Q: Do you believe that Jesus died as a vicarious sacrifice for sin?
Q: That’s a pretty standard belief. What’s the big deal?
Q: I do not believe he died in order to satisfy some cosmic law or to appease God. Given what I believe about justice — that it would not be just to punish another for someone else’s sins — this belief does not come as a surprise to me.
Q: So why did he die?
A: Because his disciples needed him to die.
Q: My reading of Holy Week is that Jesus rejects Herod’s temple. That’s pretty much the sum of everything he does. The Last Supper is thus the initiation of a new ritual — new sacrificial flesh and blood — leveraged to build a new, inclusive kingdom.
Q: OK, that’s the Eucharist explained, but why did he die?!
A: Prophetic enactment. The journey from Herod’s temple to the Upper Room and then to Calvary was part of a dramatic attempt to wrench his disciples away from the Jerusalem cult. As Jews, forgiveness was inexorably bound-up in the rites of the temple, seen by Jesus as corrupt. To begin something new, Jesus would have to replace that which was old. Having replaced the Passover sacrifices with the communal meal, he then goes further, radically further, and becomes the Paschal lamb. He becomes for his disciples — who believed in such things — a high priest of new things. He dies for them, not for God. God was already able to forgive sins without the shedding of blood. “Your sins are forgiven you” came easily to his lips, after all. They just couldn’t quite believe him, hence the sacrifice.
Q: So if Jesus died to be a vicarious sacrifice for his Jewish disciples, in what sense did he die for me?
A: If Jesus had not died, there would be no Christianity, and so on one level, without his death, Jesus would have no salvific power today. It’s more than that, though. The atonement of Christ is not just the Garden and the Cross. It is the entire condescension of God from Bethlehem to the tomb and the shocking truth of the resurrection. In his humble birth, his ethical teachings, his association with the lowly, his establishment of a new kingdom based on love, his rejection of empty piety, the ease with which he forgave sins, his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, his charity in the face of evil, and in the conquest of death, Jesus assumed and exuded a spiritual power that was both historically real and universally effective. If we are seeking for some cosmic underpinning of the atonement (meaning the totality of the incarnation), perhaps it is this: we are saved by grace, and in experiencing the totality of the human condition, God’s grace became an unstoppable force.