(I think I’ve rambled on this before, so I apologize. I didn’t go back to check my archives. But these things are still going through my head…)
Why did Jesus die on the cross? Did Jesus have to die on the cross?
A common answer (and the one that I carried with me until recently) goes something like this:
Humans have sinned. The penalty for sin is death, otherwise known as punishment in hell. This is because sin offends God’s holiness. Even though God loves us immensely, God cannot tolerate the presence of our sin. The only alternative is for a sacrifice to be made on our behalf – a sacrifice of a spotless lamb. Therefore Jesus, God’s son, stepped into history (thereby demonstrating God’s love), took on the role of spotless lamb, and died in the place of humanity. Those who accept his sacrifice are reconciled to God. Otherwise, punishment remains – an eternity in hell.
This view is often called penal substitutionary atonement. But about two years ago, I started rethinking my assumptions about God, and I’ve needed to revise my beliefs.
First, there was a general discomfort with “sharing the Good News” (with the assumption that “Good News” equaled the story above). Maybe it was just the Anabaptist in me, but if news was to be good, it needed to have some effect on the here and now. “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven” and all that. Throw in a dash of James (“faith without works is dead”) and I had a problem seeing how that story of salvation represented Good News.
Then, I got to thinking about the nature of God. Did God really send Jesus to earth for the sole purpose of dying? Does God require death as payment for sin? Isn’t this akin to divine child abuse? Is God violent?
Furthermore, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, isn’t that contradictory to the story above? In that story, there seem to be two Gods: one who requires death to cancel the debt of sin and whose holiness cannot be in the presence of sin, and another who had just spent his whole life walking around in the midst of sin and who freely forgave those who crucified him. In the story above, it’s hard to say that God forgives us at all. Rather than forgiveness of debt, there is payment of debt.
Many of these questions were inspired by J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement. (Atonement is that which reconciles us to God.) I’m not sure why I picked up the book, because I tend to not read things that challenge my beliefs (to my shame). Nevertheless, I borrowed it about two years ago from a friend at church.
Through reading that book and others (e.g. A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren; A Jesus-Driven Life by Michael Hardin) and through reflecting on my Anabaptist beliefs regarding God (understood through Jesus), I’ve come to see the death of Christ as the ultimate act of human evil, not something demanded by his Abba. As McLaren puts it…
Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?
If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.
But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.
God demonstrates love for us by living among us; by seeking us out; by not repaying our act of evil with more evil. God has always been in the business of atonement, inviting us to be reconciled and to enter the kingdom. Jesus has shown us how to do that by taking up his cross and returning love for hate. He invites us to do the same.