Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2012
I was part of a panel during Holy Week at Eastern Mennonite University on “Heaven, Hell, and the Cross of Christ.” Each of the five speakers was given five minutes. That’s right, five minutes….
A challenging assignment indeed. The point was to stimulate discussion for the audience, largely made up of college students who, by their attendance, were signaling an interest in theological reflection. It was a worthwhile evening. The five speakers, perhaps a bit surprisingly, mostly reinforced each other’s perspectives and the discussion was lively but respectful. And, for me personally, certainly the discipline of trying to say something meaningful and coherent in five minutes was useful to submit to.
However, we left one rather significant issue on the table that didn’t get addressed. The audience constructed a list of questions for further discussion following the opening presentations and some small group processing. We worked through most of the questions, but ran out of time before we could to get to them all.
The question left unaddressed had actually been addressed to me and one of the other panelists by name. When I saw the question, I began working on a response in my head. So I was a bit sorry that we didn’t get to it. The nice about having a blog, though, is that I can address the question here.
Was Jesus’ death necessary for our salvation?
This was the question: Was Jesus’ death necessary for our salvation? I think that question points to the differences that probably were present that evening but that weren’t faced. Our harmonious discussion might have become a bit more contentious had we gotten to this question.
[Actually, a big part of what stimulated the occurrence of this event was the visit to our campus of a traveling musician for “Spiritual Life Week” who presented an evangelical salvation theology assuming Jesus death as a necessary sacrifice to make salvation possible. Several students challenged him, leading to some contentious meetings. This musician wrote quite provocatively on his blog about his EMU experience. But we didn’t quite get back to these issues in our event.]
Here is what I was thinking about when I was trying to formulate a response to the question, was Jesus’ death necessary for salvation. First, I would want to resist the question a little in the sense that Jesus’ death did in fact happen, and his death is clearly linked with salvation in the Bible and Christian tradition from the very beginning. So we can’t imagine that Jesus didn’t die or that his death wasn’t linked with salvation. So it’s not really meaningful to posit that Jesus’ death wasn’t “necessary.” It simply is, as a fact of history, part of the salvation story.
But, the question of how Jesus’ death is meaningful, or (if we want to use the language) in what sense it is necessary, is important and interesting.
I see two general ways of thinking about this. Many theological thinkers want to suggest that we can and should try to hold elements of both ways together rather than polarize the discussion into an either/or debate. I tend to be suspicious of this option. I tend to think that if we allow elements of the first way I will describe into our theology, they tend to take over—even if by adding elements from the second way we try to diminish the harshness of the first way.
The first way: Jesus’ death offers satisfaction
The first way, then, would be to say that Jesus’ death was necessary in the sense that salvation actually depends upon it happening. Jesus’ death, in this view, was a sacrifice that made God able to provide saving forgiveness in a way that could not happen before. A term used for this approach is “satisfaction atonement” with the sense that there is some element of God’s character (God’s justice or holiness or honor) that needs to be “satisfied” by the kind of sacrifice only Jesus as the spotless offering could provide.
In this view, then, salvation requires some kind of change on God’s side of the human/divine divide of alienation. God needs this sacrifice in order to forgive because to try forgive without it would violate God’s justice/holiness/honor, leaving it unsatisfied. Hence, to turn to the three topics we were asked to address in our presentations, the cross of Christ makes it possible for seekers to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf as their means of finding salvation (i.e., “going to heaven” instead of “going to hell”—hell being the eternal fate of those who due to their sin have violated God’s holiness and are justly condemned unless they trust in Jesus as their savior [and the one who offers the satisfaction God needs on their behalf]).
The second way: Jesus’ death is part of the story of mercy
The other way would argue that the problem in the divine/human divide of alienation is strictly on the human side. God does offer (and always has offered) forgiveness to sinners without requiring satisfaction beforehand. Because of being blinded by the powers of sin and the impact of idolatries, because of viewing God in a fearful instead of trusting way, human beings have been unable to recognize God’s mercy for what it is (certainly some have, but many have not).
What is needed, thus, is for human beings to actually see God for who God is, to see God’s mercy as available and as a resource for healing and transformation. The Bible tells the story of God’s work to provide this sight and to break the hold of the powers and idols on humans that separate them from God. Jesus’ death on the cross comes near the end of that story and is close to the climax of the story. The most powerful and effective way that God communicates God’s love to humanity (and reveals the corrupting dynamics of the idolatrous powers) is by becoming human, loving free from idolatry, showing amazing love in concrete ways, and resisting the powers’ violence by consistent peaceable living. The powers can not accept this witness to life and conspire to put Jesus to death. Thus, the cross is a crucial (“necessary”) part of Jesus’ revelation. The climax of the story, though, is not the cross but God’s act to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.
