Why Did Jesus Die? Atonement and reconciliation - BBC Religions
The events leading up to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus are well-told by the Gospel writers, as are stories of the Resurrection. But why did Jesus die?
In the end the Roman authorities and the Jewish council wanted Jesus dead. He was a political and social trouble-maker. But what made the death of Jesus more significant than the countless other crucifixions carried out by the Romans and witnessed outside the city walls by the people of Jerusalem?
Christians believe that Jesus was far more than a political radical. For them the death of Jesus was part of a divine plan to save humanity.
The death and resurrection of this one man is at the very heart of the Christian faith. For Christians it is through Jesus's death that people's broken relationship with God is restored. This is known as the Atonement.
What is the atonement?
The word atonement is used in Christian theology to describe what is achieved by the death of Jesus. William Tyndale introduced the word in 1526, when he was working on his popular translation of the Bible, to translate the Latin word reconciliatio.
In the Revised Standard Version the word reconciliation replaces the word atonement. Atonement (at-one-ment) is the reconciliation of men and women to God through the death of Jesus.
But why was reconciliation needed? Christian theology suggests that although God's creation was perfect, the Devil tempted the first man Adam and sin was brought into the world. Everybody carries this original sin with them which separates them from God, just as Adam and Eve were separated from God when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.
So it is a basic idea in Christian theology that God and humankind need to be reconciled. However, what is more hotly debated is how the death of Jesus achieved this reconciliation.
There is no single doctrine of the atonement in the New Testament. In fact, perhaps more surprisingly, there is no official Church definition either. But first, what does the New Testament have to say?
New Testament images
The New Testament uses a range of images to describe how God achieved reconciliation to the world through the death of Jesus. The most common is the image of sacrifice.
For example, John the Baptist describes Jesus as "the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world". (John 1:29)
Here are some other images used to describe the atonement:
•a judge and prisoner in a law court
•a payment of ransom for a slave's freedom
•a king establishing his power
•a military victory
And here are some examples of how the New Testament explains the death of Jesus:
'For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'.
Words attributed to Jesus in Mark 10:45
'Drink all of you from this', he said. 'For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'
Words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 26:28
Well then, in the first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures...
Written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3
How have later writers and theologians interpreted the Biblical accounts and theologies? In varied, and sometimes conflicting, ways.
Theories of the Atonement
Theologians have grouped together theories of the atonement into different types. For example, in Christus Victor (1931) Gustaf Aulén suggested three types: classical, Latin and subjective.
More recently in his book Christian Theology: An Introduction Alister E. McGrath groups his discussion into four central themes but stresses that these themes are not mutually exclusive. His four themes are:
•The cross as sacrifice
•The cross as a victory
•The cross and forgiveness
•The cross as a moral example
The cross as sacrifice
The image of Jesus' death as a sacrifice is the most popular in the New Testament. The New Testament uses the Old Testament image of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:5) and applies it to Christ.
The theme of Jesus's death as a sacrifice is most drawn out in the Letter to the Hebrews. The sacrifice of Christ is seen as the perfect sacrifice.
In the biblical tradition sacrifice was a common practice or ritual. In making an offering to God or a spirit, the person making the sacrifice hopes to make or mend a relationship with God.
St Augustine too wrote on the theme of sacrifice:
By his death, which is indeed the one and most true sacrifice offered for us, he purged, abolished and extinguished whatever guilt there was by which the principalities and powers lawfully detained us to pay the penalty.
He offered sacrifice for our sins. And where did he find that offering, the pure victim that he would offer? He offered himself, in that he could find no other.
The cross as a victory
The New Testament frequently describes Jesus's death and resurrection as a victory over evil and sin as represented by the Devil. How was the victory achieved?
For many writers the victory was achieved because Jesus was used as a ransom or a "bait". In Mark 10:45 Jesus describes himself as "a ransom for many". This word "ransom" was debated by later writers. The Greek writer Origen suggested Jesus's death was a ransom paid to the Devil.
Gregory the Great used the idea of a baited hook to explain how the Devil was tricked into giving up his hold over sinful humanity:
The bait tempts in order that the hook may wound. Our Lord therefore, when coming for the redemption of humanity, made a kind of hook of himself for the death of the devil.
Although the victory approach became less popular in the eighteenth century amongst Enlightenment thinkers - when the idea of a personal Devil and forces of evil was thrown into question - the idea was popularized again by Gustaf Aulén with the publication in 1931 of Christus Victor.
Aulén wrote of the idea Christus Victor:
Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ - Christus Victor - fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. - Gustaf Aulén
The cross and forgiveness
Anselm of Canterbury writing in the eleventh century rejected the idea that God deceived the Devil through the cross of Christ. Instead he presented an alternative view which is often called the satisfaction theory of the atonement.
In this theory Jesus pays the penalty for each individual's sin in order to right the relationship between God and humanity, a relationship damaged by sin.
Jesus's death is the penalty or "satisfaction" for sin.
Satisfaction was an idea used in the early church to describe the public actions - pilgrimage, charity - that a christian would undertake to show that he was grateful for forgiveness.
Only Jesus can make satisfaction because he is without sin. He is sinless because in the Incarnation God became man. The theory is thought out by Anselm in his work Cur Deus Homo or Why God became Man.
The cross as a moral example
Moral influence theories or exemplary theories comprise a fourth category used to explain the atonement. They emphasize God's love expressed through the life and death of Jesus.
Christ accepted a difficult and undeserved death. This demonstration of love in turn moves us to repent and re-unites us with God. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) is associated with this theory. He wrote:
The Son of God took our nature, and in it took upon himself to teach us by both word and example even to the point of death, thus binding us to himself through love.
Abelard's theory and the call to the individual to respond to Christ's death with love continues to have popular appeal today.
Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear - love for him that has shown us such grace that no greater can be found. - Peter Abelard