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Why did Jesus have to die?

Why did Jesus have to die?

Derek Flood, the author of a new book on the death of Jesus, talks about the meaning of that death in the Huffington Post:

Why did Jesus have to die? Was it to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment? Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or trust a God like that? How can that ever be called “Good News?” It’s questions like these that make so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.


Behind all of this lies an understanding of the cross rooted in retributive justice known as penal substitution. Simply put: in this theory of the atonement Jesus is punished (penal) instead of us (substitution). Penal substitution is, without question, the most widespread theory of the atonement today.* So much so, that many people do not think of it as a theory at all, but simply as “what the Bible says.” …

… guess what? the Bible doesn’t say this at all. You don’t have to adopt a schizophrenic view that pits God against Jesus. You don’t need to accept a doctrine that flies in the face of the grace and love you have experienced. There is a better way: one that is both fully in line with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, and at the same time grace-focused and life-giving. That really is good news.

*It wasn’t always that way of course. For the first thousand years, the work of Christ was understood primarily in terms of God’s act of healing people, and liberating them from the bonds of sin and death. This understanding of the atonement is known as Christus Victor. But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment. The message was flipped on it’s head: instead of the crucifixion being seen as an act of grave injustice (as it is portrayed in all four Gospels), there was a shift towards the claim that God had demanded the death of Jesus to quench his anger. Not coincidentally, this coincided with increased violence perpetrated by the church, and it went downhill from there


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Yes, Bill, thanks. Anselm’s Satisfaction theory is what I was thinking of.

Marshall Scott

Weiwen Ng

Clay – the desire for empire is a very human desire. American readers of this blog live in an empire right now – not one as cruel as the Romans, but definitely an empire. So, while Christus Victor can be misunderstood, it should not be.

Bill Dilworth

“feudal obligation” (yes, that’s a real theory, but I’ve lost the technical term for it this morning).”

Would that be Satisfaction?


Seems to me that this is one of those points where it isn’t “either/or.” There are several models of atonement, each of which illumines something, and none of which is adequate. Now, Ann, I would agree that this is a particularly Episcopal thing to say (once I would have said “Anglican,” but some of our siblings in other parts of the world have demonstrably narrowed); but I’m quite aware of Christian bodies that have explicitly embraced “penal substitution” to the exclusion of “Christus Victor” or “feudal obligation” (yes, that’s a real theory, but I’ve lost the technical term for it this morning).

Marshall Scott

Clay Calhoun

Interesting, I was just reading up on the Christus Victor view of atonement last night. It’s a view that I find very appealing for a number of reasons, not least of which its roots in the early church and its focus on God as all-powerful victor (in comparison to God ‘at the mercy of’ a law that demands blood sacrifice). One thing that does concern me a bit is the propensity of some to seemingly read into the Christus Victor view the idea that we really are not responsible for the death of Jesus. It was those corrupt ‘powers of empire’ that perpetrated this ‘act of grave injustice’, not me, and therefore the gospels are really about protesting against unjust political systems, or economic inequality, or some such temporal problem. As if to say, not only have we been liberated from sin and death, but we were never really at fault in the first place, and so this freedom is simply what we are due. I think this is a misunderstanding of Christus Victor, but one that unfortunately has gained a following in more recent times.

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