This is the last of four posts on whether Jesus died for our sins. There are three main theories. One is that he won a victory over the devil, along with paying a ransom. Another is that he offered himself as a substitute for humanity, which deserves eternal punishment in hell. The third, which I focus on here, is more down to earth, with less going on in heaven and more for us to do. Jesus’ death was an example for us to follow.
In the first post I described the influence of the Maccabean rebellion. At the time of Jesus Jews honoured martyrs who had been tortured and killed in a war for the Jewish cause. In the same way Christians could honour Jesus as a martyr who died for the faith they shared.
The first Christians were very positive about what Jesus gave them: fellowship with God, a new law, the promise of life after death. When they discussed the death of Jesus, they usually said ‘he died for our sakes’. They didn’t elaborate further. If there is any further speculation it is ethical: Christ’s sufferings should lead us to repent of our sins. They did also say he defeated evil forces or offered himself as a substitute, but less often.
Whereas the other theories stress that Christ was divine and did what no ordinary human could do, this theory stresses that by setting this example Jesus does what we can do and makes it easier for us to do it. The second century bishop Irenaeus said Christ ‘became what we are to enable us to become what he is’.
From the fourth century, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, this account of Jesus wasn’t macho enough. However it was revived in the Middle Ages by Abelard. Abelard argued that love and forgiveness enable others to love and forgive. This is a general claim – we can all do it – but he understood the suffering and death of Jesus as a supreme instance:
Our redemption… is that supreme love of Christ shown to us by His passion, which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but acquires for us the true liberty of the sons of God, so that we fulfil all things not so much from fear as from love of Him who exhibited so great favour towards us.
A century ago Hastings Rashdall wrote a defence of this theory. Supporters of the other theories complain that this one does less: the only change is in the hearts of believers, and not necessarily even there. Rashdall responds by emphasising the power of love, forgiveness and gratitude. Because Christ suffered so much out of love and forgiveness, other people were inspired to gratitude and love in turn. So Christ brings salvation precisely by empowering us to live better lives.
Gratitude for ordinary human love—love pushed to the point of self-sacrifice—is the strongest power that exists in this world for attracting to that goodness, of which love is the supreme element, the soul that has it not.
Another difference is that in the other theories God arranged the death of Christ. This one doesn’t. Rashdall again:
It is enough to recognize that that death came to Him in the discharge of His Messianic task, and that He faced it from the motive which inspired the whole of His life—love to His Father and to His brethren.
One implication of this means that the death of Jesus is significant not just in itself, but because of his life: his character and teaching.
A more recent defender of this view is Marcus Borg. One of the differences between Rashdall and Borg is that Rashdall said the death of Christ had to be understood in the context of his life and teaching, but in Rashdall’s day nobody was at all sure what his life and teaching were. By Borg’s time there was a huge amount more information. Borg describes the death of Jesus as sacrifice:
In our everyday use of the word, we speak of soldiers sacrificing their lives for their country, and of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and others sacrificing their lives for the causes about which they were passionate.
Borg describes the relationship between Jesus’ life and death like this:
Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God. He spoke to peasants as a voice of religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day. He attracted a following, took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover, and there challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion, what he was passionate about—God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice.
So what changed with the death of Jesus was that his exceptional example inspired his followers to do as he did. The result was the movement now known as Christianity. If this theory of atonement has any truth in it, perhaps human behaviour in the world is a little better today than it otherwise would have been. If it is, it isn’t just that Jesus did it; in addition, Jesus empowered others to do it too. This makes it an ethical theory.
Critics argue that it’s Christianity for unbelievers. It doesn’t expect you to believe in any decisive change up there in Heaven: no victory, no ransom, no substitution. You don’t even have to believe Jesus was divine. Others reply that this is no criticism at all.