"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.”
But it raises such good questions, that it demands a spin-off blog of its own.
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.
Nailed it, Anna. (no pun intended).
Very funny. If you are a coffee drinker, clearly you had an espresso to be so quick right after the lunch hour! Grin.
Very good, but did you means “kiesters out of heaven”, or “kiesters out of hell”?
Jesus’ death is certainly impractical in human terms. He gave himself in obedience to God and love of others. That really makes very little sense only in terms of this life. But in terms of the life to come, it makes perfect sense. What if there is no separate heaven and hell? What if there is just resurrection to a new life of worship of God and love of others? John Henry Newman’s sermon “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness” raises the question, would spending an eternity in the worship and praise of God and in service to others be heaven or hell? That depends upon how you’ve lived your life now. If you think the highest good in this life is not to give yourself in obedience to God and love of others, spending an eternity doing those very activities would not be heaven, but hell. Maybe the only way for heaven to be heaven is for us to get our priorities straight in this life. Perhaps that is what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are really all about.
So I totally owe you a big one for catching that awfully humorous typo, which has now been changed, but will forever live on in your comment, and I deserve it.
Robert Farrar Capon (and several people have mentioned him as you’ll see in following comments, and the dumb thing of it is that I had included him in my draft, but feared that the blog had gotten too long and so took him out) believes that heaven will remain open to all, but that God is not coercive.
That is, if someone doesn’t want to be in heaven (whatever that may look like) then so be it….but that that will be up to the person, and not God’s choice. God’s choice is and will remain that of reconciliation.
The notion of hell is also interesting. For someone who couldn’t bear God, then heaven could be hell, as you point out.
But hell as a place of eternal torture sure seems to be inconsistent, in light of a God who reveals a quintessential agenda of life, via an empty tomb (from the Christian standpoint).
I do have to say that any time I hear something about how heaven and hell depend on our actions now, I get nervous.
Why do people act the way that they do? Why are some people Christian and some not? Why are there different forms of Christianity?
The point being, “how you’ve lived your life now” isn’t always up to you.
It’s a crapshoot. Some days more so than on others, if you know what I mean.
So I find myself trying to figure out on what basis God might hold people accountable for circumstances outside of their control.
Getting our priorities in order are key, that is true. But as practice for, or precondition of, heaven? I’m not sure that I can go that way. I can say that “getting our priorities in order” are reflective of that which defines what should be a priority.
Perhaps it’s the Jew in me.
That is, our priorities now are about now. Not then. But now.
“Today I have come to bring salvation.” (That’s Jesus, not me).
Health, healing, wholeness.
Now, to the degree possible.
Then, salvation in its fullness.
Not because we deserve it, but because God wills it.
Well, said Anna! I could almost hear Walter! Robert Capon talks about having to be dead to appreciate grace to its fullest. I cannot think of the book; maybe Parables of Grace.
Jean, you are right, and as the person before and below you mentioned, Capon does point it out in one way or another in most all of his writings! Dead people can’t act. They can only be acted upon. I owe Walt, and Capon, a lot. Peace!
Robert Farrar Capon briefly mentions the notion of resurrection being God’s repentance in THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST AND WHY WE DON’T GET IT. And of course, there’s a whole OT tradition of God repenting– not of sin but of judgment. (See Exodus 32-34, for instance, or the prophet Joel.) The thing that still bothers me is how Jesus’ death is involved in this. Jesus doesn’t have to die for God to repent. God doesn’t kill Jesus, we do. Jesus reveals the character of God’s love that is willing to face death at the hands of the one God loves most deeply. Do we say that all of God’s love has been poured into Jesus so that when Jesus dies for love, so does God? There’s still this wrath thing in Romans to account for. Is God’s anger about the death of Jesus, or about human sin, or about the powers and principalities that ignore the revelation of God’s love in Jesus life? (Yes, of course. But I’m still struggling with how this becomes effective- practical- for us.) God’s decision/promise of resurrection must be the point in which that power of love in some sense becomes our power, spirit, from God.
What if love that is willing to change or die for another’s life is the only real power there is?
So here, again, a big shout-out to Robert Farrar Capon, may I never delete his insights again.
Thank you for noting the OT tradition of God’s repentance. That would be worth a whole blog series, come to think of it, for I fear that it is fairly unknown tradition within Christian circles.
I agree. Jesus doesn’t have to die for God to repent.
My bias is to say that Jesus death is the culmination of the fullness human hubris and will-to-power and, in point of fact, addiction to death-in-the-guise-of-preservation-of-life.
Easter, conversely, is God’s rising above that bent.
Kazoh Kitamori, a Japanese theologian, writes about God’s wrath and God’s pain. God’s pain is that deep anguish that one feels when one forgives powerful hurt out of love. His theology is underrepresented but key stuff.
I like your last line a lot. “What if love that is willing to change or die for another’s life is the only real power there is?” Kenosis. Vulnerability. Giving up.
I think that Easter is the key piece that illuminates Jesus’ life as God’s agenda. This one died and rose from the dead. Not someone like Hitler, for example. It becomes practical, I suppose, when we (Christians) stop and consider a) what was Jesus up to; b) what does that mean if we say that Jesus reveals God; c) what prevents us from following suit; d) is whatever that is more powerful than the empty tomb which says that death is real, but life is real-er?
And then we are freed to change, do die, and, one could argue, to love most fully.
Thanks for the thoughts, Kirsten, as always.
I want to be like you when I grow up.
Going back to the original post. Perhaps I’m a bit mechanical in my thinking:
“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.”
“That is, who needs the grace but the sinner, the one who doesn’t deserve it?”
In the example of the healthcare, you make the point that receiving something perceived as good perhaps should not depend on human judgement of “deserving”.
I wonder if the same is true on the other side, when someone is viewed as needing to receive punishment or “correction” – should this also not depend on human judgement? There are some folks who obviously relish making these judgements. Or the withholding of punishment.
I get the picture that withholding a perceived deserved punishment is not neccessarily viewed as graceful by the humans doing the wittholding, but as mangnanimous. That is, the judgement still exists.
Perhaps my question is, is someone else in a position to judge what my sin is against God, against other people, or against themselves? And myself of someone else?
And then the further question to me would be, should someone else expect repentance and confession to themselves of what they perceive my sins to be against God or a third party? Or should they expect those things for what they perceive as my sins against themselves?
And vice versa of myself with other people?
I think we all find the need to judge situations, and by default other people, to determine our own course and how we should act in our lives. But at what point does this become judgemental? And isn’t being judgemental also being sinful, according to what Jesus talked about? Are we simply compounding sin and woe in the world?
I think that this line of yours is particularly salient: “I think we all find the need to judge situations, and by default other people, to determine our own course and how we should act in our lives. But at what point does this become judgmental?”
There is indeed a fine line between judging and being judgmental. My little mac thesaurus offers these applications of synonyms:
A wise judge makes a judgment by considering as many factors as possible, and coming then to a conclusion. How one sifts through those factors, though, will lead to a very different verdict.
I think that there is a long history of God “appraising” a situation based on chesed, steadfast love. The hope and goal seem to be reconciliation.
Of course we come to our own conclusions based on observations of others’ choices. That is not sinful. When we do so with haughtiness and self-congratulation, well……
One could even argue that how we incorporate the experiences of others, let alone treat those experiencing trouble and travail, might in fact glorify God.
An initial stab, anyway, at your comment.