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Did Jesus have to die for our salvation?

In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the emphasis is on Jesus' suffering as a victim. Jesus joins in with human suffering. Jesus expresses from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). In John and Luke, Jesus dies as a courageous and faithful martyr. Chuck Queen, in his book Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week, says that we need both images of Jesus. He says that we need to know that God suffers with us and identifies with our experience of feeling forsaken and abandoned. We also need to know that God and Jesus were not suprised by the crucifixion, that God incorporated the death of Jesus into the plan of redemption. Jesus becomes the overcoming victim when he offers his life as a sacrifice. Jesus did not die to appease God's wrath, or satisfy God's justice, or to pay some debt owed to God. Jesus did not die to save us from God because we do not need to be saved from God. Our salvation is from sin, from hate, greed, prejudice and violence. This sin is what killed Jesus through the collective expression of the religious and political powers of the day.

Sacrificial imagery is used throughout the New Testament to talk about the significance of Jesus' death. This imagery is never explained by the authors. The sacrifical imagery is pulled from the religious life of Judaism. The background for this imagery is found within the sacrifices offered in the Jewish temples. The belief at the time was that certain sins could only be cleanses through ritual sacrifice. The priests controlled this ritual sacrifice and therefore controlled who were forgiven of their sins and ultimately who had access to God.

Saying that Jesus died for our sins or that he was the sacrifice for our sins was in effect subverting this controll over who was forgiven through the temple priests. It was their way of saying that whatever might keep one from experiencing God’s love, whatever might alienate one from God or from one’s sisters and brothers in the human family, has been dealt with in Jesus. One does not need to go through the temple ritual of sacrifice. It was a statement of radical grace.

Most people don't know that there are several theories of the atonement. The moral influence theory was a popular theory with the Church Fathers and I believe more accurately explains Jesus death and sacrifice. When I say sacrifice, I mean that Jesus gave his life for God's vision of a world healed, made whole, and put right. Jesus died attempting to bring the world back to God's will for the whole world — a kingdom built on peace. Jesus died the way he lived, the way he called us to live. It was a culmination of humility, prophetic courage, compassion, nonviolence, and self-giving for the good of others.

Jesus' death was not necessary for our redemtion from God's end of it all. God's forgivenes is not dependent upon Jesus' death because God forgives sin because God is a loving and forgiving God. God has, however, made use of Jesus' death the same way God uses suffering in our own lives to bring about growth. It seems that people often need some suffering to bring about a change of live and to release us from our own ego. Richard Rohr says that it takes some great experience of love and suffering to change us.

Jesus, apparently understood this when he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow" (Mark 8:34). Jesus knew he would be killed for his teaching and he expected those who chose to follow him to be willing to as well. He understood that in order to transform our lives we had to "deny self".

The Apostle Paul spoke about the redemptive significance of Jesus' death in Romans (6-8) where he spoke of dying to sin with Christ. He used "sin" not sins (plural); sin as an enslaving power. Paul spoke of Christ's resurrection as "sharing in his sufferings," thus "becoming like him in his death" (Phillipians 3:10). Jesus death was not a substitution, but it became a transformative symbol in the way it called followers of Jesus to participate in the pattern of death and resurrection.