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Did Christ Die for Our Sins?

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.
Hosea 6:6

Go and learn what this means: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Matthew 9:13

Vicarious Atonement

“Man of Sorrows!” what a name
For the Son of God, Who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Philip P. Bliss, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” 1875

This hymn, and many more like it, express what has become a dominant principle in Christianity as most of us have come to know it. “Christ died for our sins”: by subjecting himself to the punishment we deserved and that God’s justice required, he secured pardon for our transgressions. This view is so taken for granted in evangelical forms of Christianity that one would hardly even think to question it.

But it needs to be questioned, because it takes us to bad places. It encourages religious intolerance, it distorts Jesus’s message, and it presents a defamatory picture of God. Most unfortunately, it deprives us of an understanding of Jesus and his message that might truly have saving power.

The doctrine that Jesus took the punishment God’s justice demanded and that should have been ours is called “Vicarious” or “Substitutionary Atonement.” In essence it is this:

Human beings are sinful by nature. God demands justice. We are all slaves to sin and deserve God’s radical punishment under the law. We cannot attain merit through our own efforts, and good works are futile in earning God’s forgiveness. So Christ paid the price for us, to free us from judgment by standing in our place and taking for us the punishment that we deserve. And so we are pardoned, but only if we accept through faith in Christ this action he took on our behalf. Those who refuse this great free gift remain eternally condemned in their sin.

It is often taken for granted, especially in conservative Evangelical Christianity, that this is the one true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice as laid down in the Bible. This can be answered by an exegetical study, such as the one Joel Green and Mark Baker undertook in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (InterVarsity Press, 2000). They convincingly demonstrate that the New Testament contains not just one but many varied interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’s death. They also show that the specific interpretation outlined in the preceding paragraph, called the “penal substitution model,” does not come directly from the New Testament but results from reading into it cultural norms from a later time. This becomes apparent when we read the New Testament with a knowledge of what the terms it uses meant in biblical times, and when we suspend the tendency to assign meanings to those terms that come from our own theological preconceptions and are foreign to the biblical context.

Biblical scholarship has already shown that Vicarious Atonement, or the penal substitution model of Jesus’s death, is vulnerable to historical and textual criticism. My purpose here is to criticize it from the point of view of theology. The Vicarious Atonement cannot be correct, not only because it rests on shaky historical grounds, but also because it incorrectly represents God’s nature and is just bad theology.

This model of Christ’s suffering and death is untenable for two basic reasons: it portrays God incorrectly and belief itself does not transform the sinner.

An Alien God

Consider carefully what the Vicarious Atonement model is saying: God’s wrath against us is so extreme and implacable that it can be satisfied only either through the complete destruction of the human race or through the brutal, bloody death of an innocent human being, God’s own son.

Is this the God that Jesus knew?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive.” (Luke 3:3-4)

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

“Seventy-seven” (or “seventy times seven”) is not a literal number. In the idiom of the New Testament, it means “as many times as necessary.” Jesus taught that God wants us always to be ready to forgive. Can God conceivably be any less forgiving than God expects us to be? The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) specifically teaches us that we cannot stray so far from God that we leave the reach of God’s forgiveness. When we need to repent, forgiveness is always available. But Vicarious Atonement leaves no room for repentance once we leave this life. To refuse to believe that God required Christ’s bloody and humiliating death to release you from sin will condemn you to hell forever, with neither chance of escape nor recourse to forgiveness. If, in fact, repentance and forgiveness were possible in that moment, Christ’s death would not be necessary to save one from eternal destruction.

The God of Vicarious Atonement is unbiblical, cruel beyond comprehension, demanding the torture and sacrifice of an innocent creature in order to release human beings from even worse misery in a hell that never ends. Such a God is much more scary than the supposedly “wrathful” God of the “Old Testament.” Yet many Christians call this a loving God, and many more have sought to impose this loving God on others through intimidation, coercion, and sometimes even violence, in the misguided belief that they are saving people’s souls.

So why don’t more people question this God who is so foreign to the compassionate spirit of Christ? The foremost reason must be fear. If one questions the doctrine and is wrong, one risks subjecting oneself to an endless agony. It would therefore be surprising if doubting this doctrine did not elicit widespread fear. If this God could sanction doing such horrible things to God’s own innocent son, what would the same God do to us if we dared to disobey? It is safer not even to think about it.

And so the fear is transmitted from one generation to the next, and the truly merciful and loving God whom Jesus prophesied remains hidden.

Belief Does Not Transform

According to Vicarious Atonement, Jesus’s having paid the price of sin liberates the believer, who is no longer a “slave to sin.”

What this means is not entirely clear. There is much ambiguity in the way people talk about it. They talk of being “saved,” “redeemed,” “set free,” “pardoned,” their “sins taken away.” All of this is metaphorical language. It can mean only one of two things: either believers have been transformed so that they sin no longer, or all of their sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven.

