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Why did Jesus die?

By Trisha Elliott

A father brings a son into the world to be humiliated and tortured to death. If that were the central premise of a TV movie, many of us would change the channel. But for centuries, that version of atonement theology has been a cornerstone of Christian thinking. Which doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture of God, or of Jesus, who appears to passively accept his fate. Worse than emphasizing a “sadistic” God, as theologian Dorothee Sölle describes it, the theology has been used to condone damaging attitudes toward all kinds of marginalized people including women, children and the impoverished.

So what was accomplished through Jesus’ death? The answer isn’t as one-dimensional as we learned in Sunday school.

The early church embraced the idea that the devil held human souls captive, and God relinquished Jesus to Satan as a ransom payment for their release; but with the resurrection, God wins. In 1098, Anselm of Canterbury came up with the satisfaction theory of atonement: sin had offended God’s honour, upsetting the divine order of the universe; the crucifixion was necessary in order to restore both. Later, this theology was repackaged by Protestant reformers who believed that divine law required punishment of sin. Their retooling stuck: Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that humans deserved. In other words, Jesus died in our place. A substitute death. We are “washed in the blood,” as the old hymn goes.

Blood-soaked theologies are problematic when they suggest God saves through violence or through innocent victims who wilfully submit to violence because it gives licence to inflict violence or tolerate it.

In her book Violence and Theology, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan traces the prevalence and complexity of violence in the world today (blatant and subtle, individual and communal, intended and unintended, etc.) She asserts that many modern Christologies emphasize violence and suffering over transformation, so much so that they’ve spun Jesus’ famous words, “Remember me,” to mean “Remember my death” — ideologically separating his death from the whole of his life.

Are our own theologies saturated with violence or death-obsessed? Is salvation achieved through violence, submission to violence, exposure to violence, the stubborn refusal to back down in the face of violence — or in some other way?

Good Friday is a good time not just to wrestle with theologies of atonement but to scan the Bible, our theology and our experience of the world in order to get a grip on the scope and depth of violence. We need to recognize where the old rugged cross fits in the grand scheme of violence in order to know which aspects of it we should cling to, and which to let die.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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