What sense does it make to say 'Christ died for us'?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
23 Apr 2011

To the modern sensibility, the idea of calling the day when we commemorate the 33 C.E. crucifixion of Jesus 'Good' Friday seems decidedly odd. The word is actually used in a traditionally older sense meaning 'pious' (that is, 'devoted to the good') or 'holy' (which in English dates back to the 11th Century with the word halig, an adjective connoting 'uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, or complete’ in relation to God).

What is being suggested by this appellation, then, is that reflection on, and association with, the death of Christ is a source of goodness and completeness - that somehow "by his stripes we are healed" (as the Christian appropriation of Isaiah 53.5 puts it).

This is still decidedly difficult territory. For how, we may ask, can wholeness, deliverance and healing possibly flow from a state execution resulting in the unjust, violent death of a good (if deeply subversive) person - one in whom his friends and followers rightly felt they had met, not just a fine human being, but the love of God at its most tangible and engaging?

Some Christian theologies have sought to render the conundrum of the death of Christ through elaborate theories about the sacrifice of innocent blood to expiate or propitiate the righteous anger of a holy God who demands a 'price' for sin. Indeed this kind of explanation - though morally repugnant to very many (quite rightly, in my view) - is probably still the majority interpretation in most conservative Christian circles.

As a number of us tried to say in a book I co-edited, Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters (DLT, 2005), the problem with 'penal substitutionary atonement' theories is that they end up turning God into an abuser, they posit judicial murder as a divinely sanctioned method of redemption, and they propose an account of divine justice that is at complete odds with the unconditional love that Jesus exemplifies and exalts in his parable of the Prodigal Son (for example).

In fact judicially-patterned ideas of atonement (ways of effecting at-one-ment between imperfect human beings and the perfection of God) historically arose, in the era of St Anselm and others, in contexts where the forensic 'satisfaction of honour' was a strong cultural norm. It was this problem, rather than one intrinsic to nature of God, that they sought to resolve.

Similarly, the New Testament language of 'blood satisfaction' around Christ is bound up with the need to resolve ancient religious patterns of sacrifice in terms of a fresh understanding arising from the community that encountered, and was profoundly changed by, Jesus of Nazareth. So the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, pictures Jesus' death as sacrificial precisely in order to argue that in his 'one, perfect sacrifice' the entire sacrificial system of blood-for-honour has been abolished and applies no more. Forgiveness is no longer dependent on sacrificial offerings.

The logic of this construal is that we should henceforth cease to interpret Christ in terms of patterns of sacrifice. On the contrary, we should recast our notions of sacrifice in terms of Christ - as self-giving and other-healing, not as an external burden requiring the suffering or death of another.

As Rene Girard and others argue, the sacrificial language of the Passion narratives and the early Christian scriptures is therefore, ironically but liberatingly, completely anti-sacrificial in its impact and intention. In the drama of the cross, brought about not by divine will but by human murderousness and imperial politics, God-with-us endures and absorbs sinfulness, torture and unjust death in an act of complete and undeserved solidarity with us. Jesus, the Christ, is truly the 'wounded healer' (Nouwen).

Likewise, in the resurrection, God's verdict and vindication is made available not through an act of suffocating, overwhelming power or counter-violence, but by the gift (donation) of a quality of life wholly beyond our living as much as our dying. We cannot save ourselves from death, but we can be joined to the life of God and set free from its power to limit us through fear. That is the message, the Good News.

It is in this sense of endless self-giving and the defiance of death and all that produces it (not in any way that suggests God organises, approves or benefits from killing) that we can say, "Jesus died for our sins". In other words, that "for" means "because of", "to deliver us from" and "to abolish". This is how popular piety can be given theological depth, moral character and freeing force.

The problem remains, however, that much modern Christianity is not anti-sacrificial, as it should be, biblically and ethically, but the reverse. It (mis)uses sacrificial language in relation to the execution of Jesus in such a way that violence is legitimated, passivity is elevated over resistance, divine justice is rendered by vengeance rather than costly restoration, and suffering for its own sake is even given religious, cultural and political justification.

