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Jesus Did Not Die for Our Sins

Posted on: October 07, 2018

Category: Theology

Jesus Did Not Die for Our Sins

Quest Thoughts:

There was much buzz this week at the Westar Institute when it was learned that Greg Gutfeld compared the Brett Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee to the crucifixion of Jesus. Gutfeld is a Fox News host, so perhaps this is no surprise, but it still remains sad.

Gutfeld relayed the typical Christian line apparently taught to him during his 12-years in a Christian school: Jesus died for our sins. In the course of doing so, he managed to say that the Democratic Party, which traces its modern founding to 1828 and whose last Presidential candidate won the election but lost the Electoral College, was the equivalent of a mob. I can't really focus on the political side of this statement since Quest Thoughts are not aimed in this way, but I can focus on the theological question, which should concern all who care about religious literacy in our culture and time: Jesus did not die for our sins.

It sounds biblical to say that Jesus did die for our sin, and I'm sure the claim is repeated regularly in pulpits. This claim, though, rests on a longstanding misinterpretation. The Christian New Testament is fairly consistent. Jesus died for reconciliation and for liberation. In Paul particularly, the death of Jesus is related to God being reconciled to the nations (the Gentiles or non-Jews). It is something God does actively for the stranger (that is, for the non-Jewish nations). In the earliest narrative gospel, Mark, Jesus' death is described as a "ransom" (given for the cause of liberation) and in Matthew at the Last Supper, blood is poured out for forgiveness. The self-sacrificial images are clear, but they are not restricted to Jesus (for example, Socrates, in Plato's eyes, also dies for the cause of liberation). New Testament writers imitate the Jewish and Pagan understanding of sacrifice for liberation: it is an act for others and for the release of others from slavery. The word "forgiveness" in Matthew is meant in this way. The Greek is aphesis, which is not translated very well as "forgiveness" in modern English. Aphesis is about "releasing" (specifically a prisoner or a slave) from captivity. It is forgiveness in an active sense. It means you are liberated to live, with the emphasis falling on an act for you (your liberty, your chance at life, your opportunity to get in the game). It is not an act "in place of you" or "in spite of you."

Aphesis does not mean that you actually deserve to die but someone else died for you instead. The thinking that Jesus died in your place, called substitutionary atonement, is not in the Bible. It's a later idea developed in Christian theology specifically attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1033 to 1109. The Bible's point falls on reconciliation (Paul) and on liberation (the gospels) when it comes to the death of Jesus. It is not a passive death in place of us or instead of us (because, unfortunately, we will still die) but an active death for us - to give us something - for liberation. The courage to live for and to affirm liberation is, biblically speaking, the insight that follows from the crucifixion.

In the context of the Roman empire, the earliest Christians' choice to live out liberation against oppression was the act of living in Christ. It was an activity, not a belief. It was about "freedom" in the sense of freedom from imperial structures of oppression (captivity) and freedom for life as equality in the body (Paul) and liberation from oppression (Mark and especially Luke). The idea was that Jesus lives in the living out of "the world-transforming news" otherwise known as the gospel.

In our time and in the context of our empire, living out the world-transforming news has or should have nothing to do with individualism, self-affirmed salvation, and believing Jesus died in my place. The "Me Too" movement and the courage of someone like Christine Blasey Ford to speak up despite the risk of public shame has a lot more to do with the death of Jesus for reconciliation and for liberation than the theatrical denials of a Brett Kavanaugh or the brutal ignorance of a Greg Gutfeld. Being for liberation - for acting, for speaking, for living out justice, freedom, equality - is the act of understanding the death of Jesus in Christianity.

This weekend in Canada is Thanksgiving. With my comments above, the impression might be that I have the wrong season. It's not Lent. Yet, if we think twice, for the earliest Christians the death of Jesus was related to thanks-giving (eu-charist). Here again, the "thanking" is active: it is about demonstrating in life the grace of liberation that empowers a new vision. The biblical vision is indeed one of justice, the release of captives, and it requires courage to live. Thanksgiving, whether in Canada or the United States, holds a "Christian" meaning when it actively expresses liberation from the imperial designs of the world.


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