Did Jesus Have to Die to Save Us from Sin?

One of the cornerstones in the belief of many Christians is that “Jesus died for our sins.” However, I often struggled with this idea on many levels. Why would a God of peace, love and mercy require blood atonement? Didn’t Jesus forgive sin before his death? And doesn’t this, in some ways, put the power in the hands of Jesus’ executioners?

What I also learned as I met other Christians was that I’m not alone in wrestling with these questions. While some argue you can’t be a Christian without claiming this belief, others quietly wonder if this might actually be a misunderstanding, or at the very least, a limited understanding of salvation.

So when putting together Banned Questions About Jesus, I wanted to make sure to include this question among the fifty I posed to my crew of respondents. Below are three reflections on this challenging but important question.

Jesus forgave people of their sins before he died. How could he do this if he actually had to die in order to save us from sin?

Phil Snider: For many years I sat in church quietly wondering why God’s forgiveness was based on the idea that awful violence had to be inflicted upon Jesus in order for God to save us from sin. I was never comfortable with this idea, but I feared voicing my questions would make my Christian friends think I was a hell-bound heretic.

It was only when I went to seminary that I learned this wasn’t the only way to view Jesus’ death, and I’m glad to say I no longer believe Jesus had to die in order to save us from sin.

As it turns out, the idea that Jesus had to die on the cross in order for God to forgive our sins took nearly a thousand years to develop, and numerous theologians have pointed to its problematic implications. Chief among these concerns are questions related to God’s power and God’s character. In terms of God’s power, why is it necessary for God to sacrifice God’s Son in order to grant forgiveness? Is there “some higher authority or necessity above God with whom God has to comply in doing this?”

In terms of God’s character, can’t such a belief make God out to be “a perverse subject who plays obscene games with humanity and His own Son,” like the narcissistic governess from Patricia Highsmith’s “Heroine” who sets the family house on fire in order to be able to prove her devotion to the family by bravely saving the children from the raging flames?

Instead, my Christian faith is grounded in the affirmation that God’s love is unconditional, which leads me to believe that God’s forgiveness is unconditional as well. All of which means that Jesus’ unconditional forgiveness – offered before he died – is one of the things that makes him most God-like!

Amy Reeder Worley: I’m a lawyer. My first reaction upon reading this particular banned question was to leap from my desk and shout, “Objection! This question assumes facts not in evidence.” Yes, I know that is weird. But it’s also true. The question as posed assumes that Jesus had to die to “save” people from sin. I don’t find much biblical or historical evidence to support this “substitutionary atonement” theory of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Rather, I agree with Marcus Borg and other post-modern theologians who argue that Jesus died because of human sin, not in the place of humans who sin. As it relates to the question at hand, my view of the crucifixion means necessarily that forgiveness of sin emanates directly from God, and it existed before, during, and after Jesus’ life and resurrection. Like many religious ideas, God’s forgiveness operates outside of our limited view of space-time.

So how is it, exactly, that Jesus had the authority to forgive people? Sacred texts throughout the world speak of forgiving our enemies as a sacred and holy act. When Jesus forgave the unclean, criminal, and gentile he embodied God’s preexisting forgiveness of us all, teaching his followers that forgiveness was not limited to the religiously “in” crowd of the day.

In Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus forgives and then heals a paralyzed man. The rabbis accuse Jesus of blasphemy for claiming the authority to forgive sins, an authority they believed was reserved for YAWEH. Jesus responds, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’ But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Jesus turned to the paralytic and healed him. The crowd was “filled with awe; and they praised God who gave such authority to men.” Here, as throughout the gospels, Jesus reaffirms the message that God’s love and forgiveness are available to all of us, all of the time.

Tripp Fuller: One could answer the question by saying that Jesus knew he was going to die and rise so he could forgive with the future known and certain, or possibly that Jesus’ divine identity gave him the ability to forgive sin at will, or one could even suggest that if forgiveness could be given before the cross, then the cross may not have been necessary.

It is important to recognize that in forgiving sins Jesus is acting on behalf of God and was one of the reasons Jesus was opposed by the religious leaders, thus forcing one to explain how Jesus’ identity is tied to that of God. To understand this I have found it helpful to see how Paul re-imagined the sacrificial system in light of Christ’s work.

Traditionally an act of sacrifice began with the sinner transferring their identity to the animal through an act of consecration. Afterward the animal was killed so that the person was reincorporated into the people of God. Paul reverses the process so that the process begins with Christ identifying with us and ends with the consecration, us identifying with that which is sacrificed.

In a sense Paul sees, in Christ, God coming to put an end to sacrifice by turning it upside down and beginning with God’s coming to sinner with Good News. From this perspective it would make sense that Jesus could forgive sin without having died because God had come in Christ to consecrate the world as God’s beloved.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/SteveUtley Steve Utley

    Christian

    After re-reading, I am not sure whether you are asking ‘Could Christ forgive prior to His crucifixion’ or ‘Was it necessary for Christ to die at all in order to forgive sin.If it were the first, then the answer to me would be a simple ‘Yes’ insomuch as Christ had set Himself to the task of the Cross.To the second I would also answer ‘Yes’ because this is the shadow and pattern revealed from Genesis onwards. Blood had to be shed to cover sin. Adam and Eve had an animal slaughtered, Only Abel’s blood sacrifice was acceptable to God.In Egypt, the blood saved the Hebrews and the day of atonement was all about blood and temple worship carried on this practice.If you accept that the Old Testament was a shadow of who Christ was and what he would accomplish, then in the New Testament, this would seem to become clearer, particularly with Hebrews (9 particularly). Here Jesus is revealed as King, Prophet, Priest and Pascal Lamb – the perfect sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath and anger.Before the foundation of the world, the lamb was slain (Rev 13:8).If you want to say otherwise, this would be my dilemma.Sin offends God and His wrath must be satisfied.Without the shedding of blood there is no remission for Sin.The OT system was temporary and inadequate and had to be repeated.Christ satisfied God’s anger once for all through His atoning sacrifice at the cross.This was sufficient to be applied to all who trust in him both before and after the cross, because their names were written in the book of life before the foundation of the world.If Christ had not endured the cross, He would have been disobedient and therefore sinful, ultimately negating any forgiveness given prior to the cross.I therefore do not think that Scripture leaves any aperture to consider anything other than forgiveness only through the substitutionary death of Christ.Hope I am coherent there!Steve

