We think know because we've heard it all our lives but we probably haven't stopped to consider or understand the meaning of the resurrection. We must first understand why Jesus died. None of the referent metaphors used to communicate the event really stack up to the theological ramifications. I think we need to understand an old idea, the Subsidiarity or Participatory model of atonement. Stop thinking of Jesus' death as a financial transaction and think of it as God's statement of solidarity with humanity. The resurrection is also a statement of solidarity.
The Atonement: God's Solidarity With Humanity
A. The Inadequacy of Financial Transactions
Many ministers, and therefore, many Christians speak of and think of Jesus' death on the cross as analogous to a financial transaction. Usually the idea goes something like this: we are in hock to the devil because we sinned. God pays the debt we owe by sending Jesus to die for us, and that pays off the devil. The problem with this view is the Bible never says we owe the devil anything. We owe God. The financial transaction model is inadequate. Matters of the soul are much more important than any monetary arrangement, and business transactions and banking do not do justice to the import of the issue. Moreover, there is a more sophisticated model; that of the sacrifice for sin. In this model Jesus is like a sacrificial lamb who is murdered in our place. This model is also inadequate because it is based on a primitive notion of sacrifice. The one making the sacrifice pays over something valuable to him to appease an angry God. In this case God is paying himself. This view is also called the "propitiatory view" because it is based upon propitiation, which means to turn away wrath. The more meaningful notion is that of Solidarity. The Solidarity or "participatory" view says that Jesus entered human history to participate in our lot as finite humans, and he died as a means of identifying with us. We are under the law of sin and death, we are under curse of the law (we sin, we die, we are not capable in our own human strength of being good enough to merit salvation). In taking on the penalty of sin (while remaining sinless) Jesus died in our stead; not in the manner of a primitive animal sacrifice (that is just a metaphor) but as one of us, so that through identification with us, we might identify with him and therefore, partake of his newness of life.
B. Christ the Perfect Revelation of God to Humanity
In the book of Hebrews it says "in former times God spoke in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these latter times he has spoken more perfectly through his son." Jesus is the perfect revelation of God to humanity. The prophets were speaking for God, but their words were limited in how much they could tell us about God. Jesus was God in the flesh and as such, we can see clearly by his character, his actions, and his teachings what God wants of us and how much God cares about us. God is for humanity, God is on our side! The greatest sign of God's support of our cause as needy humans is Jesus death on the cross, a death in solidarity with us as victims of our own sinful hearts and societies. Thus we can see the lengths God will to go to, to point us toward himself. There are many verses in the Bible that seem to support this view. These are the verses which seem to say that Atonement is participatory.
C. Death in Solidarity with Victims
1) Support from Modern Theologians
Three Major Modern Theologians support the solidarity notion of atonement: Jurgen Moltmann (The Crucified God), Matthew L. Lamb (Solidarity With Victims), and D.E.H. Whiteley (The Theology of St. Paul).In the 1980s Moltmann (German Calvinist) was called the greatest living protestant theologian, and made his name in laying the groundwork for what became liberation theology. Lamb (Catholic Priest) was a big name in political theology, and Whiteley (scholar at Oxford) was a major Pauline scholar in the 1960s.In his work The Crucified God Moltmann interprets the cry of Jesus on the cross, "my God my God why have you forsaken me" as a statement of solidarity, placing him in identification with all who feel abandoned by God.Whiteley: "If St. Paul can be said to hold a theory of the modus operandi [of the atonement] it is best described as one of salvation through participation [the 'solidarity' view]: Christ shared all of our experience, sin alone excepted, including death in order that we, by virtue of our solidarity with him, might share his life...Paul does not hold a theory of substitution..." (The Theology of St. Paul, 130)An example of one of the great classical theologians of the early church who held to a similar view is St. Irenaeus (according to Whiteley, 133). In short, if we have united ourselves to Christ, entered his death and been raised to life, we participate in his death and resurrection though our act of solidarity, united with Christ in his death, than it stands to reason that his death is an act of solidarity with us, that he expresses his solidarity with humanity in his death.
