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Religion: Why Did Jesus Die?

24 minute read
David Van Biema

The best way to figure out why something absolutely had to happen is to imagine what it would be like if it had happened in some other way. That is what David Gray is doing in a comfortable Geneva, Ill., living room with six other men from his church. They are, as it were, brainstorming Jesus’ death. “What if God’s plan were that Jesus comes to earth,” asks Gray, “and he does these teachings and he talks nice. You know, ‘Love your enemy …’ And then he is taken away and not killed. Why in God’s plan did he have to suffer like this?”

The other members of the men’s Bible study associated with St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva contemplate the question.

“God’s plan probably has to be more dramatic?” suggests one.

“Right,” says another, briefly imagining God’s thinking. “‘You folks don’t get it. We’ve gotta make something dramatic here.'”

“One word I would add to this discussion,” says a third. “Obedience. [Jesus] was totally obedient.”

Gray chews all this over and comes to a conclusion. “It physically had to happen,” he says. “I’m not sure I would have said that before I saw the movie. But now it’s much clearer to me. I can’t say why he had to suffer the way he did. But Christ had to die.”

The movie, of course, is The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s version of Jesus’ final hours on earth–which, since it opened on Ash Wednesday, has been seen by more than 30 million people. It is now Holy Week, and across the country over the next seven days even more people will be talking about Christ’s Passion. In the U.S. alone, tens of millions will attend church and participate in services that relive the death and Resurrection of the Messiah. For a certain sector of the public, the seasonal spirit has been further enhanced by the publication of The Glorious Appearing, the 12th book in the best-selling Left Behind series, in which Jesus returns in apocalyptic judgment.

But what will mark this Easter week as different for an even greater number of Christians–and perhaps deepen the nature of its observance a bit–will be the ongoing impact of The Passion of the Christ. In addition to attending church services, many will fill the plush pews at their local cinemas to absorb–some for the first time, others for the second or fifth–Gibson’s graphic celluloid sermon in parallel with their pastors’ talks. In the past six weeks the film has made $340 million. It has opened in about 350 additional theaters for Holy Week, but even so, there are no doubt locales where people will be turned away from full showings, particularly on Friday.

And what will they take away from this unusual dovetailing of Christ narratives? It’s always dangerous to predict religious behavior, but it seems likely that before traveling into the uplifting realms of Easter Sunday, they will spend a little more time in the dire valley of Good Friday. When the Roman Catholics among them hear the priest recite the verse from Isaiah–“He was wounded for our transgressions … by his stripes we are healed”–they may remember that it was with those words that Gibson commenced his reimagining of the scourging of Jesus. When many Lutherans engage in the meditative adoration of the Cross and when congregants at even the least liturgical Protestant churches sing, “Let the water and the blood/From Thy wounded side which flowed/Be of sin the double cure,” they too may more vividly imagine the Cross and the blood. And they all may be more inclined to ponder a question whose answer at first seems as though it should be as simple as “Jesus loves me, this I know” but in fact has divided theologians and clergy for centuries, with no end in sight: Why did Christ die?

That is, not who (on earth) killed him or even exactly how much he suffered. But what was the cosmic reason for his agony? What is its purpose, its divine calculus? How precisely does his death, usually referred to in this context as the atonement, lead to the salvation of humanity?

The atonement “is the centerpiece of Christianity, and it’s what distinguishes it from all other religions,” says Giles Gasper, a religious historian who has written a book about one of the topic’s great medieval interpreters. Without at least an intuitive comprehension of atonement, a believer stands little chance of making sense of the faith’s promises of redemption and eternal life.

Yet, oddly enough, in many churches the issue of why Christ died is inert, if ever-present. One reason is that any deviation beyond the rote “He gave his life for us” quickly plunges into metaphysical formulations for which all but religious scholars lack the basic vocabulary. “Most people don’t live in the theological nuances, including clergy,” says Dr. Philip Blackwell of Chicago’s First United Methodist Church. And even if we did, says Jack Graham, pastor of the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas, a full understanding might still elude us. “There are many mysteries of atonement that we won’t understand this side of eternity,” he says. Discussion is also stunted by American Christianity’s ongoing romance with a friendly, helpful, personal Jesus, which has made detailed discussion of his violent death an increasingly difficult pulpit pitch. Says theologian and broadcaster R.C. Sproul: “You don’t hear people preaching about the atonement anymore. I don’t think there’s any great difference there between Protestant evangelicalism and the mainline churches either.”

