“Jesus died for our sins.“ That is the key phrase that came out of apostolic times. It says in very few words what Christianity is all about. The original witnesses to Jesus’ life and work were convinced that Jesus’ apparent defeat in his execution by the Roman occupational forces was not a defeat at all; it was actually the triumphant climax of his mission. It was the point of everything he said and did. Jesus spoke and taught, he consoled and healed through years of compassionate labor, all for the benefit of people; but in the long run it was all in preparation for an ultimate gift that “saved” us: his death on the cross — “Jesus died for our sins.”
Two thousand years of Christian theology could be characterized very succinctly as the attempt to explain what it could possibly mean to say that “Jesus died for our sins.” The Church’s insistence on the absurd “doctrine of Original Sin” is dependent on the equally absurd explanation of the significance of Jesus’ death as concocted by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century and refined by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. This short piece will be an attempt to explain how that phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” should be understood … but now in a way that eliminates the need for a metaphysical fantasy about the Garden of Eden, or the pathological projections about a narcissistic Emperor-god whose tantrum over being insulted is assuaged only by the brutal death of his own son. There is plenty of “absurd” to go around.!
I am going to try to show that for the community of his original Jewish followers, the death of Jesus represented a completely reversed understanding of the traditional Covenant — the contract — between Israeland Yahweh. It was a reversal that had begun long ago, as early as the Book of Job. It developed and deepened through the thinking of the prophets as they agonized over the breakdown of the Jewish state, the utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the humiliating exile and decimation of the population of Judah. What was happening in the minds of Jesus’ friends was an awareness of what the entire history of the Jewish relationship to Yahweh was saying with an evolving clarity. They were learning that the Covenant was not about national or personal prosperity in exchange for obedience or even moral righteousness. The covenant was simply about love. And just as Job decided to love God and accept that “God” loved him despite the overwhelming losses he was made to suffer, Jesus’ death represented the ultimate expression that the relationship to “God” was simply trust — no matter the context. There was no guarantee of recompense whatsoever, and the clearest way to announce that realization definitively was to say that “Jesus died for our sins.”
Redemption. This word is very interesting because it was not only applied by Christians to the death of Christ. The origin of the term’s use among Jews seems to have been the ancient custom of dedicating the first fruits (and therefore the first born of humans and animals) for sacrifice to “God.” To “save” them from literally being sacrificed, they were “bought back” (redeemed) for a certain price (in money or produce) paid to the priests. By Jesus’ time the term simply meant “to save” and was used to describe the definitive restoration of Israel’s national pride and prosperity by the Messiah. Hence the two on the road to Emmaus lamented the death of Jesus, whom they had hoped “would redeem Israel.” It was a phrase-label for the Messiah. What the disciples learn from their companion is that Jesus’ death is exactly that redemption.
But … why “for our sins“? What does “sin” have to do with messianic restoration?
The powerful poetry in Isaiah 53 was sufficient to link Jesus’ death to the conquest of “sin” for his grieving and confused followers. The Jews were already thoroughly convinced that their political degradation had to be due to their infidelity — sin — because Yahweh was faithful to the contract and that left only one possibility. So “sin” was a generic concept meaning “infidelity to the contract.” If “sin” was the exclusive reason for Jewish abasement, then the triumph of the Messiah had to mean the conquest and elimination of “sin” both by forgiveness and by a restoration of righteousness. And again, this was the result of a reasoning process. Even though Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah, the theme and significance of 2nd Isaiah were relevant to his message. It is hard to imagine that he would not have had many conversations on that theme with his closest friends and followers. In other words, what was dawning on them was a new understanding of the “contract,” the meaning of “restoration” and the role of the Messiah. There was a definitive movement away from the traditional interpretation that it meant prosperity in exchange for moral righteousness and ritual compliance. Isaiah 53: 4-5, like Job, was a critical element in that reappraisal:
Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: upon him was the chastisement that made us whole; and with his stripes we are healed.
I claim that the coining of the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” by his followers was actually a verbal tag — a kind of label — drawn from the logic of the evolving tradition and using the words of the prophetic text. It was an identifier, not a specific ideational notion. It is saying, “Jesus is the man in Isaiah 53.” It included a vague sense drawn from the tradition of animal sacrifice that the sufferings of the Messiah somehow “atoned” for it. There was no more depth to the phrase than that.
So, my interpretation: The statement “Jesus died for our sins” was the conclusion of a chain of reasoning. It was the application to Jesus of an interpretation of sacred texts. It was a verbal formula — a use of traditional terminology that conferred a messianic identity.
