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Did Christ Die for Us?


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 come to be the dominant view of Christ’s suffering and death in American Christianity. According to this view “Christ died for our sins”: by subjecting himself to the punishment we deserved and that our sins required, he secured pardon for us. This view is so taken for granted in Western evangelical Christianity that very few think even to question it.

I would not have questioned it either, since I have no wish to interfere in anyone’s beliefs, except for the fact that this doctrine has had such harmful consequences. Something needs to be said. The Vicarious Atonement has been used as a tool of intimidation and exclusion, and at times even as a justification for violence, when Jesus’s true purpose was to promote unity and universal love.

Just what do we mean by “Vicarious 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 punishment under the law. We cannot attain merit through our own efforts. 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. But this pardon only applies to those who accept this great gift through faith in Christ. Only those people have become free from sin. To refuse to believe in the gift is to refuse the gift. And anyone who refuses the gift remains a sinner, subject to eternal condemnation.

It is often taken for granted, especially in American Christianity, that this is the one true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice as laid down in the Bible. I do not wish to undertake an exegetical study here. That work has already been done. In their book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (InterVarsity Press, 2000) Joel Green and Mark Baker 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 the New Testament 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 experience 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 criticism. My purpose here is to criticize it from another point of view: that of reality. The Vicarious Atonement cannot be correct not only because it promotes religious hatred, but also because it clashes with reality.

This model of Christ’s suffering and death is wrong 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 humanity or through the brutal, bloody death of an innocent human being, God’s own son.

Is this the God that Jesus preached? Hardly.

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 may be necessary.” Jesus taught us that God wants us always to be ready to forgive. Can God conceivably be any less forgiving than God requires us to be? Hardly. 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. We may need to repent, but 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 no chance of escape.

The God of Vicarious Atonement is unbiblical. This God is also vicious beyond comprehension. This God demands the torture and sacrifice of an innocent creature in order to release human beings from an even worse torture in a hell that never ends. Yet many Christians call this a loving God, and many more have sought to impose this loving God on others through intimidation, coercion, and at times even violence.

This God is so obviously false, contrary to what the true God stands for, that one wonders why more people do not question it. The foremost reason must be fear. People who were brought up believing in such a God may be terrified to question it, because of the penalty involved in not accepting the “merciful gift” of Christ’s painful, agonizing death. For if this God would do such horrible things even to God’s own son, what would this God do to us if we dared to question? 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 obviously out of the question. Anyone can observe that Christian belief does not make one incapable of sinning. Just look at history. The Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, all kinds of brutality have been perpetrated by people who believed Christ saved them and redeemed them from their sins. Christians today are not necessarily better than non-Christians. Indeed, sometimes they are worse, when they are led to disrespect the beliefs of others, arrogantly proclaim themselves “born again” and believe themselves superior to others, or try to impose their faith on others. And now the very same people who insist America be called a “Christian country” propose and promote policies that benefit wealthy people with tax cuts they don’t need while slashing or eliminating programs of vital importance to the poor. 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.

What about the second meaning? The believer still sins, but all sins are forgiven. There is an obvious danger here. A believer may think: Since my sins are forgiven, they no longer matter. I am free to continue sinning. The usual response to this is that true Christians are known by their fruits. One 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 (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 cannot forgive as we are commanded to forgive, and who demands innocent blood before lifting the sentence of doom on humanity. It is a doctrine of hate and fear, used to insult and intimidate non-Christians no matter how good they may be. At the end of days Jesus may well say to those who have spread this awful doctrine: “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.”

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 humanity 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?

Jesus’s suffering was not unique. Tens of thousands were scourged and crucified by the Romans. Jesus actually suffered less than many 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 but in how he suffered.

While many died by crucifixion, Jesus is the only one whom 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 had abandoned him. But he persevered. He embraced his fate.

What did he accomplish? First, he remained present with his people during their suffering. He did not run away and abandon them. Even more important, he showed them what it meant to die in faith. Not that all traces of fear vanish, but that one still has the 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 guide us through it and even to reveal dimensions of love we could never have known 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.

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 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.

God does not require 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