IF I HAD A FAN CLUB, one of the contenders for president would be the gent asking today’s Bible Question of the Week. Wayne Sacchi. He has been a devoted reader and encourager for several years now.
Lately, he has been nibbling on scholarly ideas. I tell him I write Bible 101 and that he has progressed to Bible 301 or something beyond my range of writing. Take his question, for example. By the way, Wayne, you get a free book for asking it.
In many progressive circles I have heard said that the death Christ died was a “moral influence” or “dramatic display” of the love of God and that Christ’s death was not a vicarious substitutionary one. Did the New Testament apostles understand it this way? And what do we do with the teachings of Paul, Peter, and John which clearly say that Christ was our atoning sacrifice?
See what I mean? That’s not Bible 101.
Let me try to translate what he’s talking about.
Bible experts throughout the centuries have tried to understand why Jesus had to die for our sins.
At first pass, it seems like a smart God could have come up with a better plan.
So smart humans are taking a second pass at this, trying to figure out what was going on in God’s head.
Here’s my take on what scholars are up to.
Theologians (people who study God) make up words so they can talk about things they don’t understand.
Atonement, for example. The idea is that Jesus’ death atones for our sins. A bit like the death of a goat used to atone for the sins of the Jews.
What sense does that make? Thinking heads want to know.
What follows are “theories of atonement,” in attempts to make sense of it all.
- Dramatic display. Jesus’ death was to show us how much God loves us.
- Moral influence. Jesus’ death was intended to nudge people toward becoming good souls.
- Ransom. Jesus’ death paid the ransom to free us from Satan.
- Substitution. Jesus died for our sins so we wouldn’t have to.
- Satisfaction. Jesus’ death was a satisfactory punishment for our sins.
I don’t know about you, but I can see some value in several of these, though I’m not too big on paying off Satan like he’s a terrorist holding hostages.
Bible experts lobby long and hard over these and other theories of atonement. They want to understand why Jesus died. And they want us to understand, too.
I graduated from seminary. I’ve been writing books about the Bible for 20 years.
I don’t understand why Jesus died.
I understand how his death might have made some sense to the Jews of his day.
They understood that sin was a capital offense in the eyes of God and that God accepted the blood of animals as a satisfactory substitution for their blood: “Life is in the blood, and I have given you the blood of animals to sacrifice in place of your own” (Leviticus 17:11).
On the other hand, the Jews also knew that God wasn’t big on human sacrifice: “Never sacrifice your son” (Deuteronomy 18:10).
So even to the Jews at the time, Jesus’ death could have looked like God was sending mixed messages.
I think it’s healthy to explore possible routes into the head of God. Anything that gets us thinking and talking about him is probably a good endeavor most of the time.
But for many of us, debating theories of atonement might seem (choose one):
- a tad above our intellectual pay grade
- well outside our comfort zone
- a possible cure for our insomnia
- a distraction from what we’re supposed to be doing with our few seconds on this planet.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk up lofty-headed theories about God stuff. In fact, some of us should. Our heads were build with lofts.
But for those of us with ranch-level heads, Jesus Saves. And we’ve got stuff to do.
Steve’s live TV interview on Friday
One of the things I’ve got to do is a live, one-hour TV interview on Friday.
If you’d like to watch via the internet or perhaps call or email questions for the Q&A segment, here’s the info you’ll need.
The TV station is a 24/7 Christian station in Canada: Miracle Channel.
- Topic: Bible, with reference to my newest book: Strange and Mysterious Stuff From the Bible
- Program: Insight, noon-1pm Central Time, 1-2 pm Eastern Time
- Toll-free number to call in questions: 1-888-816-2545
- Email questions: email@example.com
You can email questions before the show if you like. Now would work.
I am a non-scholar, but sometimes feel I see things more clearly than those more learned than I. In my view, Jesus did two things by dying as he did. 1. As Jesus was/is God Incarnate, God saw he had created a sinful, rebellious species of humanity, but also saw something in us worth working with. What to do? In very simple terms, He accepted responsibility for His Creation. God commands us to standard of perfection, knowing we are incapable of attaining it. A just God did the right thing by taking it upon himself and “falling on his sword.” 2. By dying, and coming to life again, he proved he was who he said he was. I think it is important to remember, the story of Jesus is for all people, not just for well educated scholars, but also for those with limited intellect and knowledge. There is good reason we are told to, “Come as a little child.”
Thanks for using my question — love this blog and ministry! I agree with Tom (I give my opinion Lol) — I see the death of Christ as a substitutionary atonement. All the views that you discussed are all true (except the ransom to Satan — it was to God), but all these aspects are discussed in the Scriptures. The writers of New Testament Scripture believed in a Substitutionary atonement. Maybe Evangelicalism has distorted and Harped too much on the Death of Christ, but thank God for such a display that expiated our sin!
2 Corinthians 5:21 New International Version (NIV)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[a] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Stephen M. Miller
There are lots of ways to put the reason for Jesus’ death into words. And Bible writers use a lot of words to do just that. Yet sometimes I wonder if these explanations are just shadows of the real explanation…analogies that we can relate to on this side of eternal life, but that still leave us with questions. Like why did there have to be blood shed? I think we can embrace any and all of what the Bible writers say. Yet there’s a point at which we have to stop asking questions and get back to living the life, in faith believing that God has his reasons for doing what he did.