In a conversation where I expressed my belief that Jesus did not ‘die for our sins’, someone responded , “Maybe people don’t need Jesus to die for their sins today, but back in Jesus’ day, things were pretty barbaric. Do you think he needed to come and die for THEIR sins?”
Interesting question. Here are my thoughts:
Living in the USA today, we may feel that people were more barbaric two thousand years ago, but I doubt the Palestinians share our opinion, or the peoples in Syria, South Sudan and other war-torn parts of world. Personally, I’m not sure the USA stands on much higher ground than the Romans of Jesus’ time, given that we still employ the death penalty. It seems our modern world has just as much need for God’s atonement.
But what IS atonement? If you look at the etymology, its original meaning was reconciliation after estrangement. It was only later that it evolved to mean making some kind of amends. In other words, payment was not initially a necessary component of atonement – the emphasis was on restoration, not remuneration.
Restoration is what Jesus understood his ministry to be about. The first time he appears publicly in his hometown, he opens the scrolls and reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In his reading, he extended God’s restoration to all (even non-Jews) without remuneration. That’s why the crowd then tried to kill him. Turns out, universal forgiveness and restoration wasn’t a popular message. It still isn’t. Even today, we insist people pay for that which is most basic to human survival – food, shelter, healthcare. Given that mindset, it makes sense that we would try to apply it to salvation, too. Then or now, we humans just don’t seem to be able to wrap our heads around the concept of ‘freely given.’
But if we didn’t need his death as atonement, then what was the point of Jesus coming at all? I think the point was Jesus’ LIFE:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
It doesn’t say, “that he gave his only son to be crucified and to die.” We add that in ourselves. Jesus came – was given – to proclaim good news, news that would change the heart of both religion and politics. And that news was: God dwells among us! His message was powerful enough that it frightened, not just the Jewish leaders, but Roman ones, as well.
So they killed him. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Humanity cannot overpower God’s love, and THAT’S the message of Jesus’ resurrection. Not even death can stop God from saving the world – and us.
Many Christians have a different understanding of atonement, one that involves Jesus as a sacrificial offering, as the substitutionary Paschal lamb. That’s fine with me; it’s why I love the Episcopal Church. We can stand side-by-side with our different understanding and still be in full communion. There is no need for estrangement – we can skip straight to at-one-ment. 🙂