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Did Jesus Really have to Die to Save People 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.


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