So, if this is true, how does it work? How does someone enter the Kingdom? And how does the sacrifice of Jesus result in salvation for individuals?
Before we address how an individual enters the Kingdom, it would help to have some sense of how salvation happens. There are several theories taught by the theologians. They are largely not very satisfying.
The first theory is that God is angry and so is intent on sending sinners to hell. Fortunately, Jesus is willing to accept our just punishment, so we don’t have to. This is called “substitutionary atonement.”
The problem with this theory is that is starts with an angry God — which is part of what makes us picture God as, ultimately, unjust. NT Wright points out in Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good, God’s anger arises out of his love for us. He so desperately wants us to have better lives and to be with him, that he becomes angry when we fail — when sin defeats us. It’s like a father becoming upset when his child cheats on his homework. It’s not that he doesn’t love his child. In fact, if it was another child, one he doesn’t love, he wouldn’t care and so wouldn’t be upset.
The other problem with the theory is that it’s not just. After all, if I commit a murder, and the judge lets his own son suffer suffer the penalty for my crime, well, it’s just unfair. Why should I get off at all? What have I done to deserve this? And there’s no nation in which someone else can serve my sentence for me.
On the other hand, the language of Isaiah sure seems to point us in this direction —
(Isa 53:4-5 ESV) 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
Obviously, Isaiah says there’s some connection between our sins and Jesus’ death on the cross — but it’s not really explained. Maybe there’s another explanation?
Another theory is that God defeated the principalities and powers — his enemies — through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus took the best the evil powers of this world could dish out and survived, even triumphed.
This theory finds support especially in Colossians —
(Col 2:15 ESV) 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The Jewish and Roman rulers could not prevail, neither could death itself.
N.T. Wright sees the atonement in even larger terms —
First, if Jesus is Israel’s Messiah then he is the world’s true Lord. … For Paul, Jesus’ messianic status and his world rulership was based on the fact of his resurrection. As in the Wisdom of Solomon, it is the defeat of death, the return of the martyred righteous, that signals to the earthly rulers that their game is up. If we wanted to cash this out theologically a bit further, we might suggest that, since earthly rulers have death as their ultimate weapon, the defeat of death in the resurrection is the overthrow of the ultimate enemy which stands behind all tyranny. That, I think, is part of the point of 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 and Colossians 2:14–15.
But resurrection is more than defeat of an enemy. It is the inauguration of God’s new world, the new creation which has already begun to take over the present creation with the unstoppable power of the creator God. The resurrection of the crucified Messiah thus functions in Paul’s thought both as history, as theology, and (not least) as symbol, the symbol of a power which upstages anything military power can do.
N. T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005), 69–70.
In other words, it’s not just that Jesus defeated Satan and the other demonic powers that stood between him and victory. Jesus’ victory in the resurrection also ushered in the Holy Spirit, which cleanses God’s people and molds their hearts and minds so that they become Jesus people — new creations.
The work of the Spirit is a miracle because it brings into the present the future presence of God within his church, as well as helping God’s people live as redeemed people, images of God. The Image of God in us helps us to live like the Image.