1984 is George Orwell’s great dystopian novel. It deals with how a totalitarian state—Big Brother—can control the people. One tool used in controlling is newspeak—the language used to convey ideology and history. It is described as “a purposefully ambiguous and confusing language with restricted grammar and limited vocabulary used in Oceania [the state] to diminish the range of thought. For example, in newspeak, the term “plusgood” replaced words better and “great.” The goal: if you can control the language, you can control the individual’s thoughts. I’m sure we could study this and prove that it is at play in our world today, but we won’t go there. So why talk about it?
Today in our Gospel, Jesus said he came “to give his life a ransom for many.” In our minds, the word “ransom” has a particular meaning, a payment for the release of an individual, and Jesus uses ransom to describe the work he accomplishes on the cross. However, throughout the scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer, many other words are used: sacrifice, atonement, propitiation, oblation, satisfaction, reconciliation, and others. The sentence in the Rite One service that we’ve heard on Sundays combines several of these: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” (BCP, p.334)
These words can become confusing. In addition, these words have led to different theories on what was accomplished on the Cross.
There is the Ransom Theory, Satisfaction Theory, Christus Victor Theory, Penal Substitutionary Theory, Governmental Theory… the list goes on. When we study each one, we can think, “Well, that sounds right,” and we will feel so until we read the following theory. It gets confusing and, in some cases, contradictory. However, instead of seeing them as such, it is better to understand them in the same way we understand the four Gospels.
With the Gospels, there are times when they can seem confusing and contradictory when compared one to the other, but they are, in fact, pieces of a mosaic. Only when they are brought together will they create a complete image. The same is likely true with the various theories of what took place on the Cross. Each highlights one piece of the mosaic, one piece of the truth, and it is not until they are held together that the entire truth is made evident.
Unlike Orwell’s newspeak, which seeks to define an idea with the least number of words, the death of Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross uses many different words. In the end, with all the words we use to describe the event, we are left with a highly nuanced event, depending on how we look at it, and that is the purpose—it is a mystery. Christ’s death upon the Cross and all that was accomplished is far beyond our understanding because we lack the intellect and the language to define or adequately grasp it. Therefore, perhaps the best thing to say is what St. Paul said to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15) If we know nothing else, this one piece of information is all we need to be saved.