“What does it mean to say that ‘Jesus died for my sins’?” I shall never forget that question posed by my systematic theology professor in an introductory course my second semester in seminary. “What could one man’s death — even the Son of God — possibly have to do with your sins?” he continued. And I realized that, for all the times I had heard and repeated that stock evangelical phrase, I had no idea what it meant to say that Jesus died for my sins!
Turns out, neither does the church…exactly. What we do have are number of “theories” which attempt to explain the mystery behind the fact that Christians have experienced — in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — a kind of atonement (“at-one-ment”) with God. I had hoped for better than “theories,” but theories are what we were taught.
There are three main ones. Most popular with evangelicals and catholics is the “substitutionary” theory which postulates that, since all have sinned and deserve punishment and death, God required a perfect sacrifice to be offered (an extension of the animal sacrifices of Judaism). The only perfect sacrifice could be that of a perfect life. Jesus lived that perfect life. And so he was offered on our behalf — as a substitution — to take the punishment we deserved. This always seemed to me to make God something of a monster. The “cosmic child abuser” as one wag has it.
The second theory is the “moral exemplar” one. This favorite of liberal protestants teaches that Jesus came as a model for us as to how to live a good life, a life pleasing to God. As we emulate his life and teaching we will become pleasing to God and therefore reconciled. I found this a bit more satisfying but soon realized that, if living a life like Jesus, was what it took to be acceptable to God, I was in a world of hurt! He is a wonderful example, but one I could certainly never live up to.
The third main theory of the atonement — and the one in vogue when I was in seminary — was the “Christus Victor” model. This said that Jesus, as God’s anointed one, the Christ, faced all the evil — temptation, betrayal, despair, torture, despair, suffering and death — which “the devil” could throw at him. He beat them all, was victorious over them in the resurrection. And in the winning of that battle, conquered death and hell and achieved eternal life for all who trust in him. Inspiring…but a bit metaphysical for this essentially pragmatic seeker.
We were taught, finally, that we will never fully understand the mystery of the atonement, that each of the theories (and probably others) had a piece of the truth, and that the best we could do was hold them all in some kind of creative tension. Sort of like Thomas Cranmer did in this catch-all phrase from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer which said that Jesus suffered “death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”
I’m OK with that. As long as we do not have to settle on these three theories. The Eastern Orthodox certainly never have. They seem perfectly content to leave it as mystery. To gaze in love and awe at the broken man on the cross, to visualize him rising from the grave holding hands with Adam and Eve as he brings them forth from death to new life. To plunge naked babies completely beneath the waters of baptism and hold them up into the light, streaming with water, knowing that — somehow — they are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m OK with that.