I preach ... Kavanaugh and him crucified?

Crucifixion had everything to do with sacrificing power

By David Galston | 10/16/2018

There was much concern and a little shock at the Westar Institute when we learned that Greg Gutfeld compared the Brett Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee to the crucifixion of Jesus. Gutfeld is a Fox News host, so perhaps this is no surprise, but it remains sad.

Gutfeld relayed the typical Christian line apparently taught to him during his 12-years in a Christian school: Jesus died for our sins. In the course of doing so, he managed to say that the Democratic Party, which traces its modern founding to 1828 and whose last presidential candidate won the election but lost the Electoral College, was the equivalent of a mob. The mob reference is troubling on its own and the subject of another Westar blog.  Meanwhile, political statements, like those that mock an established American political party, is a subject Westar is not directly constituted to address. Addressing ill-conceived theological statements, however, which should concern all who care about religious literacy, is what Westar is about.

It sounds biblical to say that Jesus died for our sins, and it sounds like a tried and true theological statement commonly repeated in Christian pulpits. This claim, though, rests on a longstanding misinterpretation. The Christian New Testament has various ways to talk about Jesus and sin, but it lacks the idea that Jesus died in our place as an auxiliary for our sins. The Christian New Testament says neither that Jesus died in spite of our sins nor that Jesus died in substitution of our sins. That theology, called substitutionary atonement, is a later idea specifically attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1033 to 1109.

Though Paul does use the phrase, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture” (NRSV, I Cor 15:3), he interestingly does not say which scripture because there isn’t one. He probably means “in the spirit” of scripture, and it is clear that he is quoting a confessional statement from earliest Christianity. The confession is threefold, “Christ died, was buried, and was raised.” Paul might have added “for our sins” or more likely it was there in the earlier confession. If it’s Paul, it’s the only time he uses this phrase.

Whether Paul used the phrase from an earlier confession or added the phrase himself, what does it mean? One thing it does not mean is substitutionary atonement. It rather means something positive, that Christ died for the cause of or out of faithfulness to the movement. It is an expression of martyrdom meant to inspire a vision and to encourage the followers. Paul might also be using “our” to identify with the nations (the Gentiles), who were separated from the covenant with God and aliens to its promises (as the author of Ephesians says, 2:12). In this sense, Paul is speaking as a member of the nations and is saying Christ died in order to cancel the power over us (“us” and “our” refers to “we” of the nations who were under the corrosive power of sin).

So, Christ died in order to cancel the power – not in our place but for the purposes of our reconciliation – an active not passive move. It would be better, in English, to translate the Greek word “hyper” (for) as “for the purpose of” because it is an intentional motion – an actor intentionally moving forward to us for the purpose of something. The Scholars Version translate I Cor 15:3 positively both to avoid substitutionary atonement and to recognize Paul’s understanding of sin as an alien power: “the Anointed died to free us from the seductive power of corruption.” Rightly understood, Paul is talking about corruptive powers over the nations (Gentiles) that Christ defeated in an act of faithfulness. This, not substitutionary atonement, is Paul’s gospel.

This understanding of Paul's phrase leads to the second point. Paul never says that “Christ died in place of our sins” but is consistent in saying that Christ died for the purposes of transformation (reconciliation), inclusion, and liberation. The death of Jesus is related to God’s act of transforming the nations. It is something God does actively for the stranger (that is, for the non-Jewish nations). It is not an act for an individual but one that holds an international sense. The Messiah is the unexpected (stumbling block) victim of Roman imperial forces, but, as such, through the humiliated one God identifies with the humiliated nations.

The nations become heirs to the promises God gave to the Jews. Paul sees the Jews and the nations as reconciled bodies because Christ died out of faithfulness to this world-transforming cause. Probably Paul’s summary statement is II Cor 5:18, “For all of this comes out of God’s (act of) transformation through (the faithfulness of) Christ by which we are in the service of transformation” (translation mine. Traditional translations here use reconciliation in place of transformation).

The synoptic gospels have a different take, but still do not hold substitutionary atonement as their theology. In the earliest narrative gospel, Mark, Jesus' death is described as a "ransom" (given for the cause of liberation) and in Matthew at the Last Supper as blood poured out for forgiveness. The self-sacrificial images are clear, and antiquity does not restrict them to Jesus (for example, Socrates, in Plato's eyes, also died for the cause of liberation). The gospel writers imitate Jewish and Pagan understandings of sacrifice for liberation:  an act for others and for the release of others from slavery.

The word "forgiveness" in Matthew is meant in this way. The Greek is aphesis, which is not well translated as "forgiveness" in modern English. Aphesis is about "releasing" (specifically a prisoner or a slave) from captivity. It is forgiveness in an active sense. It is reminiscent of God’s act to liberate Israel from slavery in Egypt. It means you are liberated to live, with the emphasis falling on an act for you (your liberty, your chance at life, your opportunity to get in the game). It is not an act "in place of you" or "in spite of you." Aphesis does not mean that you actually deserve to die but conveniently someone else will die in your place. It is not about a passive death suffered instead of us (because, unfortunately, we will still die) but an active death for us - to give us something - for liberation. The courage to live for and to affirm liberation is, biblically speaking, the insight that follows from the crucifixion.

In the context of the Roman empire, the earliest Christians’ choice to live out liberation against oppression was the act of living in Christ. It was an activity, not a belief. It was about "freedom" in the sense of freedom from imperial structures of oppression (captivity) and freedom for life as equality in the body (Paul) and liberation from oppression (Mark and especially Luke). The idea was that Jesus lives in the living out of "the world-transforming news" (gospel).

In our time and in the context of our empire, living out the world-transforming news has or should have nothing to do with individualism, self-affirmed salvation, and believing Jesus died in my place. The "#Me Too" movement and the courage of someone like Christine Blasey Ford to speak up despite the risk of public shame has a lot more to do with the death of Jesus for reconciliation and for liberation than the theatrical denials of a Brett Kavanaugh or the brutal ignorance of a Greg Gutfeld. Being for liberation - for acting, for speaking, for living out justice, freedom, equality - is the act of understanding the death of Jesus in Christianity

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.