What happened on Good Friday cannot be understood apart from Easter Sunday.
That statement rings true to us, but why?
On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. He ransomed us from the devil. He made ‘satisfaction’ for our sins to God. All these are different ways of explaining how Christ atoned for our sins, thereby saving us.
So, the question naturally arises, how does the resurrection define what happened in the cross? Because it’s not obvious that a resurrection is necessary for the atonement to occur—whether you define it as paying a penalty, ransoming us, or making satisfaction for our sins.
Yet, on a very deep level, the resurrection is the key to the cross.
Two scholars, in a book on the Second Vatican Council, explain what it is:
[T]he radical shape of the one sacrifice of Christ is absolutely incomprehensible apart from the resurrection. It is cross and resurrection together, the paschal mystery as a whole, that reveals to the world that the deep grammar of the cosmos, in the divine intention, is not violent sacrifice but vulnerable, self-giving love. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we encounter a love that overcomes all boundaries, a love that excludes only those who exclude themselves. It is this love, and this love alone, that merits the term Christian sacrifice (Keys to the Council, by Richard R. Gaillardetz and Catherine Clifford).
This profound insight—that the resurrection confirms that love is the deepest meaning of the crucifixion carries several implications.
We should begin by recognizing that Christ’s love was apparent for us on the cross itself. In offering Himself for our sakes in our place, He demonstrated a profound love for us. “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8).
But had there been no resurrection, such love, as great as it was, would have succumbed to death for the simple fact that death would have had the last word on the story of Christ on earth. The end of love—both chronological and teleological—would have been death. We now know that’s impossible, because God Himself is love. But one of the reasons we know this is precisely because of what was revealed to us in the resurrection.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Second, this means that Christ’s mission on earth was about more than simply saving us from our sins. It was about more than setting things ‘right’ with God—though it certainly was about that as well. Had paying the debt for our sins been the sole purpose, hypothetically the crucifixion would have sufficed. But Christ’s mission was to do more than just reconcile our accounts with God. It was to reconcile us with God.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI asks what Jesus came to earth to bring. Was it peace? And end to world hunger and suffering? Happiness? Benedict answers: “The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God!”
Love is unitive: it seeks to be united with what it desires. God desires us, so He desires to be with us. In the Fall, we were separated from God. Man was exiled from the presence of God, what we call paradise, the Garden of Eden.
Man could not return to Eden on his own. So God brought Himself to man. This is what happened in the Incarnation. In the resurrection, then, Christ showed us that sin and death could no longer separate us from God. And there was only way to show us that: not by merely an empty tomb, not by a distant glimpse of Him ascending to heaven, not by a new prophetic word, but by bringing Himself to us once again.