Well, not until six weeks ago. Thanks to the Gibson movie, “the atonement is back on the agenda of American culture,” says Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University and author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. “This is a major shift. Atonement has been Belief No. 10 for Americans. But they care more now. This is Crucifixion Christianity.”

The experience is akin to rehabbing a muscle you had forgotten you had. Thus in this Lenten season the Rev. Byron Shafer, pastor of Rutgers Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, gave his first atonement sermon in “eight or nine years.” Chicago First United Methodist’s Blackwell found himself lined up with two other talking heads on MSNBC, debating the topic as if it were an election issue or celebrity trial. And back in Geneva, the issue continues to fascinate the Bible students and their church’s associate rector, Tony Welty. “The question is,” says Welty, “O.K., if this really happened, why did it happen? Why did Christ die? And if he really did die, then, my God, what does that mean for me? I’m a person living in the 21st century. Is this something I need to be taking more seriously?”


Behind those questions is A sense of tragic estrangement that predates Jesus’ life and death by thousands of years. Since religion has existed, God has (or the gods have) always been defined by otherness. But for just as long, humans have feared that the alienation was increasing. “Why, O Lord, do You stand aloof?” cried the Psalmist, eventually concluding that the reason was human disobedience and sin. By Jesus’ time, Jewish temple ritual included regular sin sacrifices freighted with hopes for reconciliation, or atonement, with God. (The word’s original English meaning of unity is evident in its three syllables: at-one-ment.) By around A.D. 57, when the Apostle Paul wrote the New Testament book Romans, it was clear that Christians would want to reconfigure reconciliation around the life, death and Resurrection of Christ. But how?

Some modern atonement theorists maintain that only one answer–theirs–flows inevitably from Scripture. But more agree with Chicago Theological Seminary’s Theodore Jennings Jr. “The New Testament is just all over the map” on the question of why Christ died, he says. Its writers “are all persuaded that something really drastic, fundamental and dramatic has happened, and they’re pulling together all kinds of ways to understand that.”

The book Hebrews, for instance, directly appropriates the Jewish sacrificial metaphor, except this time, Jesus is both priest and sacrifice, spilling, “not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” The Gospel of Mark favors Roman legal language for the freeing of slaves: “the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many.” The First Epistle of Peter, meanwhile, takes a radically different tack, posing Jesus’ trials as occasion for imitation: “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” And Paul’s letter to the Colossians pauses only briefly at the Cross on its way to the triumphal image of the risen Christ parading demonic enemies in chains: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”

It was this last model that first caught on. For roughly a thousand years, the church fathers seem to have viewed Christ’s suffering and dying less as salvation’s all-important tragic fulcrum than as one more necessary step in God’s triumphant campaign into the human world and, eventually, the devil’s precincts. They saw the incarnation and the Resurrection as far more important to reconciliation and a new start for humanity. In fact, a position close to this is still maintained by the world’s 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christian believers, rendering them less susceptible than most to extended images of Christ’s agony of the sort Gibson presents. Says Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has written several books on Orthodoxy: “It’s like a fire fighter who goes into a building and comes back out covered with wounds and scars but carrying in his arms a baby he was able to grab from the crib. The victory is that he did snatch eternal life out of sin and death. And that’s what Orthodox Christians focus on.”

When the early church fathers did pick up on the scriptural language of Christ’s death as a ransom, the payee was not God but the devil, who some felt had legitimate claim on humanity because of Adam’s fall. But others preferred another scenario: to see the Crucifixion and Jesus’ subsequent descent into what they called Hades as a kind of divine bait-and-switch scheme, whereby the devil thought he had claimed a particularly virtuous human victim only to discover he had allowed into his sanctum the power that would eventually wrest humanity back from his grasp. St. Augustine likened the devil to a mouse, the Cross to a mousetrap and Christ to the bait.

