection is then, a unique salvation which cannot be replicated by any other worldview, and it is timeless in its relevance to our World. But like all theories of the atonement, it cannot be held up as the primary means of describing the meaning and relevance of the death of Jesus Christ. God���s thinking is far greater than we can imagine.

[1]Grenz, S., Guretzki, D. & Nordling, C.F., 1999. Pocket dictionary of theological terms, p.90.

2 Isaiah 53:4���6, 10-11; Romans 3:23���26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

One cannot reduce the Cross to a single common denominator, except to say–it provided salvation to even me! Tom Z


As far as I am aware the word “thieves” in this context was not used in a literal context. It referred to zealots who were so called because they were often funded(to buy arms and pay spies for example) by secret “philanthropic” donations by nationalists and in every case failed to overthrow the Roman occupiers. The history of events leading to the crucifixion indicate that Jesus was a man of “peace” known as such to both the Romans and the Jews who had begged God to have mercy on them and send them a “MESSIAH” to deliver them from foreign occupiers. Messiah was an Egyptian term , originating from the term “messeh” the fat of the Nile crocodile with which(warlord) Pharaohs were anointed. Three Zealots(“thieves”) SIMON MAGUS, seemingly the most influential and important figure in the New Testament apart from Jesus and mentioned under multiple names throughout the books; Theudas Barabbas; and Judas Iscariot,staged a demonstration against Pilate in Nov 32 A.D. It was intended to be non-violent , but passions got inflamed and some of the demonstrators broke away and attacked and killed Roman soldiers who were keeping an eye on things.The “thieves” then flen fled forthwith but Agrippa siezed the ringleader and sentenced him to “spiritual death” , a. well known punishment of the day, and indeed lasting up until the Middle Ages. Simon Magus was therefore imprisoned to the appropriate mausoleum and placed under sentence of spiritual death for a period of 3 or 4 days. If no priest came to perform a “raising ceremony”: during this time it would mean he would be left to starve(physical death). He was also reduced in social status to the lowest category, a leper, that is in other words a “lazarus” When Helena iin deep grief, begged Jesus to raise her lover the Magus from the dead, Jesus compassionately did so. Jesus was therefore not really guilty of any crime save by associating with zealot enemies of Rome. Pilate,a Scotsman,who had met Jesus in Scotland was reluctant to sentence him to death in this matter . However his decision was overriden by influential Jews who hated Jesus because he did not seek to become a warlord messiah and confront the Romasns militarily, and also because of his liberal attitude regarding not recognising class barriers…“all are equal in God’s sight”. Simon the ringleader was on the center cross , a bribe was paid for theudas barabbas , Judas on the eastern cross and Jesus on the Western…

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And that “unique perspective” of each theory is “understood” not on the uniqueness of the theory itself but on the “uniqueness” of the believer influenced by such factors as mental maturation and growth, familial cultures, educational level and personal life experiences among others. There is no one theory that would satisfy the two standard deviations above and below the mean of the total believers anymore than a buffet cafeteria would serve one dish and satisfy all its customers.

In reviewing the different atonement theories, I was struck by how those theories compared to the theories of moral development, in that both sets of theories reflect more the mental age of the believers than anything else, progressing from ego-centric thinking (Ransom Theory) to empathic thinking (Moral Influence Theory).

Perhaps how we understand Christ’s atonement is more a public confession of who we are than how we understand God’s nature and character.


It is an intellectual trap to believe that we can come up with a single sufficient explanation for the ontological efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though we do love to try. Scholars have been attempting to do it for centuries and some have even convinced themselves that they have succeeded. Thankfully, the author of this article does not fall into that trap. The whats, whys, and hows of salvation might well be the meat of our study and conversation throughout eternity. I’m content to know that when Jesus declares “it” to be “finished”, he really means it.


Wrapped up the study of Matthew last Sabbath.

There are 1074 verses in Matthew. SDA members had about 91 days (91,000) minutes to read those verses. Could have easily been read in 1 minute per day. Some statistics reveal that 90% of churchgoers have never read the whole bible. Matthew is just 3% of the bible. Anyone interested in remnant church quality control or any degree of accountability?

Take a survey and see what percentage of Sabbath school members even read all of Matthew. Not like the old days when SS teachers had the yellow cards and would ask who studied their SS lesson daily.
Just who took 90 minutes over 13 weeks to even read one single gospel.

Is the SDA church really …“people of the book”?

Who refers to Adventists as “people of the book”? I’ve only heard SDA’s refer to themselves as such, or claim that they are called “people of the book”

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A working definition of what the SDA church actually is is now an impossibility.


Perhaps you and Rich should have a talk.

Rich Hannon: Now, if you are content to “believe in His intrinsic goodness, and that He will, … work everything out for good in the end” then I have no burden to disturb your beliefs.

However, you ought to realize that many others are not so sanguine and the POE [problem of evil] is a deal breaker for them to believe in a good, wise, omnipotent God.

And there are countless people who have lost their faith when “evil” hit them and the only answer they got was “all things work together for good”, and “if you only believe you could move a mountain” (thus you presumably could faith-pray away the cancer).

You seem to be suggesting that such people ought to follow your lead and “just believe” - irrespective. If that works for you, fine. It didn’t for Job.

Either you should not infer people ought to be able to “suck it up” (accept evil’s buffeting without questioning) or perhaps you should hang out a shingle to help the Job’s of this world.

A “good God” is a conclusion, not an axiomatic premise. And the POE gets in the way of people being able/willing to reach that conclusion.

But you say “Can’t we content ourselves with the truth that God is good” as if that premise (“goodness”) needs no justification (it’s just flatly “the truth”).

This results in a circular argument where a presumed-good God justifies our acceptance of evil since His attribute of goodness is your premise.

Evil, a Primer

The Moral Influence Theory was supposed to answer the question of God’s goodness, but it does an extremely anemic job of it, by my estimation.

The other atonement theories make it difficult to distinguish God from Satan in the purported Great Controversy.

For that reason, I don’t think piling all the atonement theories together is going to give us a richer view, either.

One has to have an a priori belief that God is good to rationalize any of the atonement theories.

It’s probably best not to think too much about it if one wants to retain that belief, as Rich demonstrated.

Regarding Umbrum Mortis, Christians may have outgrown physical talismans to ward off evil and death, but they have some very elaborate beliefs around a literal blood sacrifice that take their place.

In the case of Adventists, it is a curious atavistic belief in a literal blood sacrifice ritual enacted on earth and continued in the heavens.

The Trinity doctrine makes this apotropaic ritual peculiarly confusing, since it is clearly the wrath of God that poses danger.

Anyway, Adventists specialize in convincing people that God is scary and dangerous, so internalizing the good God/scary God complex requires so much energy that it becomes a mental fortress, in my experience.

Sometimes you just run out of energy.

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