As it’s Easter Sunday I’m taking a break from photos and posting something I wrote about my Christian faith instead. This comes out of a discussion I was having with some friends about what sin is and why Christ “had” to die because of it.
Everyone knows the “traditional” (it isn’t actually) view of the crucifixion. God hates sin and his law demands death as a penalty for it. As he has to obey the law (which suggests that the law is in fact god) he sacrifices his own son to get round it, and this enables him to forgive us. Yes I know that is drastically simplified. Fill in your own specifics. However, not everyone knows the various alternative views on the atonement. Some of which are actually genuinely traditional.
One view is that Christ “had” to die not because God willed it but because we (which is to say humankind) willed it. Because we couldn’t stand the truth about our own hypocrisy and evil towards others. Feel free to draw parallels with with the assassinations of MLK or Gandhi if you wish. We simply couldn’t allow that sort of truth to carry on being heard. In that view, the crucifixion is not necessary because of God, who had already determined that he would forgive us, but just the obvious culmination of Jesus’ way of life given the state of the world. When we say “Christ died for our sin”, it means “Christ died because of our sin”, which is actually a valid and potentially more accurate translation in any case. What is necessary and amazing is the Resurrection, because that would be God saying “He was right, you know” (or, in more Biblical terms: “*this* is my beloved son – *listen to him*”) For more on this view, you could read up on René Girard or check out Richard Beck at his blog Experimental Theology.
Another view, also very much present in the Bible, and the dominant if not only view for the first millennium AD, is that Christ was killed as a ransom – the hostage taker being not God but Satan (which means “the Accuser” so you can take it as a literal spirit-figure if you like or as the figurative part of us that desires to accuse and scapegoat one another). This is the perspective you get in the Narnia books, to some extent. The Accuser demanded blood, so Christ gave his innocent blood to put an end to that system once and for all. If you want to know more about that, you could Google “Christus Victor”.
Then a third view is substitutionary but not penal – it has nothing to do with a legal system compelling God to sacrifice someone in order to be able to forgive sin. God wants to forgive, and does – as we see in Jesus before the crucifixion – but he doesn’t want to minimise the harm of sin or his loathing of it lest we think “oh well that’s alright then, I can carry on doing whatever I like”. So he allows the effects of sin (the “wages” rather than the penalty, an interesting difference) to be shown in himself by accepting crucifixion.
So let’s talk about the difference between wages and penalty for a moment. It’s mostly to do with how you view sin. There are lots of different theological views on this too of course! Just briefly then: if death is the penalty for sin, that means sin is a crime or infraction of some sort, requiring punishment by an (impartial?) judge or court. But if death is the wages of sin, that means sin is to do with who you work for. Paraphrasing St Paul here: If you work for the Accuser, you will be paid in death; if you work for the Truth (to pick one name among many), you don’t get paid a wage, but the Truth gives you life. To work for the Accuser is to harm and accuse others. We could call it a blame mentality if you prefer, and it can be found everywhere. We all think of some people, or some groups of people, as “them” rather than part of this big flawed human “us”.
As an aside, we all like to think we don’t do this, so just to show you, here are some words I struggle to include in my “us”: Westboro Baptist church. Osama bin Laden. The kid down the road who is always nasty to my son. I’m sure you can find your own – perhaps homosexuals, Nazis, the French, Muslims, Catholics, liberal progressive Christians…? But coming back to my point…
The wages, the result, the thing we earn for ourselves by thinking that way, is death. On a world scale, my friend gave a good example: foreign policy often bounces back on us decades later. We made that other country or religion into “them” and oh dear, now it turns out we’re “them” to them too and it’s payback time. On a smaller scale, family feuds – in some countries they lead to literal death, first in your family and then mine, tit for tat, and in other countries we find half the family never speaks to the other half, which is a sort of death too. My Irish grandfather-in-law was actually disowned for marrying a Catholic girl.
On an even smaller scale, a few years back one of my friends decided she couldn’t really be in communion with me (aka discuss Bible things, pray etc) because I speak in tongues and refuse to acknowledge the error of my ways in so doing. I don’t care whether you speak in tongues or not, if you confess Jesus is Lord you’re my brother or sister. But, it turns out, I don’t appreciate being told I’m not in communion with someone. So I stopped seeing her at all. I think you can see here how I became “them” to her and she became “them” to me and that friendship died. There is no winner here, except the Accuser.
And I imagine you have your own story that fits this pattern.
Leading on from that, the good news or at least part of it, as the early church saw it (and as I do) is that we don’t have to work for the Accuser, the blame culture, any more. We blame others to protect ourselves, as a form of self-preservation, but Jesus demonstrated a way that involves not protecting yourself, but laying your life down for others. He allowed himself to be blamed, scapegoated, and he didn’t take revenge, even after the Resurrection. That’s why the early church talked a lot about death and the fear of death being defeated. If we no longer fear death, we are free to help others and do good even at the risk of our own lives.
(Someone may point out that Jesus didn’t exactly hold back from accusing the Pharisees or temple merchants – but notice he does it to protect others, never himself, and also that when he encounters them individually, he treats them as real people, not as the sum of their group sins).
One final thought and then I’m done. You might wonder at this point “so do I have to pick a theory to espouse, or what?” I think the answer is firstly:
no, you just have to love God and love others, and let him look after the other stuff,
no, because the world, and especially God, doesn’t all fall into either-or categories. It can be both-and.
Here’s an illustration using drugs.
Hard drugs tend to be addictive, which means that the user is both ill and enslaved. They also cause you and others harm (sometimes indirectly). Because of all this, hard drugs have been made illegal, for our protection. If you get caught using drugs there will be a legal penalty, and there is sure to be a physical result (wage) in terms of sickness/death sooner or later, not to mention the loss of relationships and so on. At the same time, once you’re hooked, to stop using requires a lot of effort *and* outside help, and it’s a slow process.
Meanwhile, sin enslaves us and can be seen as an illness (the Orthodox in particular view it this way). It causes us and others harm – indeed some would define sin as that which causes harm. Because of this, God has declared sin illegal, by means of his Law, for our own protection. As sin is illegal, there is also a corresponding legal penalty, which the Bible suggests is death. And of course, if you are a slave to sin, that means you are working for it and will eventually earn death in return, as wages – not from God but from sin itself. Naturally, getting free from a master like sin is going to require a lot of effort (works) and outside help (God), and it’s a slow process!
The only major difference between sin and hard drug use is that the penalty isn’t delivered by humans.
But the good news is God would *much* rather help us get off the drugs and start healing up than impose the penalty, and he expects us to get involved helping him help others immediately even though we are nowhere near being perfect yet. In this sense the Church is, or should be, very much like Alcoholics Anonymous – all recovering and supporting each other right from the get-go.