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Participant in the Senakulo in Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines where they dramatize the Passion of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. The event is highlighted by live crucifixions. Photo credit: Tony Oquias Photography

During this, the 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter, the inevitable question comes to mind:  why did Jesus—said to be the Son of God—suffer and die on a cross?

Rebecca Ann Parker

As.a child, theologian and Methodist minister Rebecca Ann Parker learned that God sacrificed his beloved child for the sake of humanity.  Influenced by this teaching, Parker grew up believing that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was “virtuous and redemptive.”  So completely did she integrate the message of willing self-sacrifice that she forgot she’d been raped by her neighbor.  When she was five.

Most Christians still subscribe to the idea that Jesus died “for the sake of the world.”

Those of you who are not friendly to religion in general or to Christianity in particular may wave away the question of why Jesus had to die.  You think it’s silly (“Jesus was not God, so who cares”) or irrelevant (“who cares”).  But since harmful and life-constricting answers remain popular, why not lend a hand and help formulate a life-enhancing response instead?

Not possible, you say, to find a life-enhacing answer for why the man Jesus had to suffer and die?

Truly, we don’t have the option of giving up on finding such an answer.  There are too many Christian lives on the line to throw in the proverbial towel.  Three in four Americans are Christian.  One in three human beings are Christian.  Which means that millions of today’s kids are, like Rebecca Ann Parker, integrating Christianity’s message that suffering is “virtuous and redemptive.”

While the idea that “Jesus died for my sins” may have become the most commonly accepted explanation, it has never been the only alternative.  Impassioned conversations about Jesus’ suffering and death began almost as soon as his maimed body was lowered from the cross.  In other words, for two thousand years, this question has preoccupied Christians who could not or would not leave it at that.  Internal to the tradition itself, theories and counter-theories have been put forward.

Rebecca Ann Parker explored several alternatives championed by Christian thinkers in Lenten sermons that she preached to the Methodist congregation she served early in her career.  She republished these sermons in her book (co-written with Rita Nakashima Brock), Proverbs of Ashes:  Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us.

What follows are six of the answers that Parker mentioned in her book.  Direct quotes from Proverbs of Ashes appear in Lenten purple.

Anselm of Canterbury

1.            Anselm of Canterbury (Italian, c. 1033 – 1109, Roman Catholic) is the thinker responsible for the Jesus-died-for-your-sins theory of the crucifixion (called “substitutionary atonement theology” by theologians).  Yes, it is the theology that has become, for many Christians, the standard explanation for why Jesus had to die. But a full millenium passed after Jesus’ death before Anselm gave this theory a systematic formulation.

In the beginning, human beings lived in the Garden of Eden, in perfect harmony with God.  But Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God. Because of their sinfulness, God had no recourse but to demand repayment for the harm they caused.  We inherit their sin.  The penalty for sin is death.  God loves us and doesn’t want to punish us.  But his honor has been shamed.  God is torn between love for us and the requirements of justice.  To resolve this problem, he sends his only son Jesus into the world to pay the price we owe, to bear the punishment that all of humanity deserves… In Why did God Become Human? Anselm said, “No one can give himself more fully to God than when there is self-surrender to death for God’s honor.”

Pierre Abelard

2.            Only a generation later, theologian Pierre Abelard (French, 1079-1142, Roman Catholic) challenged Anselm’s view.  Resistance—nay, revulsion—over the substitutionary atonement theory is almost as old as the theory itself!

In his Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, [Abelard] questioned [the substitutionary atonement theology of Anselm of Canterbury].  “Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child?” he asked.  “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

John Calvin

3.            Abelard’s outrage had no impact on the theologian, John Calvin (French, 1509-1564, founder of Protestant Calvinism).  Calvin not only adopted Anselm’s substitutionary atonement theology but he pushed it further.

In his Institutes [of the Christian Religion], [Calvin] said:  “Not only was Christ’s body given as the price of our redemption, but he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in spirit the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man…  He bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” by God’s hand and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God…  Jesus struggled with the assignment to be our substitute.  He prays, “Father, let this cup pass from me.”  But Jesus loves his father and honors the request even though it means a terrible death.  Adam and Eve were disobedient, but Jesus obeys.  “Let thy will, not mine, be done.”  On the cross, Jesus bears the punishment we deserve [for our sins] and we are set free.

Hosea Ballou

4.            The theologian Hosea Ballou (American, 1771-1852, Protestant-Universalist) offered a no-holds-barred critique of Anselm and Calvin’s explanations for Jesus’ death.  Ballou was certain that these explanations were wrong.  He was also certain that they had harmed the life and spirit of the Christian religion.