2) Scriptural support
...all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the death through the glory of the father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that the old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin -- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ we believe that we will also live with him, for we know that since Christ was raised from the dead he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him; the death he died to sin he died once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God. In the same way count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.(Romans 6:1-5)
This is why Jesus cries out on the cross "why have you forsaken me?" According to Moltmann this is an expression of Solidarity with all who feel abandoned by God. Jesus' death in solidarity creates the grounds for forgiveness, since it is through his death that we express our solidarity, and through that, share in his life in union with Christ. Many verses seem to suggest a propitiatory view. But these are actually speaking of the effects of the solidarity. "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if when we were considered God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" While it appears to be saying that the shedding of blood is what creates forgiveness, it is actually saying that the death in solidarity creates the grounds for reconciliation. It says we were enemies then we were reconciled to him through the death, his expression of solidarity changes the ground, when we express our solidarity and enter into the death we are giving up to God, we move from enemy to friend, and in that sense the shedding of blood, the death in solidarity, creates the conditions through which we can be and are forgiven. Paul goes on to talk about sharing in Christ's life, which is participation, solidarity, unity.
D. Meaning of Solidarity and Salvation.
Jurgen Moltmann's notion of Solidarity (see The Crucified God) is based upon the notion of Political solidarity. Christ died in Solidarity with victims. He took upon himself a political death by purposely angering the powers of the day. Thus in his death he identifies with victims of oppression. But we are all victims of oppression. Sin has a social dimension; the injustice we experience at the hands of society and social and governmental institutions is primarily and at a very basic level the result of the social aspects of sin. Power, and political machinations begin in the sinful heart, the ego, the desire for power, and they manifest themselves through institutions built by the will to power over the other. But in a more fundamental sense we are all victims of our own sinful natures. We scheme against others on some level to build ourselves up and secure our conditions in life. In this sense we cannot help but do injustice to others. In return injustice is done to us. Jesus died in solidarity with us, he underwent the ultimate consequences of living in a sinful world, in order to demonstrate the depths of God's love and God's desire to save us. Take an analogy from political organizing. In Central America, governments often send "death squads" to murder labor unionists and political dissenter. There were some American organizations which organized for college students to go to Guatemala and escort the leaders of dissenting groups so that they would not be murdered.
The logic was that the death squads wouldn't hurt an American Student because it would bring bad press and shut off U.S. government funds to their military. As disturbing as these political implications are, let's stay focused on the Gospel. Jesus is like those students, and like some of them, he was actually killed. But unlike them he went out of his way to be killed, to be victimized by the the rage of the sinful and power seeking so that he could illustrate to us the desire of God; that God is on our side, God is on the side of the poor, the victimized, the marginalized, and the lost. Jesus said "a physician is not sent to the well but to the sick." The key to salvation is to accept God's statement of solidarity, to express our solidarity with God by placing ourselves into the death of Christ (by identification with it, by trust in its efficacy for our salvation).
The Resurrection: God's Solidarity gives Humanity a Future.
Through Christ's death we identify with God and he identifies with us, with our fate. By the same token, we are also placed into Christ's resurrection in the sense that we are not merely dead to sin we are alive to Christ, The benefits of that solidarity go beyond forgiveness of sin alone.
RomansThe resurrection is a powerful symbol of the hope for a future, eternal life afforded us. When we place ourselves into Christ's death, we die with Christ; by dying to sin we are raised with Christ to newness of Life. Paul Tillich said that symbols partake of the reality that they symbolize. For example, Mobey Dick the white whale symbolizes the wildness of untamed nature. As a white whale the whale itself exhibits and partakes of that power. Thus the actual resurrection of Christ participates in the thing it symbolizes, the newness of life.
We participate in that newness of life when we enter into solidarity with God thorough the faith we palace in Jesus' sacrifice. The thing that saves us from sin and gives us eternal life is the faith we place in Christ, and the new life we rise to is the reality that is produced by that state of solidarity into which we enter. Actual salvation is the most literal and first aspect but there are also other products or side effects. There is the power of resurrection life in renovation, healing, and renewal of our character and our psyche, or spirits and the empowering for service that comes through Baptism of the Holy Spirit. I think of salvation as a process that begins with redemption but continues with healing and other aspects.
One of the most important early works of healing that God worked in me and began to work right after I got saved was emotional healing. I had grown up with a lot of hurt from things like the way people reacted to my dyslexia because they didn't understand it, plus the natural sense of rejection that comes with being a kid. Once I discovered I had an intellect I shut myself off in the intellect, I hid from emotions told myself I'm a Vulcan, not realizing that's what Roddenberry was saying in developing the character of Spock. A large part of that healing came through release of emotion in worship. I see why God demands worship it is really for our good.