Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Atonement Theory in the 21st Century

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Why did Jesus have to die? Ask a Christian this question, and the answer you’re most likely to get is a short one: “Jesus died for our sins.”

Ask what this means, and you’re likely to hear something like, “Jesus died to take the punishment we deserve for our sins. Now that our debt has been paid, our sins can be forgiven, and we can be reconciled to God and go to heaven when we die.”

In theological terms, this is called the substitutionary atonement. It’s the most common understanding of Jesus’ death among American Christians, and has been for quite a while.

It may come as a surprise to many, therefore, to learn that this isn’t the only view of Jesus’ death that the church has taught, or even the most prominent one in the Bible!

In fact, the most common understanding of Jesus’ death in the early church (and still the dominant understanding in the Eastern Orthodox Church), is another theory of atonement called Christus Victor.

According to the Christus Victor theory, Jesus’ death does set us free from sin, but not by taking our punishment for it. No, Jesus’ death and resurrection does something much more powerful than this – it actually sets us free from the power of sin and death, both now and in the age to come.

How does this work, exactly? Saint Paul tells us that through His death and resurrection, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” (Col 2:15).

Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver further explains, “As the innocent victim, Jesus exposes the violence of those who oppose the reign of God. His death unmasks the powers of evil, and renders empty their claim that peace and order are founded on violence” (Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement).

In other words, Jesus takes our violence and desire for vengeance upon Himself, and thus frees us from it. Jesus died, not because God needed a blood sacrifice, but because we did!

There are many Scriptures that support this view, including Acts 4:23-31, 1 Corinthians 2:7-8, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 2:14-18, and Hebrews 9:13-14.

To me, this is a much better understanding of the atonement then the substitutionary one, which I find hard to reconcile with the God of love I know.

Indeed, why would an all-powerful, all-loving God need a human sacrifice to forgive sin? Couldn’t God just forgive us without demanding repayment? The Orthodox Church, and many others, say that God does exactly that!

In the words of Walter Wink, “God has renounced any accounting of sins; no repayment is required or even possible. Why then was a redemptive act necessary? Because our resentment toward God and our will to kill leave us unable to turn to God” (Wink, Engaging the Powers).

And so it seems that God was willing to go any lengths, including dying in the form of Jesus, to break down our hostility and help us be reconciled to Him/Herself (and to one another).  This, and not substitutionary atonement, is the amazing grace that sets us free!

There are many ways to understand Jesus’ death, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. But I am particularly drawn to the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement, for several reasons.

For one thing, it seems to me to have much more power to change lives than any other atonement theory I have come across.

If we believe that the primary purpose of Jesus’ death was simply to take our punishment, this can produce a docile faith that never accomplishes much in the way of justice or mercy for others. Just get your ticket to heaven, and that’s it.

But if Jesus died and rose again to take away not just the penalty but the power of sin and death, this is truly a freedom that will change us to the core!

Furthermore, the Christus Victor theory follows what Jesus actually taught – that we are to love even our enemies, and not return evil for evil (Matt 5:38-48, 26:52, John 8:1-11, etc).

By challenging what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” it shows us that true power is found, not in violence, but in self-sacrificing love. In an age where state-sanctioned violence is threatening the very survival of the planet, this is a message that needs to be heard!

Finally, this understanding of the atonement preserves the image of God as a loving Father/Mother.

Indeed, one of the greatest weaknesses of Western Christianity has been our schizophrenic image of God. God is love, we are told; but this love requires a blood sacrifice. God is love, but if we resist that love, we will be punished for all eternity.

In this regard we have much to learn from the church of the East – which, with her Christus Victor atonement and non-punitive view of hell, seems much more consistent and believable when she speaks of the love of God.

Why, then, did Jesus have to die? I submit that He didn’t “have to die.” There was no constraint placed on Him in this regard.

But Jesus chose to die at the hands of the state because He loves us, and believed that this death (and resurrection) would give us the power to love God and one another. My prayer is that one day we will all get the message.


(Coming Soon: Who’s Your Mama? The True Church vs. the Whore of Babylon)


4 thoughts on “Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Atonement Theory in the 21st Century

  1. I have to admit i have not yet gotten a very clear idea on the whole “Atonement” issue. Hopefully that will come in time as needs arise.

    I see Jesus’s death (and resurrection) as more of an Ultimate Example for each one of us to follow: we all know that one day we will die on this Earth but Jesus took it a step further and knew that He would actually choose to take an action that would result in his mortal death, a dying to this earth and all that is in it in favour of the way of Spirit and all that is in heaven Above us, but which would in turn allow His Father to grant Him eternal spiritual life, and indeed the power over bodily life and death.

    Sadly, i don’t see all that much evidence in favour of many christians actually doing what Jesus did for themselves – as we’ve been instructed to.

    Maybe someone should write an instruction manual if there is not one already published?
    (Other than the NT)



    1. Yes, this is called the “moral influence” theory of atonement. Along with substitutionary atonement and christus victor, it’s one of the three classic understandings of Jesus’ death. But why would we need an instruction manual? We have the words of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, both personally and corporately. Another written code would not help us, I don’t think.


  2. You’re probably right – another set of guidelines probably would not help all that many people and may only serve to further weaken our understanding ( not weaken, perhaps i mean dilute?) My reason for stating it though is 2-fold.

    Firstly, while we have some words indirectly transcribed to us purportedly from Jesus Himself i think it is important to consider why we have the words we have today; who wrote these; who selected these into the current New Testament and why were only these selected. Modern scholars such as E B Szekely have transcribed documents from ancient times that claim to also be the words, life and times of Jesus Christ yet are known to very few alive today. Most modern english bible versions are but edited versions of the Roman Catholic Vulgate texts, themselves including works of Hebrew religious books. we don’t get a ‘complete’ version of Christ is my point.

    Secondly, Christ has not spoken to mankind as a whole, directly, for 2000 years however man has had much to say concerning where we should be directing our hearts and minds in the intervening period – so much so that many billions of us may find it difficult, if not impossible, to choose to live our lives in the way Christ Himself set as The Example. Basically i think those people ( and i include myself amongst them) could do with a little more ‘support’ or encouragement, a reasoned and relevant to today philosophy, to better allow us to find our way – His Way.

    The way IS narrow and straight and very few of my family, friends and people i know seem to be sticking to it all that well…. or is it just me thinking this?



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