Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”
Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?
Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.
There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”
There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.
© Elizabeth Keck 2011