The first meaning is clearly untenable. Anyone can observe that Christian belief does not make one incapable of sinning. Just look at many of today’s most pious (and hypocritical) politicians. Or look at history. The Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, internecine wars, all kinds of brutality have been perpetrated by people who believed Christ saved them and redeemed them from their sins. Many were burned alive by others who thought they were commanded by a loving God. Christians today are not necessarily better than non-Christians. Indeed, sometimes they are worse, when they are led to disrespect the beliefs of others, use biblical language like “saved” and “born again” to express pride and superiority, or try to impose their beliefs and practices on others. And now the very same people who insist America be designated a “Christian country” propose and promote policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and that justify hatred of the stranger. Belief alone does not transform the sinner. History and personal experience make that abundantly clear.

Nevertheless, many people think that righteousness and Christian belief are identical. Those who believe in Christ belong to God, they say, and those who disbelieve are rebellious and sinful and hate God and deserve to be punished. The absurdity of this assertion should be obvious. There are many good, moral, and sensitive people of other faiths, or of no established faith, while there are many Christians whose behavior falls far short of Christlike. Anyone can observe this. Yet incredibly many Christians equate Christian belief with moral worth. They judge others on what others believe rather than on how they have lived their lives. But no belief can make one a moral person. One becomes moral either through self-discipline or, preferably, through a transformation of the heart. And such transformation may come whether or not one happens to be a Christian.

Sometimes it is objected that redeeming faith is more than just “belief”; it also implies trust and commitment. Nevertheless, it all comes down to a decision on whether to accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Those who accept are in; those who don’t are out. To place one’s trust and commitment in a God who treats “his” own son and the human race with such brutality is no guarantee of sanctification.

What about the second meaning? The believer still sins, but all sins are forgiven. Sometimes it is said that Jesus’s rightousness is “imputed” to believing sinners who still cannot hope to be righteous themselves. There is an obvious problem here. A believer may think: Since my sins are forgiven, they no longer matter. I am free to continue sinning and God will forgive me. The usual response is that true Christians are known by their “fruits.” One therefore cannot be a sincere believer if one continues to sin as one did before. But this response is deeply ironic, for it makes works, not faith the standard of judgment! Take the Crusades, for example. The Crusaders professed a deep Christian faith, yet they were thugs and murderers. So were they really genuine believers? If one says yes, one excuses the worst kind of sin under the banner of Christian faith. If one says no, then works, not faith, become the standard by which God judges, forgives, and redeems. This presents an insoluble dilemma to Christians who, following in the tradition of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, mistakenly believe that the Bible condemns “works righteousness.”

The doctrine of Vicarious Atonement is a dishonor to God. It turns God into a monster, who commands us to forgive but who will not forgive us. A barbaric God who demands innocent blood before lifting the sentence of doom against humanity. It is a doctrine of hate and fear, used to frighten and demean non-Christians no matter how good they may be. Some may believe this innocently, because it is what they were taught. But to those who take this doctrine and spread it aggressively, at the end of days Jesus may well say to them: “I came to teach you to love one another, but you have preached in my name a God of hate, wrath, and violence, and used that God to separate yourselves from each other. You professed faith in me, but I never knew you.”

But Did Christ Die for Us?

The notion that Christ suffered and died to propitiate an angry God who otherwise would have been justified in destroying us all is a misinterpretation of scripture and a defamation of God. It is not consistent with Jesus’s own teachings about God and about forgiveness. What, then, is the meaning of Jesus’s suffering and death? Did he in any real sense die for us?

To understand this question fully we need to return to the true meaning of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus came to show us the abiding presence of God through service to others in non-self-interested love. But early in the history of Christianity the emphasis began to shift, from self-transcending love to a concern for personal salvation. The Council of Nicaea gave this type of theology official status and suppressed other forms of Christianity. By the time of Augustine this orthodoxy was entrenched. The Protestant Reformers, notably Luther and Calvin, took it to an even greater extreme. Good works, which must include even the loving service to others Jesus exemplified, became for practical purposes an object of contempt. One’s “faith” determined everything.

This development made it inevitable that religious intolerance would replace loving the stranger, including the non-Christian. For if one can be saved apart from faith in Christ, then Christ suffered and died on the cross for nothing - or so orthodox faith insists. For “faith alone” Christians, accepting any path to God other than Christianity as valid makes their own faith irrelevant and Christ’s sacrifice foolish. Therefore they had to consider non-Christians rejected by God, and even damned. And it is a very short step from seeing others as rejected by God to seeing them as less than fully human.