The cross, in a different sense, is “necessary” as a step to this victorious vindication. The victory, though, is not in the violence of the cross to provide a necessary sacrifice to God. The victory is in God’s nonviolent love that accept the powers’ violence without retaliation but defeated that violence through the gift of life in resurrection.
So, in this second view, we could say that Jesus’ death is a necessary part of the story that begins with creation and continues through the history of Israel and Jesus’ life and teaching. The salvation here, though, is not in a death that offers a satisfying sacrifice to allow God to forgive. Rather, the salvation is in the love of God offered from the start to all who would simply turn to God. The role of the cross is to show just how committed God is to nonviolent healing love, to show just how violent and rebellious the idolatrous powers are even as they demand loyalty from human beings as “God’s agent for good,” and to provide the context for God’s ultimate, healing love expressed in resurrection that defeats the violence of the powers.
The cross, heaven, and hell in the biblical story
The comments I made in my five minutes did not address these two alternative ways to see meaning in Jesus’ death. What I tried to do was to provide a nutshell account of the biblical salvation story that reflects the second way. I did not have time (I thought) overtly to address the contrast between my understanding of this salvation story and the way of satisfaction atonement. As it turned out, we didn’t get to discuss this crucial contrast. Apparently, though, I was clear enough to trigger the “necessity” question.
This is what I said to open the panel discussion:
I believe that God is love. God created what is out of love, including human beings—created in God’s own image. God created humanity so that God could love us and so that we could love God, and each other. Such loving relationships involve freedom. Love is free—it may be embraced or it may be denied.
That is, out of love, God created human beings with the freedom to love back (or not). The account in Genesis tells us that the first human beings did choose against loving God back. It is significant that right after Adam and Eve violate God’s command, God still goes down to the Garden to hang out with them in the same way God had been doing all along. But the human beings hid—they were afraid. What changed in this relationship came on the human side, not on God’s side.
I believe that God has continued to want human beings to be whole, to find healing from the alienation and brokenness caused by humanity’s turn away from God (notice that immediately humanity is plagued with the curse of violence when Cain murders Abel). But humans have tended to trust in things, in idols, rather than in God.
The Bible is basically the story of God seeking to restore humanity to wholeness, so that the paths of love for which God created us may be the paths we walk. Over and over again, God acts to bring wholeness. The main saving acts of God have been taken totally at God’s initiative, as acts of pure mercy—intended to bring healing and to empower human beings to respond with faith and love and to live in wholeness.
I’m thinking of the calling of Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a people who will bless all the families of the earth. They did nothing to earn or even to deserve God’s generosity. Then there is God’s intervention to bring salvation to the Hebrews who were enslaved in Egypt, then to give them the Law (or Torah) to guide their lives as saved people, and then the promised land as a place to embody this saved life shaped by Torah. And then, even as the chosen people follow Adam and Eve in turning from God’s love and suffer terrible consequences, God remains committed to God’s promises and restores them after a time in exile.
God’s people continue to struggle with being a blessing and with trusting in idols, and in time God directly enters human history in the human life of Jesus. Jesus re-emphasizes that God is love and that God seeks tirelessly to bring healing to a suffering humanity. Jesus models a life lived free from idols, dependent upon God alone.
Tragically, this embodiment of God in the flesh leads the powers-that-be in politics and religion, who had benefited from years of being idolized, to join together to kill Jesus. As it turns out, though, God vindicates Jesus and his life by raising him from the dead—in that way, as Paul wrote, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col 2:15).
The cross joins with the resurrection—and the faithful path the Jesus followed to get to the cross. They serve as the clearest and most profound statements possible of God’s continued initiative to bring healing to humanity. They also reveal the nature of the idols and powers. These powers claim to act on God’s behalf while actually serving to separate people from God when they demand loyalty that belongs only to God.
So, this is the point of Jesus’ incarnation, his faithful life, his willingness to be executed by the Roman Empire, and God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection: He reveals as nothing else could that salvation, healing, eternal life, heavenly existence, are available due to God’s mercy for all who will receive them. Jesus made this point most emphatically in his story of the Prodigal Son. The wayward son (clearly an awful sinner) finds salvation simply by turning back home. His father (representing God) does not even wait for a confession—he simply embraces the son and calls for a party.
However, the original dynamic in creation continues—humanity created in God’s image with the ability to love God back (or not). Thus, it always remains possible for human beings to say no to God’s love. That freedom is simply part of the nature of love. So hell, separation from God, the transformation of the idol worshipers themselves into the lifelessness of what they worship, remains a tragic possibility. However, the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation provides a sliver of hope that God’s love might outlast even the hardest of hearts. We are told that the gates into the New Jerusalem are never closed (21:25).