Holy Week begs the question, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” Many Christians believe in “penal substitution.” They believe: all humankind has sinned, God\’s justice requires a penalty be paid for sin, so God sent Jesus to suffer the penalty in our place by dying on the cross. But what does that say about God, and is that how Jesus saw himself?
“Penal Substitution,” the dominant theory of Calvin and Luther in Sixteenth Century Continental Europe, has been widely adopted among conservative protestants and can be heard from the lips of every storefront preacher. According to this theory, the crucifixion was not a natural consequence of Jesus displeasing the status quo of his day, but was orchestrated by God, who destined Jesus to be afflicted with extreme suffering so that humankind could escape the divine wrath of Judgment Day. For Calvin, not only was humankind totally depraved (the first point of Calvinism) but God in His capacity as judge was angry toward us and someone—Jesus—must make expiation for us. “Penal Substitution” was an outgrowth of two early, somewhat similar theories. One was the “Ransom Theory” posited by Third Century scholar, Origen. He suggested that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had acquired a formal dominion over, and ownership of, all of humanity and the rest of the world. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Jesus, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would formally compensate for Adam and Eve\’s sin, and would release humanity from Satan\’s grip. Another was the “Satisfaction Theory” of Anselm, an Eleventh Century Archbishop of Canterbury. It is similar to Ransom Theory. According to Anselm, Jesus was created to be a sin offering for the sins of humankind, similar to the sin offerings of burned animals in the Jewish Temple. Anselm\’s theory was that satisfaction is necessary on account of God\’s honor and justice; second, that such satisfaction can be given only by Jesus; and, third, that such satisfaction is was given by Jesus\’ voluntary death. For Anselm, Jesus\’ death was recompense to satisfy the hurt humankind caused God; because humankind sinned against God, who status is immeasurable, the debt owed to God was immense, a debt only Jesus could pay. According to this theory, if sin is not punished, it is unjustly forgiven. The problem with all three foregoing theories is their underlying concept of God and how God saw Jesus. We read in John 3:16 that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus that we should not perish but have life eternal. But destining his own son to die to give to Satan as ransom, or demanding his son achieve his highest calling as a sacrificial animal in ritual killing, does not portray God as a loving Father caring for and protecting His children. It is nothing but cosmic child abuse. Such a role for Jesus is inconsistent with God\’s reaction of Jesus\’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well-pleased,: upon whom the Holy Spirit descended (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34). Isn\’t God supposed to forgive sin, not punish it? And if Satan is fundamentally evil and God good, how can God justify handing his Son over to Satan? And what use does God have for an immolated Jesus? Isn\’t Jesus supposed to triumph over death by His resurrection?
Jesus did not teach that sacrifices of any kind were a pre-condition for obtaining forgiveness of sins. What Jesus did teach was that forgiveness, not sacrifice or penalties, was what characterized the Kingdom of Heaven and that forgiving others is a prerequisite for God forgiving us. Do we not pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord\’s Prayer? The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:23-25 illustrates that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. A servant owed the king 10,000 talents (which was a substantial sum in Jesus\’ time). When he could not paid, the king sold him into slavery. He begged for mercy. The king forgave his debt. The forgiven servant, however, did not do likewise with a fellow servant who owed him the mere pittance of one hundred denarii (a day\’s wage for a working class person), instead, incarcerating him until he paid. When the king heard about it, he seized the previously forgiven servant and tortured him until he paid his now unforgiven debt, saying, “should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant?” When asked how often we should forgive, Jesus said, “seventy time seven.” (Matthew 18:21-23). Jesus carried the principle of forgiveness with him right to the cross, where he forgave his executioners. (Luke 23:34a). This is highly significant, because crucifixion was a degrading punishment the Romans reserved for the most wicked members of the lowest rungs of society. If we believe God punished His own son with death so that the sins of everyone else may be forgiven, the entire message regarding forgiveness would be meaningless—if we are already forgiven because of Jesus\’ death, the incentive to forgive others to gain Gods\’ forgiveness would vanish.
What matters is why Jesus died with reference to the events surrounding him and how Jesus himself saw his death. Hence, Jesus\’ message was not only significant to us as Christians; his preaching of it is why he died. In its day it was a most unpopular message.
