"And Jesus was killed. This is one of those facts that everybody knows, but whose significance is often overlooked. He didn't simply die; he was executed. We as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And if we ask the historical question, 'Why was he killed?' the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God's justice, and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics — because of his passion for God's justice.
"In the decades after Good Friday and Easter, the early Christian movement preserved the memory of Jesus' execution, even as it also saw additional meanings in his death. Several interpretations are found in the New Testament itself. Together with subsequent Christian reflection on the significance of the cross, this is the subject matter of 'atonement theology.' Its most familiar form is the statement, 'Jesus died for your sins.' But as we shall see, this is not the only interpretation of Jesus' death in the New Testament. Moreover, when this interpretation is understood literally rather than metaphorically, it becomes highly problematic.
"In the judgment of the majority of mainline scholars, atonement theology does not go back to Jesus himself. We do not think that Jesus thought that the purpose of his life, his vocation, was his death. His purpose was what he was doing as a healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator. His death was the consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose. To use recent analogies, the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were the consequences of what they were doing, but not their purpose. And like them, Jesus courageously kept doing what he was doing even though he knew it could have fatal consequences.
"So we do not think Jesus saw his purpose as dying for the sins of the world. Rather, this interpretation, like the others in the New Testament, is post-Easter and thus retrospective. Looking back on the execution of Jesus, the early movement sought to see a providential purpose in this horrendous event.
"At least five interpretations of the cross are found in the New Testament itself. The first stays closest to the political meaning of the cross. It is a simple rejection-and-vindication understanding of Good Friday and Easter. The authorities rejected Jesus and killed him; but God has vindicated Jesus by raising him to God's right hand. 'God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.' The authorities said 'no' to Jesus, but God has said 'yes.'
"The second, sometimes known as 'the defeat of the powers' understanding of the cross, also stays close to the political meaning. Now, it is not simply the Roman and aristocratic rulers in Judea who are seen as responsible, but the 'powers' they represent and incarnate. The language is found primarily in letters attributed to Paul: the world is in bondage to 'the principalities and powers,' 'the elemental spirits of the universe,' 'the prince of the power of the air.' The contemporary scholar Walter Wink has persuasively argued that the 'powers' are systems of domination built into human institutions.
"For this view, the domination system, understood as something much larger than the Roman governor and the temple aristocracy, is responsible for the death of Jesus. In words attributed to Paul, God through Jesus 'disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.' The domination system killed Jesus and thereby disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat.
"The third sees the death of Jesus as the revelation of 'the way.' His death and resurrection are seen as the embodiment or incarnation of the path of internal psychological and spiritual transformation that lies at the center of the Christian life. The path is dying to an old way of being and being raised into a new way of being. We find this path of dying and rising throughout the New Testament, perhaps most concisely expressed by Paul: 'I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.' Paul refers to himself as having undergone an internal crucifixion so that the old Paul is dead and a new Paul, now one with Christ, lives. The cross reveals 'the way,' indeed is 'the way.'
"The fourth also sees the death of Jesus as a revelation: it reveals the depth of God's love for us. For this interpretation to work, one must think of Jesus not simply historically as a Jewish social prophet executed by the authorities, but as the Son of God sent into the world for us and our salvation. How much does God love us? In the familiar words of John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Son' for us. In Paul's words, 'But God proves God's love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.' In the cross, we see God's love for us.
"The fifth is the familiar sacrificial understanding of Jesus' death: 'Jesus died for our sins.' Though its ingredients are in the New Testament, its full development did not occur until about nine hundred years ago. Yet it is the one most emphasized in popular Christianity and is central to the earlier paradigm. In its developed form, it sees the story of Jesus primarily within the framework of sin, guilt, and forgiveness. We have all sinned against God and are guilty. Our sins can be forgiven only if an adequate sacrifice is made. The sacrifice of animals does not accomplish this, nor can the sacrifice of an imperfect human (for such a person would simply be dying for his or her own sins). Thus God provides the perfect sacrifice in the form of the perfect human, Jesus. Now forgiveness is possible, but only for those who believe that Jesus died for our sins.
"If taken literally, all of this is very strange. It implies a limitation on God's power to forgive; namely, God can forgive only if adequate sacrifice is made. It implies that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary — not just the consequence of what he was doing, but that it had to happen, that it was part of God's plan of salvation. It also introduces a requirement into the very center of our life with God: knowing about and believing in Jesus and his sacrificial death.
"But in its first-century setting, the statement 'Jesus is the sacrifice for sin' had a quite different meaning. The 'home' of this language, the framework within which it makes sense, is the sacrificial system centered in the temple in Jerusalem. According to temple theology, certain kinds of sins and impurities could be dealt with only through sacrifice in the temple. Temple theology thus claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins; and because the forgiveness of sins was a prerequisite for entry into the presence of God, temple theology also claimed an institutional monopoly on access to God.
"In this setting, to affirm 'Jesus is the sacrifice for sin' was to deny the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God. It was an antitemple statement. Using the metaphor of sacrifice, it subverted the sacrificial system. It meant: God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God; you have access to God apart from the temple and its system of sacrifice. It is a metaphor of radical grace, of amazing grace.
"Thus 'Jesus died for our sins' was originally a subversive metaphor, not a literal description of either God's purpose or Jesus' vocation. It was a metaphorical proclamation of radical grace; and properly understood, it still is. It is therefore ironic to realize that the religion that formed around Jesus would within four hundred years begin to claim for itself an institutional monopoly on grace and access to God.
"Because the sacrificial metaphor has often been taken quite literally, we in the church have often domesticated the death of Jesus — by speaking of it as the foreordained will of God, as something that had to happen, as a dying for the sins of the world. But it and the other purposive ways of seeing the death of Jesus are post-Easter retrospective providential interpretations. They matter, they're important, and, rightly understood, they continue to be a way of proclaiming the gospel. But they should not be allowed to eclipse the historical reason for his execution. . . .
"About a year ago after I had given a lecture on the meanings of faith, a person asked in the time set aside for questions, 'You've been talking about the meanings of faith, but you haven't mentioned faith in the cross. Don't you think faith in the cross is pretty important?'
"To clarify her question, I asked, 'Do you mean, do I believe that Jesus died for our sins?' She said, 'Yes.' I then explained, as I have here, that historically, no, I don't think that Jesus literally died for our sins. I don't think he thought of his life and purpose that way; I don't think he thought of that as his divinely given vocation.
"And then I continued. But I do have faith in the cross as a trustworthy disclosure of the evil of domination systems, as the exposure of the defeat of the powers, as the revelation of the 'way' or 'path' of transformation, as the revelation of the depth of God's love for us, and as the proclamation of radical grace. I have faith in the cross as all of those things."