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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Why Did Jesus Die? Part 1: Humanity, Take Two

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

This is Part 1 in a 6-part Lent/Easter series on Jesus' death. See the Introduction, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Conclusion.

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For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

~1 Cor. 15:22 NRSVA~

The first model of atonement we will consider in this series is the least familiar one: recapitulation. Even its name is not a word in everyday speech. It's an old English word, translating an even older (and longer!) Greek word, "anakephaloaioisis". It can mean "sum up" and includes the Greek word for "head". The Greek meaning is something like "re-head-shaping" [1]. As we unpack this model, we will learn that this definition, while still confusing at first glance, is the perfect summary of this ancient model. The primary teacher of recapitulation in church tradition was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the 2nd century AD [2].

As with all good theological claims, the core themes of recapitulation begin in Scripture, namely Romans 5:12-21:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord [3].

Also, in 1 Cor. 15:45-49:

Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven [4].

St. Irenaeus noted in these rich Scriptural passages that Jesus' work involved undoing Adam's sin [5]. Jesus was a parallel with Adam who succeeded where Adam failed [6]. As we see in these passages, Adam's life set human beings on the path of sin, but Jesus' life sets humanity on the path to a right relationship with God. In Adam, we were broken; in Christ, we are made alive. But these passages do not explain how this works. How can Christ act on our behalf? St. Irenaeus would turn to other Scripture passages to answer this question.

St. Irenaeus discerned another parallel between Christ and Adam, though no individual passage draws it together for us. He noted the description of humanity's creation: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" [7]. Elsewhere, St. Paul wrote, speaking of Jesus, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" [8]. Irenaeus noted the parallel that Scripture calls Jesus and humanity the image of God. St. Irenaeus made a fascinating observation about this connection: he states that God crafted humans after the pattern or model of Jesus [9]. Adam may be the root of the human family tree, but even before Him is Jesus, the divine archetype God molded Adam after. Jesus is the source of all humanity, the head, and, as such, can act on behalf of us all. If the disease of sin spread to the rest of the human tree from the roots, the cure can also spread to the tree from deeper down. As the true head, Jesus can come into the world to reshape the humanity that our head, Adam, marred (hence, "re-head-shaping") [10]. In St. Irenaeus's words:

When He became incarnate, and was made man, he commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam-namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God-that we might recover in Christ Jesus [11].

In Jesus' suffering and death, He bears all of our shame. In so doing, the love of God penetrates our darkest recesses with His healing love [12]. We are saved because Jesus, the archetype/head of the human race and Son of God, lives the entire human story on our behalf as we should have lived it, including our suffering and death. United to Christ, our Head, we are treated as if we lived the life He lived.

Now, recapitulation cannot stand on its own. It emphasizes Jesus living a life and death on our behalf but cannot explain why this death. Why the cross? Why not die of old age and disease? Jesus died a specific death of immense pain, suffering, and blood. It is a death that does not make much sense on the face of it. As St. Paul says, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" [13]. We will need other atonement models to fill this in [14].

Yet recapitulation proves vital to understanding the atonement. For that reason, McNall, in his mosaic of Jesus' body, identifies recapitulation as the feet. It is the foundation, not because it is the most important, but because it grounds the other models. It explains why Jesus can act on our behalf. Because He is the pattern for humanity and humanity's head, we are not distinct from Him. We are included in Him. He represents us, similar to how the Head of State represents a nation and acts on its behalf on the world stage. And He also bears responsibility for us [15].

Recapitulation addresses other problems in other atonement models. For example, in penal substitution (which we will look at in Part 2), there is a justice problem. How can it be just to punish an innocent victim for a crime he did not commit in place of the guilty party? Scripture's answer is "One who justifies the wicked and one who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord" [16]. The answer recapitulation offers to remedy this is to highlight that Jesus is not a distinct actor from us. He is our head. We are connected to Him and one another. We are included in Him and we benefit from His actions while He also bears responsibility for us. This is not a distinct innocent party taking a punishment that belongs to someone else. Instead, it is our Head taking responsibility for the human race He represents [17].

It also adds nuance to Christus Victor (Part 3, coming soon). Jesus triumphs over evil and death, but not through force or violence. Recapitulation highlights that His victory comes through a life of humble obedience [18].

Finally, when we get to moral influence in Part 4, Jesus is not merely an example. Of course, He is that. Jesus shows us the perfect human life but also lives that life for us. He is more than another example of sacrifice. We live our new lives of obedience in Him, empowered by His love to now live it ourselves through the Holy Spirit [19].

So to sum it up, Jesus is the Image of God. God created us in His Image. As the prototype human, Jesus serves as the true Head, the source of the human race, and can act on our behalf. He lived the life we failed to live, one of perfect obedience. Jesus bears us with Him in His life, carrying us along so we might be saved. In Part 2, we will further explore how He acts on our behalf, specifically on the cross, and why such a bloody death is part of the story.

In the comments below, how does this model of recapitulation deepen your understanding of Jesus' death? How does it challenge your understanding of Jesus' death? How does it speak to you of Jesus' love for you?

Foot Notes

[1] McNall, Joshua M. The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019, pp. 37-38.

[2] Ibid. pp. 30-31.

[3] Romans 5:12-21 NRSVA.

[4] 1 Cor. 15:45-49 NRSVA.

[5] As an aside, this argument runs into the complex questions of science and faith. Genetic evidence strongly suggests humans descend from an original gene pool of about 10,000 rather than a single original human couple. This is a huge and complex issue I do not have space to discuss in a single blog post, but it cannot go unmentioned since it could derail the entire recapitulation argument. Irenaeus's teaching does not require Adam to be the genetic head of the human race but as the original representative or head of state. McNall pp. 48-73 provides more specific arguments from Scripture and theology for how this can all work. Simply put, he argues it is possible that God elected one human (Adam) to act on behalf of humanity, just as God elected one nation (Israel) to act on behalf of all nations.

[6] McNall, pp. 33-34.

[7] Gen. 1:27 NRSVA, italics added.

[8] Col. 1:15 NRSVA, italics added.

[9] "The Word...after whose image man was created". Irenaeus of Lyons, "Against Heresies" in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1, ed. A. Cleveland Cox, D.D. (Grand Rapids: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 544. Irenaeus names Jesus "the Word" after John 1.

[10] McNall, pp. 38-40.

[11] Irenaeus, 3.18.1, p. 446.

[12] McNall, p. 46.

[13] 1 Cor. 1:18a NRSVA.

[14] McNall, p. 91-92.

[15] Ibid. p. 79.

[16] Prov. 17:15 NRSVA.

[17] McNall, pp. 81-85.

[18] Ibid. pp. 92-93.

[19] Ibid. pp. 93-95.

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