Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A post lenten reflection: Why did Jesus have to die?

Western Christianity, mainly due to St. Augustine, has a very legalistic view of salvation: Man sinned, and the wages of sin is death, therefore somebody has to get whacked, namely us, Man. To save us from this fate, God sent his son Jesus to die in our stead. Christ's death is necessary to satisfy a legal requirement and once satisfied, Man is off the hook--he is saved from the wages of sin. The punishment was brutal, Christ's suffering was necessary for the sin of mankind required that kind of punishment. At the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus pleaded with God: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me." But ultimately accepted his fate: "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." (Luke 22:42) Christ died horribly, brutally, then 'it is finished.' By dying, he saved mankind. That was what we learned in Catholic school and in church. Jesus had to get whacked to save us. I accepted that wholeheartedly, without question, as a matter of course, not even thinking about it, about what Jesus went through. The lenten specials they show on TV every holy week reminded me, but it wasnt until Mel Gibson's graphic, cringe-inducing The Passion of the Christ jolted me and the rest of Western Christendom into a realization of the horrors of what he went through. Then I started to ask, Why? Surely this wasnt necessary. Surely the God who willed the universe into existence could declare mankind's sins forgiven without having to subject his son to that horrible torture. Surely the God of love, the God who is love, isnt a bloodthirsty letter-of-the-law type of guy. This doesnt make sense! I tried to justify it in my head: It was a lesson for us. God is showing us that he, even he, the God if the universe was subject to the laws he created, what more we who are his creation? But this didnt seem satisfying. God gave the law to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. If, according to Paul, the Mosaic law were no longer binding--at least the letter of it--then it was within God's power to do what he willed with the law on the wages of sin.

Recently, an Anglican cleric said that Christianity's traditional teaching on Christ's crucifixion is "insane." He said, "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they [sic] were a monster." I wouldnt put it quite like that, but he does have a point. Jesus' torture doesnt seem to be a requirement.

It is interesting to note that the Eastern Churches view God's salvation plan differently. Having split from the Western Church long before Augustine, the Eastern Churches do not have a legalistic interpretation of the divine plan. To them, the Incarnation is all that's needed. "His earthly life was based on the presupposition that humanity was already saved and deified, from the very moment of His conception in the womb of Mary, through the operation of the Holy Spirit." Jesus saved mankind by who he is and not by his death. His death was a consequence of being who he is. It's what the world does to people like him. The world kills them; it's an inevitability.

But I believe his death was necessary, dont get me wrong. It was necessary because of one very important thing: the resurrection. By resurrecting, Jesus showed us the way to our own 'deification,' that is, the way to being true children of God. The resurrection is the point of Christ's incarnation. It is the mystery of our faith--Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, like the liturgy says.

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