Broken Christianity’s teaching that Jesus died so God could forgive you has more to do with 11th Century feudal culture and 16th Century European courtrooms than it does the Bible. So where did this idea come from and what does the Bible say?
Part of the problem is that there is no one unifying story in the Bible about what happens through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead, each of the Gospel writers tells a unique narrative that culminates in the crucifixion and the resurrection. Paul offers a variety of thoughts. Here is a brief overview of various accounts.
Throughout Matthew’s account, Jesus presents the good news of the Kingdom as an alternative way of living in the world. In the language of Abundance Reconstructed, the Kingdom of Heaven is the way of love as opposed to this world which follows the way of power. What enables this radically different perspective is Jesus’ relationship with the relentlessly loving God he calls Father.
According to Matthew, the religious leaders crucify Jesus because he invites his followers to embrace his understanding of God for themselves, something that undermines their manipulative and controlling teaching. The resurrection then serves to vindicate Jesus’ teaching that God is the relentlessly loving deity that Jesus called Father.
Mark frames his account of Jesus through the lens of God rescuing people from exile. According to Mark, this exile involves people living in what Abundance Reconstructed would call a spirit of power. Here Rome, the Jewish religious leaders, and the broader social system all come together to oppress the majority for the benefit of the minority. Jesus’ ministry is largely one of serving the ostracized because of their race, gender, socio-economic class, or religious standing.
However, humanity fails to grasp God’s rescue. Instead, they find themselves trying to understand Jesus within the very social and religious structures Jesus seeks to overturn (just like broken Christianity). While, like Matthew, the resurrection vindicates Jesus, the oldest copies of Mark’s Gospel close with nobody embracing the way of Jesus. This leaves us asking how we will respond to Jesus’ radical and revolutionary message.
Luke portrays Jesus as a new Adam who came to establish a new people who, unlike Adam, live in the image of God. While the other Gospel accounts place Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the centerpiece of the story, Luke focuses on the Ascension because that is what sets the stage for the sending of the Holy Spirit in his second book, Acts. In this context, the crucifixion becomes the culminating example of Jesus’ God-imaging sacrificial love, which contrasts the Adam-imaging warmonger Barabbas (whose name translates, “son of the father”). The crucifixion and resurrection then become the keys to the Acts Church’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.
Like the other Gospels, John also has a story to tell. In this account, Jesus reveals God’s glory. In doing so, humanity can understand who God is and who they are. The end result is people experiencing what it means to be alive (sometimes called “eternal life” or in one instance “an abundant life”).
In John, the crucifixion is the key to understanding the glory of God. God is the one who gives, sacrifices, serves and offers everything for the sake of the world and that is what makes God glorious. God’s glory does force God to become distant, rather God is glorious precisely because God draws close to sinful people and dies to demonstrate how far God’s love goes.
Paul (in Romans)
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he argues that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus unites Jews and Gentiles. In ancient Roman society, Jews were commonly looked down upon as a fringe sect. However, Jews held a sense of personal superiority because of their perceived unique relationship with God. When these two groups came together in the Ancient Church, the broader social conflict carried over to the life of the community. Paul’s letter addresses both groups and invites them to reimagine their relationship through the crucifixion and resurrection.
What’s the Point?
While there are an array of ways to talk about the crucifixion and resurrection in the Bible, what never shows up is the idea that your sin offends a holy and just God who needs to unleash divine wrath on a sinless Jesus to be gracious to you. In other words, Jesus didn’t die for you.
Western Christianity’s story of the cross and resurrection begins to show up in the 11th Century when Anselm of Canterbury reads the Bible through the lens of feudal culture. The Reformers Luther and Calvin adapt this to a courtroom legal model. It ultimately becomes the wrathful and vengeful God that defines broken Christianity with the American theologian Charles Hodges. In other words, it is a reading placed on the Bible rather than one that comes from the Bible. This means that while Christianity is broken, Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
And there is a good reason it is not in the Bible. It undermines the very heartbeat of Jesus’ good news (Gospel) of the Kingdom. But we will get to that next time.
Video: The Gospel with Chairs
In this talk, Brad Jersak offers yet another Biblical understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection, on that centers on the incurably sick becoming well.
Podcast: Show the F**k Up Episode 173 – Overcome The Religious and Cultural Shame Of Not Being Enough with Joe Burnham
How did Jesus’ death become so shaming? In this episode of Show the F**k Up, Matt Fyrörn invites me to talk about the historical roots of shaming faith, how it continues to pervade a post-Christian Europe, and ways it impacts our lives today. (note: contains profanity)
Dissertation: Re-Storying God: Re-Imagining the God of the Bible and Re-Enchanting our Neo-Secular Selves by Joe Burnham
The above overviews of each Gospel account (chapter 2) and Romans (chapter 3) flow directly from my doctoral dissertation, something I wrote upon the realization that faith as I knew it deformed my soul. While my thoughts continue to evolve, everything Abundance Reconstructed is ultimately an outpouring of this work.
Book: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker (affiliate)
This book, which blends Bible Study, history, and practical theology, explores various understandings of what Jesus accomplished through his crucifixion and resurrection and how those events can apply to our lives today.
Pick one of the five understandings of the crucifixion and resurrection described above and reflect/journal on these two questions:
1) How does this change the way I think about myself?
2) How does this change the way I think about others?
If you’re feeling particularly bold, reply to this message and share your thoughts.
If all of this is true if the Bible isn’t the Word of God that tells us about the Son of God who died to appease God’s wrath against sinners, then what is the point of Christianity?
This post is the first in a five-part series on rescuing Christian faith from Christianity. To receive the full series, sign up for our weekly email for spiritual misfits who realize that Christianity is broken but Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
All Bible quotes come from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.