One of the questions I always get asked as a pastor, is why did Jesus have to die? Most times, it is linked with the question — does God really require someone to die, blood to be spilled, for people to have peace with God? Many people find this idea hard to square with the image of a loving compassionate God. Theologians call this question of why Jesus had to die “atonement theology”. Earlier this year when I did a series on peace, I did a post about this question. I’m re-sharing it below as a way of exploring the divine side of Good Friday. In my other Good Friday post, I look at what it means that Jesus is fully human and what his death teaches us about our own mortality. I hope this post helps some of you who struggle on Good Friday on the question of “Why did Jesus have to Die? Is it that God is Longing for a Pound of Flesh?”
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I am coming to believe our answer to this question has a direct connection with our response to questions of violence and peace-making.
In the Gospel, we find God appearing as one of us in Jesus. Scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 5 tell us that somehow, God coming as Jesus, this human being who died the horrible death of crucifixion for our sins enables a bridge to be built so that people who have been cut off from or estranged by God can be reconciled to God and at peace with God.
To people who feel cut off from God this can be a very liberating message.
I still remember growing up in a very rule-based religion that pictured God as an angry King out for his pound of flesh if you did not live up to his standards. It was overwhelming for me to discover through friends in a Christian club in high school about a God who loves me, no strings attached. I heard about a God who thought I was so worth love, that God risked all – even suffering and death – to embrace me in God’s arms. I remember the turning point when, while listening to the words of a Christian rock song about the cross, I realized Jesus went through what he went through so I might know I am forever loved, forever embraced, and forever accepted by the Creator of the universe. It changed my life and is why I do what I do every day as a minister.
But one thing later bothered me: I understood that in Jesus God risked death to open wide God’s arms to embrace me in love. But why did we so often talk as if somehow it was necessary for God to forgive me for someone else to die? Why did we talk as if God required anything before God would forgive anyone? Where did this idea that God was out for a pound of human flesh come from? At times our way of talking about why Jesus died made God seem pretty bi-polar to me. I know something had to be off with how I grew up hearing God’s justice and love working together.
I would always answer saying “Well, you don’t understand the Trinity – the Son is God, the Father is God, the Spirit is God … so it ain’t like that”. Which, though true, didn’t answer the question – Why couldn’t God just forgive us without someone dying? Isn’t God “God” after all? Can’t God do anything? Doesn’t this picture of God paint God out to be at best a bully, and at worst a really violent person in a pinch?
After all, when we forgive each other, it doesn’t always have to have strings attached. And certainly I don’t have to wait til someone suffers or dies in your place before I can forgive you.
The last few years I’ve found a number of Christians also asking this. They point to Jesus’ teachings on non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Jesus’ own example of non-violence, and suggest that this picture of a God out for human flesh, who can only be appeased in somebody dies, and only then forgive us doesn’t square with Jesus’ call for us to be nonviolent in order to perfect like God is perfect. Nor does it fit how Jesus extended forgiveness in his earthly life, which we Christians say is out picture of who God is.
A number of theologians have suggested that a picture of God more in line with Jesus’ example is one where Jesus’ death on the cross is not about violence or bloodthirstiness in the heart of God. They are calling us to rediscover the many other explanations of atonement which Christians have embraced both long before what I heard in evangelical churches growing up appeared, and which now are being forged long after such explanations first became popular.
I want to suggest a few authors we can turn to in order to begin to explore what a God who is not out for a pound of flesh might look like.
First, let me suggest the writings and talks of C. Baxter Krueger, a southern preacher and theologian. In addition to writing theology in popular language Krueger also has created a line of fishing lures. (You can bet based on my previous posts on fishing that a theologian who makes home-made fishing lures is a man after my own heart).
Krueger calls Christians to rediscover the foundational ideas that the early Christians, who helped put our Scriptures together into one Bible, embraced. Central to these ideas is the understanding of God as a Triune God of love. In his ministry Perichoresis (see http://www.perichoresis.org/) Krueger points to how losing sight of the idea of God as including in God’s own nature a community of love has led us to envision God as split between extremes of love and justice (by which we really mean vengeance), imaging an angry hateful God who is our Father and a loving caring God who is God’s Son who rescues us from the Father. This leads us to miss the point in so many aspects of our Christian lives.
Krueger beautifully explains how realizing that from start to finish God is a community of love, fully shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit and now fully available to us transforms our picture of love both on his website and in his books. A good starting place in exploring Krueger’s thought is the following blog on why Jesus had to die:
Another author I would encourage you to look at is James Allison. James Allison is a theologian who explores the connections between the thought of Rene Girard to modern Christianity. Girard taught that we get our theology wrong by thinking God is the one demanding a pound of flesh. Instead, he says that it is we, human beings, who are trying to demand a pound of flesh from each other from the beginning. And when God comes in our midst, it is not God demanding a sacrifice from us but we demanding a sacrifice from God. It is not sinners in the hands of an angry God, but a loving God in the hands of angry sinners.
James Allison gives a very thoughtful presentation of what the story of Jesus looks like if we understand that it is we, not God, who are the blood-thirsty ones, in his little article, “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”.
Allison has put some of this material as a Christian education course at http://forgivingvictim.com/. That resource, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, is on my Christmas wish list (hint, hint) because I think re-discovering how the Gospel dethrones violence of the strong to the weak is an important thing Christianity in our day needs to grapple with.
A final resource I would mention on the discussion of the atonement is Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement. This book explores the in’s and out’s of various approaches to this question of why Jesus died.
My own personal conviction is that the approach that sees in God this drive for a pound of flesh is not just at the heart of some of the mind-crushing legalism so many believers face, but also at the heart of why so many feel they must embrace the slave-holder Christianity mindset I have spoken of before. To feel right with God they feel they must scapegoat some other group, drive them out, sacrifice their humanity. It also I think is at the heart of how easily here in the Dixie-belt we wed our Christianity with calls to warfare or prejudice. It is also why I think too many Christians too quickly are willing to call for warfare against “culture”, against people with different values, or even against people of other faiths. Ultimately we become like what we worship, and if we believe God is out for a pound of our flesh, it is easy to let such an image of God influence us to feel it is OK for us to be out for the pound of flesh of others.
Discovering that Jesus is in fact the Prince of Peace I think is so important for us finding the way to join Jesus on the path of peace-making, in a world of violence, bigotry, bullying, and war.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here,
your progressive redneck preacher,