So can we still use the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” in any literal or metaphysical sense? No we cannot. Then how does Jesus death “save” humankind? For me the cross is an extraordinary symbol of the reality of the human condition. I personally feel that Jesus’ unshakable trust in “God” in whose image humanity was created, despite the brutality and humiliation of his treatment by the occupational authorities and the utter defeat of his project, stands as a triumphant display of resistance to dehumanization in a world of exploitatiion and repressive control. No death can be worse for human beings than knowing that they are being brutalized by other human beings, in an attempt to degrade, humiliate and dehumanize them. I believe that the ability to assert the value of human life, even in the teeth of death’s most intolerable forms, is a challenge we all have to be prepared for. The death of Jesus speaks to the human condition as does no other. I believe this is the unique source of the perennial appeal of Christianity. Jesus died with us, like us, and, by proclaiming that (his / our) humanity was sacred, for us.
Resurrection. I believe Jesus’ close companions scoured the scriptures after his humiliating defeat — a defeat that had dashed their hopes that he would be the Messiah who would “redeemIsrael.” This process is reproduced in the episode of the two followers on the road to Emmaus whose “eyes were opened.” The stranger who joined them explained “all that the prophets had spoken … that the Christ (messiah) should suffer these things and so enter into his glory.” I believe this was the paradigm of the “discovery” that spawned Christianity, first as a radical sect within Judaism and then as a religion in its own right. And the core of the discovery was that “death was not defeat,” and that this insight was foreshadowed in Job and the prophets, especially Isiah 53. It is not hard to imagine the impact the words of Isaiah would have on Jesus’ followers, who were intense believing Jews, convinced that their leader was the Messiah, who had just been executed in the most brutal and humiliating manner imaginable:
I also believe that in saying that, the trope of resurrection was generated. But it was derivative, an inference drawn from experiences like that on the road to Emmaus where a mysterious stranger temporarily joins a conversation, makes important insightful contributions and suddenly disappears. Post resurrection accounts in the gospels are all of that surreal quality, including Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. I believe they fundamentally symbolize the new understanding that “the death of Christ was the redemption of Israel.” The articulation of that insight was made in symbolic form, and resurrection was its primary symbol, but it was only a symbol.
According to the interpretation I am suggesting here, Jesus’ “resurrection,” by moving from being the metaphoric symbol of the “victory” of the cross to being taken as the literal “personal prosperity” awarded to Jesus for his fidelity, fatally diluted the intensity of the key insight: that the “contract,” i.e., the relationship to “God,” has nothing whatsoever to do with prosperity of any kind — in this world or the next. In the Christian drama as written by the apostles, Jesus’ resurrection plays a role similar to the rewards showered on Job by Yahweh at the end of his ordeal for being faithful to Yahweh … even though there was no answer. But, that there was no answer … is the answer. I see those rewards in Job’s case as an anti-climax. Job loved “God” gratuitously … that was sufficient, from my point of view. Job’s “story” should have ended there. For in fact, despite any rewards, Job had to die at the end of his life, and would have to face the same questions all over again, and this time without any reward. Jesus died trusting his “Father;” that in itself was his only reward. Loving trust is its own reward. There is no other answer. Quiet as it’s kept, that is the answer to life.
According to traditional Christian belief Jesus died knowing he would rise. That is not credible. If it were true, then I ask: what was all that anguish and isolation on the cross painted so vividly for us by the gospels … pure theater? I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. If the narrative of Jesus’ death bears any resemblance to what actually happened, then Jesus died not knowing he would “rise again.” His trust was all he had. What drove his fidelity was not resurrection but his relationship to his Father. After eschewing “reward” in his preaching — he never offered it as motivation — would he have had recourse to it himself? He knew his Father loved him; that was enough. That was all he had; that’s all any of us have.
Literal resurrection introduces a false clarity. The recognition that Jesus’ death was “the answer” did not in itself supply any clear outcome — like a guaranteed “resurrection.” It was hope … an amorphous unspecified hope based on knowing a loving Father. The only thing secure was the relationship to the loving father. Hope that sees is not hope, said Paul. I claim the metaphor of resurrection is an “as if” … just like all metaphors. It is saying something like, “We should think of Jesus’ death as if it were followed by his resurrection.” Its function is to evoke a relational response, not identify an actual, literal reality. The relational response was trust. Jesus leads us to trust our loving “Father” even unto death. Our trust takes strength from his trust. That’s how he “saves” us. He died, trusting, to show us how to trust. That’s what he did for us. That’s how he “saves” us.,
The apostles did not intentionally “design” this trope, this symbol, to mystify others. No, I believe the symbol sprang into their heads spontaneously because “victory over death” means Jesus was not dead. The fantasy that dominates the minds of all of us that have lost the person we loved most in life — that they can’t really be dead — took over their collective imagination. Don’t be shocked and scandalized; it is quite common. Widows have this experience all the time. The apostles saw signs of his living presence everywhere. This is not a stretch of the imagination, by any means. Combine an intense worshippful love for an extraordinarily good person … with a religious tradition that had apocalyptic expectations, and resurrection becomes more than a spontaneous fantasy or a psychological demand and it becomes a conviction. Nobody was “lying.” But his “believers” were caught in the throes of a collective delusion based on scriptural proofs, mechanisms of grieving, eerie coincidences, as well as a deep insight into the integrity of Jesus’ accepting death as he did.