Reforming Christology: He Did not Die for My Sins
"The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbaric idea based on a primitive concept of God that must be dismissed."–Thesis Number 6 from The Twelve Theses: A Call for a New Reformation"
In May of 1998 when I posted on the Internet Twelve Theses for debate, drawn from my book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, I could not have imagined the intensity of the response. The debate has been welcomed and condemned, entered and avoided by countless numbers of people. The Theses have been preached on positively and negatively in this diocese, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. The most emotional response has come to Thesis Number 6 that has to do with the interpretation of the cross and the role of Jesus in the drama of salvation, where I have challenged the adequacy of the phrase: "Jesus died for my sins."
That phrase has been used so often in Christian history that it has achieved the status of a mantra. That is, it is repeated over and over without explanation as if its meaning is self-evident. It does not lend itself to questions or to debate. It is simply advanced again and again. The Eucharist assumes it, many of our hymns reflect it. Yet to the modern mind this phrase, when analyzed, is all but nonsensical.
Sometimes this sacred phrase is expanded to include what surely can only be described as a fetish about the blood that Jesus shed on the cross. To that "sacred" blood incredible power has been attributed. Christians have gone so far as to talk about the cleansing effect of being washed in this blood. One hymn that I endured twice during Holy Week proclaims that "God on Thee Has Bled." The death of Jesus is said to have been something God required: a ransom, a sacrifice offered to God, a payment demanded by God for the sins of the world, the price required to achieve atonement, which is the experience of being at one with God.
In my studies I have come to the conclusion that this language, "Jesus died for my sins," is a violent distortion of the meaning of Jesus. It offers me a God who is sadistic and bloodthirsty. A God whose will is served by a human sacrifice is not a God I would ever be drawn to worship. It is rather a grotesque idea. Yet this concept has become so normative in the way that our faith story is told that many people seem to feel that if this understanding of the saving work of Jesus is not accepted, then there is nothing of substance left to Christianity.
I am convinced, however, that exactly the opposite is true. To me it is obvious that unless we expose the barbaric quality of this ancient interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and of the God who was said to have required it and remove this spiritual monstrosity from the Christian enterprise then Christianity has no future. I do not believe that modern men and women will ever find appealing a God whose will is served by the human sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
If Christianity requires this view of the meaning of Jesus’ death, I, for one would no longer choose this household of faith. But because of its entrenched nature, passive opposition will never be effective. Indeed, this idea must be agressively dislodged or nothing new and more appealing will ever emerge. That is why the Christian Church today requires, I believe, a new and mighty reformation that must not stop until it has examined and reformulated the most basic core doctrines of the Christian faith. The Reformation of the 16th Century stopped short of this task and made, we see in retrospect, only cosmetic changes. This new reformation must shake the very foundations of traditional Christian thinking. It will inevitably create enormous fear and anxiety in conservative religious circles and it will elicit the kind of anger that always arises when an ultimate threat is posed to a dying belief system. But we must nonetheless welcome it, for it offers the only chance that the faith of our fathers and mothers will live to be the faith of our children and grandchildren.
The view of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, in my opinion, represents bad theology designed to accommodate the bad anthropology on which it is based.
Human life was not created good only to fall into sin, necessitating a divine rescue that culminated on the cross of Calvary, as the traditional Christian myth asserts. Human life rather has evolved through millions of years of evolutionary history leaving us not just incomplete, but distorted by that struggle to survive. We are not fallen angels, but emerging beings. We are a work in progress, constantly victimized by the unfinished nature of our humanity. We cannot, therefore, be rescued by a sacrificial death of one who was making the perfect offering to an offended Deity designed to restore us to what we have never been. We must rather be called by the gift of love to journey into a higher consciousness, a new and more complete humanity. The savior figure cannot be for us one who pays the price for the sins of our life. A savior for our understanding of humanity must instead be one who is capable of empowering us to grow beyond our limits, to escape our distorting fears, our blinding prejudices and our killing stereotypes and to bring us to a place where we discover the freedom to give our lives away in love to others. The ultimate theological question driving the new reformation is whether or not we can strip away from Jesus this traditional interpretive explanation without destroying the experience that people had with this Jesus that caused them to exclaim that in him the holiness of God had been encountered.
