So what’s really going on at Easter? What do Christians really mean when they say that ‘Christ died for us’? This isn’t a question about events, but about what those events mean …
I want to suggest one rule: let’s agree that God is love. This is what the New Testament tells us, summed up in the book of 1 John by the words, ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God … because God is love,’ (1 John 4:7–8).
What are we talking about when we say God is love? Well, we read that:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
Why does this matter? Because, in recent years, the most common way of speaking about what it means to say ‘Jesus died for us’ is what we call ‘penal substitution’—that is, the idea that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins; to take on himself the wrath of God that had to be placated in order for sins to be dealt with. But an increasing number of Christians have a problem with speaking about Easter and the cross in a way that requires God to seem un-loving.
Penal substitution has a history, of course: it was really formulated by John Calvin back in the 1500s. To some extent he was building on the work of a man named Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the 11th Century, and talked about the death of Jesus providing ‘satisfaction’ for God’s honour.
Calvin was a lawyer, so he used legal metaphors. He took Anselm’s ideas and moved them into the realm of criminal law: essentially, he said we are guilty before God and the only appropriate punishment for sin is death. Jesus, then, assumes this punishment for us: he becomes the substitute for our penalty.
What’s the problem? Well, those who criticise this theory argue that it portrays a God who is violent and vengeful, who can only be satisfied by blood: he has been slighted and demands vengeance.
Or it gives us a God who is divided: God the Father who demands retribution, and Jesus, the Son of God, who forgives freely—he even tells a story about a debt not being paid, but set aside.
Or it tells us that the only difference between the gods of the ancient world (who demanded sacrifices to be appeased or persuaded) and this Christian God of love is that our God made his own sacrifice. Or… you get the idea. There are issues.
If Calvin only formulated this way of speaking in the 1500s, are there alternatives? Of course. Do they all require a model of good being achieved through violence? No—many speak of Christ’s death achieving good despite violence; as a triumph over the tendency of humankind to react to radical love by mocking it, belittling it, or even by putting it to death.
Some very early Christians spoke of Jesus as a ‘moral influence’: that is, his death was a way of providing an example of self-giving love. Others concentrate on the victory that was achieved when Christ was raised again to life: a victory, first and foremost, over death.
Sin carries the consequence of death. Christ’s victory is not about receiving our punishment, but undoing this consequence. Hebrews 2:14–15 tells us, ‘So that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.’ And in his victory he conquers not just this fear of death, but death itself.
Rather than being our sacrifice, or our ‘payment for sin’ designed to appease the wrath of God, Jesus is God’s offering. Jesus shows us what God is like, because God comes in the form of this perfect man of love.
But he also shows us what we are like: we so easily turn to violence. We kill him. It isn’t God who desires death, but us. We hold on to the lie that violence can put things right, when the truth is that violence always cycles back to more violence.
And Jesus accepts this death rather than forcing himself on us. Jesus rejects the myth of redemptive violence—he accepts our decision to choose our own self-interest over his self-giving love. Then God raises Jesus to life to demonstrate that death is not God’s desire, and death will not have the final word.
To put it another way, God does not desire sacrifice in the sense of the shedding of blood. He does desire that we do God’s loving will, and Jesus does the will of God perfectly—then takes on himself this system of blood sacrifice and forgives it all.
Is this all complicated? Yes! There are individual verses in the Bible that support different ways of speaking about the death of Jesus, and no doubt those who support one interpretation or another have had moments of, ‘But wait, doesn’t the Bible say…’ as they’ve read this. There are limits to every theory put forward because we are trying to understand something that we believe fundamentally transforms the world, and our words are sometimes not enough.
But the overarching story of God, revealed in Christ and outlined in the words of the Bible, is clear. God is love. God does not desire violence and death. God is not pleased by sacrifice as much as he is by lives of justice and mercy.
And regardless of the system by which we get there, the death and resurrection of Jesus allows us to step, by faith, into a life lived with purpose freed from sin and death.
Even that seems strange at times. We still sin. We know these bodies still die. And yet we hold on to the promise that God forgives, and that we will live again. Because we’re not just freed from something, we’re freed for something.
We’re not freed to all look the same; we’re not freed to abandon our culture or personality—all the things that make us who we are. And we’re certainly not freed to force our moral agenda onto
by Ian Gainsford (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 24 March 2018, pp20-21. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.