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Crucifixion: A New Way to Think about Jesus’ Death

posted by smcswain

Crucifixion Of Jesus

Why did Jesus die? The most honest answer? Nobody really knows.

Not even the Apostle Paul and he was likely the first to write about these matters  (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 12).

Death by crucifixion is a painful, slow death and virtually unimaginable to the modern mind.  History tells us that the Romans put thousands of people by death by crucifixion.

Death by Crucifixion is Unimaginable

Photo used by kind permission from www.williambuter.ca

When it comes to Jesus’ death, any theologian, priest, minister or pastor who explains the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection as if they understand it, is simply good at play acting. They may insist, “I believe the Bible” Or, “The Bible says it; I believe it.” But these declarations hide their uncertainty.

You only argue for what you do not know. The more certain they seem, and argumentative they become, the more uncertain they really are. Of that much, you can be certain.

The crucifixion of Jesus is mysterious. I think it’s meant to be. What’s not so mysterious is how the church and church leaders have attempted to explain the mysterious throughout Christian history. As a consequence, virtually every explanation is inadequate.

Most of them are downright offensive.

The most common explanation for Jesus’ death is the one provided in the fourth century by Saint Augustine. It is known as the doctrine of “original sin.”

I grew up being told and taught, as most Christians have in almost every tradition, Jesus died on the cross because we are sinners. Sin caused his death. The Four Spiritual Laws were proclaimed by my father, and later by me, as if they explained Jesus’ death. The fact they were called “laws” made them appear not only definitive, but indisputable.

1. God loves you and has a plan for your life.
2. Humans are sinful and separated from God.
3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for sin.
4. If you confess your sins and receive Jesus, you will avoid hell.

This explanation of Jesus’ death is really just one of several explanations of Jesus’ crucifixion that have been part of church history for centuries. I mention them briefly here:

Theories of the Crucifixion

1. Satisfaction Theory Based on the Jewish practices associated with the Day of Atonement where animals were sacrificed to appease God’s thirst for blood, Jesus is described as the supreme sacrifice, shedding his blood and so appeasing a blood thirsty God.

If you were raised where this theory of atonement was tacitly accepted, you understand why the congregation frequently sang, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

This is theology of most televangelists you see and hear on television and radio. It’s the theology behind books and movies in the Left Behind series and Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and in almost every sermon preached by the San Antonio pastor, John Hagee.

2. Substitition Theory: Here, Jesus is not so much a “sacrifice” as he is a substitute. Just as an animal sacrifice bore the sin of the people, so Jesus bore the sin of humanity. Holy and just — God can not look on sin.

Both unholy and unjust, sinners deserve to suffer and die. Jesus, however, is described as stepping in, acting as the substitute, suffering and then dying so that humans, undeserving though they may be, might be forgiven.

3. Ransom Theory: Here, God is not the one being appeased through Jesus’ sacrificial death. It is the Devil himself.

Ever since the fall of the original couple, humans have been under the curse of sin, the consequence of eternal death, and in the grip of Satan. Jesus’ death, however, delivers the ultimate sucker punch to Satan himself.

As a consequence, all who repent and turn to Jesus will be delivered from Satan’s control and ultimately from condemnation and consignment to hell where Satan and his angels will dwell for eternity.

4. Moral Theory: This view shifts the reason for Jesus’ death as the consequence of divine wrath to the human example of Jesus himself.

His selfless and sacrificial compassion are believed to be so extraordinary demonstrated in his crucifixion as to influence humanity to repent and turn to God.

Of all the theories, the fourth makes the most sense to me. However, none of these are adequate explanations of Jesus’ death. Instead they are wrought with innumerable problems.

The first two, for example, make God into some kind of Divine Jekyll and Hyde and the worst sort of parental abuser imaginable.

Animal sacrifice, even human sacrifice, may have been part of many cultures and religions of the past. They are not today. Nor have they been for centuries.

In fact, the whole idea is utterly repulsive. What kind of God would require the suffering, punishment, and death of his son before finding the capacity in his heart to forgive?

It is not only absurd it is offensive and plainly not even believable.

The third explanation is no better. It simply tries to shift the blame from God so he does not appear to be so evil that he would kill his own son.

Jesus, as a kind of Superhuman Savior delivers in his death the ultimate sucker-punch to Satan. While not finally punching him out, the blow was fatal enough to assure the world that ultimately Satan would be finally destroyed in eternity.

The fourth explanation, though less offensive and vastly more sensible than the others, does not adequately explain the problem of human evil. Humans can be evil, unimaginably so, as the holocaust, 9-11, the Crusades, and the clergy-abuse scandal demonstrate.

In our post-Darwinian age, however, human evil is better understood, not as the consequence of “original sin,” as Saint Augustine explained, but as the residue of misguided and misdirected primal instincts and impulses.

When Christians stop being afraid of evolution, for example, Darwin could teach us how the human instinct for survival, seen in all of creation, provides insight into the understanding of the so-called “fall” of humanity.

When one knows church history, and few of the remaining pew-dwellers do, one realizes how Saint Augustine would, given his inability to control his own sexual impulses and early sexual exploits, connect sex to sin as the means of sin’s transmission from person to person and generation to generation.

He tried to explain Romans 5 by saying that the sin of Adam deposited a defective gene, so to speak, into the human bloodline. The church not only believed this, but virtually every tradition has taught it for centuries.

If, however, the sin of Adam resulted in everyone being infected with sin, why did the Jews who gave Christians this story of Adam and Eve never read it themselves as the explanation for “original sin?” It’s their story. Not ours.

Furthermore, why did Jesus never know about “original sin” or teach this explanation of the origin of sin and evil to any of his followers?

Crucifixion: A New Way to Think about Jesus’ Death

It is time all Christian traditions let go of this inadequate, offensive, and downright evil explanation itself of the origin of sin and evil.

That brings us back to the question with which I opened this blog. When it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion, why did he die? Give consideration to this explanation. It isn’t complete. But then, what explanation is?

       “Jesus did not die for your sins, let that be said a thousand times. Jesus did not come from God to rescue fallen, sinful, inadequate, incompetent people like you and me…that is an idea from which we need to escape. Jesus has to become…the human face of what God looks like in human form…when you look at Jesus he lives fully…he never diminished anybody…people betrayed him and he responded by loving them. People denied him…forsook him…tormented him…killed him and he responded by loving them. How else could he communicate to people…that there is nothing we can ever do…that will place us outside the boundaries of the love of God.”

“It is not that we are some worthless inadequate person that God has to come in and rescue, it is that God’s love is so abundant and so overwhelming that this love calls us to live, and to love, and to be all that we can be so that God can live in us and through us. That is a very different way to think about God.” (the words of J. S. Spong, taken from Living the Questions, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 114-15).

Is love a more adequate explanation for Jesus’ crucifixion?

Isn’t love enough? Or, is this kind of radical self-giving love so radical, even so foreign to the church today, it is felt not to be adequate enough to probe the mystery of Jesus’ crucifixion?

You’ll have to answer that for yourself.

For me, it is enough. Furthermore, it’s the beginning, albeit just the beginning, of a new…old way to think about the crucifixion of Jesus.

Even so, the mystery of the crucifixion remains.

And, well it should.



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