A course that I teach regularly for the college is THL 101, Introduction to Christian Theology. Many professors don’t enjoy teaching “intro” courses, but I find it a rewarding challenge to open young minds not only to the topics of theology, but to the very proposal itself that they should be interested in those topics. “This course is about you,” I tell them: “how you make meaning of life, and how you make sense of your experiences. Religion, culture, philosophy–each of these is a tool for meaning-making” (the fancy term for this is hermeneutics).
One of the topics discussed in the course is soteriology, the study of salvation. The purpose of the unit is to introduce students to the fact that salvation is a much wider, far richer subject than they probably realize. Christians obviously believe that Jesus Christ is the source of their salvation, but how they understand that is multidimensional. To demonstrate the point in class we discuss several models of salvation. After all, there are many ways to understand the Christian notion of salvation; if this were not so, we couldn’t honestly refer to it as a mystery. Christ is our redeemer, our teacher, our victor, our high priest, our source of renewal and completion. In the study of soteriology, each of these titles becomes a salvific paradigm for exploring just what it is that we believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Each paradigm, in turn, offers us a layer of meaning or a lens through which to understand salvation. Although they are not mutually exclusive (each is helpful in its own way), some are better known than others. In particular times and places, some have been more popular than others. Sometimes they are misunderstood or they’re marred by poor theology.
If you ask a typical Christian in the United States how they are saved by Jesus, most of the time you’ll get some variant of a model known as the Satisfaction Theory. As popularly espoused by fundamentalist preachers and TV evangelists, this model proposes that God is angry with sinners who have offended divine righteousness. The sinner is in a “Catch-22” situation–stuck in a paradox of cosmic theological proportions. The sinner has offended God and should make amends. But because it is God who is offended, the sinful human is unable to make the necessary repairs to the offended party. In this model, God has a sizeable ego.
Making some very questionable interpretations of scripture, those who preach this understanding of salvation often quote Romans 6:23a. “The wages of sin is death,” they remind us, so someone has to die. For this reason the Father sent the Son to his death, an idea that is nothing short of divine filicide. This nasty misinterpretation is both dangerous and offensive. When speaking of the divine we should think harder, reflect longer, and speak more carefully.
Years ago I took a few courses with Stephen J. Duffy, a priest-professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. At the time I was completing an MA in religious studies. During a break several of us were continuing the class discussion outside with Fr. Duffy as we sipped our coffee and soft drinks. I asked him, “why did Jesus have to die?” I’ll never forget his direct and rather blunt reply: “Jesus didn’t have to die. God sent him and we humans killed him.”
It was so simple that I was temporarily stunned. The truth had been right in front of my face for my entire life. I had not been listening to scripture all the previous years, I had been reading something into scripture that wasn’t there. Clearly, the earliest Christian tradition insists that Christ died and that his death was inflicted by an unjust political regime. Just as clearly, the tradition upholds the salvific nature of his death. But did God send him to die? That, I came to understand, is a proposition unworthy of God.
A helpful interpretation of Jesus’ death can be ascertained by reading the letters of Paul. We must allow ourselves to hear the authentic Paul and to discern his teaching without repainting him with the lens of our own misunderstanding. For Paul, Jesus is not the intended sacrificial victim. Instead, he is the perfectly obedient child of God who came to announce the good news of God’s kingdom. His mission was to share God’s own vision, God’s own hopes for the world. He was a living invitation to a divine feast. Given this insight, is it any wonder that he so often could be found eating and drinking with sinners? Is it any wonder that he still offers himself through the simple elements of bread and wine?
For Paul, Christ “emptied himself” in obedience. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8). It’s not that God desired his death. It’s that Christ was obedient to the desire of God that the divine message be proclaimed and not be derailed by human sin. When threatened, Christ did not cease his mission. When certain of impending death, he did not relent in his preaching. Jesus of Nazareth was the epitome of authenticity. A person of absolute integrity, his entire being was at the service of the truth as he understood it.
As God’s appointed agent of reconciliation, Jesus’ obedience becomes the sacramental activator of humanity’s renewed relationship with the divine. His faithfulness, even in the face of death threats, heals our unfaithfulness. His perfect willingness to serve, even if it meant death, repairs our broken wills. He died because of his faithfulness, not because God wished him to die. This is his witness and it becomes our way of salvation. In baptism we are incorporated into his body in a spiritual way that transcends the physical. As part of his body we share in what he has accomplished. As part of him we participate in his faithfulness.
“We are justified by faith,” Paul tells us in Romans 5:1, but let us not presume that it is our faith that saves us. It is the perfect faith of Christ Jesus. It is the obedience and willingness of him who did not hesitate to pay the ultimate price in obedience to God’s dream for the world. And now the very brokenness that ended his life has been caught up in new life, new possibilities, and all because of a very old dream for the world–a dream which is as ancient as the divine life itself.
This post is dedicated to Marylyn, my sister in Christ. Scriptural quotations are taken from the online edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Oremus Bible Browser.