Why did Jesus die (A2)

Why did Jesus die

(This is a first draft of suggestions for a second-view talk to accompany Alpha talk 2)

Why did Jesus die? Perhaps it would be too simple to say “Because he was fully human, and human beings die”. I could go on to say “Because he was perceived as a danger by the Roman imperialist conquerors, and what they did with revolutionaries in those days was to crucify them, to give them the most ignominious, painful and publically humiliating death they could both to deter others from doing the same and to belittle their importance and dishearten their supporters”.  Both of those are, of course, true.

I do not, in fact, think that he died because the Jewish nation as a whole asked Pilate to do this, nor that even a substantial number of Jews did this, though it may have been that some Jewish collaborators in authority under the Romans also wanted his death and agitated for this with the Romans. He did, after all, threaten their positions as well by being a subversive spiritual leader with some most unpopular views about whether Jewish Law should take precedence over the Great Commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31, Matt. 22:37, Luke 10:27, Rom. 13:9, Gal. 5:14, Jas. 2:8). Recall that I see the gospel writers as reflecting a changing and developing idea of who Jesus was and why he died, and this is a matter of finding meaning in his life and death, not following his actual words. We may find that meaning, but that does not mean that it is a reality on some supernatural level.

If a crowd did, indeed, ask for Barabbas rather than for him, (and recall that “Bar Abbas” means “son of the Father”), it was probably one seeded by agitators by Pilate, who was known for doing this, and eventually disciplined in Rome for being too harsh in his governorship. We can I think therefore discount Luke’s story of Pilate washing his hands, even if we do not realise that Luke was expressing a pro-Roman view out of keeping with the earlier gospels. John, of course, repeats this, but John is frankly anti-semitic in his tone throughout; one can surmise that not only was he not Jewish himself, but was from a background which made him anti-Jewish – John Dominic Crossan suggests that he was in fact a Samaritan convert, which would also explain the favourable treatment of Samaritans in the Fourth Gospel.

My friend has put forward in a fairly simple form the argument for an understanding of the effect of Jesus’ death which is known as “penal substitutionary atonement” or PSA. This was not in fact the understanding of the early church, much of which believed in the “ransom theory”, that Jesus’ death ransomed humanity from the power of the Devil into which it had fallen due to sin, payment being made to the Devil. Another prominent early concept was “Christus Victor”, drawn largely from the Fourth Gospel, which saw Jesus as having vanquished the power of the Devil through sin by his death and resurrection.  The third early concept, which was better stated around the turn of the twelfth century was the “exemplary atonement” or “moral influence” theory, which said that the example of Christ in leading an exemplary life and being faithful even to death on the cross was an example to humanity to move towards moral change.

Earlier in the 11th century, however, Anselm had voiced the “satisfaction theory”, which argued, in the words of Wikipedia, that only a human being can make recompense for human sin against God, but this being impossible for any human being, such recompense could only be made by God. This is only possible for Jesus Christ, the Son, who is both God and man. The atonement is brought about by Christ’s death, which is of infinite value. This was then developed in the Reformed tradition (principally by John Calvin) into PSA, adding the element that Christ suffered the punishment for all sins.

It is important to say that all five of these theories have been espoused by very able theologians in the Christian Churches over the years; none is predominant in Catholicism and the Eastern churches (principally the Orthodox) do not espouse PSA at all. However, you may wish to follow where any of them have gone before.

It is also worth mentioning that none of them gives adequate weight to the picture presented by the Epistle to the Hebrews of Jesus ascending to heaven and as high priest offering his own blood spilled as a once-and-forever sacrifice to end the need for the Temple sacrificial system, an attractive concept to Jews who had in 70 AD seen their Temple completely destroyed by the Romans during a revolt lasting some 7 years, and thus felt the lack of that system. However, the writer of Hebrews was somewhat off the mark in that the Temple did not just accept blood sacrifices (there were also grain sacrifices) and though sin offerings were one part of these, there were also sacrifices for praise, thanks, gratitude and to correct ritual impurity.

