A few blogs ago, I wrote about a persistent theme of my thinking in my middle and late adult life: memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories of what I absorbed as I grew up Christian more than half a century ago; major changes in my understanding since then; and the convictions that have emerged from those changes.
And as I wrote many blogs ago, those changes include a different understanding of Lent with its climax in Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. If this blog repeats some things you’ve read before, I apologize. But this season brings up thoughts that seem to me to be of annual- and thus perennial – importance.
If you had asked me at the end of childhood, at age 12 or so, what this season was about, I am quite sure I would have said: Lent is about becoming intensely aware of our sinfulness and need for forgiveness, and Holy Week is about Jesus dying to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven.
In shorthand, the above is the payment understanding of Jesus’s death. Also known as the substitutionary or satisfaction understanding of the cross, it means that Jesus died in our place in order to satisfy the debt that we all owe to God.
I have become convinced that the payment understanding of the cross is a serious distortion of its meaning. Of course, having a conviction is no guarantee of truth. Convictions can be wrong. The deficiencies of the payment understanding are both theological and historical. At stake is not primarily having “right beliefs.” At stake is what Christianity is about.
Theologically, the payment understanding intrinsically implies that the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation – that it had to happen, indeed was foreordained and even predicted. The debt for our disobedience to God had to be satisfied, and Jesus as God’s sinless son paid the price that we all deserve to pay.
Thus the payment understanding sees the death of Jesus as ultimately God’s will. But one must ask: really? Was it God’s will that this remarkably good person, centered in God to an extraordinary degree, be killed? If so, what does that say about what God is like?
The payment understanding is also historically flawed. A major problem is that it was first fully articulated less than a thousand years ago by Anselm in 1098. In the first thousand years of Christianity, including the New Testament, the payment understanding is at most a minor metaphor, and in the judgment of some scholars, not there at all. I am inclined to agree with them.
Another historical problem: in the first three gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke, together known as the synoptic gospels), Jesus three times warns his followers of what will happen in Jerusalem: the authorities – the temple and imperial figures at the top of the domination system in the Jewish homeland – will kill him.
The texts do not say that he is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. No. Rather, he will be killed there. He will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8.31). He will “be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (Mark 9.31). In the most detailed warning, he “will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10.3-34).
None of these is about Jesus dying to pay for our sins. All are about Jesus being killed by the powers that ruled his world. I add that a majority of mainstream New Testament scholars do not think that these warnings go back to Jesus himself, but are the post-Easter testimony of the early Christian movement. For me, that makes them even more impressive as testimonies to his death. Forty years after his crucifixion, Mark, the earliest gospel, still speaks of the cross as an execution by the powers that ruled that world, not as a payment required by God.
Though Jesus’s death was more than a martyrdom, it was not less. The Greek root of “martyr” means “witness.” A martyr, “witness,” is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.
Imagine: what if Lent and Holy Week are not about Jesus as a divinely-ordained payment for sin but about protest against a world that makes martyrs of the prophets? And imagine: what if Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he stood for and “no” to the powers that killed him?
Imagine that Christianity is not about an afterlife for those whose sins are forgiven. Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of “this world” into a world of justice and peace. Imagine that it’s about a passion to change “this world.” What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian – and to be an American Christian?