This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:
Why Did Jesus Die?
In the second part of this series on human suffering, we moved on to discussing the suffering of Christ described in 1 Peter. Namely, we sought to answer the question: what does Jesus’s suffering mean for us today? So, I opened with the obvious question: why was Jesus crucified?
One member of the group responded essentially by saying that there was no reason. Jesus died unjustly, at the hands of authorities who saw his work as stirring up trouble and inciting rebellion. Of course, we see clearly in the Gospels how the religious leaders in his community are continually conspiring to put him to death, and it is a nearly universally agreed upon fact that he was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” So, in a very straightforward sense, the answer to why Jesus died is simple: people killed him.
But, alas, that’s not the end of the story. It seems to me that when people ask “why did Jesus die?” they aren’t asking a historical question; they’re asking a theological question. They want to know what the divine purpose was behind his death. In a way, they are asking the same question the first followers of Jesus were asking. Those who had put their faith in Jesus, upon his crucifixion, found themselves asking, “How could Jesus have died?” Today, we ask a similar question: why do we put our faith in a seemingly failed Messiah?
I grew up with a very specific theological answer to the question of why Jesus died: he died to take my place. Sure, I knew of the historical nature of Jesus’s death–his betrayal, his trial, and his crucifixion–but I was raised to believe that all of these things were beside the point. The important thing wasn’t how Jesus’s death came about but, rather, why it had to come about. I was a sinner condemned to death, and God sent his son into the world to die in my place so that I didn’t have to be punished for my guilt.
Growing up in the American Evangelical church, I never questioned this understanding of Jesus’s death. I found it redemptive and comforting. I always appreciated the courtroom drama that played out in my mind. I would appear before the judge, prepared to be sentenced to death for my crimes. Then, much to my delight, Jesus would step in and take the punishment for me so that I could go free. It made perfect sense and, to many Christians today, it still does…
It wasn’t until just the last few months that I began to realize the problems with understanding Jesus’s death in this way. “Substitutionary atonement,” the notion that Jesus died to vicariously pay the price for our sins, creates issues that stand at odds with other generally accepted tenets of the Christian faith. Throughout the discussion, we spent much our time discussing these issues…
5 Problems with Substitutionary Atonement
- Nullifies the life of Christ. It is true that the earliest writings of the New Testament mention very little about the life of Christ. All of Paul’s writings focus heavily on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Even the Gospels themselves devote a disproportionate amount of time to the last week of Jesus’s life. Nevertheless, to embrace exclusively a theology of substitutionary atonement is to render insignificant the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus. We don’t need the Golden Rule or the parables. We don’t need the casting out of demons or the healing of the sick. All we need is the cross. If this is the case, why could Christ not have merely become incarnate just in time for that crucial, final week?
- Paints a violent and unjust image of God. I grew up with the understanding that God embodies the ultimate balance between love and justice. He needed payment for our offenses because of his ultimate justice; he sent Jesus to die in our place because of his ultimate love. The more I think about it, though, the less sense this makes to me. In a world full of evil, I understand the need for a God of justice. Yet, I fail to see how punishing Jesus for the sins of others accomplishes that justice. If a room full of kids is misbehaving and there is one lone child who is being perfectly obedient, how is it justice to take away that child’s recess and allow all of the other children to get away with it? How is it justice to kill the innocent in order to allow the guilty to go free?
- Reveals a tainted view of humanity. Not only does substitutionary atonement paint an incomplete picture of Christ and a somewhat sadistic picture of God, but it also creates an unfair picture of humanity. To be sure, there are some human beings that have committed atrocities. Yet, I cannot agree with the notion that people are purely evil, totally depraved, and absolutely helpless. The idea that those of us who have committed genocide and those of us who have told white lies to make people feel better are guilty to the same degree seems to me to be preposterous. If all of us are destined for the same punishment and are forgiven our debts by the same payment, then it would seem that all of us are guilty of the same sin. I agree wholeheartedly that we’re all sinners, but I find the idea that we all deserve the death penalty for our sins to be rather difficult. We are, after all, created in the image of God.