Personally I cannot live with the theological assumptions of PSA though I am very happy with the exemplary atonement theory. I am unhappy with the concept that God requires of us to follow a set of rules which it is patently impossible for us to do (at least, according to Paul in Rom. 3:10) and that He cannot bend from that. Although I acknowledge the concept of sin as a separation from God, and agree that it is a problem, mere matters of conduct are not, to me, what is being talked of.

It is correct that for those who are at a personal rock bottom due to addiction, depression or otherwise and have lost their sense of worth completely, PSA offers an attractive psychological answer. On the other hand, it is perilous to approach someone who is not desperate and does not feel much sense of sin and attempt to convince them that they are wretched and depraved; it is also cruel if you manage to convince them of that but it proves that they can’t take the leap of faith required. In Mark 2:17, after all, Jesus says “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”.

I am also prone to point out that if you read Ezekiel 18:21-23, repeated at 27-28 just in case the message didn’t get through the first time, you find “If a wicked man turns away from all the sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has committed he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live” This is a formula entirely separate from the sacrificial system, and in my view does away with the need for any separate process for dealing with sin.

In Hosea 6:6 we read “For I deserve steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” which is echoed in Matthew 9:13 from the lips of Jesus and again in Matthew 12:7. The word “love” can be as well translated as “mercy” in those passages, and the word “burnt offerings” as “sacrifices”.

I find it odd, therefore, that the satisfaction and PSA pictures consider that a God who enjoins his people in the 8th century and then the 6th century BC that repentance, turning to God and living righteously are sufficient to wipe out sin and that he requires mercy, not sacrifice, cannot forgive human sin without the sacrifice of his own son, or, in a way, himself (the picture looks somewhat better if it indeed himself who he sacrifices, but this would be a heresy called “patripassianism”).

We may, however, get a further clue if we look closely at the words of Paul’s theologising in Romans 3. I will concentrate on one phrase in Romans 3:25-26 “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus”.

Note, it does not make us righteous, it proves to us that God is righteous where humanity might think that he is not. He himself still does not require anything from us other than that we repent and turn to God, but we may require from him a demonstration of his justice and goodness, and that was achieved by sending his son and in a fashion himself to die as badly as it was possible for humans to die; in this way he shared our anguish, our pain, our death.

An exemplary atonement, healing one aspect of our separation from God, our sin.

There is more. I’m a mystic; it was through a mystical peak experience that I first started the journey which has resulted in me writing this (had I not had it, I’d probably still be the evangelical atheist I previously was, and several other less-than-ideal things as well). As a result I have a deep and compelling consciousness of the omnipresence of God, the immanence of God. Yes, I also have a consciousness of his transcendence, but the consciousness of immanence and omnipresence is stronger. As a result, I find the following consideration to be gripping; you may be able to reach the same conclusion otherwise.

In Matthew 25, vv 31-46 there is a long passage including “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ “ (34-40). I remember that his brethren were precisely the outcasts of society, that your neighbour was whoever you came into contact with irrespective of race, colour, gender or, yes, religion (recall the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:25-30) or the Samaritans? (Luke 10;33, 17;16, John 8:48). Friend or enemy, all neighbours, all brethren. They are all men, and what we do to them we do to Christ. I take this very seriously indeed.

In the first century, Christ was crucified by men who sinned at the behest of other men who sinned; today he is crucified again every time harm is done to any human being anywhere. We, humanity, crucified him by, not for, our sin, and we are still doing it every minute of every hour of every day.

This too is exemplary.

2 Responses to “Why did Jesus die (A2)”

  1. Henry Neufeld Says:

    Then there is “incorporation” which is that we are joined to Christ, become part of his body, and therefore we HAVE died.

    But overall I think the first one-He was human and so he died-is very profound. Combine it with the incarnation.

  2. Chris Says:

    In my panentheist viewpoint, I am joined with Christ/God and therefore I am dying constantly (as well as standing back constantly doing nothing while they knock the nails in).

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