Jacob M. Wright writes on facebook:- “Someone asked me again why Christ died, since I reject the idea that Christ died to satisfy Gods wrathful demand of justice. As if an ancient torture device devised in the deranged sadomasochistic minds of barbaric Romans is Gods perfect ideal of justice. Here is my answer:
Christ died as the “second Adam” to undo the fall, to take into himself the brokenness of all humanity, in the loving power of his Father, and thus defeat sin, death, and the devil, resurrecting with the new creation.”
He goes on to say “Second, this drama was to expose victimization and scapegoating and end the dehumanization of the principalities and powers, making a public spectacle of them”, “Christ also died to reveal the self-giving, cosuffering nature of God which casts out fear, and casts down the accuser” and “Christ is a sacrifice in that God sacrifices himself to make peace with us, offers us his body and blood. Not the other way around where we offer a sacrifice to God to appease him and offer him the body and blood. “
I’ve answered the question “Why did Jesus die”, asked in the first session of every Alpha course the same way every time I’ve been present, which I think makes around a dozen times, and my answer is considered contoversial. Jesus died, I say, because he pissed off the Romans (the occupying power – think of the Germans in France in the early 1940s) and to a far lesser extent because he also pissed off the religious authorities. It would also be true to say that Jesus died because he was human, and all human beings die sooner or later. Incidentally, no, I do not think that human beings die only because of sin – I’ve written about this previously.
Everything else we say about why Jesus died stems from a need to find meaning in what was, in essence, a death like many others. Yes, it was very violent, but so were many thousands of other deaths under the Roman occupation. Yes, it was before time (“The Last Temptation of Christ” portrays a might-have-been scenario where Jesus marries, has children and lives to a ripe old age, and was similarly horribly contoversial when it came out).
In and of itself, however, it had only what meaning we place on it – OK, arguably it had what meaning God placed on it, but I am extremely sceptical that anyone ever knew God’s mind on the subject, if “mind” is an appropriate word – and I include in “anyone” particularly the four evangelists and Paul.
But it was the death of someone in whom a significant number of people had invested a huge amount of hope and in whom they had found meaning.
Turning for a moment to historical Jesus scholarship, it has very often been commented (including by Harnack and Schweizer) that people looking for the historical Jesus tend to find something much like themselves – liberals find a liberal Jesus, conservatives find a conservative Jesus. This is extended to particular scholars – Crossan finds a “Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”, a social reformer; Borg finds a mystic; Aslan finds a zealot; others find a cynic philosopher or a pure religious reformer uninterested in politics. Personally I’m entirely confident that Borg is right, and that Jesus was indeed a mystic, but that doesn’t preclude him being a social and a religious reformer, though it does probably make it a little unlikely that he was an enthusiast for the extremely violent zealots. If Jesus was human (and Christians generally accept that he was, whatever else he may also have been) he was probably complicated, because humans are complicated. Of course, my saying that Jesus was both mystic and social and religions reformer is, I suppose, to say that Jesus resembles an idealised version of me…
The thing is, this tendency to see Jesus as many things is not a new phenomenon. The early church were remarkable in preserving four entirely different viewpoints on Jesus in the Gospels and a fifth in Paul (well, at least a fifth, but possibly also a sixth and seventh). Granted, they may not have had much choice, as there is evidence that different communities preferred different gospels. Mark is radical (both religiously and socially, per John Vincent “Radical Jesus”), sees Jesus as a paradoxical kingly messiah, and is conventionally thought to be targetted at Roman citizens. Matthew is clearly targetting Jews, sees Jesus as a prophet/messiah and is aiming largely at religious reform. Luke is probably targetting Greeks (although this term could include a lot of Romans – the eastern Mediterranean tended to see most people who spoke Greek as “Graeci”), and is particularly socially radical (see, for instance, the Magnificat). John is mystical (the writer is clearly a Christ-mystic, experiencing what he identifies as Jesus in the way in which I experience what I identify as God) and at the very least sees Jesus as a mystic who is divinised.
Paul – well, it is difficult to ascribe a single clear viewpoint to Paul, but he would probably agree with John in viewing Jesus as divinised, though in Paul’s case not from the moment of creation (as in John 1) but from the resurrection (Romans 1:4). Some of Paul’s words seem to display that he was himself a mystic (like John, a Christ-mystic), some come from other modes of thinking. If we attempt to view all the epistles attributed to him as genuinely his work, we also see someone conflicted about the position of Jews, of women and of slaves.
And about what exactly is the importance of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Paul writes that this is reconciliation with God in Romans 5:10; ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6; substitution (for sin) in 2 Corinthians 5:21; an example of righteousness in Romans 5:18; self-sacrifice in Ephesians 5:2; redemption by blood in Ephesians 1:7 and, if you believe Paul wrote Hebrews (which I don’t), an atoning blood sacrifice (9:22), though one in which Jesus was himself the officiating priest (and so the one doing the sacrificing) (9:11).
[OK, I have friends who will say that Penal Substitutionary Atonement takes into account all those passages and fits them perfectly. I don’t agree that it does – just try reading through them a few times and see if the concepts do actually fit together, but in any event I shy away from PSA because of the libel on the character of God which it represents – there, I agree wholly with Jacob’s words quoted earlier.]
And, of course, possibly the most quoted piece of them all, Romans 3:25-26 “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”.
Read that very carefully. God is putting forward a propitiation by his own blood (i.e. that of Jesus) to demonstrate his own righteousness. Not to save us from death, not to save us from sin, not to ransom us from the Devil, not to perform some peculiar sacrifice of himself to himself, not to assuage his own wrath, but to show that he is righteous. “As if”, I hear you think “we had any doubt that God was righteous…”. Well, obviously Paul thought that we had the wrong idea about God, presumably in this case that he was arbitrary and sometimes forgave and sometimes didn’t, in an inconsistent and unpredictable way. After all, didn’t the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures wrestle with just this problem (and come to no satisfactory conclusion?
Let me belabour the point. We, humanity (or at least some sizeable subset of us) had made a meaning out of what we experienced (just as the NT writers were doing about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and Paul was saying that this interpretation of Jesus’ death corrected that meaning. He was making a counter-meaning. OK, we could also read that as God ordaining the death of his Son on the cross to correct a human misconception, but most people will find that at least vaguely scandalous as regards the character of God (as do I).
That means, of course, that there was no vast cosmic change in God’s relationship to humanity as a result of Jesus’ death (which I expect some people will find equally scandalous). Paul was extracting from the events a meaning which corrected an error about God which itself was part of a human meaning-making enterprise. Paul’s statement of this was “an event” in the parlance of post-modernity.
In point of fact, being a panentheist, the conventional atonement theories make no sense to me, but this reading emphatically does; my own view can be found at the end of this post, which is mostly a reaction to Clark Pinnock. It is, of course, another piece of human making of meaning…