To do this we have to set aside the mythological framework that has captured Jesus. Virgin births and cosmic ascensions must be seen as nothing more than pre-modern interpretive language. Walking on water and feeding the 5000 with five loaves cannot be literal stories. Resurrection understood as physical resuscitation will have to be seen as the late developing tradition that it was. But once this mythological framework is removed, Jesus does not disappear or simply become a good teacher, as many seem to fear. Instead a Jesus emerges as a channel for transcendence, a person at one with the source of life, the revealer of the source of love, a new being who makes plain the Ground of all Being. He is a God presence, not a mythological god-man; a complete human being who becomes the life through which the full power of God’s divine reality can emerge in human history.
Instead of looking at literalized interpretive miracles, we must begin to look rather at the one whose wholeness called his followers beyond the limits of their tribal identity. The Jews, who thought Gentiles were unfit for human relationships, felt compelled by who Jesus was to go into that Gentile world to proclaim the Gospel, and they did. The religious purists who were convinced that the Samaritans, the primary object of their prejudice, were rejected by God and were therefore rejectable, were transformed by this Jesus. He taught them that when Samaritans obey the call of the Torah to be compassionate and caring, they are more fully children of Abraham than are a priest and a Levite who were willing to pass the victims of life by the other side of the road.
The strict keepers of the rules about who was clean and unclean were confronted by a Jesus who embraced the leper, allowed the touch of the woman with the chronic menstrual flow, and refused to judge the person taken of adultery.
God was in this Christ. That was the experience which cried out for explanation. Yet the explanations of history were couched in assumptions we can no longer make. These assumptions were shaped by a world view that we no longer share. They reflected an understanding of reality that is not ours and a worship tradition that is foreign to our own.
First century Jewish-Christians understood Jesus’ death after the analogy of the Passover lamb, slaughtered to break open the power of death. Next they viewed him as the new lamb of Yom Kippur, sacrificed to take away the sins of the world. They were weaving around Jesus their liturgical symbols of antiquity, but none of these symbols will work for us. Indeed, they are repellant. So we must be prepared to lay them aside, to treat them as the limited and ultimately falsifying explanations that they are. Jesus did not die for our sins! Jesus was not a sacrifice offered to God to overcome the fall that never happened. We are emerging creatures, not fallen creatures. Jesus was not the embodiment of the theistic deity who visited this planet in human disguise for a brief thirty years. Jesus was the one, in whom the God who is present in the depths of life, emerged in human history in a dramatic and complete new way. The task of the new reformation is to separate Jesus from this distorting material and to recast him in new images.
But we must never lose the experience. God was in Christ. The transcendent power of life, the eternal fountain of love, the ineffable Ground of All Being erupted in his whole and free humanity to call us into a new consciousness. The call of this Christ is a call to move beyond the evolutionary limits set by our quest for survival. The Holy Spirit of God who was so present in Jesus, that people said that the Spirit actually conceived him, is still his gift to give to each of us. We who are in Christ can, like Christ, become God bearers in our world, new incarnations of the eternal divine presence. We can reveal the source of life and love, which calls us and others into the fullness of our being.
That is an avenue through which we can speak of Christ in our time, and that is where the coming reformation might lead us. For the Christian Church to cling to the literalized formulas of yesterday is nothing less than to pursue the pathway of death. Abandoning those formulas to enter the Christ experience anew is the hope of the future.
I pray for the arrival of this reformation, even though I recognize that it will appear to many to be destroying what they think the Christian faith is. We must not fear that, for it will also lead us to revival and resurrection and give us the ability to sing the Lord’s song in the third millennium.
Let the Reformation begin.