While my last post was primarily about my journey away from the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, it didn’t completely provide an alternative. If Jesus died to change our minds about God, then what in our minds needs changing?
Before moving on, I’d like to share a video of a brilliant pastor and theologian, Brian Zahnd, articulating why the penal substitutionary atonement theory is so damaging and crude. Please watch before continuing:
To be clear, penal substitutionary atonement is not the Gospel, although it can feel like that for those of us who grew up in American evangelical churches. The Gospel cannot be summed up in any atonement theory. Our theories reflect our attempts at understanding.
The Gospel is Jesus. He invites us to follow Him. One does not receive the Gospel with a decision to believe a particular theory, but rather through the revelation of God’s heart revealed on the path of following Jesus.
Below, I’ve listed seven reasons why I believe Jesus died. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it reflects my journey. Although a list feels clean and tidy, each one of these has been profoundly deep and life-changing for me. So, I hope that you will sit with each idea and let it penetrate your heart and mind.
1. Jesus died to reveal our blindness (sin and scapegoating).
“The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.”Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor
Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin of the world (which is ignorant violence rather than not obeying purity codes); by refusing the usual pattern of revenge, and, in fact, “returning their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:27-28); and, finally, by teaching us that we can “follow him” in doing the same.Fr. Richard Rohr
We have been conditioned to think of sin as the breaking of a set of rules laid out by God. But it’s not. Sin is spiritual blindness. Which means there’s something we are not seeing. To “take away your sin” is to restore your sight. This shift in perspective really is a miracle.
Humans will do almost anything to avoid feeling shame for the violence in their hearts and their complicity in violence towards others, directly or indirectly. When we can’t or don’t want to look at our complicity, we often seek a scapegoat to shift the blame onto. That’s exactly what we did with Jesus. And it’s what we continue to do.
Jesus elevates the worth of people, in that we can know that what we do to others, we do to Him. Imagine Jesus hidden in every person you interact with. See how your view and behavior towards them shifts.
2. Jesus died to remove our fear of death.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not higher but aliver; it is right here, just on the other side of that “terror we can just scarcely bear”; the only thing lacking to embrace it is the depth of our hearts.Cynthia Bourgeault, Love is Stronger than Death
Much of our hurtful behavior is driven by the fear of death. Consciously or unconsciously, when our survival is threatened, we act violently to ensure our own survival. Additionally, our ego wants to ensure we are not forgotten. We are anxious to matter, to achieve, to make some kind of impact that lasts after our bodies wither away.
Jesus gives us the assurance that physical death is really just another chapter of life. When you train your mind to overcome the fear of death, that frees you from the prison of sin and shame into the fullness of life. Jesus demonstrates the path to freedom from spiritual death – not by bypassing physical death, but by going through it and showing it is merely an illusion. A Christian is someone whose greatest fear isn’t death, but rather not living life to the fullest.
The most repeated advice in the Bible is: Do not fear. It’s repeated 365 times.
3. Jesus died because love is non-violent and non-retributive.
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.Colossians 1:15
In Jesus, God is fully revealed. Any confusion about what God is like is settled in Jesus. If you agree with that, then we can know that God does not punish or seek retribution, because Jesus punishes and condemns no one.
It is so helpful when you can begin to see the Bible as a struggle for humans to understand what God (Love) is like. Like the Israelites, we must all make that journey in our understanding and be willing to change our minds when Love reveals itself.
Imagine for a moment that your children no longer recognized you as their parent and sought to kill you. Would you kill your children first? No. A loving parent would never seek to harm their child, even if that child turned against the parent. A loving parent would sooner die before harming their own child.
This scenario is what happened to God, in Jesus, on the cross. Love is who God is. Love does not seek justice through punishment (eternal hellfire) but through healing. Jesus restores sight to the blind (Luke 4:18) and does not repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17). We wait for God to restore sight to his children and remind them of their inheritance as children of God.
As Brian Zahn so beautifully articulates, Jesus’s death reveals what has always been the heart of God: that God would rather die than kill his enemies…and He forgives them in his dying breath.
4. Jesus died because he challenged religious and political power.
Sometimes, the story of Jesus can seem ancient and therefore irrelevant. But when we look at modern-day justice advocates like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who both followed Jesus’s path in their lives and work, we find that those who are just and confront power are often killed. Many times, we do not recognize their goodness and justice – and the power of their work – until they are seemingly eliminated. It’s only after institutions (government, religion, and culture) have gotten rid of the “problem” that the violence in our hearts is exposed and we realize how wrong we were.
Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religon – which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will – from their own.Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor
Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to predict his own death, much like Jesus. The night before he was killed, Dr. King foreshadowed his death in a sermon in Memphis:
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Dr King told the crowd. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; April 3, 1968
It’s time we make the distinction between the label “Christian” and being a Jesus-follower:
“…that kind of love is always tragic, comic and cruciform. You gotta get ready to be crucified with that kind of love.”Dr. Cornel West
Don’t fool yourself with a label. You’ll know who Jesus-followers are by this cruciform type of love (John 13.35).
5. Jesus died to reveal the Christ (Paschal) Mystery.
The Paschal Mystery is a theological term that refers to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In this one man, the Christ Mystery is contained and fully revealed. It unlocks the ultimate mystery of the universe since the beginning of time and space: life, death, rebirth. This Christ mystery has been playing out in every piece of matter from the beginning. We see it in every part of nature, and we too are a part of nature. In Jesus, this mystery is revealed to those who could not yet see it in nature. Every death gives way to something new and beautiful if we can let go and trust the process. The mystery that Jesus reveals is the one story of the Universe.
The move from seeing “the body of Christ” as a group of people who believe a certain way to experiencing the “body of Christ” as the entire universe is the “truth that will set you free.”Michael Gungor
6. Jesus died to reveal the path to fullness of life.
Jesus demonstrates that the way to be fully alive is to hold fast to your true nature, which is Love. Love is patient, even in death. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus demonstrates that even in death, he forgives and does not hold onto resentment. He takes our blindness and violence (sin) into his body and recycles it through forgiveness into Love, with the power to awaken the heart of every person. I can be sure of this because Love never fails. Love wins.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36:26
7. Jesus died so we know that God suffers with us.
Growing up in mostly Baptist churches, I heard over and over again that the Father turned his face from Jesus on the cross. The emphasis was that God could not look at us because of our sin. However, this is not true!
The idea that God cannot look at sin comes from a verse in Habakkuk:
Your eyes are too pure to look at what is evil. You can’t put up with the wrong things people do.Habakkuk 1:13
The prophet here is lamenting that God’s eyes are too pure to look upon sin. This is where we usually stop reading… but there’s more:
Your eyes are too pure to look at what is evil. You can’t put up with the wrong things people do. So why do you put up with those who can’t be trusted? The evil Babylonians swallow up those who are more godly than themselves. So why are you silent?Habakkuk 1:13
God supposedly is too holy to empathize with sinners, but he does it anyway! Indeed, if Jesus was God, and the Father was in him, then God looked at a lot of sinners while He was on earth. The idea that the Father looked away from Jesus on the cross is false. The Father was in Jesus on the cross.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.Jesus, John 14:20
Many of us Southern Baptists grew up listening to singer and comedian Mark Lowry (Gaither Vocal Band, Mary Did You Know?). Mark explains in this video:
[God] He was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. The Father was hanging on that cross too. He was there. He didn’t turn his back…if God can’t look on sin, then Jesus was not God.Mark Lowry
In summary, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about you. God doesn’t change. He came to change your mind about God. What ideas do you have about God that need changing?