In some religious ideologies this kind of distortion is not an incidental by-product of misunderstanding biblical texts, or confusing contextual interpretations with universal constants. It is deliberate. The Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church openly preaches hatred and divine murder in the name of Christ. This is the ultimate blasphemy, but as they point out on their website, it is not wholly incongruent with some more 'mainstream' understandings. Or, at least, it is not wholly separable. So there is some serious reparative work to do within the fractured Christian household.

On the other hand, in a good deal of commonplace Christian devotion and rhetoric among deeply loving people we find something rather different which, nonetheless, remains problematic. This is an essentially innocent (but nevertheless damaging) derogation of God's self-giving and self-sacrificial love, expressed through the Cross of Christ, into something that can readily be construed in a casually, cumulatively pathological way.

For example, the other day someone who I connect with on Twitter quoted in an entirely well-meaning sense an anonymous evangelical epithet that "people try to fix problems with duct tape. God did it with nails." Well, yes. Except that if you think about it, this rather sounds as if God hammers the nails in, or at least approves those who do so.

With some trepidation (given how 'debates' on social networking sites can easily descend into unenlightening exercises in talking past each other), I responded: "Yes, but [God does it] by absorbing the nails, not inflicting them. That's key. Forget that and faith goes bad." I was relived and gratified, in this instance, to get the response, "Oh yes! You're so right. Have a blessed Good Friday!"

I did. But not an easy one. That the wisdom of God requires us to reflect on a judicial murder at the very heart of our faith; that we are bound by baptism to Jesus the criminal (Mark Thiessen Nation); and that we are enjoined to "take up our cross" alongside the victims of wrongdoing, neglect and injustice in this world ... these are hardly matters of comfort or convenience. They are, personally and communally, extremely difficult. But they cannot be avoided - whether the challenge they present is one of intellectual wrestling in the face of scepticism, lifestance re-imagining in the face of a loss of hope, or verbal re-orientation in the face of loosely-worded piety.

Taking the disturbing reality of the crucifixion as a test case, it seems to me that the central theological vocation is not to make things more complicated (heaven help us!), but to face the many complications and confusions there are with honesty, and to seek to render them modestly comprehensible - or at the very least, creatively livable with. This is what 'faith seeking under^standing' (which, in its true sense, involves a significant amount of humility and perspective) means.

As someone who has worked as an adult educator in pastoral, communal and academic settings, I believe that a positive, public theological response to the difficulties presented by Good Friday (and many other aspects of the Christian faith) is not only necessary, but possible. It requires significant effort, of course. First, intellectual effort in constructing an effective arena of discourse (theology being ‘wrestling rationally with the unfathomable mystery of God’, but to enlighten rather than to obscure). Second, human effort in building bridges of communicative possibility between people from different thought-worlds, whether Christian, 'religious' or otherwise, so that such conversations can take place at all.

Why does this matter? Because what we are confronted with in the realm of religion - and what we dare not forget in a world of increasing religious / ideological confusion and violence - is nothing less than a matter of life and death. That is precisely what the cross of Jesus, and the human instincts and structures that constructed that instrument of torture, pictures for us. But the purpose of embracing it is not to be enthralled or captivated by death, but rather freed from its power - something we cannot do without the countervailing power of life-absorbing-death that is God's alone. This is what is meant by salvation (again from the root salus, meaning 'whole'). It is the true Good in this, and every, Friday.

* The first article in this set of four, 'The religious betrayal of God and its antidote' is available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14612

* The third article, 'Living in the long, uncertain Saturday' will be published on Holy Saturday.

* The fourth article, 'Life-giving beyond denial, anger, bargaining and depression', will be published on Easter Sunday.

See also: 'Cross and resurrection through a poet's eyes', by Alison Goodlad (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14621); and 'Wondering again over the Passion', by Jill Segger (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14617).

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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