- Negates the resurrection. If it can be said that we have indeed accumulated such a massive debt with God that we have no means of ever paying it back, then I guess we do need someone to step in and pay our debts for us. This, of course, is what Jesus does on the cross. He completes a transaction that “buys us back” into God’s good graces. Spiritually, Jesus is rich and we are poor. So, he pays God what we owe Him, and our debts are forgiven. There’s only one problem–Jesus is resurrected! The implication, then, is that God gives him his money back. If we owe God, Jesus pays God, and God returns the money, how are our debts still forgiven? And, yet, Paul says, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17) Jesus’s death alone, then, is not what takes away our sins…
- Removes human responsibility. One final criticism that may be made of substitutionary atonement is that it leads to the temptation of complacency on our behalf. If Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is a “once for all” payment forgiving all sins for all times, what purpose is there to living righteously? If we play no responsibility in our own salvation, we are more like sheep than human beings. John Macquarrie writes, “Rational, moral human beings cannot be saved like sheep. Some response, some co-operation or synergism is needed, otherwise there is only a quasi-magical manipulation on a subpersonal level…The Christian must consciously appropriate the work of Christ on his or her behalf, and take up the cross” (Jesus Christ in Modern Thought).
I’ve been particularly hard on this concept of atonement because I think it’s overemphasized. I don’t think it can be said to be completely false. The death of Jesus is one of those mysteries of the Christian faith that cannot be given a simple explanation. I just think that’s precisely what people try to do with the penal substitution idea of atonement. The truth is that Christ’s death is more nuanced than that. There are other ways of understanding Christ’s death, and one of these is the understanding put forth by the author of 1 Peter…
Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…
1 Peter 2:20-25
20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us,[f] leaving us[g] an example, that you should follow His steps:
22 “Who committed no sin,
Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; [h]
23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer[i] of your souls.
1 Peter 3:18-4:2
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us[e] to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited[f] in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
4 Therefore, since Christ suffered for us[a] in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.
Models of Atonement
There are various ways of understanding why Jesus died. Each has benefits and problems, and each has its support within Scripture. For the remainder of the evening, we reflected on some popular models of atonement and how they compare with the text in question. What kind of atonement does the author of 1 Peter have in mind?
Satisfaction and Penal Substitution
In the 11th Century, Anselm of Canterbury officially formulated the satisfaction theory of atonement. In this model, God is an offended party and we are the offenders. God needs to be satisfied for the offenses, and Jesus’s death brings about that satisfaction. Defenders of this position will argue that it is not the same thing as penal substitution, which says that Christ is being punished for our offenses. To me, however, the nuance seems hardly distinguishable and only depends on the extremity of the metaphor you want to use.
I’ve already spent a great deal of time discussing the difficulties of this model, but it does have some benefits. First, there seems to be vast support in Scripture. The notion of Jesus becoming a sacrifice for our sins is all over the New Testament. That kind of language is abundant, and I don’t think it can be entirely dismissed. Moreover, the idea of Jesus becoming a substitute for us emphasizes our need for a savior. It would take a great amount of hubris for us to claim that we can entirely save ourselves. Are we worthless? No, I don’t think so. But we aren’t perfect either. We do need grace.
The Christus Victor view of atonement was most clearly articulated by Gustaf Aulen in the 20th Century, but it is understood as the “classic” view of atonement. That is, it is widely thought that the earliest Christians saw Jesus’s death primarily in this way. In this model, a ransom is paid not to God but to Satan. Humanity, in its sin, is held captive by the forces of evil and Jesus buys humanity back from those forces through his death on the cross. What Satan doesn’t know is that it’s a trick, and God raises Jesus from the dead–winning humanity back and conquering the forces of evil for all time.
The benefit of this view is that it doesn’t put God at odds with humanity. In this view, God longs for humanity and Satan stands in the way. This view can also find great support in scripture, from the interaction of Jesus with demons to the “victory” language used so frequently by Paul. There are a few problems with this view, though. First, it gives Satan a sort of God-like power–as if he is a force to be reckoned with. Secondly, it is highly mythological in its outlook. Nevertheless, evil can be understood on more of a symbolic basis and this helps lends the theory a little more credibility.
