Today I have been asked to do something nearly impossible.
Here’s the question I was given: Why did Jesus die? What is the meaning of his death? What does it mean to say we are “saved” by his death?
Here’s the impossible part: I have to take the common answer to this question—one that most of us grew up with and many of us still hold dear, and gently suggest to you that this answer is wrong, or at least inadequate.
Then I will offer you an alternative which, while it may be more faithful to what the Bible writers meant, it is a bit more difficult to understand. Plus, it may be new; and many of us do not like new ideas that upset old ideas.
Also, I have to do this in a way that is interesting—which is really hard; I’ve seen how eyes glaze over when the conversation becomes too theological.
And, I have to do this in the next 10 minutes.
So I’m thinking, maybe I’ll just sit down now; or we can sing a song, or something, and go eat. That would be so much easier.
But so much less fun.
So maybe I’ll tell you a story.
There are, within the Bible, two contrasting ways to see God—to imagine what God is like. The first of these is from the Old Testament and comes to us in the story of Joshua.
Joshua, you probably remember, was the second in command to Moses while he led the people of Israel through their 40 year long desert journey. When Moses died, it was Joshua who then led the people across the Jordan River into the promised land; and it was Joshua who led the assault and conquering of Canaan.
By any modern standard of decency, Joshua was, to put it mildly, a nasty and violent man. He attacked the Canaanites with a shocking ferocity.
Joshua would send his troops against a village with explicit orders to kill every man, woman and child. For instance—“When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness…(they) returned to Ai, and attacked it with the…the sword… For Joshua did not draw back his hand…until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.” Joshua 8.24-26
Joshua believed, and proclaimed, that he was doing the will of God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God we acknowledge in our worship here on Sunday mornings. Joshua believed, you see, that God was as violent and nasty and he was. Get on the wrong side of this God, Joshua said, and you will be slaughtered—you and your sons and daughters; sometimes even your livestock.
This vision of a violent God was very common in the ancient world. The gods of other nations were every bit as nasty as Joshua’s God. Like his neighbors, he was a child of his times.
But later in Israel’s history, things began to change as some of the prophets envisioned God as gracious and compassionate—a God who loved the poor, the orphans and widows, even the strangers and foreigners. There is much in the later Old Testament that debunks the violent image of God projected by Joshua and others like him.
However, the real tidal shift in how we might see God occurs with the coming of Jesus. The God Jesus knew was the polar opposite of Joshua’s God. Joshua’s God commanded that enemies be destroyed. Jesus’ God commanded that enemies be loved. Joshua’s God would wipe the heathen from face of the earth. Jesus’ God made the sun to rise on the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Joshua’s God would build a border wall to keep the people safe and pure. Jesus’ God breaks down walls and brings people of all nations together.
And here’s an interesting detail. The name “Jesus” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua; Jesus and Joshua are the same name in different languages. So it is possible to read the Bible, in part at least, as the story of the two Joshuas.
The first Joshua leads the people of Israel through the Jordan River to destroy their enemies and take their land—In God’s name. The second Joshua goes through the Jordan River in baptism and leads the people of Israel not on a path of hatred, destruction and separation, but in the way of love, compassion and neighborliness.
Now, here’s the thing—this is where it starts to get sticky. The Bible contains both of these visions of God; both of these traditions are ipart of Scripture. We have the vision of the first Joshua: God is violent, hateful, vindictive and dangerous—toward enemies and foreigners and toward sinners in Israel.
And we have the vision of God, embodied in Jesus—the second Joshua, and expressed in the Psalm: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for us”.
These two visions contradict each other. They are incompatible. You can not hold to both. You have to choose one or the other because you cannot serve two Gods.
Unfortunately, for most of its history, and in most of its forms, the church has sided with the first Joshua. Most of us see God as he did—capable of love and compassion toward us, but possessed by violence and hatred toward the other: the foreigner, the enemy, the sinner.
This is why most of us are afraid of God. This is why many of us still believe in some sort of literal hell—because we can imagine Joshua’s God actually putting us there.
And, to circle back, this is why the question we asked at the beginning is answered the way it is by many Christians today.
Why did Jesus die?
There have been many answers to this question, but the theory that holds most sway today, especially among evangelical Christians but I’d be willing to bet with many of you as well, goes like this:
God hates sin and cannot abide sinners. Sin is eternal and infinite ugliness to a righteous God. Therefore it must be punished with an infinite and eternal penalty—death. Eternal death. Or as some unfortunate people still imagine it—eternal, conscious torment in hell. God demands the blood—the life, of the sinner
What are we to do? We are sinners, that’s for sure. Joshua’s God wants the world cleared of sin and sinners. When God’s wrath is poured out on sin, we are going to feel it. What are we to do?
In this theory, this is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is God’s son—perfect and holy in every respect. Jesus offers his holy and perfect self as a substitute—but only for those sinners who ask for his help.
Jesus takes on himself the sin of all those who believe in him. And then, because Joshua’s God must have blood, God tortures and destroys his own son. God punishes sin by having Jesus hung on a cross.
In case you’re wondering, when St John writes in his first epistle that “God is love”, this is not the God he’s talking about.
Now you don’t need to know this, but I’ll tell you anyway so you can impress your neighbors someday: the theological sounding name for this theory is (“Penal Substitutionary Atonement”—penal, as in penalty or penitentiary; substitutionary, as in Jesus’ blood shed instead of ours (because Joshua’s god must have blood) and atonement, a word that means being on the right side of God, or “at one” with God.
Now this theory is, in my opinion at least, deeply flawed—logically and theo-logically flawed. But this is where Joshua’s God takes us. Joshua’s God hates his enemies; destroys them and their children and takes their land. Joshua’s God wants to see his enemy’s blood flow.
So here’s my question: Is this the best we can do?
Jesus didn’t think so. There are two visions of God in the Bible, remember. Jesus offers a better one.
In the passage from the letter to the Colossians I read earlier, St Paul said, “We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created”. The one in whom “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together”.
This is very poetic language, but it’s also clear: God is like Jesus. So when we see Jesus, we see God; when we listen to Jesus we are listening to God; when we read the words of Jesus we are taking in the words of God.
So—and this may be the most important thing you can ever hear from a Christian pulpit, so listen up—if you want to know what God is like, don’t look to Joshua. Look to Jesus.
Look to Jesus who said “love your enemies”, and then did so because that’s what God does. Look to Jesus who said “do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you”, and then did so because that’s what God does. Look to Jesus who, as “the image of the invisible God”, loved the lepers and the orphans, the rascals and the thieves, the strangers and even the Romans—because that’s what God does.
God is love.
Does God need death and blood and wrath in order to love the world?
Look to Jesus. The answer, obviously and eternally, is “no”.
So why did Jesus die?
Jesus died because the Romans did not like his politics. When Rome didn’t like your politics they hung you on a cross.
Are we saved by Jesus’ death?
When Jesus, from the cross, returns love for hate,
When Jesus asks and God forgives those murdering God’s son,
When God is not violent in the face of this most vile act—
we are saved.
We are saved from the fear that love cannot reach us. We are saved from the anxiety that our faults are beyond forgiveness. We are saved from hate—our hate, because we see a better way to be. And we are saved from hell—because in Jesus we see that the hell and love cannot exist in the same universe.
There is no hell beyond the hell we make for ourselves—and that is the hell Jesus saves us from.
So then, all there is is the loving embrace of the Creator who, through Jesus, was pleased, as St Paul said, “to reconcile to himself all things” so that “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together”, whether on earth or in heaven”. Amen.