In what way is the death of Jesus meaningful for us? Or perhaps it’s better to ask, what does the death of Jesus do for us, since it is often thought that Jesus’ death has some real effect for us. It is often said that Jesus died to save us – to take away our sins. But how is that? What can it mean when we say, “Jesus died to save us?” And how can someone else’s death, take away my sins?
When theologians talk about the meaning of the death of Christ, they will speak of theories of atonement. What does “atonement” mean? Webster conventionally defines atonement as the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. That leads me to my first point.
While the concept is everywhere present, the word “atonement” occurs only twice in the New Testament. In both instances it refers to a sacrificial act involving the shedding of blood. This language is borrowed from the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, but blood sacrifice is not unique to ancient Judaism. In all sacrificial systems the life of an animal or, in rare instances a human, is offered to appease a god. It can be found in the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Pre-Christian Europe, the Pacific Islands and pre-Columbian America – and many others. In fact, it is the chief characteristic of almost all ancient or so-called “pagan” religions. One author has said, “Paganism without blood is no paganism at all.” One of the common features of a religion of blood sacrifice is that the animal sacrificed is usually eaten in a ritual community meal. Sounds familiar.
It is very common to hear Christians speak of the death of Jesus in terms of blood sacrifice. Since Christianity was born out of Judaism and in a world where religions of blood sacrifice were common, it is understandable that the early interpreters of the death of Jesus would seek to express its meaning in these terms. As the Christian tradition developed through the centuries this language of bloodshed was retained and even glorified. Many of us are familiar with popular hymns that proclaim “a fountain filled with blood” or ask, “What can take away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Personally, I find these images repellant. I cannot be comfortable taking part in a religion centered on blood sacrifice. The only way that I can accept the language of bloody sacrifice is to understand that it is a relic of ancient times and should be interpreted metaphorically. Blood is a metaphor for death, a symbol of a life freely given. This I can accept, but I want no fountain filled with blood!
Still there is the death of Jesus, and the question of how this death affects me. How does Jesus save? Remember I said that theologians speak of theories of atonement? There are several such theories and I want to consider two major theories now. The first is the substitutionary theory, and the second is the victory over evil theory.
The theory of substitutionary atonement has several subsets, like “the satisfaction theory” and the “legal or judicial theory,” but however it is nuanced, it comes down to basically this: God is very unhappy – angry, disappointed, outraged, saddened, wounded, offended, and generally upset with the human race. And justifiably so. In great love, God gave humans paradise, perfection and freedom. In their freedom humans rebelled against God and chose to sin and become selfish. This is not only a historic rebellion, but also one that occurs over and over in every human life. This situation is so intolerable to God that God intends to send everybody to hell. Some theories say that God doesn’t really want to do this (God is Love, after all) but God’s own justice and holiness require it.
It is at this point that Jesus – God’s Son steps in. God sends Jesus (and Jesus also volunteers for the job) into the world as a human – the perfect, consummate human. As a human, Jesus stands in for the whole race. Jesus becomes the substitute. All the righteous wrath of God is then poured out on Jesus. On the cross God is punishing Jesus instead of you and me. God allows or perhaps even wills Jesus to be brutalized and killed. In fact, God even sends Jesus to hell for us. In this way everything that God has against the human race is resolved. We are reconciled to God (some say God is reconciled to us!) and all is forgiven. Jesus became the substitute victim and took all our sins and sin’s penalty on himself and we are saved! Well not quite. We still have to accept Jesus as our savior – meaning only those who accept Jesus by believing this theory of atonement actually receive the benefit of Jesus’ death.
I do not mean to make light of this very serious business, but I have an insurmountable problem with this idea of atonement. I just don’t think God comes off very well in it. I don’t see how God can be like that. In this theory God seems remarkably like an ancient near eastern despot. God is good and benevolent, but also pretty inflexible and not just a little vindictive. I mean, can you imagine that the Creator of the Universe, the source of all goodness and life, can’t forgive human sin without first having a perfect human beat up and murdered to pay for it – to square everything? This idea of atonement makes God out to be more like the Godfather. It makes God into the kind of being that I think none of us want to imagine ourselves as being. I certainly do not aspire to be like this.
The other basic theory of atonement is very common among Lutherans. I think that is because it was a favorite of Martin Luther. Sometimes called by its Latin name Christus Victor, this theory understands the death of Christ as a cosmic struggle against the powers of evil, that separate human beings from God. On the cross Jesus engages the powers of evil. In a nonviolent act of surrender to violence, Jesus allows evil to do its worst to him. Much in the way that Mahatma Gandhi took on the British Empire by challenging the empire to do its worst, Jesus challenges evil and through the resurrection triumphs over it. The meaning of Christ’s death, is that through death Christ breaks the power of death over the whole human race. Consequently, we humans are freed from death and may live joyfully in the hope of resurrection.
This theory has much to commend it. And I want to commend it to you with some modified emphasis. Christ appeared in the world as the embodiment of love. Throughout his life and in all of his teachings he demonstrated that love is the greatest power in the universe. The presence of God in human life is manifest as unconditional love. The life and death and resurrection of Christ, may be understood as the ultimate cosmic struggle of the power of love, against all other powers. Neither greed nor hatred nor prejudice nor any other power of self-assertion, nor even the power of death itself can overcome the power of love. The power of love is the power of life, and in Jesus the light of that love shines most brightly. Nothing quenches the light of love. As the gospel of John says, “the light shines in darkness and darkness does not overcome it.”
If this is the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ, and I think it must be, how is this saving knowledge for us? In one place, the apostle Paul says, “if the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in you, that same spirit will also give life to your mortal body.” It seems to me that the consistent message of the early church, the consistent question that was posed, was not “are you saved?” but “have you received the Holy Spirit?” I believe those first followers of Jesus, recognized that it was the unleashing of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love, the spirit of life that occurred through the death and resurrection of Christ. They experienced the power of that spirit, to form them as a church on the day of Pentecost. Immediately, they began proclaiming that this same spirit was free in the world and available to any who would open themselves to it. The act of faith in Christ was, and is, the act of opening the human soul, your soul and mine, to the power of the spirit of love, the spirit of life. This is how Jesus saves.
The power of love drives out whatever stands in its way. And that which stands in the way of love can only be named as sin. The gift of the spirit, the gift of love is at the same time, the gift of the forgiveness of sins. It is the healing of the soul, the calming of our anxiety, the instilling of hope, the infusion of life. Accepting this gift is what it means to be saved. Being in our midst, as the gift of love, the gift of life, is how Jesus saves. Accepting the death of Jesus is accepting my own death to all that is not God’s intention for my life. Accepting the resurrection of Jesus is accepting that God is present and active to make my own life new and alive in love everyday.
For me, it is necessary to move beyond bloody and brutal theories of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As bloody and brutal as his execution was, he embraced it freely on our behalf to demonstrate what self-giving love looks like in the extreme. He embraced death to show that love and life are finally triumphant, for these are the greatest powers in the universe. These are the power of God.
For Further reading I commend J Denny Weaver’s books, The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd Edition 2011) and The Nonviolent God (2013).