Still others (current Orthodoxy included) were content to leave the transaction’s precise nature a mystery. But they were emphatic in their understanding of a decidedly nonvictimized Christ as a great champion against an evil that is a real and formidable supernatural force–of invisible kingdoms battling above our heads and below our feet. That conception survives in Martin Luther’s great hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, in the Revelation-based Left Behind books and in the eerie getting-to-know-you scene between Christ and the devil that opens Gibson’s film. But it did not come to define Western Christianity’s majority understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death. That honor went to a theory developed by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in 1098 wrote one of the most influential theological tracts ever penned, “Why God Became Man.”


Anselm too read the New Testament lines calling Christ’s death a ransom, but he could not believe that the devil was owed anything. So he restructured the cosmic debt. It was, he posed, humanity that owed God the Father a ransom of “satisfaction” (to use Anselm’s feudal terminology) for the insult of sin. The problem was that the debt was unpayable: not only did we lack the means, since everything we had of value was God’s to begin with, but also we lacked the standing, like a lowly serf helpless to erase an injury to a great lord. Eternal damnation seemed unavoidable, except for a miracle of grace. God “recast” himself into human form so that Christ, who was both innocent of sin and also God’s social equal, could suffer the Crucifixion’s undeserved agony, dedicating it to the Father on humanity’s behalf. Christ “paid for sinners what he owed not for himself,” wrote Anselm reverently. “Could the Father justly refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?” No, thank goodness.

Anselm’s formulation, often called substitutionary atonement, has been restated in countless ways over the centuries. The church eventually extended its concept of the sin for which Jesus died beyond Adam’s disobedience to everybody’s transgressions. The 16th century reformer John Calvin replaced Anselm’s feudal king with a severe judge furious at a deservedly cursed creation. Hala Saad, a contemporary churchgoer in Texas, recites a milder modern version: “All I had to do was sign up for God’s debt-cancellation plan–for Jesus to take my place!”

Arguments still rage as to which group of humans (everyone? Christians? the elect?) the sacrifice benefits and about whether our sins somehow retroactively exacerbate the agony of Christ’s sacrifice. But no other postbiblical formulation has so elegantly intertwined the Father, the Son, wayward creation and intimations of sin and grace. None has so bound believer to Saviour in the intimacy of pain (and eventual Easter glory) and fulfilled Paul’s great work of turning the Cross, an image of ultimate horror, into the paramount Western icon of love.

The Catholic Church adopted substitution as a legitimate doctrine in the 16th century. The Reformation also bathed in the blood of the Lamb, and rare is the American Protestant congregation that doesn’t sing, “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood/to every believer the promise of God/The vilest offender who truly believes/That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”


From the 18th century on, however, various thinkers developed a bill of complaints about substitution, although few wanted to abandon it totally. To some Americans, Calvin’s angry, all-powerful God was too reminiscent of the arbitrary tyrant by whose overthrow the country had defined itself. In an age when Thomas Jefferson was literally cutting out all references to miracles from his copy of the Bible, substitution’s supernatural structure perturbed some Enlightenment rationalists. Its scant room for human volition contradicted a growing 18th and 19th century optimism that the species could perfect itself through its own efforts. And in a religious culture increasingly defined by emotional evangelizing and the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, Anselm’s legalistic equation struck some as a liability for those preaching to win souls.

For relief, they turned to a source as old as Anselm. The French theologian Peter Abelard had also worked in the Middle Ages to address Jesus’ role in reducing sinful humanity’s distance from God, but he did so without recourse to tit-for-tat transaction. His atonement took place less as a compact between God the Father and God the Son and more in the hearts of believers cleaving to the message of Jesus’ life–and the love most dramatically expressed in his willingness to die rather than renounce his calling. “Love answers love’s appeal,” Abelard wrote. With Jesus’ example before it, humanity, its deaf ear reopened, could now gain salvation and reconciliation with God.

Notes Yale theologian Serene Jones: “In substitution theory, the problem between humanity and God is one of debt. In Abelardian theory, the problem is one of ignorance. We don’t have enough information.” This fit in nicely with the Enlightenment spirit, and it took wing. The Hartford, Conn., minister Horace Bushnell, its great 19th century proponent, declared that atonement’s new location was not in “remote fields of being” but in humanity, as “a moral effect, wrought in the mind of the race.” Jesus’ death became less central, because it was no longer the price for lifting the burden of sin; instead, Bushnell’s successors took to preaching the Saviour’s life, exhorting their congregations to strive toward reconciliation with the Father by emulating the Son’s healings, his scourging of the money changers or his precepts of love and tolerance.

