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