Ian Harris Otago Daily Times March 11, 2016
It’s a fair bet that with Easter approaching, most congregations around New Zealand will be confidently assured that Jesus was put to death to bear God’s punishment for their sins. Most churchgoers probably won’t question whether that is really why Jesus was crucified. Nor will they readily make the link between that first Easter and ancient Jewish rituals of remembrance and sacrifice.
Some will be aware that the notion of Jesus dying as a punishment for sin became central to church thinking only after 1000 years of Christianity, and then only in western Europe – Eastern Orthodox churches have a different emphasis. But it would shock them to learn that many scholars nowadays think the idea of the cross as punishment for sin severely distorts the message and meaning of Jesus. Yes, they say, he was punished – but that was for challenging the religious and political establishment of his day.
The idea that Jesus died for our sins, known in the trade as “substitutionary atonement”, emerged to meet a deeply felt human need. Sinfulness is no light matter. People often feel weighed down by guilt over something they have done or not done. They crave forgiveness and reconciliation.
In former times, when guilt and the fear of a horrible fate in hell lay deep within the consciousness of everyone in Christendom, it’s easy to see how the assurance that Jesus had borne sin’s penalty on their behalf must have brought immense relief and gratitude. God had forgiven them! They could make a fresh start! That can still happen.
Preoccupation with sin went even deeper. From the 5th century the church had drunk deeply from St Augustine’s prescription labelled “original sin” – the notion that because the mythical Adam and Eve had disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, every human being thereafter was born tainted.
A holy God abhorred all sin. Through the Middle Ages, and for some people even now, God, heaven and the torments of hell were as actual as they themselves. How on earth could they escape the fate they deserved? Only through the sacrifice of Jesus, the divine rescuer, the church answered. God could not ignore their sins, but Jesus willingly suffered the cruellest of deaths to wipe the slate clean: they would therefore be spared eternal punishment. It was a powerful message of release and hope.
In earlier centuries Jews had their own rituals of thanksgiving, sacrifice and remission of sins, so it is not surprising that as the first Christians, who were all Jews, reflected on their experience of Jesus, they drew on images from their heritage. Central was the Israelites’ flight from slavery in Egypt at the time of Moses. On the eve of their breakout, each family sacrificed a lamb and daubed its blood on their doorframes to signal the angel of death to “pass over” their households, while striking down the firstborn of everyone else. Each year at the Passover festival, Jews recalled that amazing escape.
Later, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), priests and people confronted their sinfulness, seeking release by sacrificing a perfect lamb in their temple and spreading its blood over the golden symbol of God’s presence in its innermost sanctuary. Then they metaphorically heaped their sins on the back of a goat and drove it into the wilderness, carrying their sins and thus giving everyone a fresh start. We still talk of scapegoats.
The key ideas running through those stories and rituals were not of punishment but deliverance, freedom, and newness of life, all seen as stemming from God’s mercy and love. And that, said those first Christians, was just what they had experienced in Jesus. So they wrote it into their accounts of his death. In Jesus, the protective Passover lamb, the purifying lamb of Yom Kippur and the scapegoat bearing away the people’s sins were fused into one.
They would have been astonished at later developments. Adam and Eve moved beyond their mythical origins to become literally the first humans, who stuffed up paradise for everyone who followed. Rituals that began as pointers to God’s grace became symbols rather of wrath and punishment. The church’s compass needle swung away from a love that empowers, to sin demanding punishment – a message then read retrospectively into Bible passages whose original purpose was to emphasise grace and transformation. God’s love became conditional on prior punishment.
The view that “Jesus died for my sins” still has emotional power. But it subverts the Christian gospel. More on that next time.