Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

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

Why did Jesus have to die?

“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 American Christianity. “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, for many reasons. First - and many readers will be surprised to hear this - it does not even occur in the New Testament. Yes, there are verses in the Bible into which some have read this doctrine: that Jesus gave his life for us, the “ransom” sayings, and so forth. But none of these actually expresses penal substitution.

It has become very natural to read the New Testament through the lens of later church doctrine without even realizing it, and easy to equate those doctrines with New Testament teaching. For many, it is an unconscious habit. However, to be true to both the letter and the spirit of the New Testament, it is important to question those assumptions.

The doctrine that Jesus took the punishment God’s justice demanded and that should have been ours is called “penal substitution.” In essence it goes like 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. Thus each and every one of us deserves eternal condemnation. So Christ paid the price for us, to free us from judgment by standing in our place and taking for us the punishment that each of us deserves. And so we are pardoned, but only if we accept through faith in Christ as Lord, God, and Savior 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, 2011). They convincingly demonstrate that the New Testament contains not just one but many varied interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’s death. And the penal substitution model is not one of them. That model does not come directly from the New Testament, but evolved 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.

While the penal substitution doctrine is not biblical, we find bare hints of it in some of the early church fathers, yet nothing approaching a definitive statement. Other views of the “Atonement,” or redemptive significance of Jesus's death, also became prominent. One is the so-called “ransom” theory. It is based on Jesus’s saying he came to give his life as a “ransom” for many (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28). The Greek word for “ransom” is lytron, which literally signifies a means or price of redemption. Forms of this word are used to translate the verb “redeem” (Hebrew: ga’al) where it occurs in the Septuagint. It has no connection with penal substitution.

The word “ransom” did come to designate a particular theory of the Atonement associated with early theologians including Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine (who also emphasized the conquering Christ, called ”Christus Victor”). According to this theory, at the time of the fall, Satan gained power over humanity. God tricked Satan by getting him to accept Christ’s death as a ransom to redeem the human race. So God bought humanity back and Satan was left with nothing, because death could not hold Christ.

Later on St. Anselm reacted against this theory. He believed that Satan, being a rebel against God, could have no legitimate claim upon humanity. In fact, the ransom theory practically makes Satan a rival god. This cannot be. Anselm saw the Atonement in terms of the feudal society in which he lived, which was based in large part upon the principle of honor. Human sin is an offense against God’s honor, bringing God to require satisfaction. Christ stepped up to pay the debt owed by human beings, and through his death offered satisfaction to God, restoring God’s honor from the offense of human sin. (Another important proponent of the satisfaction theory was Thomas Aquinas.)

This sounds like penal substitution but it is not. This theory does not employ the legal terminology of penal substitution, but the feudalistic language of honor and satisfaction. Here Jesus is not an object of punishment. Rather, he is stepping up to pay a debt, as one might out of the goodness of one’s heart pay the debt of a poor person who cannot afford something important that he badly needs. This may be hard for us today to comprehend, since we no longer think in terms of honor and satisfaction but are much more at home with the language of the law court. And so penal substitution has superseded the satisfaction theory to become the most widely held today.

We find the first clear statement of penal substitution in John Calvin. Trained as a lawyer, he came naturally to embrace this point of view. He essentially took Anselm’s satisfaction theory and translated it into legal terms. This is how he put it:

In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgement, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance.... We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he ““was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them.... [S]eeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.... But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgement which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price - that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 2:16:10)

And so we come to the popular view that Jesus died for our sins, taking onto himself the punishment demanded by God’s justice and meant for us. Over the years this view gained so much influence that a superficial impression of American Christianity will lead one to believe it is both biblical and universal. In truth, it is neither.