The entire theory of the Atonement must be questioned, because Jesus would never have taught a doctrine that could take us to such a love-destroying place. If one’s primary concern is one’s own salvation, then one’s religion is centered on the self, creating an obstacle to non-self-interested love. A true disciple of Christ is primarily interested in love, not salvation, and salvation in whatever it may consist follows from that. Jesus did not die to rescue us from an angry God. His death was the ultimate act of loving service, not because it spares us from hell, but because it demonstrated God’s presence even in the worst we can endure.

Jesus’s suffering was not unique. Tens of thousands were scourged and crucified by the Romans. Jesus actually suffered less than most of them, since death by crucifixion often took days while Jesus died that very same night. The meaning of Jesus’s passion is not in what he suffered - he could not possibly have taken all of human suffering upon himself - but in how he suffered.

While many died by crucifixion, Jesus is the only one we know of who accepted his death willingly. He could have tried to escape, but instead he gave himself up. He was afraid, as we know from scripture. During at least one moment he even thought God abandoned him. But he persevered. He embraced his fate.

What did he accomplish by this? First, he remained present with his people, who also were suffering. He did not run away but joined them in their suffering. More importantly, he showed them what it meant to die in faith: not that all traces of fear vanish, but that one still has confidence that somehow God will show the way. He lived his life teaching that God makes a difference in our lives, that if we seek to do God’s will and conform to the divine image of love, God will guide our steps. If this teaching does not apply even through the experience of suffering and death, then it is false. Jesus had to die the way he did to demonstrate the complete truth of his teaching. Jesus died for us by showing us that God is present with us even in our own suffering and death.

And he did die in faith. “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). Through his public death Jesus showed all of us how to overcome humiliation and pain and to pass through our final moments with dignity and a simple trust in God. Through his death Jesus showed us how to die, and thus also how to live. He showed us that death is not to be feared.

And indeed we all live under the shadow of the cross. At some point our bodies will fail, and for many of us there will be great suffering, even on a par with what Jesus suffered and perhaps lasting much longer. By the way he died Jesus taught us how to face it. He taught us that while we may not comprehend the mystery and the pain of death, we still have God’s presence to walk us through it and even to reveal dimensions of love we could never have realized before. Jesus’s loving presence was in fact God’s real presence traveling among us. Jesus’s willing death on the cross was therefore a demonstration of God’s presence with us even in the most extreme suffering that we face.

Jesus overcame death in two ways: by dying in faith, and by his resurrection. The resurrection is indeed an enigma. No one really knows what it is. While the Gospels, especially the first three, basically agree on the outline of Jesus’s life, after the resurrection they take completely different paths - four Gospels with five different endings (Mark has two)! And these resurrection accounts are not even compatible: for example, in Matthew the resurrected Jesus makes his final appearance to the disciples in Galilee, but in Luke he appears only in the vicinity of Jerusalem. There are several other well-known inconsistencies. What are we to make of this?

The resurrection points to something beyond human time and space. When we use human events to describe it, we are speaking symbolically. It is nevertheless real, and the disciples may very well have experienced an intimation of it they could not adequately express in words. It is a mystery that eludes the mind, but that the heart may possibly grasp. It is God making the divine presence known in the world through the persistence, even after death, of the love that Jesus was. The resurrection was the disciples’ experience of this loving presence as a tangible reality.

It is in this sense that Jesus died for us. He died to show us that faith overcomes fear and even death. That death is not the final word. That goodness is eternal, and that not even death can separate us from goodness and from God. Jesus died as he did to remove the menace of death, so that we can live our lives fully, not fearing death because we know that if we are true disciples of goodness we can count on a presence above and beyond death as our companion until the very last moment.

Jesus’s death was a sacrifice not in the sense of an atonement offering, but in that he willingly gave up his well-being and even his life to show us that the connection to God is unbroken even under the worst of circumstances. In that sense, and only in that sense, can we say Christ died for us. So when we are suffering, we can be still until we sense the presence of God with us, the same presence that surrounded Jesus on the cross and that led him to a peaceful final moment. It is not something we need force ourselves to believe; rather, it is something we allow to happen. God - true goodness epitomized in limitless love - is always present and waiting for us. And never do we know this more deeply than when we are suffering and we fear, as Jesus feared, that God may have abandoned us, and only then come to find the presence that was holding us all the time. We find that presence in complete stillness, in transcendent quiet. That creates the opening. So our moments of pain and fear and grief, as frightening and as awful as tney are, reveal to us more deeply than anything else the real presence of God.

God does not demand the suffering of the innocent. The God who commanded Abraham not to put the knife to his son would certainly not demand the blood of God’s own son. Death is a part of life, its final gateway and its greatest mystery. Death is fearsome because it is unknown. Jesus did not dispel the mystery. But he did show us a power greater than death: the simple trust that the goodness we find through faith does not disappear when we reach life’s end.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23:6

(February 2006/rev. March 2017, October 2018, January 2019, April 2019, October 2019)