Jesus reflected on the role of his death in detail in the Farewell Discourses in John\’s Gospel (13:31-17:25) where Jesus, in an intimate message to his apostles, reflected on his relationship to His Father and the significance of His own ministry. Jesus foretold his betrayal by one of the Twelve—Judas Iscariot. Jesus then comments on his relationship with the Father—God will be glorified through Jesus death. What he left behind was his central message: “Love one another as I have loved you, “ and by doing this, the world will know they are in fact, His disciples. He then tells them he is returning to His Father\’s house where he goes to prepare a place for them; that He will come again and take them to Himself; and that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. He then tells them that if they know Him, they know the Father. He then goes on to promise the coming of the Holy Spirit; that he leaves them with his peace, and to abide in his love. The penultimate statement is that there is no greater love than laying down one\’s life for one\’s friends—and he reminds them that they are his friends, not his servants. Telling them that he is leaving the world and going to the Father, he concludes by saying that his mission was to make God\’s love known to the world. That is a far cry from a sacrificial offering for all humankind\’s sins. Rather, the people who killed Jesus are fully culpable for His death. they killed Jesus for what he believed and taught. Thus, Jesus saves us, not a sacrificial offering, but as a martyr. Thirteenth Century theologian Peter Abelard provides us with a wholly different paradigm to approach the significance of Jesus\’ death on the cross. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards humankind with the purpose of persuading us to live better lives. In other words, God\’s limitless love overrules His need for justice. This is known as the “Moral Influence” theory of atonement and began before Abelard in the subapostolic period. Clement of Alexandria described Jesus as an “illuminator” whose task was to impart knowledge, writing, “Through Him God has called us from darkness to light from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name.\”For Abelard, the purpose and result of Christ\’s death was to influence mankind toward moral improvement. The basic idea was that human beings have the power to improve themselves morally. The doctrine of original sin and any ensuing depravity was viewed as intolerable. The death of Jesus was designed to impress humankind with a sense of God\’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. The life and death of Jesus, taken together, inspires and is an example for Christians to follow in their lives on earth. Jesus\’ crucifixion does not focus on Satan or God as the Ransom, Satisfaction, or Penal Substitution theories, but on the individual Christian seeking wholeness and oneness with God. The life and death inspire us to take up our crosses to serve humankind.
No discussion of the cross, however, would be complete without also considering the Resurrection. Barnabas, another subapostolic writer, wrote that Jesus came to abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection after death. The resurrection demonstrates God\’s power as Jesus definitively defeats the evil that killed him. It is this triumph over death, the promise of immortality, that attracts people to Christianity—who wants to die? I don\’t. Easter is about Jesus\’ triumph over death. Jesus\’ passion and resurrection is God triumphing over the powers of evil that put him to death. The resurrection liberates humanity from the bondage of sin. It is analogous to the Jewish people in bondage as slaves to Pharaoh led by Moses through the Red Sea which parted to let them pass and then destroyed the Egyptians pursuing them. As patristic author Irenaeus puts it, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil\” Ronald Reagan famously said that he did not negotiate with terrorists and would not pay ransom to free the Americans held hostage in Iran when he took office. To pay ransom to any evil force, be they hijackers, pirates or kidnappers only encourages similar conduct. So why should God essentially pay Satan for evil conduct in holding humankind in bondage? God\’s response to the crucifixion was to raise Jesus from death, in effect saying, “screw you, Satan, you\’re not going to kill my Son and get away with it.” Twentieth Century Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén tells us that instead of satisfying an obligation, Jesus overthrew the power of the Law, since its condemnation of a perfect man was unjust. His subsequent Resurrection was a mark of God\’s favor and deprived the Law of its ability to condemn. God the Father and God the Son are thus not set at odds by Calvary, but are united in seeking the downfall of the devil\’s system of sin, death, and Law that enslaves humanity. This view, Aulén maintains, keeps us from the errors of penance systems emphasizing Law and man rather than God\’s redemptive plan of freedom through forgiveness shown to us by God through Jesus.
But God\’s victory over evil did not begin with the cross and resurrection. Jesus\’opposition to evil characterized his entire life, not just the events on Calvary. When Jesus broke the religious taboos of his day by cavorting with tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, and when he disregarded prevailing traditions to heal on the sabbath, he waged war against the legalisms that make religion into an oppressive power structure. In so doing, he opposed evil using love as an example for us to follow. In crossing ethnic lines by positively interacting with Gentiles and Samaritans, as well as welcoming lepers, He was telling us something about racism, and in treating women with dignity and respect rather than as property, he set us on a path against sexism. And throughout His ministry, he constantly opposed judgmentalism by showing mercy to those on whom the prevailing culture had visited judgment rather than going along with prevailing norms. In doing all of this, Jesus He was showing us how the reign of God looks, in contrast to the destructive powers in the social and religious structures that surrounded Him. His ongoing resistance to these powers evoked their wrath and ultimately led to His death. The resurrection was Jesus\’ triumph over those powers.
The work of Jesus in opposing the powers of evil, however, continues as he is still part of our lives eternally in the words of the Gospel. Jesus\’ message lives on in those who sacrifice themselves to oppose oppression. Witness those who died fighting for human rights everywhere,in the South in the United States and Tianamen Square in China. Witness those who died at Kent State opposing the unjust Vietnam War. Jesus message lives on in those who work to ameliorate the effects of poverty. Witness Doctors Without Borders, a medical team that visits impoverished countries to provide needed care. Witness the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, which feeds and houses God\’s poor but precious daughters and sons.
Last but not least, the Real Presence of Jesus remains among us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar to empower us to conquer the forces of evil. Anglo-Catholics have long been associated with elaborate ritual to celebrate Mass, but that is only part of our story. Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar, at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Conference, put it best: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacles if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” Modernly, a conference hosted by the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church) in Manila, Philippines, at which representatives of the Episcopal Church, and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht issued a message stating that the Eucharist looks forward to a global society in God, a city for all the nations, in which the last are first, the humble lifted high, and the powerful repentant, as grace and peace forgive and unite all humanity. In the words of Twentieth Century theologian Joseph Needham, the Mass “outwardly and visibly symbolizes the distribution of the world\’s goods in the coming society of free and equal comradeship, and the sacrifice of all who have perished that the Kingdom might come.” As we gather around the Altar each Sunday to receive Jesus, let us pray for the coming of that Kingdom.