Now that the rush of excitement surrounding The Passion of the Christ is over, it is time to step into the space it has provided for dialogue about the meaning of the life of Jesus. I believe the most profound question facing the church is whether the life and death of Jesus have had any perceptible, positive impact on the world.
True, there are about 2 billion Christians in the world, but is the world 2,000 after the Incarnation any less corrupt, brutal or pain-filled than it was before what Christianity claims is the pivotal event in history? If the world is better off now than it was then, can these results be attributed to the Christian movement?
The failure of the Christ event to cause an easily discernable improvement in the world is not an unprecedented matter. Genesis 6-8 tells the story of a great flood which kills all the inhabitants of the earth, except for eight human beings and a few dozen animals. This is presented as God’s plan to blot out all of the evil which filled the earth. Despite all the death and destruction caused by this enormous act of cleansing, however, the world after the flood looks just as bad as it did before.
Is it possible that the Incarnation was supposed to have a better effect, but we have thwarted this purpose by misunderstanding and misrepresenting it? I have been thinking about this possibility for a long time, and now Mel Gibson has forced this issue back to the front of my mind.
I believe that the recent blockbuster film misconstrues the meaning of the life and death of Jesus, yet it seems to resonate with the common understanding.
I grew up a Baptist, hearing the gospel expressed in the common way: “Our sins are forgiven because Jesus died on the cross.” The death of Jesus represents the punishment we all should have received from God, but Jesus took it in our place. The most common metaphor used to portray the death of Jesus was the ritual practice of sacrifice.
Even as a teenager I can remember being dissatisfied by this understanding, but I did not understand why, nor was I equipped to challenge the common theology all around me. The first time I recall thinking about an alternative was in graduate school when I began reading the works of a French literary critic named Rene Girard.
In Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard recognized that sacrifice is part of a mechanism by which society deflects violence onto a unanimous victim. As such, sacrifice is not a solution to the problem of violence but a temporary means of controlling it.
This realization led Girard, a Roman Catholic Christian, to the conclusion that the common understanding of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice only makes him a participant in this ongoing cycle of violence. The crucifixion and resurrection can only deliver humanity if they expose this mechanism of victimization as the world’s greatest lie and refuse to participate in it. The work of Girard has been developed further by specialists in biblical studies and theology like Robert Hamerton-Kelly (Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross) and Anthony Bartlett (Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement).
I have begun to realize that the sentence “Our sins are forgiven because Jesus died on the cross,” makes Jesus a sacrificial victim and simply perpetuates the human cycle of violence. This theological statement needs to be reversed: “Jesus died on the cross because our sins are forgiven.”
Such an idea has clear expression in the New Testament in the story of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2. Jesus says to the young man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The crowd is astonished and the religious leaders are offended because Jesus exercises the authority to forgive sins. No violent death is necessary for him to do so. Jesus is the Son of God and has the authority to forgive sins by saying so. Jesus is murdered because he disrupts the elaborate and manipulative religious systems of humanity which utilize victimization to transact forgiveness.
Those who benefit from the operation of such systems must safeguard their interests and put an end to this disruption. Thus the reversed statement, “Jesus died on the cross because our sins are forgiven,” seems to fit the gospel story better. One need not cease to understand the life of Jesus as an act of self-denying love. Jesus saw that his message of forgiveness led to his persecution, yet he continued to announce the forgiveness of sins.
Why is this shift in language so important? The problem with the understanding of atonement presented in The Passion of the Christ–and contained within the common theology of our day–is that it presents sin as a problem God solves by having Jesus killed as a sacrifice. God solves problems using violence, and then commands human beings to be like God. This tells the world to solve its biggest problems by violent means. If this is the case, then we have been obedient.
The New Testament uses sacrifice occasionally as a metaphor to talk about the death of Jesus, particularly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but this is far from being the most significant understanding of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures. In fact, it is absent from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
The transactional model of substitutionary atonement was fully developed in the late Middle Ages by St. Anselm, and it has overwhelmed Christian theology since that time. The result has been that the church has contributed to the cycle of violence at least as much as it has attempted to expose and put an end to it.
The argument above has one great potential weakness. The particular religious system with which Jesus clashed was first century Judaism. Christian history is tarnished by acts of vengeance against Jews for the murder of Jesus. Unless we are careful to see this particular religious system as merely representative of all such systems, including Christianity, we will fall into the same trap of anti-Semitic vengeance.
The good news of Jesus that “Your sins are forgiven” must be continuously proclaimed as the antidote to human, transactional systems, lest we fall back into the cycle of violence that Jesus risked his life to expose. The cost is letting go of the power and control that our own transactional systems give us.
Fortunately, we follow a Christ who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself” (Phil 2:6-7)
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.