"Rarely, will anyone die for a righteous person." The Impracticality of Jesus' Death
The problem I see every day amongst Christians is the inability to find a more practical explanation to those of us who don’t quite understand the meaning of giving up your only son to save a bunch of sinners. Why would anyone do that? And worse: no matter what kind of crook you’ve been your whole life, just accept such a travesty and you secured a spot in heaven. And I’m supposed to reason with that????? Come on!!!
So in the spirit of candor, this question really was intended to be a comment on this blog, “Reader Question: God of the OT Really Be God of the New? Spin it for me.”
I like that you are wanting a more “practical explanation” of what Christians believe was Jesus’ voluntary death for the sake of others.
Because whatever else you can say about Jesus, his message is not overtly practical.
The thought you have posed above also crossed the mind of the Apostle Paul. Take a look below at the excerpt from Romans 5. I know that it’s a large chunk of text. Best to read through the whole thing, but if you don’t want to, just note the bolded part.
5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
That’s the text I’m going to use as a reference point for your question.
So let’s have at it.
These feminist theologian’s shoulders get a bit tight when you write that you can’t understand “the meaning of giving up your only son to save a bunch of sinners.”
You come by the idea honestly! It’s everywhere in Christian theology.
I’m just not so sure that it’s accurate, at least insofar as it goes.
Feminist theologians worry–and let me be clear, male theologians are also feminist theologians!–that such language fosters the idea that God is an abusive father, a being who willingly had his son killed, and just passively and apathetically sat aside as Jesus suffered.
These theologians want to quickly point out that God didn’t stick Jesus up on the cross.
That is, Jesus’ dedication to God’s agenda of commitment to the poor, and hungry, and powerless, and outcasts, and (per your question) sinners, ticked people off, and got him in a mess of trouble.
So the way we tend to handle those who threaten our level of comfort and privilege and power is to get rid of them.
Which is precisely what happened to Jesus. (Even if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, you can agree that that’s why he got killed.)
He had friends in low places.
Why did he do it? Why did he live in a way that was sure to get him killed?
Well, lots of ways to consider that.
The Old and New Testaments are pretty darn consistent in telling of a God who strives for reconciliation over judgment, and forgiveness over condemnation.
On paper, this makes no sense, as you point out.
But have you ever loved anybody, in spite of yourself?
Have you ever been loved, in spite of yourself?
Love is not reasonable.
The thing about God is this: God covets wholeness; individual and collective wholeness.
God knows that we are not right unless we are all alright.
Part of our difficulty (because you are in good company: we US Americans have an especially hard time wrapping our minds around this) in imagining God “saving a bunch of sinners” is because we are used to people deserving what they get.
(As an aside, again, I think it fascinating that we here in the good old USA seem yet to believe that health insurance is a right tied to being employed rather than a right tied to being human. That is, our policies implicitly make clear that those who have jobs–and especially well-paying ones at that–deserve to receive cancer treatments, surgeries, ER care more than those who do not have jobs and are not self-sufficient.)
By definition, grace, as I’ve said before, means that which is given precisely to those who don’t deserve it. If someone deserved it, they’d be getting something, but it wouldn’t be grace.
A reward, perhaps.
But not grace.
But this commitment to grace, or to wholeness and reconciliation, does not mean that one’s tragic choices, choices that cause pain to others and to one’s self, don’t matter.
They do matter.
Profoundly, they matter.
A loud and clear “NO,” and manifest (sometimes painful) consequences can also be manifest grace. Saying, “This is not o.k. And choices on your part lead to choices on the part of others, on the part of me” is difficult, risky, and can place one in positions of grave vulnerability, isolation, and may well lead to the severance of relationships.
The hope is that the NO is not the final word.
The NO is spoken within the bracket of YES, I love you. YES, we are striving for wholeness. YES, we know that you are more than these choices.
Sometimes it even works.
You see, grace does not mean that there is no comeuppance.
Forgiveness does not mean that what occurred was acceptable or forgettable.
And while there are several examples in Scripture where forgiveness is given when no repentance is extended, repentance, confession, humble offering of heart in hand, can be very cleansing.
It might not change the breach, but it can acknowledge it.
And that acknowledgement might even be more beneficial to the perpetrator than to the one harmed.
To boot, it is possible that the one harmed might even discover that what had once seemed so black and white, might not be. Perhaps she or he even contributed to the grey.
(Makes me think of that Jewish observation that even God needs to be forgiven. That is, what a set-up! An imperfect world is created in which there is often no correct answer and we are held liable? What’s up with that?)
I digress, but only a bit.
The point isn’t that the choice doesn’t matter, is inconsequential, is overlookable.
The point is that the choice is not ultimate.
It is not final.
It is not definitive.
So Christians identify themselves primarily by Easter, an event which makes it clear that God’s agenda is life. Death is powerful, but is not more powerful than God’s promise of bringing life out of it.
It would be interesting to consider whether Easter is God’s confession and repentance.
Hmmm. Typing out loud, which is generally a bad idea.
Anyway, let’s get back to Paul, who said in verse 18, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
As my mentor Walt Bouman said in his last sermon, “I take it that when Paul said ‘all‘ he meant all!”
So where there is death, God rolls up the divine sleeves and gets to work to bring about life, and new beginnings.
So just as a physician does not treat the well, so God does not offer life to the alive.
In other words, it might be practical after all.
That is, who needs the grace but the sinner, the one who doesn’t deserve it?
Perhaps that’s why Paul writes that God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died, with the end gain being that although we will still die, we will not be ultimately killed.
And again, as Walt wrote, now that you know that death doesn’t win, there is more to do with your life than preserve it. This in turn frees us to become something new: not out of fear, not out of a disingenuous desire to keep our kiesters out of hell, but because we are loved into a new way of being.
And that’s got some practical traction.