UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Currents

Why did Jesus die?

By Trisha Elliott


A father brings a son into the world to be humiliated and tortured to death. If that were the central premise of a TV movie, many of us would change the channel. But for centuries, that version of atonement theology has been a cornerstone of Christian thinking. Which doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture of God, or of Jesus, who appears to passively accept his fate. Worse than emphasizing a “sadistic” God, as theologian Dorothee Sölle describes it, the theology has been used to condone damaging attitudes toward all kinds of marginalized people including women, children and the impoverished.

So what was accomplished through Jesus’ death? The answer isn’t as one-dimensional as we learned in Sunday school.

The early church embraced the idea that the devil held human souls captive, and God relinquished Jesus to Satan as a ransom payment for their release; but with the resurrection, God wins. In 1098, Anselm of Canterbury came up with the satisfaction theory of atonement: sin had offended God’s honour, upsetting the divine order of the universe; the crucifixion was necessary in order to restore both. Later, this theology was repackaged by Protestant reformers who believed that divine law required punishment of sin. Their retooling stuck: Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that humans deserved. In other words, Jesus died in our place. A substitute death. We are “washed in the blood,” as the old hymn goes.

Blood-soaked theologies are problematic when they suggest God saves through violence or through innocent victims who wilfully submit to violence because it gives licence to inflict violence or tolerate it.

In her book Violence and Theology, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan traces the prevalence and complexity of violence in the world today (blatant and subtle, individual and communal, intended and unintended, etc.) She asserts that many modern Christologies emphasize violence and suffering over transformation, so much so that they’ve spun Jesus’ famous words, “Remember me,” to mean “Remember my death” — ideologically separating his death from the whole of his life.

Are our own theologies saturated with violence or death-obsessed? Is salvation achieved through violence, submission to violence, exposure to violence, the stubborn refusal to back down in the face of violence — or in some other way?

Good Friday is a good time not just to wrestle with theologies of atonement but to scan the Bible, our theology and our experience of the world in order to get a grip on the scope and depth of violence. We need to recognize where the old rugged cross fits in the grand scheme of violence in order to know which aspects of it we should cling to, and which to let die.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Interviews

Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image

Editorials

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Faith

May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi

Faith

May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together

Faith

May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle

Interviews

May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Ethics

May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations

Interviews

May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image