We have already seen that penal subsititution is but one of several models of the Atonement that grew after the New Testament to explain Jesus’s death. The New Testament itself contains a collection of views. Jesus’s death was an act of redemption (the “ransom” sayings in Matthew and Mark); it was to save the lost (Luke); it was a Passover sacrifice (John); it was a Day of Atonement purification offering (Hebrews); it was to reconcile God and humanity (Paul). In none of these models is it exactly clear why Jesus had to die. Not even the resurrection can explain why his death had to be so humiliating and brutal. Why was such a death necessary to accomplish any of these ends? The New Testament does not spell it out. It is for this reason that speculation about Jesus’s death did not cease after the New Testament. People needed an explanation. They wanted to know why.

We will consider this question later. First, let’s take a closer look at the dominant view, penal substitution. This view is untenable for at least two reasons: it misrepresents God, and it does not transform the sinner.

An Alien God

Consider carefully what the penal substitution 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 penal substitution 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 have been necessary to save one from eternal destruction.

The God of penal substitution is a monster whom Jesus would not have recognized. This God created us imperfect, and yet for our imperfection, which according to this theory we cannot control, we are to be eternally condemned. Crucifixion would be a just punishment for each one of us without exception, and only an innocent man taking on this punishment for us spares us from God’s wrath - and only if we accept this man as our savior. If we do not, the punishment will be even worse than crucifixion: it will be hell forever.

Do we all deserve the punishment Jesus suffered on our behalf? Did Anne Frank deserve to be crucified? Does the Dalai Lama deserve to be crucified? Does everyone you know, no matter how good they may be, deserve to be crucified if they are not Christian? The Judaism that this form of Christianity claims to replace is actually much wiser. It recognizes that we are all flawed, but that God accepts our frailty and does not demand perfection in order to treat us kindly, only that we strive to do our best and live the best lives we can. In Judaism the gates of repentance never permanently close. There is no hell from which we cannot escape.

Sometimes even people who can see what a monstrous doctrine this is will defend it by saying, “It is a mystery; we cannot comprehend it.” Yes, there are things about the genuine religious life that truly are mysterious. But once we use “mystery” as an excuse for abdicating our God-given capacity for reason, we are headed on a very dangerous path that has led to atrocity many times in the history of religion. “Mystery” can never justify assenting to doctrines and actions that clearly negate what both scripture and Christ have revealed to us about God.

The God of penal substitution 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.

Thankfully things are not so extreme today. The belief in condemnation survives, though means of propagating it are less violent. Still, the portrait of a cruel and heartless God has not changed. In defense of this, proponents of penal substitution often say that God has no choice, that the demands of justice require God to act in a certain way. The obvious response to this is, whose justice, if not God’s? Is there some external standard of cruelty to which even God is subject?

And if such a standard applies to people’s beliefs, then why not to people’s behavior? Why wouldn’t the father of the Prodigal Son be constrained to say to him, “I am sorry my son, but justice must first be satisfied before I can forgive you. Now go back and tend to your pigs.”

Any defense of God venting “his” wrath upon an innocent victim is morally repulsive. 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 penal substitution, 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 and the religious leaders who support them. Or look at history. The Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, internecine wars, slavery, Jim Crow, 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. 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 ruthlessness 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 penal substitution dishonors God. It turns God into both a monster and a hypocrite, who commands us to forgive others while withholding forgiveness from people simply because of what they believe. A vindictive God who demands innocent blood before lifting the sentence of doom against humanity. It is a doctrine of intiimidation, used to frighten people 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 wrath, vindictiveness, 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 gross misinterpretation of scripture. 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 had become entrenched. The Protestant Reformers, notably Luther and Calvin, took it to an even greater extreme. Good works, including the type of loving service to others Jesus exemplified, were considered irrelevant and sometimes even 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 could be saved apart from faith in Christ, then Christ would have 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 pointless. Therefore they had to consider non-Christians rejected by God. 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 loveless place. If one’s primary concern is one’s own salvation, then one’s religion is centered on the self, creating a barrier against 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.