In his Treatise on the Atonement, Ballou said, “The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries.  The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been moulded [sic] into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel…”

Walter Rauschenbusch

5.            Walter Rauschenbush (American, 1861-1918, Protestant-American Baptist), like many liberal theologians of his time, rejected Anselm and Calvin’s ideas of a wrathful, punishing God.  God, for Rauschenbush, was not a cruel deity who rules us from afar. No. God is among us.

In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbush argued against concepts of sin and salvation that “have too much the flavor of the monarchical institutions under the spiritual influence of which they were first formed…  Our universe is not a despotic monarchy with God above the starry canopy and ourselves down here; it is a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.”  Rauschenbush defined sin as betrayal of the bonds of care among human beings.  The root of sin is not rebellious refusal to obey God, but a deep-seated selfishness…  Selfishness is more than a personal failing.  It is a transpersonal evil, institutionalized in social systems that benefit some individuals while exploiting and oppressing many others.

6.            Twentieth century theologies such as liberation theology drew inspiration from Medieval Christian thinkers—in this case, from Abelard’s moral influence theory.  While this theory’s intentions are well-placed, its results are awful.  Parker rebels against liberation theology’s use of Abelard’s strategy because it makes “acceptance of violence” a way to move perpetrators to repentance.  It assumes that perpetrators have “the empathy and moral conscience necessary to be moved by the suffering of others.”  This assumption doesn’t square with Parker’s experience of being raped as a child.  Plus, Abelard’s strategy “makes every victim an agent of God’s call to repent and accept mercy.  The repentance of the perpetrator becomes “more important than the suffering of the victim.”

Abelard argued against the idea that God was a dishonored lord whose honor was restored by the murder of his own son.  Instead, he said the problem is that human beings see neither their sin nor the mercy of God.  The death of the Son of God brings human beings face to face with cruelty.  Contemplating the suffering of Christ, people will feel remorse and repentance—especially seeing that Christ submitted to violence rather than turning it back on his enemies.  A love so great that it withholds evil for evil reveals the mercy and kindness of God.  Seeing this, Abelard said, human beings would be moved to stop rejecting God and would open their hearts to receive God’s mercy.

Parker’s brief analysis of Christian thought over the past thousand years demonstrates that while the Jesus-died-for-our-sins explanation may have become the dominant explanation, it is not the only explanation.  Not by a long shot.

Parker herself rejects all of the options discussed above.  But where does that leave our effort to find a life-affirming way to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross?

Gordon Kaufman. Photo credit: Harvard Div School

Here’s another approach–one that’s not included in Parker’s book (though it bears some resemblance to the at-one-ment theory she discusses).

The theologian, Gordon Kaufman (American, 1925 – 2011, Protestant-Mennonite), wrote, in his Systematic Theology:  A Historicist Perspective, that, for many believers, there are times when the transcendent God appears distant and uncaring—silent when his help is sought in prayer, absent during periods of suffering.

Taking human form, Jesus, the God-man, suffered one of the cruelest deaths ever devised by humans for humans.  In the dramatic and tragic way in which his Son died, God has signaled to those who would see and hear that even in his silence, even in his seeming absence, he, God, knows the worst that life will ever ask us to bear.

Though silent, God has shouted, through Jesus (according to Kaufman), that he is no stranger to physical or emotional pain like ours.  Seemingly absent, God has shouted, through Jesus, that he is no stranger to tears like ours, to fears like ours.

God came to us in a human-body so that we might recognize him; he declared his love for us in human-language so that we might understand him.

God came, Kaufman wrote, so that we would know that our trials and tribulations are, for him, personal.  In our despair and agony, he’s there in the silence.  In our pleas and weeping, he’s there in the absence.

For Christians trying to make sense of the Easter narrative, Kaufman’s proposal is one way to understand why Jesus had to die.  His is a proposal that does not glorify Jesus’ pain and suffering.  No Christian is stuck with Anselm’s life-robbing substitutionary-atonement theology.  S/he is free to choose a different theology.  S/he is free to develop a new one.

What about you–you who are willing to participate in this Lenten thought-experiment–what do you propose?  Have you succeeded in finding a helpful explanation for the crucifixion of the God-man?  What life-enhancing answer can you offer your three out of four Christian neighbors?

Resources:  Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Proverbs of Ashes:  Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2001); Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology:  A Historicist Perspective (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968).