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Church says Jesus died in our place, but I say to you…


            Churches have perpetuated a belief called atonement or substitution sacrifice with no Gospel evidence to support it.  This theology says Jesus died in our place as if He were some kind of sacrificial anode plug in a hot water heater.  But I say to you Jesus of Nazareth was executed because he was a threat to the ruling narcissistic king of His land Israel, the occupying expanding Roman authority, and the religious collaborating leaders of His temple.   His sacrifice had no more to do with substitution than the firefighter who runs into a burning building to save a life.

Substitution sacrifice theology came nearly a thousand years after the resurrection.  Written in 1097 by Roman Catholic Bishop Anselm (of Canterbury), 1400 AD, it became the dominant reason explaining the death of Jesus.  That theology was picked up surprisingly by the early protestant theologians.  The result gave church leaders, (intentionally or unintentionally), power over the believer with fears of death and eternal damnation. 

Crucifixion as substitution sacrifice leads to panic, guilt, shame, and manipulation.   Over the millennium that this theology has been popular, church leaders have been placed in positions of having the power of forgiveness.  In the hands of bullies such theology has been a weapon to control people, quash creativity, inhibit sexuality, block education and terrorize children into submission.  Indeed the gospel writers themselves would have been horrified.  (This does not mean this faulty theology necessarily turned all Christians into self-centered bullies.  Millions, despite substitution sacrifice theology, followed the anti-oppression discipleship advocated passionately by Jesus of Nazareth.)

            Three reasons refute the theology of substitution sacrifice.

One: At the time of Jesus’ death restoring broken relationships came with only two actions: eating together and gifting.  The animals slaughtered at the Passover were cooked as meals for journeys and celebrations, (like having turkey).  The cooking smoke would rise up as a symbol of a gift to God.  For Jesus and his first followers, all Jewish, there was no mechanism of forgiveness through substitution sacrifice.  Reconciliation followed a self-imposed intentional re-alignment with the mind of God, which is a fancy way to say “re-pent.” 

            Two: Public crucifixion was a Roman deterrent reserved for troublemakers like Jesus who had been effective in vocally opposing Rome and the Jewish puppet king/temple.  Public torture with agonizing death has always been used by oppressive regimes to hold dissidents in check.  Today we study the teachings of Jesus only because He knew the risks of speaking truth to power and went to Jerusalem anyway.  Without this role-modelling behaviour, beyond human comprehension, there would have been no crucifixion.  Without the cross there would have been no resurrection of His passionate liberating theology.  Without His conviction, courage, passion and theology, the crowds, whom He inspired, likely may never have happened.  Without His role modeling, the work of the early church leaders likely may never have happened.

            Three: The God of Jesus is neither limited nor negative.  Substitution sacrifice theology limits God by teaching God only forgives if payment is made.  Substitution sacrifice paints God as negative, being the Creator who willed torture.  The God in whom I believe is neither limited nor negative. 

The alternative is evolutionary theology.  Evolution theology says that universal justice, compassion, fair trade, and sustainable peace took Jesus (and those who dare to emulate Him) through a process into the cross and onto resurrection.  Regretfully, the popular Christian belief in substitution sacrifice has dominated popular theology for the last 1000 years.  Had discipleship been modelled purely on the teachings of the Teacher perhaps the church would have challenged self-centered power-mongers instead of rewarding narcissistic bullies.  It has taken a long time, but there is a significant shift towards the first century AD understanding of the radical meaning of the Teacher’s death on Good Friday.  Maybe our religious institutions are catching up to Jesus!

George Zimmerman, Captain (Navy) retired
Minister, St. David and St. Martin Presbyterian Church,

Published courtesy of Manor Park Chronicle

St. David & St. Martin is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.