Belief

Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

This article originally appeared on Christian Piatt's blog on Patheos.com.

One of the most pivotal concepts in contemporary Christianity has to do with whether Jesus died for the sins of humanity. For many, this is a central tenet of their Christian faith; for others, the very idea that a God would require the spilling of blood — let alone that of his son — to forgive us seems appalling.

In my “Banned Questions” book series, I’ve tried to pull together some of the most challenging questions about the Christian faith I could find. Then, instead of offering cut-and-dried answers, I pose the questions to a group of theological thinkers and activists to see what they think, with the intent of allowing readers to decide what they believe.

Given the centrality of this particular question, I decided it would make a good opening topic for the newest book in the series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.” I posed this to the respondents as follows:

Why would God send Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, instead of just destroying sin, or perhaps offering grace and forgiveness to the very ones created by God? Why does an all-powerful being need a mediator anyway?

Chris Haw, co-author of “Jesus for President,” says:

I have found it important for my mind to get “sacrificial lamb” idea back into working shape by, for example, considering how Jesus also died from the sins of the world. … A multitude of our sins, not God, killed Jesus. And for what it is worth, the “sending his son” verse should not be understood as God killing someone (Did God’s denunciation of human sacrifice not begin with the binding of Isaac?) No: we killed God’s Son, and it was sinful and unjust.

Haw’s response resonates with John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of what was the cause of Jesus’ death (humanity, not God), while also pushing up against the myth of redemptive violence, as put forward by such theologians as Walter Wink.

“There is a long and complex tradition of varying interpretations of the meaning of the death of Jesus,” says Lee Camp, author of “Who is My Enemy?” He continues:

The early church primarily thought of the death of Jesus as a victory over the powers of sin and death. … In the medieval era, another trajectory became predominant in the west: Anselm argued that a God-Man was necessitated because of the great gravity of sin: sin dishonored God, and humankind had to make some reparation, some satisfaction for sin. Humankind was unable to make such a repayment, and thus Jesus became the substitute, restoring the honor due to God through his obedience unto death.

It is worth noting that, in Camp’s historical context, the notion of Jesus dying for our sins did not gain traction in the Christian imagination until at least a dozen centuries after Christ’s death. This is critical in our understanding of the crucifixion, namely because so many assume today that their present belief in substitutionary atonement has forever been the cornerstone of Christian theology. Not so, suggests Camp.

“By the sixteenth century, Calvin focused upon punishment,” he says. “Because of the immensity of humankind’s sin, God’s wrath demanded punishment; Jesus became the substitute punishment.”

Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna takes a different approach, affirming the need for sacrificial atonement, but suggesting we distort its purpose:

The Gospel is not that some deity takes out its rage on an innocent victim so he doesn’t have to take it out on all of us eternally. God doesn’t need blood. God doesn’t need a mediator. We do!

The Lamb of God is not offered to God by humanity, but is God offered to us to enable a new humanity. God is reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ by knowingly becoming our victim, exposing this idolatrous system that promise order, safety, peace and protection in exchange for victims.

The idea that the sacrifice of a living creature was required to appease God for one’s sins has been around a lot longer than Christianity has. Mentions of animal sacrifice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and Abraham’s faith is even tested when he’s asked to sacrifice his own son.

This value of sacrifice as part of one’s faith also was common in the Roman culture, where the types of sacrifices usually were specific to the characteristics of the Gods being worshiped. So a God of the harvest would require an offering of produce, and so on. Some pre-Christian cultures, such as those from Carthage, even practiced human sacrifice, though the Romans generally condemned it.

Interestingly, a millennium prior to Anselm’s understanding of blood atonement, there were very different understandings of Jesus’ death germinating in the Christian collective consciousness.

In the fourth century A.D., Gregory of Nyssa proposed that Jesus’ death was an act of liberation, freeing humanity from enslavement to Satan. Seven hundred years later, around the same time that Anselm presented to concept of substitutionary atonement, a theologian named Abelard proposed that it actually was that Jesus’ response of pure — some might emphasize nonviolent — love in the face of violence, hatred and death was transformational in the human psyche, reorienting us toward a theology of sacrificial love over justice or atonement.

Contemporary theologian Walter Wink goes a step further than Abelard, claiming that atonement theology is a corruption of the Gospel, focusing on an act of violence rather than the values of peaceful humility and compassion lived and taught by Christ.

Resolving the debate about the causes of, and purpose behind, Jesus’ death is an impossible task. More important, though is to make clear that such a debate is going on. For too long, Christians and non-Christians have assumed that all who yearn to follow the way of Christ universally believe Christ died for our sins. For millions, this not only defines their faith, but their understanding of the very nature of Good as well. For others, it is the basis for rejecting Christianity, understanding it as an inherently violent religion, centered on a bloodthirsty God that requires death in exchange for mercy.

This is not the God in which I put my faith, and I am not alone.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visitwww.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This I Believe: God on the Threshold

I believe that what I believe is beyond words, thus making a 250 word definition unfortunately limiting. I believe that things like this are both necessary and unfaithful to describe our experiences with the Divine (as is associating such experiences with some Thing known as the “Divine”).

I believe that the words we spill in the name of “faith,” “theology,” and “orthodox” are the least faithful, theological, or orthodox things that we do when we believe they give us answers and the most faithful, theological, and orthodox things they do when they bring us to endless questioning.

I believe that the only things capable of being are unbelievable.

I believe that my belief is mostly a choice, while at the same time something that I mostly inherited from my upbringing and surroundings in the Bible Belt—even if such an inheritance is the direct result of somewhat violent reaction.

I believe that tradition is vitally important but isn’t static; it tells me where Christians have been and lights the way for where we might go without telling us what will be.

I believe that the actual act of the Eucharist is the most profound theological statement Christians ever make.

I believe that Jesus incarnated all of these ideas.

And I believe that my saying so at this digital table is meaningless compared to the fact that all who read it are “sitting” together to share silly, unfaithful, and limiting words.

And it must be said--though it will cause me to violate my 250 word limit--that these are the stumblings of a person with a cycloptically singular and blinded eye, the catches and snafus of a cane searching for the next step, and the scratches of wildly swinging hands against the harsh edges of a dark cave. In other words, these are the unwelcome and unfaithful speculations of a short-sighted and recovering addict of the Enlightened Eye or I.

And God stands alone on the threshold.

by Matt Gallion

Matthew Gallion is a graduate student at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies. He studies responses to American evangelicalism in postmodern contexts, particularly the emerging church and the emergent conversation, and the intersection of faith and culture, particularly in crossing the “digital divide.” Matt recently presented a paper called “The Body Disrupted: Homosexuality and the Body in Emergent Christianity” at the 9th Annual Graduate Symposium at Florida State University and at the annual Midwest American Academy of Religion meeting at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. He is also the author of “The Price of Freedom: Bribery, the Philippian Gift, and Paul’s Choice in Philippians 1:19-26,” which won the prize for best graduate paper at the annual meeting of the Central States Society of Biblical Literature. He received his B.A. from Southwest Baptist University in Biblical Studies and recently served as a campus minister in the United Methodist Church at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.