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.