Throughout my life, my thinking about Christian faith has changed. That’s a good thing. There are many things I learned as a child which no longer serve me well as an adult. With each new experience, each new encounter with another person, my thinking and convictions change and grow.
As I’ve written many times, those changes include a different understanding of Lent with its climax in Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. If you had asked me at the end of childhood, at age 12 or so, what Lent was about, I would have said something like this: in Lent, we become more intensely aware of our sinfulness. Holy Week, culminating in the cross, is about Jesus dying to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven by God.
That particular understanding of Jesus’ death is known either as the “payment understanding” or the “substitutionary understanding of the cross”. In short, this theory tells us that Jesus died in our place in order to satisfy the debt that we all owe to God. We couldn’t pay it, because we are sinful. Only the sinless Son of God could pay our debt on the cross.
Over the years, I have become convinced that this understanding of the cross is a serious distortion of its meaning. It is deficient, both in theological and historical terms. At stake is not primarily having “right beliefs.” At stake is what Christianity is about.
Theologically, the payment understanding implies that the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation from the very beginning. It had to happen; indeed, it was foreordained. Humanity owed a debt to God, and it had to be satisfied. Jesus, God’s sinless son, was the only one who could pay the price that we all deserve to pay. In this understanding, the death of Jesus was God’s will from the very beginning.
But one must ask: really? Was it God’s will that this remarkably good person, centered in God to such an extraordinary degree, be killed? If so, what does that say about what God is like?
This understanding is also historically flawed. A major problem is that it was first fully articulated less than a thousand years ago by Anselm in 1098. In the first thousand years of Christianity, including the New Testament, the payment understanding is one of many different metaphors.
Another historical problem is that the first three gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) indicate that Jesus warned his followers three times that he would be killed by the people in authority, both the religious and the political authorities of his day.
Nowhere do the gospels say that he is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. They say that Jesus will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31), that he “will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:33–34).
Every reference in the gospels is about Jesus being killed by the powers that ruled his world. I add that a majority of mainstream New Testament scholars do not think that these warnings go back to Jesus himself, but are the testimony of the early Christian movement after the resurrection. For me, that makes them even more impressive as testimonies to his death. Forty years after his crucifixion, Mark, the earliest gospel (written about the year 70), still speaks of the cross not as a payment required by God but as an execution by the powers that ruled that world.
Jesus died as a martyr. The Greek root of “martyr” means “witness.” A witness is killed because she or he stands for something. In early Christianity, that meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.
Imagine, what if Lent and Holy Week are not about Jesus as a divinely–ordained payment for sin but about protest against a world that makes martyrs of the prophets? And imagine: what if Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he stood for and “no” to the powers that killed him?
Imagine that Christianity is not about an afterlife for those whose sins are forgiven. Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’ passion for the transformation of “this world” into a world of justice and peace. Imagine that it’s about a passion to change “this world.” What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian?
Yme Woensdregt is pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.