“Some Quaker FAQs” #3: Jesus/Salvation, Cont.

“Some Quaker FAQs” #3: Jesus/Salvation, Cont.
For New & Curious Friends

(Part 2 of this series is here. Part 1 is here.)

Q. What Does “Died For Our Sins” Mean?

At New Covenant Temple, a church we use as a reference point,** here’s what it says on their website:
** For more about New Covenant Temple, and why we use them as a reference point, click here.

Jesus Christ: We believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who gave his life on a cross as the perfect sacrifice for all of our sins. He arose from the grave to show his power over sin and death. He ascended into heaven and will return to earth again to rule as King of all kings.

Last time we noted that they, like many other Christian groups, believe that Jesus provided the saving “ladder” for us, to climb out of a bottomless pit of sin. In fact, they say Jesus himself was that “ladder.” 

How did he get to be this “ladder”? He “gave his life on a cross” (that is, he was executed) as a ‘perfect sacrifice’ for our sins’” –  that’s what.

Now, what does that mean??

First off, Christian thinkers have been arguing about exactly what it means for 2000 years, and show no signs of stopping. But many churches believe they’ve figured out the correct answer. 

One part at least, “died on the cross,” is pretty clear: in Jesus’ day, the Roman empire was in charge, and Roman officials executed many people in public by nailing them to wooden crosses, and leaving them hanging there til they died. It was, and was meant to be, a gruesome and humiliating way to die. 

And they did that to Jesus. They suspected him — wrongly, according to the Bible story — of planning a rebellion against Roman rule. He was innocent, but they killed him anyway.

“Some Quaker FAQs” #3: Jesus/Salvation, Cont.
This is the easy part.

So that part is not hard to explain. Yet thousands of other people also suffered and died on Roman crosses. When Jesus was crucified, how did his death turn out to be a “perfect sacrifice for our sins”?

Well, that is a lot more complicated.

Remember our “deep hole parable”? At one level, it means his death somehow became the ladder that God let down into the impossibly deep hole of human sin and evil so we could climb out.

But here that parable breaks down. Jesus didn’t pull anyone out of a hole; he was nailed to a cross and died, alone. How did that do anyone any good?

Q. Was Jesus Like The Friendly Billionaire?

Let’s try another analogy: Suppose you borrowed a million dollars from someone, and then lost it at the racetrack and couldn’t pay it back. You’d be in debt, and in trouble.

But then what if a friendly billionaire heard about your plight, and decided to pay the million dollars for you? Then your debt would be paid up, and – Whew! – you’d be out of trouble. You’d be “saved”!

In that sense, the friendly billionaire made a sacrifice: gave up something he didn’t have to. Other sacrifices are less dramatic, but atonement-pay-a-debtmore familiar: a parent who works day and night and gives up having any luxuries, so their children can go to college. Or more dramatically, a parent who gives up their life to save a child. Jesus said something about this: “greater love than this no one hath, but that they lay down their life for their friends.” (John 15:13)

Many Christians think that’s what Jesus did. Instead of falling in a hole, somehow all the sin and evil done by humans is like spending money we borrowed from God. So it added up to an impossibly huge moral or spiritual “debt” humans “owed” to God, and couldn’t pay.

Q. Was Jesus “The Perfect Sacrifice”? How?

By dying on the cross for a crime he didn’t commit, Jesus somehow “paid” that “debt” of sin to God for us.

But this analogy has problems too. Jesus, after all, was not a billionaire. Anyway, this “debt” was not a matter of borrowed money, or anything like it, but sin and evil.

In ordinary life when people are caught doing evil, they are punished. We speak of them as “owing a debt to society,” not in money, but because they disturbed the “law and order” that makes a peaceful life possible. This “debt to society” is “paid” through their punishment.

In a family, such “payment” might mean a parent takes away a child’s privileges. For more serious matters, people can end up in court. There the punishments can often involve paying money, like a traffic ticket. Other offenders do community service, cleaning up trash along public roads and the like; or they go to jail, and some are even executed. In whatever way, they “pay their debt to society.” This happens every day.

