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