For the last eight months, I've been immersed in a research project, investigating what high school students in my denomination (ELCA) believe about Jesus. Among other things, I asked hundreds of students, “Why did Jesus die?”
The majority of students – 244 of the total 348 (70 percent) who responded to this question – said some variation of Jesus died “for our sins”. 105 students said Jesus died “to save us”. 66 students said Jesus died to “forgive us” while 36 concluded Jesus died so they could have eternal life or so that “we can go to heaven”. 18 said only that Jesus died “for us”. Another 13 said Jesus died “to free us” while 10 were more pragmatic in their response, saying Jesus died because “they crucified him”. 82 other unique ideas were also each mentioned by fewer than 10 students.
These answers hint at various theories of the atonement, something that ten years of ministry and three years of graduate school have now given me the language to describe well.
In working on my research, I stumbled upon a view of the atonement I had not previously heard. This one comes from Carl Braaten, someone my senior pastor describes as the closest thing the ELCA has to a systematic theologian. His theory of atonement is one of representation. According to him, "Jesus does not replace us. Christ suffered for us, but he did not suffer instead of us. We still have to suffer. Christ died for us, but he did not die instead of us; we still have to die. He is not our substitute in the sense that he replaces us. He is qualified by his life, death, and resurrection to be our representative. He has the right credentials to be the ambassador of the human race before God"
In this understanding of the atonement, not only is Jesus the representative of humankind before God, but he is also “God's representative” before humankind. Braaten claims, “God needs to have a representative to plead his case in an unbelieving age that asks, 'If God exists and if God is in charge, why does he allow innocent people to suffer and die? Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?'”
On an intuitive, intellectual level, I deeply resonated with this language from the moment I read it. Even so, for me, wrestling with the atonement and the cross has always been an academic pursuit, albeit a very important one.
However, that changed last week when my family faced an unexpected tragedy that has left us mired in grief. The exact details of what happened are, at least for now, unimportant. Suffice it to say, though, my answer to the question, “Why a crucifixion?” is different today than it was a mere 10-days ago.
My answer now falls squarely in line with Braaten's.
Yes, students in my denomination are right: Jesus died for our sins. But that's not all Jesus did on the cross. When we reduce the cross to a mere transaction: His death for our sins, I now believe we miss the greater story.
Christians speak often of the incarnation and of how, through Jesus' birth, God became like us, coming to dwell among us. Certainly, this is true.
But for me, thanks to the events of last week, the place where I most see both Jesus' humanity and divinity is not in his birth, but rather in his death. It's in the moment when he cried out in anguish from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This week, as I have cried out similar words, I have felt the presence of God. I have been deeply comforted knowing that Jesus was also here in this dark place the likes of which I have never known.
So why a crucifixion?
Because it was necessary. To save us from our sins and to conquer death, yes, but also for God to intimately know the pain that is inherently a part of the human experience.
This week, in the midst of terrible grief, when God felt unapproachable to me, Jesus didn't. He truly represented God to me during a time in which that was what I most needed and in so doing, I discovered the truth and comfort that comes with believing that not only does Jesus represent us to God, but on the cross, he represents God to us. This week, the cross plead God's case to me every time I questioned, “Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?”
And so this week, as I approach Good Friday, the cross is important to me both because it is the crux of our faith and because this season, it's where I'm at.
The cross gives me permission to mourn – to cry, scream, and wail against God and the injustices of this world. And so on Good Friday, I will do just that. I will mourn not just Jesus' death but my family's loss last week.
But I will not dwell there because the cross is also about hope. And I see now, in a way that I didn't before that as much as the cross is about death, it's also about life; As much as it's about paying a penalty, it's also about redemption. Sunday's coming and although I've always known and trusted that, this year, I will rejoice in that in a way that I suspect I never have before. This year, I know that through the cross, our God is a God who is with us. He dwells in the darkness with us and eventually, he carries us to the light – even in times so dark that we can't yet see the light.