The final theory we discussed (though certainly not the final theory that can offer explanation) is the moral influence theory of atonement. This view was first formally articulated in the 11th Century by Peter Abelard in response to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. In this view, the death of Jesus is understood to be the result of a model life. It is redemptive in that it shows us an example of how to live and, if it comes to it, how to die. Jesus saves us by showing us the way to save ourselves.
This view, in my mind, is not without problems. First, it hardly seems worthy of inspiring the creation of an entire religion. Do we not have many examples to whom we can look to understand how to live a good life? What makes Jesus so special? Secondly, many argue that this is the latest understanding of the atonement–and that it doesn’t have nearly as much support from Scripture as do the other theories mentioned.
Those criticisms notwithstanding, I think moral influence is precisely the primary understanding that the author of 1 Peter has of Jesus’s suffering and death. Why? Because it is mentioned in the light of the suffering that Christians are undergoing. Jesus suffered for his goodness and faithfulness, Peter seems to be saying, so we should expect the same sort of thing. “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”
Personally, I find this last view of atonement to be the most compelling. It is an empowering understanding of the death of Jesus; it gives us something to do. German theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her book Christ the Representative, describes Jesus as a “representative” rather than a “substitute.” He doesn’t merely take our place, so that we are free to go about our business. Rather, he steps in so as to blaze a trail for us to follow. He doesn’t merely travel a road for us; instead, he shows us the way so that we can take that road too.
There is a scene in the Superman film Man of Steel in which Clark Kent is attempting to discover his capabilities under the guidance of his biological father, Jor-El. As he begins testing his limits, Jor-El narrates words of encouragement that I imagine God might have spoken to Jesus:
You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
In the moral influence model of atonement, Jesus is our Superman–not in the sense that he uses his superpowers to save us helpless human beings, but rather in the sense that he gives us a perfect example to which we can aspire. Jesus, in this view, represents the possibility of what humanity can become. He was, after all, a human being–wasn’t he?
Is There a Unifying Theory of Atonement?
The “unifying theory of everything,” an explanatory concept that can cover everything in the cosmos, is the Holy Grail of modern physics. But physics isn’t alone in seeking simple explanations. We seem to crave simple heuristics in every context that allow us to understand the world in a more cohesive fashion. We do the same thing we our faith–and our understanding of Jesus’s death is certainly no exception. So, is there a unifying theory of atonement?
If there is, I’m sorry to say that you aren’t going to read about it here. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, as I am with many in the Christian faith. I think that’s just kind of the nature of the beast. As mentioned, though, I do find the moral influence understanding much easier to integrate into my life. That being said, I cannot in good conscience ignore all the sacrificial language of the scriptures or the influence it has had on the historic understanding of Christ’s work in the world.
It’s difficult, though, to hold in tension this sacrificial language with all the exemplary language of the scriptures. To me, they seem to be at odds with one another. How can I “present myself as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) if the whole point of Jesus’s death is that he was sacrificed so that I don’t have to be? How can I “take up my cross” (Mark 8:34) if the whole point of Jesus taking up his cross was so that I didn’t have to take up a cross?
The wrestling continues.
However we understand the death of Jesus, I think there is one idea that must be maintained: Jesus’s death must have been voluntary. I’m not comfortable with the idea that God sent Jesus into the world as part of a pre-ordained plan that Jesus had no choice but to carry out, although I know there is much scriptural language to support this as well. Jesus’s death can only be redemptive in any theory of atonement if he gave up his life willingly for others. I can’t accept any understanding that explains the death of Christ as God killing Jesus. Jesus is our savior, however we understand that to mean, because he chooses to be.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, from their essay “For God So Loved the World?” However we understand the death of Christ, I think there’s something significant in his moment of crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, he makes a choice–a choice to continue along a path of goodness and faithfulness no matter the cost. And that, I think, is the way that the author of 1 Peter would say that he is the perfect example for us…
Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat…Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.”