Did Jesus Have to Die to Save Us from Sin?

 This question has spilt some ink.  One of the reasons fights over the atonement (what God was doing in Christ on the Cross) are so robust historically is the lack of consensus and plurality of answers from the early church on.  Even the Creeds don’t have a theory in them, just that something awesome took place.  So when I got this question as part of Christian Piatt’s Banned Questions About Jesus book project I took three different and conflicting answers to youth group.  “Jesus forgave people of their sins before he died. How could he do this if he actually had to die in order to save us from sin?I gave three 5 minute appeals to the three different theories after which the youth tore them apart, asked questions, and suggested modifications.  In the end they updated and selected the theory I sent in for the book.

One could answer the question by saying that Jesus knew he was going to die and rise so he could forgive with the future known and certain, or possibly that Jesus’ divine identity gave him the ability to forgive sin at will, or one could even suggest that if forgiveness could be given before the cross, then the cross may not have been necessary.

It is important to recognize that in forgiving sins Jesus is acting on behalf of God and was one of the reasons Jesus was opposed by the religious leaders, thus forcing one to explain how Jesus’ identity is tied to that of God. To understand this I have found it helpful to see how Paul re-imagined the sacrificial system in light of Christ’s work.

Traditionally an act of sacrifice began with the sinner transferring their identity to the animal through an act of consecration. Afterward the animal was killed so that the person was reincorporated into the people of God. Paul reverses the process so that the process begins with Christ identifying with us and ends with the consecration, us identifying with that which is sacrificed.

In a sense Paul sees, in Christ, God coming to put an end to sacrifice by turning it upside down and beginning with God’s coming to sinner with Good News. From this perspective it would make sense that Jesus could forgive sin without having died because God had come in Christ to consecrate the world as God’s beloved.

For me what was being sacrificed in Christ is God being God without creation.  The activity with the youth was fun and getting share their favorite responses to a stack of questions in Christian’s book was even better.  You can check out a couple other author’s answers here and of course get the book here.

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20 comments
ideoprecor
ideoprecor

I stumbled across this thread, which I see has been dormant for a while, just this morning - and am glad that I did.  This raises a bigger issue that all of us struggle with, and it's at the heart of why many people have problems with Christianity.  What kind of God, they ask, would demand the sacrifice of his own Son as an atonement for sin?   That doesn't sound like a very loving God to me.  

Te fact is, however, that God didn't choose to kill Jesus.  People did.  God gave us free will, and throughout history people have used that free will to turn against Him.   The Crucifixion is not the only example of that, but it is the ultimate one.  

Christians, however, know the story does not end there.   Because God in Christ came out of love, and because God's love is infinitely more powerful than darkness, God could take this unspeakable evil - a direct result of the exercise of our free will - and turn the outcome completely on its head.  He used death to conquer death.  We call it the Resurrection.  In contemporary terms, you might say God had the last word.  

Together the Crucifixion and the Resurrection produce the most powerful argument in human history for the power of good over evil - the power of life over death - the power of love over sin.  Embracing that reality is embracing victory over all three.  

But the key is really, truly embracing that.  It is our free acceptance that channels that power - what Christians call redemption - back to us.    God respects our privacy - He values free will too much to force Himself on us. 

Joe Pusateri
Joe Pusateri

Why is it so hard to understand that an inherently unjust social entity, such as the empire, with either the consent or nonresistance of the religious order, executed a human being (who was also the presence of God among us) that preached the in-breaking of a Kingdom that would overthrow such unjust social structures. On whatever level you want to think about this: empire executes a trouble-maker, evil strikes against holiness, either way, the tragedy and horror of such a murder is plain enough to be witnessed without importing supernatural plots to understand the unfolding of tragic horrors. The saving act of Jesus the Christ was his life, which was literally the announcement of the Kin-dom of God. Jesus proclaimed the good news of God's liberation to the poor, the marginalized, the shit-on of society. And as expected, the empire executed him for it. Don't let unjust social structures get away with murder by explaining it away as some homicide drama with God as the director. Otherwise, we miss the power of the resurrection! The empire is so evil, it executes the human form of God. This is no surprise, is it? But God is SO GOOD, she raises from the dead that which the empire lawfully crushes under its boot! Including the poor and marginalized of today, and eventually the rest of us. The Kin-dom of God is that to which we are saved. And the Kin-dom has begun breaking into the world, beginning with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection is the assurance that the rest is on its way. Our job is to clear the way.