This theory is known as exemplary atonement, and it was expounded with vigor a few weeks ago by the Rev. Shafer at Rutgers Presbyterian. Shafer, having just seen The Passion of the Christ, felt moved to respond to what he regarded as its assumption that “the central purpose of Jesus’ existence [was] to offer himself as a sacrificial ransom to a God made angry by our sin.” The pastor disagreed. “The mission and purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry,” he preached, “was, first, to model for humankind the fullness of mercy and forgiveness that God offers to us sinners and, second, to model for us the perfection of love that God is and that those who accept God’s forgiveness are invited, by God’s grace, to become.” Thus, Shafer concluded, “it is not Jesus’ death that can save us but his life!”


It is still possible to have a really good fight about the meaning of the Cross. In 1994, for example, when a participant in a national feminist conference paid for in part by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced that “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all; I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff,” the backlash to the remark and other controversial aspects of the conference resulted in the resignation of one high Presbyterian official and a cost in contributions that the denomination estimated at $2.5 million.

For the most part, the skirmishing remains verbal. From early on, critics of the exemplary theory have held that it had no particular use for Christ’s divinity. Any virtuous martyr might do. One wit remarked that the Bible could have ended with the death of Abel, a decent enough man. Calvinist Evangelicals like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Southern Seminary, continue to press that point. Pure exemplary theory, he says, “is just an account of one human trying to impress other humans with the moral of self-sacrifice, and that is not the Christian Gospel and never has been.” Others note that the theory shortchanges sin and evil, giving the impression that there is nothing wrong with the world that can’t be cured by human endeavor.

Critiques of pure substitution, meanwhile, can be equally biting. Catholic liberal John Dominic Crossan has called it “the most unfortunately successful idea in the history of Christian thought.” He suggests that after the Christian church gained worldly power, Anselm’s theory created a sense of debt and a lever for social control. “If I can persuade you that there’s a punishing God and that you deserve to be punished but I have some sort of way out for you, then that’s a very attractive theology,” he says.

Others see a double disempowerment–first of a humanity whose redemption is being negotiated well above its collective head and, more important, of Christ, the child of a father whose moral universe somehow seems to require his death. Even if one ignores literalist claims that substitution espouses divine child abuse, the evidence of hundreds of years suggests that, in the wrong hands, it can deliver the wrong message. Writes the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, of her experience as a spiritual counselor: “Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as ‘good Christian women’ to accept beatings by their husbands as ‘Christ accepted the cross.’ An overemphasis on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of his teaching has tended to be used to support violence.”

So strongly does Thistlethwaite feel this that a few weeks ago, she convened a group at Chicago’s First United Methodist Church to talk about Gibson’s film. It was a war movie, she told about 30 attendees, the most violent she had ever screened. A colleague of hers said the film seemed to assume the theory of substitutionary atonement. “The problems with this classic Christian theology,” he pointed out, are the “glorification of death and suffering, the encouragement of scapegoating and making forgiveness the [Christlike] burden of the victim.”

Jonathan Ramey raised his hand. Ramey, an ordained Baptist minister who is homeless, had gravitated to First United Methodist while living in a nearby shelter. “Can’t a person benefit from someone else’s suffering?” he asked. “My brother saved me from getting beat up more than once by taking the beatings himself. I’m going through suffering now,” he said. “If I look at Jesus’ suffering, I know I can do this.” The other participants humored him for a few minutes but gave no ground.

A little while later, Ramey reflected on the meeting. “It’s not that these people are not nice people,” he said politely. “But they have a different reality. You get so high up, you don’t have a clue as to the real truth of the Gospel, which is that suffering is part of salvation.”

Another testimony to the fizz still in this debate is that it remains a good marker in the culture wars. Political scientist John Green of Ohio’s Akron University notes that the sense of sin integral to substitution theory informs the religious right’s politics of individual morality. Indeed, substitution’s top-down nature reaffirms conservatives’ scorn of any rights that they feel lack God’s biblical imprimatur. “The substitutionary understanding is humbling,” says Mohler. “It has the Father in the position of satisfying his righteous demands of us through Christ’s atonement. We don’t have the authority to define our own existence or to claim rights such as a woman’s right to abortion.”

