Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?
by Pastor Kathy Itzin
This is what we were taught, but what does that mean? Did God plan for Jesus, the Beloved Son, to die such an awful death? Why do we think a ‘sacrifice for sin’ is even necessary? Wouldn’t God love us enough to want to be with us after our deaths, without Jesus having to die?
The whole idea of Jesus’ death being ‘a sacrifice for our sins’ wasn’t promoted by the early church. It took over a thousand years before this idea was published by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1097. He, (St. Anselm) thought of our relationship with God in legal terms. He reasoned that:
─We sinned (committed a crime) against God. Crime deserves punishment. ─A just God must demand payment for the crime. Jesus is the payment. ─Through Jesus’ death, all sin is forgiven.
That’s the theory that many of us learned. It was not what Jesus said, or what the Gospel writers believed.
When Jesus walked the earth, people believed that demonic spirits lived in people and organizations (like the Roman government). Jesus always stood against these ‘evil’ powers. When Jesus was killed, but then rose to life again, they saw this as God’s ‘No’ to oppressive powers, and God’s ‘Yes’ to everything Jesus taught. It was Jesus’ conclusive defeat of evil, and God’s triumph for all time. "Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross." (Colossians 2: 15)
In Jewish law, there were certain kinds of sin that could only be atoned (made up for) by sacrifice. The only place you could sacrifice an animal was the temple in Jerusalem, so the temple (and religion) had a monopoly on forgiving sin. The early Christians coined the phrase, "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" (not the temple) or "Jesus died for our sins." Jesus, did away with the temple laws. We don’t need the temple as a go-between anymore. Jesus now gave them direct access to God.
St. Paul experienced Jesus as God’s embodiment of dying to an old way of life, and instead, embracing God’s new Way. Paul said, "I have been crucified in Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." (Galatians 2:19-20) The cross, symbolic of the internal transformation, was shown by Jesus to be "the Way." "Jesus answered, "I am the way, the truth, and the light." (John 14: 6)
What does all of this mean? When the New Testament was written, there were several understandings of what Jesus’ death meant. The worse thing in the world had happened, and God triumphed. Jesus loved God (and the world) so much that nothing would stop him from living a life of integrity and love. That was and is, his Passion. He lived Passionately throughout his life, and in his death. The great news is that he succeeded in his passionate mission. Jesus was God’s ‘Yes’ to love and to life!