    • Nicole_7281

      Amen

  • http://twitter.com/SteveUtley Steve Utley

    That lost all my paragraphing sorry!

  • http://airo-cross.blogspot.com Justin Edwards

    For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you
    on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that
    makes atonement by the life. – Leviticus 17:11

    Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and
    without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 (READ all of Hebrews 9)

    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law,
    although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the
    righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
    For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the
    glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the
    redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25***whom God put forward as a
    propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show
    God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed
    over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present
    time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has
    faith in Jesus***. – Romans 3:21-26

    • Theodore A. Jones

      “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
      The law referenced in 2:13 is a law that has been added to the law after Jesus’ crucifrixion.

      • Gerald Collins

        The Hebrews had righteousness imputed unto them on Mount Sinai of Arabia. The NT is written only to the Hebrews known as the ethnee in the Greek. The translators hid the ethnee as unrighteous rejected gentiles in the NT. One can not become righteous for one is born righteous as the people of God. The gentiles will always be unrighteous and die that way.Jesus died willingly to be remarried to his wife. Salvation is by race and for only one race, the Hebrews and no one else.
        Jerry Collins

        • Alan C

          The prophets would disagree with your supposition. I am not a prophet, but I do not agree with your opinion either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/seismicmike Mike Lewis

     I find myself wondering if you’ve ever read any of Hebrews 8-9, in which the author explains that the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Covenant was a “shadow of things to come…” (8:5). In chapter 9, we find this particularly apt description of Jesus’ High Priestly duty:

    “(11) But when Christ appeared… (12) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  (13)  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh,  (14)  how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God… (22)  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

    Or perhaps Romans 5:9:

    “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God…”

    Or Isaiah 53:5

    “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”

    Thanks for reading my comments.

    • Barry Will

      Good scriptures, Mike. You saved me from having to look these up, along with Justin Edward’s verses. Can’t help but think those scriptures should settle the question. They plainly describe how God prescribed and established the remedy Himself-why should we question it, especially if this explanation if from God?

      • Terry

        Barry, we should question it if it doesn’t make sense. The passages quoted by Mike are just dogmatic ASSERTIONS that blood sacrifice is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. It doesn’t explain why that should be true.

    • Gerald Collins

      The New Covenant is not yet but will be made with the House of Judah and the House of Israel, no gentiles are included for they have been rejected from the foundation of the earth. Jesus said they are of their father the devil
      Jerry Collins

      • Alan C

        That is not what Jesus said during His last supper to all those seated at the table. Perhaps He was lying? Is that what you are insinuating?

  • Gerald Collins

    The reason that the doctrine that Jesus had to die of our sins took a thousand years because it is all a lie, period. Jesus had to die to be able to remarry his divorced wife of Jeremiah 3 and Isaiah 50-55. The church destroyed the invitation of the people of God to come out of the heathen gentiles that were rejected from the foundation of the earth. The same heathen gentiles created the church and that Jesus saves by faith. All of that was a lie for Jesus said he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Hebrews, no gentiles accepted. Never has a gentile been converted from being a goat to that of being a sheep. The religious church fathers were evil gentiles with no understanding of the things of God. The church was a lie when it was concieved. Read the Greek text and you will find that Jesus came only for the ethnee. And he died to be remarried to his wife.
    Jerry

    • Alan C

      Paul was a gentile; Matthew, John, Thomas and Steven too? Obviously a twisted version of the truth. Are you a mutation of Jewish Orthodoxy and Jewish Messianics?

      • Truth shall set you free

        Thank you Alan C for making the truth clear.

        Here’s an example from the OT:
        Obed-Edom was a gentile who was allowed to worship with the Jews before the Ark of Testament during the time of “David’s Tabernacle”. He didn’t die, but rather blessed by God, he and his household.

  • http://www.twitter.com/udom7a Ansel O Thompson

    It is not true that Jesus died on the cross, no body no death, a missing person case. There are alternatives accounts on the life of Jesus. Jesus died not for but because
    of the sin of those who got him into the situation that caused his death, is
    what is meant and is either misunderstood or misinterpreted. The Jews believed
    that they had committed a sin by causing Jesus to die, the admittance of
    that sin has been turned into the false teaching of salvation through death.

  • http://www.twitter.com/udom7a Ansel O Thompson

    These false teachings form part of the deception of the Beast Rome that false Christianity is a part of , Salvation comes from overcoming these deceptions, not from them

  • http://anselothompson.com/ Ansel Thompson

    JESUS DID NOT DIE TO SAVE US FROM SIN, HIS UNCLE SECRETLY TOOK HIM TO ENGLAND IN HIS METALTRADING BOAT.

  • http://anselothompson.com/ Ansel Thompson

    Without honesty
    there is no honor, if Christianity cannot be honest about Jesus not dying on
    the cross Christianity looses honor.


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