Pamela Smith
Pamela Smith

Sacrificial lamb...isn't that what Jesus was? In my opinion, Jesus HAD to die...it was inevitable...it was part of the "plan", and He let us know it before dying. His blood/life for OUR sins. My question is why? Why is it that it has to be our "choice" to serve Him? Why couldn't God have made us as he wants us...loving Him with all of our hearts and souls. Instead he made us, put us in a world filled with heartache and suffering so that we can "choose"...really? Just "thinking out loud" here.

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

.....ohhh.... we can talk the Biblicist stuff.....I am sure Bo will enjoy it.

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

@Corey.... Bo and I are working on getting all the audio out. Editing takes time!

Corey
Corey

Tripp, While you are probably gathering fodder for a podcast episode, I sure would be interested in your repsonse to the biblicist response above. You have addressed this general ideology before but I would like to hear your ideas on this particular subject. Corey PS Bring forth all that media you are holding out on! Soularize, Emergent Village etc

dave harrity
dave harrity

i've thought about this a lot recently--so thanks for helping me to think i'm not nuts for asking these kinds of questions. for me i always wonder 'what was/is jesus for?' and i think most of the time we focus too narrowly on the sin issue--there are othr things afoot. i think that a deeper realization is that god's presence as christ revises our reality and offers god a unique understanding into the lives of the created. i've always thought of god as an author/artist, and i look though this lens: what must it be like to fully embody your creation? what a fullness and clarity that must bring--the deep realization of what being would reveals. i'm m no theologian, so these remarks are obviously personal, not based out of some wellspring of tradition or scriptural understanding--just the intuition that god might have somehow been 'limited' (maybe not the right word) before his revision in being human, into introducing his economy in a new and radical way that we might understand.

Ken
Ken

...For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness but unto us which are saved it is the power of God...

Pete Garcia
Pete Garcia

I really like what robinv said, and I agree. After reading this earlier I was reflecting on the power of being told that you are forgiven. How healing must it have been both psychologically and emotionally, as well as spiritually, to be told by a respected and wise rabbi that you were forgiven. God came to them and pronounced forgiveness rather than demanding that they go to God and make sacrifices. Radical! Of course he was crucified.

Justin Edwards
Justin Edwards

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. - Leviticus 17:11 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. - Hebrews 9:22 (READ all of Hebrews 9) But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25***whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus***. - Romans 3:21-26

Doug Hagler
Doug Hagler

I think the point about the reversal of the sacrificial pattern is a great one, and is one good starting point for the discussion. What I find encouraging is the multiplicity of answers to this question and approaches to the question itself. The most ancient testimony seems to be "Something awesome happened! Woo! Now our lives are different, and better!" Coming from that experience, there are a lot of ways we can try to conceptually approach it, and I'm suspicious of anyone who takes a direct experience of numinous mystery like that and says "Here is the detailed dogmatic break-down. Just sign at the bottom and you're saved." ::shudder::

