Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

This article originally appeared on Christian Piatt’s blog on Patheos.com.

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.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visitwww.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.


7 thoughts on “Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

  1. I am not a theologian, and so am admittedly and ashamedly ignorant about much of the history of my faith, but my belief is not that God willed or required for Jesus to die but that God allowed him to die at the hands of humanity; that Jesus allowed himself to be put to death to show grace, forgiveness and mercy beyond our human comprehension–so much so that we still struggle to understand it today, despite all our knowledge. The Resurrection is the proclamation of his divinity and power, not through overpowering humankind but overpowering darkness and death, and showing us that God is willing and able to give us new life as well. By that amazing love are we reconciled. It is mind-boggling, but then, all that God does is awe-inspiring to me. We can only begin to scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of God’s love.

  2. I’m left at the end of your post still wondering what you believe? You say, “this is not the God in which i put my faith …” but don’t then answer which God you DO put your faith in. Acts 2 and 4 are undeniably clear that Jesus died according to the foreknowledge and plan of God. All we read in the OT re: sacrifice was (as Hebrews tells us) a “shadow” of the things to come. Beyond that, the Scritpures claim that Jesus is “the Lamb slain before the foundations of the earth” so i’d say that pre-dates any “understanding” that anyone had or didn\t have, wouldn’t you agree. The picture is meant to be ugly. It\s meant to disturb b/c our sin is so ugly and separates us eternally from God. I wonder if you may be allowing your personal sensibilities to influence your theology? We don’t have to conclude that b/c Jesus died a violent death planned before creation by God, that God is violent and condones our violence. That is leap that the bible does not make. That said, read Revelation: when it comes to defeating sin, seems God has some big wrath stored up to unleash and the language HE chooses to use is very violent and He uses it without apology. Just some food for thought. Appreciate what you’ve worked on here. Just would like more clarity on where it is you stand personally.

  3. Wesley, I would of course encourage Christian to respond of course. I believe it may be helpful to read Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell’s work on this site http://dmergent.org/2011/10/25/the-intersection-of-cesarean-sections-and-the-cross-of-crucifixion/ This personal reflection helps one to understand that it could have been part of God’s plan and yet is something horrific that should not have had happened, but yet had to happen. If you want to continue exploring I would then also recommend the very accessible book by Rev. Dr. Mark Hiem “Saved From Sacrifice.” I truly find the theologies of Atonement actually dovetail together, but putting one’s had on substitutionary atonement alone, leaves too much ambiguity. Blessings, JC

  4. Hi Wesley. Probably easier to guide to you my work on my blog and/or books (www.christianpiatt.com) to get more of a sense of what I believe rather than trying to parse out my theology in a blog response. I have several years of posts there on various topics which I think/hope you will find worthwhile.

  5. Pingback: Well said! | All That I Can't Leave Unsaid

  6. God is not just sympathetic, God is empathetic. There is a spark, a microbe, a strand, a drop of the essence of God in each of us. While we might not recognize it or while we choose to ignore or deny or reject our godliness, God always recognizes and acknowledges and affirms and claims and connects with that Godliness that is intricately woven and bound with the essence of each free-willed individual being.

    God suffered with Jesus. The lesson is not that it was a miraculous coexistence of divine and human. The lesson is that God is connected and bound to each of us just as God was connected and bound to Jesus. Jesus is a universal example, not a singular occurrence. When we “repent” (when we “return to God”) we recognize and acknowledge and affirm and claim that we and God are so intricately connected that it becomes a connection of the upmost intimacy. God has always known us. In our knowing God, in making it a two-way connection, we open a communication link, establish a conversation, become involved in the most open intimate relationship in which we can be involved and with the most faithful and trustworthy partner. It is a marriage and a binding and a bonding of soul and creator – we know God and God knows us.

    Through the power of this dynamic connection and loving relationship, we cannot stay the same, we cannot remain who we were – the former self falls away and dies and in its place a new being is established. Through the power of the relationship between soul and creator, there is death, resurrection and transformation, and mutual benefit. We are given a new life and a participatory citizenship in the ever present Kingdom of God. God is reconnected with that of God which is a part of each of us and through us God is connected with creation as a part of creation and God experiences more of the on-going existence of creation as a participant as well as creator.

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