Q. But how does Jesus “pay” for whatever “debt” of  “sins” I might “owe”?

A good, hard question. In “normal society,” people are punished for their own crimes, not somebody else’s. If I killed my neighbor, and was sentenced to life in prison for it, would my “debt to society” be paid if the court instead locked up, say, my best friend in my place, and let me go free? 

That wouldn’t make sense in modern terms. A criminal’s “debt to society” can’t be “transferred” to somebody else.

But in Jesus’ day, it was common for religious people to “pay” for their sins by finding a “substitute.” Very often this substitute was an animal, which they took to a temple or holy place. Then with customary rituals, the animal was killed, and its body burned. As the smoke rose into the sky, that made the animal’s burned body a “sacrifice” to the god or gods who were imagined as living somewhere up there.  In some old religions, they also sacrificed humans. 

In the Bible, there is a commandment that once a year a goat was to be sacrificed especially as a “scapegoat.” (The story is in Leviticus 16) The “sins of the people” were somehow transferred to it by the high priest, and then it was sent away into the desert, and the sins went with it. The word its still used, but today “scapegoat” refers to an innocent person being unfairly penalized for something they did not do — which we think of as wrong and unfair. 

Perhaps in part this kind of sacrifice was thought to “work” because the animal had been valuable to its owner, who then gave it up. Thus  the sacrifice “paid the debt,” and turned away the god’s anger and met the need for punishment. 

This process is also called “atonement”; the scapegoat ceremony was part of an annual Day of Atonement.”  Such animal sacrifices are still practiced today in some religions.

Does this explain it?

I realize I’m saying “somehow” a lot here. That’s because I really don’t understand how all this was supposed to work. (Here’s another blogger’s intriguing account of a conversation with a street preacher about it.) Such “sacrifices” are a very old practice, but they are rooted in ancient cultures and ideas that are hard to understand today.

I’m not alone in my confusion, though; theologians still argue about what it all means.

Anyway, many Christians, probably most, still believe that somehow Jesus, because he was the “Son of God,” and innocent besides, was able to serve as the “perfect sacrifice,” for all the sins and evil committed by all people who ever lived (including you and me as well as everyone who hasn’t been born yet).

All these sins, past, present, and future, added up to a “moral debt” that humans “owed” to God that was much more than we could ever possibly repay. 

Q. But was this matter about sin only about paying a “debt” to God?

A shortcoming of the “debt” concept is that comparing it to money is too bloodless. In early Christian terms, the load of crime and evil –war, murder, genocide, rape, and so forth– was much too big for any human to repay. Besides, the “debt” was something in which all humans are implicated, even those not yet born, so that all humans deserved nothing less than a death sentence, with God as the judge, jury, and executioner.

And God is often portrayed as not only “owed” this debt, but also very angry about this load of sin. There are dozens of verses in the Bible that speak of the “wrath of God” which has fallen or will fall on sinful humans, individually and collectively; in the biblical stories God angrily and personally destroys many sinful people, often along with their family members, cities, and even animals, most of whom had nothing to do with the specific crimes involved.

In the traditional Christian stories, on a final “Judgment Day,” God would carry out this moral “death sentence,” and satisfy the divine anger by sending all humans to hell, a place where we would all burn in an endless fire, or face other awful torments, forever and ever. That’s what we deserved according to this view – yes, even you and me.


This is the moral “debt” that Jesus somehow took on and “paid” by becoming the “perfect sacrifice” on the cross. His death persuaded God NOT to carry out the punishment that all humans “deserved,” at least not on everyone.

By dying, Jesus “atoned” for our sins, and “saved” us (or at least some of us) from God’s punishment, of burning in hell forever.

Q. But Why was Jesus the “perfect” sacrifice? 

I guess because he was God’s son; somehow (there’s that word again), it made him special enough to pull all of humanity out of the pit of sin, to pay that unpayable debt. He became the “scapegoat” for all, our universal sacrificial substitute which persuaded God to let go of his wrath.

