'Christ died for our sins'
How do we interpret this statement from 1 Corinthians 15:3 – and what does it mean for us today? By Edward Pillar
Why did Jesus die? I want first to seek to answer this question before asking another question about sin itself and its relevance for our present experience of the coronavirus pandemic.
This was a critical and often repeated question in my early years in church. The answer — or should I say, the ‘correct’ answer was that Jesus died to deal with all the sins I had committed in my life, would commit in my life and indeed the sins of the entire world for all time. The death of Jesus was a means by which God would deal with the problem of my sin and in some way God would then be free to forgive my sins.
The entire proposition is surely flawed on several levels. First, one would have to assert that the purpose and focus of the incarnation and life of Jesus was solely in order that he might die for my sins. Second, this is affirming an extraordinarily limited perspective on the life of Jesus. Perhaps a critical question here would be ‘why did Jesus live?’ interestingly, in my younger days I sometimes heard the answer, ‘Jesus lived in order that he might die.’ Again, this is a concerning negation of the incarnation.
Third, my proposal is making the absurd assertion that God is somehow limited in his ability to forgive. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God’s love is higher, broader, longer, and deeper than any thing I can possibly comprehend, so why should that love be limited in its willingness or ability to forgive? The saying of Jesus in Luke 11 reminds us, ‘If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ How about we switch things around, and propose that we might equally affirm, ‘If you then, though you are evil, know how to forgive your children, how much more will your Father in heaven forgive those who ask him? And surely, we know how to forgive one another; we know how to forgive our children. When I forgive my children, I don’t counter the forgiveness with, ‘I’ll forgive you, if...’ To do so doesn’t feel like forgiveness as all. In fact, I think we get into this mess theologically because of an over–commitment to a judicial view of God.
And so we return to the question, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ The simple, and straightforward historical answer is that Jesus died because he was executed. But, we also need to consider the assertion that Jesus intended to die - in order words, the idea that dying was Jesus’ life purpose. I do not think so, and as I’ve hinted above, I think that this perspective seriously diminishes the incarnation life of Jesus to virtual purposelessness. And, it begins to make me wonder how Jesus felt about his life, if indeed he knew that his life was nothing in itself, it was only his death that mattered.
It has been pointed out that rather than seeing the death of Jesus as the purpose of his incarnation and life, we should rather see and interpret ‘Christ died for our sins’ as the consequence of his life. In answer to the question from the ‘expert in the law’ in Luke 10 Jesus affirmed that the road to and existence within eternal life lies in ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and Love your neighbour as yourself.’ And, Jesus concluded this particular saying with, ‘Do this and you will live.’
We might expect therefore that the purpose of the life of Jesus was to love; that the life of Jesus was the revelation of the love of God for creation, and the many variegated ways in which love can be exercised. Love was the purpose of the life of Jesus. Love is seen in and throughout his life and ministry — in the healings, wise teachings, social activism, generous forgiveness, radical welcome, challenges concerning justice, and contentment, and his reprimanding of the privileged, and his subverting of the status of the powerful, and his initiation of and invitation into the new movement of life of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was executed because of all this — all this arising from an seeming inevitability to love.
The death, or more accurately, the execution of Jesus came about precisely because of his life. Jesus upset the privileged in Jerusalem, and the representatives of the Empire from Rome. The death of Jesus then was a consequence of his life, not his direct purpose. How then do we interpret ‘Christ died for our sins?’ If the death of Jesus is a consequence of his life, then we might translate the text as, ‘Christ died because of our sins’ and indeed the Greek text allows us to do this, although it is a relatively rare case.
What I mean is this: Jesus loved, and in so doing said a categorical ‘no’ to our sinful ways. We performed a tit–for–tat, and in turn said ‘no’ to the lifestyle of love lived out by Jesus. Our sinfulness obstructed us in accepting the validity of the life built upon, and energised by love. To say ‘yes’ to the life of Jesus as the intended way for us all to live would expose the deathliness of our lifestyles. We would rather kill the author of life than have him scribe the fullness of life for us.
What does this mean for us today? The life of Jesus is a constant challenge for us. It is a call for us to live a life of love — a life of love for all creation. And this is critical, it is a love for all creation. It is our failure to exercise this love for all creation that is a fundamental sin today, for which we now find ourselves isolated, in our separate homes, amidst increasingly tough social–separation rules, and growing fear. A particularly profound challenge for us today is to acknowledge ecological sins for which we need to repent, and as a result change our lifestyles, desires, and needs.
What I mean by ecological sins is this: We are faced today with one of a growing number of new viruses. A number of researchers within a new discipline, planetary health, think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID–19, but including Ebola, SARS, and bird flu.
Kate Jones, Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL, “It is human behavioural change that has resulted in the transmission of these viruses.” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Coronavirus exists within certain animal habitats and these animals live with the virus seemingly perfectly happily. It is only when their habitat is disturbed, and sinful human behaviour insists on economic progress such that humans come into contact with these animals, we disrupt the ecosystems in which they happily live, we mistreat these animals and the consequence is that these viruses begin to be transmitted to humans with tragic, heart-rending consequences.
Our repentance of sin needs, at this time, to take account of our profound ecological sins. Christ died because of our insistence of living in ways that dehumanise others, disrespect animals, needlessly disrupt the environment, and destroy habitat and lose vast acres of biodiversity. In our times we can say that Christ died because we insist on saying ‘no’ to the way of love for all creation.
Edward Pillar is the minister of Evesham Baptist Church
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
Image | Liz Carter | Freely
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