Aric Clark
Aric Clark

Love Heim. Love Girardian approaches to atonement. Another great book on the subject that not many have heard of is "Love, Violence, and the Cross: how the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ" by Gregory Anderson Love. He does a great job surveying many different approaches to the atonement with some creative and effective synthesis at the end. I have usually answered the question posed in the title of this post "no". That is actually a necessary part of the cross - that it is a tragedy. That it didn't HAVE to happen. Indeed, that God completely rejects this mode of judgment and violent power in the resurrection. In one sense the entire message of the cross is that we don't have to keep building crosses. That we can (and should) stop right now. The divisions between people are dissolved. The powers are impotent and fading. The old life has ended. We don't have to learn war anymore. All of that doesn't say, however, that Jesus didn't know that it was the near-inevitable outcome of his ministry. It doesn't mean that God didn't give God's only son for our sin. Jesus walking resolutely toward calvary knowing with every step that it is a completely avoidable outcome, but that the people he has come to forgive and set free won't choose to avoid it, adds rather than detracts from the sense of God's providential purpose in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mark Longhurst
Mark Longhurst

I appreciate Tom's response in particular because it gets at a way of seeing the death of Jesus as something that is actually connected to how he lived in the world. Challenging exclusion with inclusion, proclaiming a reality at odds with unjust structures (Empire or Powers and Principalities). To offer a false, but perhaps helpful dichotomy: while Paul works out the more cosmic implications of what it all means, the gospels are concerned with the gritty socio-political realities of how and why the death of Jesus happened. One book recommendation on this note is J. Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement. Thanks for the conversation!

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

really enjoying y'alls comments. one of the answers I tried on the youth was pretty similar to Tom's. travis, i really like the idea of re-reading the Gospels with a particular question in mind.

Travis Mamone
Travis Mamone

My answer to this question is, yes, but not in the sense that God cannot forgive without shedding blood. Or that God can't cancel an debt; some one has to pay. Last year I re-read all four gospels, and I couldn't help but notice how, when Jesus used the debt metaphor for sin, His parables are never about some one paying the debt of someone else. Jesus' parables are always about a debt being totally forgiven! I also noticed how many times Jesus uses the image of slavery to describe sin in our lives. For example, "Anyone who sins is a slave to sin." So I personally see Jesus' death and resurrection as Jesus freeing us from the bondage of sin, rather than God pouring God's wrath upon Jesus in our place.

Tom Eggebeen
Tom Eggebeen

No. Jesus died to disarm the powers and complete the work for the kingdom. His predictions of suffering and death, prior to the Transfiguration, rejected by Peter, but affirmed by the Father, "Listen to him!" and then again after the Transfiguration are the heart and soul of the Kingdom, the disarming of the powers by receiving everything they can throw at Jesus, and yet on the third day.... Salvation comes to us by way of invitation - "Come and follow me!" ... the cross inaugurates the Kingdom - like the first creation, Jesus utters, "It is finished," and then "rests" in the grave. On the early morning of the first day of a new week, he leaves the grave behind to continue Kingdom-building, the rule of the Father, and what the world would look like with the Kingdom fully in place - not soldiers, armies, power and pomp - surely, not the Constantinian Church, but the Beatitudes. To love one another, to forgive, to do unto others, and to practice the ethical love of Matthew 25 - that's salvation! Jesus didn't die to save US, but to implement the KINGDOM - when we enter the kingdom, we're saved. Saved, not just for eternity, but that we might live in and build the kingdom here - "thy kingdom come," often paying the same price of suffering and death - see Jeremiah!

Deacon Bill
Deacon Bill

"For me what was being sacrificed in Christ is God being God without creation." I think this is a really good way to say it. Thanks Tripp. @david - Heim's book is indeed awesome. I echo the recommendation.

robinv
robinv

Personally I would dare to say that the cross has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sin. The cross was about healing relationship and demonstrating the nature of love. Nothing can prevent god from exercising forgiveness - how could it.

Craig L. Adams
Craig L. Adams

I really think questions like this are unhelpful. They assume some a-historical standpoint from which we can speak: as if we were not creatures of time and space. In fact, Jesus did die. In fact, we are saved from our sins by his sacrifice. If things could be some other way... it would be a different world. Wouldn't it? So, what does it matter.

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