By contrast, Randall Balmer, head of the religion department at Barnard College in New York City, says exemplarist Christians might support issues like gay rights on the ground of “Jesus’ compassion for humanity, which we ought to emulate by being gracious and accepting and inclusive and noncondemnatory.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s affirmation that “an unearned suffering is redemptive” was exemplarist, although his theology didn’t boil down to just that.


In fact, the majority of Christians are neither purely substitutionary nor purely exemplary in their outlook. JoAnne Terrell, author of Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience, has faith in a substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus. It is, she affirms, “one of the cornerstone beliefs of the African-American church.” But she believes in some other things too. Some years back, sitting in a seminary class, she had a flashback. She was a girl again, and her mother had just been murdered by her boyfriend. Once more Terrell saw the blood-soaked mattress and her mother’s bloody handprint on the wall. And suddenly, “I had to find a connection between my mom’s story and my story and Jesus’ story,” she says.

The Christ connecting those stories was not just the one whose death had delivered her from sin. Terrell says he was also the Christ who generations of African Americans have believed suffered with them as well as for them. And, she adds, the Christ who in his life had “stood up to abusive authorities and an abusive culture and taught people how to do that.” These Christs, rolled into one Christ, stood by her in her pain, enabled her to see her mother as having died standing up to her abuser and helped Terrell find her place as a person “trying to live unto God.” And so, she says, “Jesus is really for us not substitutionary only but also the one who truly identifies with us and goes with us in suffering and can provide us an example of how to live our lives.”

Although Terrell may have an especially dramatic Christian narrative, her willingness to mix, match or mutate theories of atonement is extremely common. Mark Noll, a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College in Illinois, notes that “the average Christian, when he says, ‘Christ died for my sins,’ may mean more than one thing.” And Barbara Wheeler, president of New York’s Auburn Seminary, asserts that these days “most mainstream theologians recognize more than two possibilities and the importance of balancing and integrating them.” Even in the evangelical world, for every Christian like Reagan White Jr.–a Texas Baptist who recently passed up an exemplary-oriented congregation because “even the best organ in the world can strike a sour note if the sermon that follows it waters down the essence of Christianity”–there are probably five like Methodist Janet McLeod, a publicist from the same state who notes, “We get our strength for living from Jesus’ parables and his mission work. In the Crucifixion, we get our hope for what comes next.” Graham, the Plano Baptist pastor, says, “It’s like asking which wing of the airplane is more important.”

Of more concern to those interested in the health of American faith was–until last February, at least–the large proportion of Christians who really didn’t think of Jesus’ death much at all. “In most Protestant churches,” says the Chicago Theological Seminary’s Jennings, “there’s hardly anything of a Cross there. You go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter without passing Go.” The omission extends far beyond the historical Protestant aversion to crucifixes featuring Jesus’ body. Rather, says Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, it dates back to the 18th century, when “Americans tended not to linger on the agony of Jesus. It was more ‘friend of my soul, he walks with me and talks with me.'” That phenomenon, which has only accelerated, afflicts conservative Christianity as much as those in mainline churches, says American Jesus author Prothero. “If you asked Evangelicals in a Gallup poll if they had given up on the hard theology, they would say no. But in terms of day-to-day experience, atonement is not a lived reality.”

And that in turn suggests a Christianity with a large hole in it where, at the very least, some thought should go. “The Cross is at the center of Christianity, and we know that it was at the center of Jesus’ own thinking,” says John Stott, an Anglican preacher and the author of The Cross of Christ, who suffered a stroke last year. “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross.” He is almost pleading. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ has certainly done its bit to combat Christianity lite. The film’s stance on atonement could best be described as substitutionary (that initial Isaiah quote sets the theme) with a strong dose of Catholic Passion piety (the very gory details), a pinch of exemplarism (the flashbacks to Jesus’ teachings) and those sulfurous whiffs of the ancient good-vs.-evil model. In other words, an understanding almost as eclectic as the average American’s. Will it convince anyone of any particular philosophy? Perhaps not, but it is a reminder that the question of why Jesus died requires some sort of response from anyone who reasons out his or her faith–and that the question will not evaporate come Easter Sunday. –With reporting by Jeff Chu/London, Broward Liston/Orlando, Marguerite Michaels and David Thigpen/Chicago, Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas and Paige Bowers/Atlanta

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