Here we need to face another major weakness of the penal substitution model. It proceeds as if Jesus’s life and career were insignificant and had nothing to do with his death. If we want historical reasons for why Jesus had to die, they are not hard to find. When he overthrew the tables in the Temple, he publicly challenged the corruption of the Temple authorities and made some powerful enemies. Some were afraid that his growing popularity would attract the attention of Rome and result in a crackdown:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:45-48)

These fears were well founded. The Romans had zero tolerance for any hint of insurrection. The attraction of large crowds by a charismatic leader would certainly have qualified. Roman and Temple authorities shared a common interest in putting an end to the messianic upstart.

So Jesus had established a position among his followers. In addition to his life of service, he stood for justice and for religious reform. How he acted, how he conducted himself, reflected on the ideals for which he stood. It was a tremendous responsibility. If he let his people down, they would lose confidence not only in him but in the ideals he represented.

Jesus understood this very well. When Peter suggested that he save himself, he rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus knew they were coming for him; he had a chance to flee, but he did not.

We can get an understanding of why Jesus had to die if we ask, what would have happened if he didn’t? If instead he fled when he had the chance?

In the seventeenth century a rabbi from Smyrna named Shabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself the Messiah. Like Jesus, he antagonized the religious authorities of his time but attracted a very large following, who called him the “first-begotten son of God.” He caught the attention of the Ottoman authorities, who took him into custody and gave him a choice: convert to Islam, or face death. He converted to Islam. His capitulation exposed him as a fraud, and his followers lost faith in him. He is hardly remembered at all today, except as one of a host of false Messiahs who ended in failure.

Had Jesus not accepted his death, perhaps he too would hardly be remembered today. He knew that to fulfill his messianic vocation he had to accept the type of death to which it would inevitably lead. And so he rebuked Peter for trying to tempt him to escape it.

Jesus’s acceptance of his manner of death was the greatest act of loving service to others that he ever performed. By following his path’s inevitable course, he did not let his disciples down. He did not run away. He stood his ground. His disciples knew that he was for real.

But Jesus’s death accomplished something even greater than this.

Of the many thousands who died by crucifixion, Jesus is the only one we know of who accepted his death willingly. Instead of trying to escape, he gave himself up. He was afraid, as we know from scripture. For at least one moment he even thought God had abandoned him. But he persevered. He embraced his fate.

What did he accomplish by this acceptance of the unacceptable? First, he remained present with his people, who also were suffering. He did not run or hide, but joined them in their suffering. His death was a statement to others: If you are going to have to endure grievous torture and pain and death, then I will be with you and share your fate.

And yet even greater than this: he showed them what it meant to die in faith. Faith does not mean that all traces of fear vanish, but faith is confidence in spite of fear that somehow God will show the way. Jesus lived his own 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 in suffering and death, then it is useless. 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.

Jesus expressed his faith with the two verses from Psalms that he uttered on the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). It is this verse that Jesus chose to quote, not the more hopeful verses at the end of the psalm. There is no reason to doubt than when Jesus talked about his fear, here and in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he meant it. If Jesus had meant to express anything else, he would have chosen a different verse, or even a different psalm. But expressing his fear did not signify a lack of faith. It was faith. He was trusting God with his fear. He was talking to God in spite of his fear. He was keeping himself in God’s presence. That is what prayer does.

“Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). Here Jesus’s fear gives way to complete trust. He accepts that life is finite, and that the end has come. He taught a God of love; now he gives himself up to that love. This is what one hopes to reach, if one stays present with one’s fear and works it through all the way.

And so he died in faith. 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.

Only now, after having considered death in its complete and stark reality, are we ready for the resurrection. 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.

And so Paul reassures us that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). If in our own death we follow Jesus where he entered into his, if we persist in faith not denying our fears but in spite of them, if we can stop fighting and allow God’s presence to envelop us, we may know as Jesus did the love that comes to embrace us and that is sometimes called resurrection.

Jesus’s death was a sacrifice not in the sense of an atonement offering of blood for our sins, 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 conditions we can face. In that sense, and only in that sense, can we say Christ died for us. No other type of death could have accomplished this. 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 is our 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, July 2020)