Yes, it’s confusing to me too. But that’s the story.

And there’s more. In the Bible stories, and on New Covenant Temple’s website, it says that Jesus was brought back to life by God after three days, spent some time with his followers, and then floated up to heaven like a helium balloon.

And at New Covenant, like most Christian churches, they also believe that Jesus will come back to earth someday, maybe very soon. (There have been claims that it would be “VERY soon”– like next Tuesday – for 2000-plus years.)

Oops! The date was May 21, 2011.

What will happen then depends on which stories you believe (there are many different ones). They usually end with some kind of sorting out of all the people who ever lived. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus describes it as dividing all people into two groups — the sheep, and the goats. (Guess where the goats go.)

Next time: Other ways to think about Jesus and his death. Plus: What’s a “personal relationship with Jesus”? Do I need one? 

This post is adapted from the booklet, Some Quaker FAQs, by Chuck Fager. More information about it is here.   

5 thoughts on ““Some Quaker FAQs” #3: Jesus/Salvation, Cont.”

  1. Well said, Chuck. As one raised in the system that you describe, I think this as close as one can get to a general description of the atonement. Thanks.

  2. This might leave the impression that there is generally but one “Theory of Atonement.” That has never been the case, and I leave it to better theologians/historians than myself to outline some of the alternatives to the “Satisfaction” and “Blood substitution” theories. As I recall, there was a classic several-days-long debate in the Middle Ages (University of Paris?)on this question between Anselm and Abelard, with the latter taking a view that (if memory serves me) was labeled the “moral example” theory. Somewhere in the mix was also “Christus Victor”… but that one eluded me.
    Let’s just be careful not to paint either all of Christian history or even contemporary American Protestantism with the same brush, on this question.

    1. Hi David: Thee’s quite right, that there are numerous theories of the atonement. But in that big debate between Anselm (favoring the bloody version) vs. Abelard (the example idea), it is worth remembering that Abelard lost the debate, and the official doctrine, for Catholicism and later most of Protestantism — which is to say, the very large bulk of institutional Christianity, became one or another of the bloody sort. And while there are alternative ideas in play today, in a few corners, the bloody version still reigns supreme today; and that is true as well in most of organized Quakerism.
      I’m interested in some of the alternatives; I wish them well. And let’s not kid ourselves about this.

  3. I felt you were being less pragmatic and going far afield in trying to explain the dogmas often said in Christianity. I’m more like Thomas Jefferson, who edited the Bible to omit all but reasonable and plausible information about Jesus…that is, what he taught is more important than the fables about his birth, miracles and resurrection. Historically, he was executed for his teachings and those offended the powers and the customs at that time. The sacrifice he made was personal: being a man out of the times and for starting a new philosophy of humanity. What we can take from his teachings and lessons of his life is also personal: and nearly all of them are beneficial to humanity. In that I believe they came from an Almighty that is concerned for the welfare of his creations. I also believe that paying too much attention to details based on scriptures collected from oral history and legends is the way to error, misunderstanding, disagreements, and wars.

  4. Chuck,

    The more I ponder such things, the more the death of Jesus makes me think of other “catalytic” events like the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in the early 1900s. There was no absolute necessity for those young women to die because management had locked them into that ninth-floor sweatshop in an effort to prevent unauthorized breaks, which doomed all the workers when the fire broke out on one of the lower floors. There was no absolute necessity for any of this — and yet things changed afterwards, which is the sense in which those young women’s sacrifice was necessary.

    In the same way, I agree with William Penn that to claim that God lacked the power to forgive humankind without killing Jesus limits God in disturbing ways, while the claim that God was able but unwilling to forgive us without killing Jesus is morally unworthy of God. I suspect that God had no need to kill Jesus, absolute or otherwise — but we did. Perhaps the death of Jesus (which was certainly catalytic) was something we needed in order to begin grappling with ideas like the disconnect between how we say that each of us is a reflection or expression of the Divine and the ways we actually treat each other. Or the paradox that, while certainly not cheap, God’s grace is free.

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