Let’s be honest, why did Jesus die on a cross?

We are fast approaching Good Friday and the interwebs is filling with people post and reposting essays about the crucifixion. The ones that always nag at me are those that seek to argue that Jesus’ death was not somehow an atoning sacrifice offered for our sins. [mfn]I have decided not to link to any such articles and drive further traffic to them. They are easy enough to find on your own and I hope you will trust that I am not creating a straw argument.[/mfn]

Book of Hours, Use of Paris
France, Central (Paris); 1st quarter of the 15th century

The usual objection is based upon a rejection of penal substation or any of the other various models of atonement theory. The link provided has a very nice summary of these discussions and concerns about such models and they each do present difficulties. And that is what bothers me about such pieces written so many clergy, authors, and scholars; they are confusing the biblical account with later attempts to systematize and explain the mechanisms of salvation.

The New Testament does clearly articulate in various ways that Jesus’ death was “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). It is rooted in the biblical and Jewish understanding of atoning sacrifice and the importance of Yom Kippur (see Lev. 16 and not that Passover is not an atoning sacrifice). The sacrificial system is one that is foreign and offensive to most of us today, but our discomfort is irrelevant for understanding Judaism of the time of Jesus. Sacrifice was the language established in the Torah for communication with God, expressing our love, loyalty, and commitment to God and the Covenant. It was the language that Jesus used to fulfill that Covenant.

At the risk of being accused of proof texting, it is worthwhile to list just a few of the relevant passages.

  • Matt. 26:27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • 1 John 2:1b-2 “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
  • 1 Pet. 3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
  • 2 Cor. 5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
  • Rom. 5:8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

So why did Jesus die? According to the New Testament, Jesus voluntarily gave up his life to be “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” and in so doing he reconciled the world to God.

That’s it. The texts really are clear in their statements. Now, in the millennia that have passed since that time there have been innumerable efforts to seek to understand and explain the mechanism of atonement through various theories and, as noted, they all have difficulties and failings. But that should be a rejection of the models, not of the core teaching.

More recently, people have become discomforted by the image of Jesus’ sacrifice as “cosmic child abuse” and the very idea of a sacrificial system is anathema to the conscious of most modern (western) people. That is understandable but fails to take into account the reality of the Trinity. It is not a father offering his son as a sacrifice; it is a self-sacrifice by God, offering, in some mysterious manner, a portion of the Godhead for the sake of the world. It should also be noted, that our modern (misplaced) readings of child abuse does not change the New Testament texts. They say what they say.

Of course, one may object to the idea of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, many do, but then one should not claim that the New Testament says something other than it does. Those who hold such views need to be honest and acknowledge their rejection of a central premise of the New Testament and historical Christian teaching.

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