Inevitably when I discuss my shifting views on hell, the most common question I get from evangelical Christians is: “Well, then, why did Jesus have to die?”
It’s a good question. I’ve asked it myself. What I’ve discovered is that Christians have actually been asking it for centuries.
When I was seven years old, I attended a summer VBS at a Baptist church in Georgia. At that young age, a pastor told me that there was a heaven and a hell. I was going to one of those places when I die. He explained that because I had sinned, God couldn’t look at me or be with me anymore, because he hated sin so much. So, I was destined for hell where I would burn forever in agony. The worst part wasn’t that my skin would be melting off, nor that I would never see my family again, but that I would be separated from God.
But, there was good news! Because God is just and needs a payment of death for sin, Jesus came to die on a cross as a substitute payment. And He rose from the dead to prove he was God’s Son, so I could trust that this message I was hearing about this cosmic arrangement was The Truth. Period. Hard stop.
So, if I just believed that this was all true and said aloud that I was a sinner that needed forgiveness, Jesus would come into my heart and save me (presumably from hell) and I would go to heaven when I died. When God looked up my name in the Book of Life, he wouldn’t see me. He would see Jesus’s name and blood covering my name. (Somehow, I was simultaneously precious to God and also so abhorrent He couldn’t look at me.)
Of course, like any seven-year-old hearing this would do, I prayed. I asked Jesus to come into my heart and decided to be baptized later that week. I remember that I was too small for any of the gowns the church had. So I stood alone in the hall waiting my turn swallowed up in a huge adult robe dragging the ground. I was baptized in front of hundreds of VBS kids, many of them peering over the glass into the pool. I was a small, shy, sensitive child. The experience felt very noisy and chaotic. But I just wanted to be in God’s family. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to be loved and accepted, and the grown-ups told me that I wasn’t lovable or acceptable how I was, because I’d lied to my mom that one time. I really wanted to be a good girl. But obviously, I was a bad girl. God created me and loved me. Yet, I didn’t deserve God’s love. I didn’t deserve to be in His family.
When you are seven, you accept as true whatever grown-ups tell you. This was the foundation that I oriented the next 25 years of my life around.
After I was “saved” through this initiation, my life’s purpose became telling other people the “good news”. I spent time on the elementary school playground telling other kids about heaven and hell and Jesus. At the ripe old age of twelve, I decided I would be an overseas missionary. I went on mission trips in high school. I spent weeks wearing the same princess dress in Peru performing a drama and “sharing the gospel” with a translator to hundreds of people on the street. I worked for churches in my adult years shooting baptism videos for kids. Not surprisingly, the majority of children telling their stories had a similar story as mine. Adults told them “the truth”. Children believed it. Children grew up to become adults that tell more children “the truth”.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that “the truth” about why Jesus died wasn’t actually the truth. It was a theory. It actually had a name in theological study: penal substitutionary atonement theory. There are many other theories.
If the version of the “good news” I received in church was actually just one theory among many, why didn’t anyone ever preface it that way?
Today, I’m going to present some alternate explanations for Jesus’s death that have carried weight in the Christian tradition. Perhaps these will be new to you, like they were to me. We’ll start with the predominant theory held in many evangelical churches.
Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement
Jesus suffered the penalty for mankind’s sins. Divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice … God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction for it. … God gave himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for our sin.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution
This theory was first introduced in the eleventh century by St. Anselm of Canterbury. It was further developed by John Calvin. Calvin was a lawyer and contributed the terminology about guilt, judgement and punishment from his background in criminal law.
To be clear, this theory was not taught in the early church. And there is strong evidence that The Sinner’s Prayer did not originate until the early twentieth century. (This begs the question: how was anyone “becoming a Christian” before then?) The often quoted and well-loved apologist, C.S. Lewis, also rejected this theory.
Ransom Theory of Atonement
Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall – hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory 1995
In short, Christ’s death represents the cosmic defeat of the devil to whom a ransom had to be paid.
For the first 1,100 years in church history, Christians predominately believed that Jesus’s death was to pay a ransom to the devil, not God.
Moral Influence Theory of Atonement
This theory was developed by Peter Abelard in the eleventh Century. Abelard focused on changing man’s perception of God from one of an offended, harsh, and judgmental God, to one of a loving God. According to Abelard, “Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love,” a demonstration which can change the hearts and minds of sinners, turning them back to God.
Abelard not only “rejected the idea of Jesus’ death as a ransom paid to the devil,” which turned the Devil into a rival god, but also objected to the idea that Jesus’ death was a “debt paid to God’s honor.” He also objected to the emphasis on God’s judgment, and the idea that God changed his mind about the sinner after the sinner accepted Jesus’ sacrificial death, which was not easily reconcilable with the idea of “the perfect, impassible God [who] does not change.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_influence_theory_of_atonement
In The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr beautifully sums up this theory:
It is not God who is violent. We are. It is not that God demands suffering of humans. We do. God does not need or want suffering–neither in Jesus nor in us. …
The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a “mixed” world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. He hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity … utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured–all the primary opposites.The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr
Seriously, how beautiful is that?
It’s probably obvious by now that I currently subscribe to the Moral Influence Theory. I’d like to elaborate on it a bit more.
In the larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died. They have followed in the self-emptying steps of Jesus, a path from death to life that Christians from all over the world celebrate this week.
At some point, such people were led to the edge of their private resources, and that breakdown, which surely felt like dying, led them into a larger life. They broke through in what felt like breaking down. Instead of avoiding a personal death or raging at it, they went through a death of their old, small self and came out the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them. This process of transformation is known in many cultures as initiation. For many Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the preeminent example of this pattern. Following Jesus, we need to trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Although even there, we still must offer our yes.Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM
In my view, framing salvation as a moment of decision and a ticket into heaven robs Christians of the fundamental truth that actually frees the soul: you have never been apart from God, except for in your mind. Jesus’s death demonstrates God’s solidarity (at-one-ment) with you and all of humanity. His sacrifice is not meant to change God’s mind about us. Rather, it is meant to change our minds about God.
In evangelical Christianity, we are conditioned to view the cross as a way to avoid suffering rather than the necessary pathway to transformation. Good religion is not meant to take your pain away. It’s meant to transform it.
It was in the humiliating revelation of my misunderstanding that I truly experienced mercy, grace, and salvation. Romans 11:32 says, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
“First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.”Julian of Norwich
Once you see the pattern behind Jesus’s journey on earth (life, death, resurrection, rebirth), look for it in everything and everyone else. I believe you’ll find it. Jesus promises that once you do, you’ll discover that Love is stronger than death.
Last spring on a retreat, I sat across from a Catholic priest discussing the atonement. He listened patiently as I sorted through my thoughts aloud with him. Finally, I landed on this statement: Jesus is not a transaction. He’s a revelation.
The priest softly smiled and nodded. Finally, it really felt like Good News.