At Easter, and especially on Good Friday, we think of the death of our Lord on the Cross. For most believers at Easter, however, this is not their main focus. Their main focus at Easter is the celebration on Easter Sunday of the resurrection of our Lord. But this does raise the question of what our Lord’s death was all about. Ask most ordinary believers and they will struggle to give an answer. They are not alone. A quick glance through scholarly works on the crucifixion will soon show that professional theologians also find it hard to explain. The death of our Lord has been understood in a variety of ways. Indeed, different ways of understanding the death of Jesus have dominated the Church’s thinking at different times in the Church’s history.
In the present time, the understanding of the death of Jesus that is most common in the Church, and which most believers have in mind when thinking of our Lord’s death, is one that combines belief in the love of God and what can best be described as the historical inevitability of Jesus’ death.
There are four basic ideas which are central to this understanding.
1. God saw that we as humans are in a mess for all sorts of reasons. While some of them are our own fault, many of them are not. God, out of pure love, sent his Son to help us get out of the mess we are in, regardless of how we got into it, and to show us how to live so as not to get in a mess in the future.
2. God sent his Son knowing that most people would not listen to him and, worse still, knowing that even when they did listen, they would not like what they heard. God knew that people would turn on his Son and try to silence him. God realized that many, especially the powerful, would find his Son challenging and threatening. But because God loved us so much, he still sent his Son to us.
3. Jesus himself knew that if he did what the Father asked of him there would be those who opposed him and that his death would be inevitable. Jesus could have avoided his death on the Cross, but he chose instead to accept the mission that God had given him. He did this to reveal God to us and God’s love for us. By his teaching and example, Jesus shows us the way to have rich and satisfying lives ourselves and inspires us to work to make it possible for others to have them too.
4. Although he knew that his death was inevitable, Jesus trusted that God would not let him down and that his death would not be the end. Jesus believed that God would raise him from the dead and bring him back into the Father’s presence. The resurrection, then, shows that Jesus was who he said he was and that his teaching was true and should be accepted by us as coming from God himself. The resurrection of Jesus points us to a new way of living.
So, then, although there was a historical inevitability to Jesus’ death, God still sent his Son to us and his Son came willingly out of love for us. God not only sent his Son so we could find forgiveness - after all God could have just gone on forgiving us as he had been doing all along - but so we would know God understands us, accepts us, and forgives us when we need forgiving. What is more, Jesus came to show us by his life and teaching how we can live fulfilling lives and create a society in which others can live fulfilling lives too.
The death of Jesus, while foreseen by God, was accepted by him in order to accomplish God’s goal of revealing himself to us and showing us how to live. The resurrection is both the proof and guarantee that God is on our side and will one day raise us too. We need have no fear of death. We can get on with our lives and building the sort of world God wants, secure in the knowledge that when we die, all will be well.
The wonderful thing about this understanding of the life and death of Jesus is that it can accommodate the various opposing beliefs that Christians have and disagree over.
So, for example, if you want to believe in the Virgin Birth, you can, but you don’t have to; nothing is affected by it. If you want to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus you can, but if you prefer to think of it in more spiritual terms, that’s fine too. If you want to believe in a literal second coming of Jesus, you can; however, if you prefer to see it as more of a metaphor that’s also perfectly OK.
What we believe or do not believe about these various issues, about which Christians have different opinions, do not affect the basic structure of this understanding of what God has revealed to us and done for us and in Christ.
It is an understanding of the life and death of Jesus that makes sense and enables us to explain the death of Jesus in an historically credible way. While Jesus’ death, on this way of understanding it, was inevitable given Jesus’ life, nevertheless in Jesus’ acceptance of his death, he demonstrates the love of God for us.
The answer to the question of whether there was anything else going on in the death of Jesus is quite simply: what more do we need? If pressed about the nature of evil and the existence of the Devil, most of those who advocate this understanding of the death of Jesus will respond that the Devil is not an actual being, but the personification of all that is bad in the world. The figure of the Devil, they say, is a way of representing evil. Jesus, however, by not giving into evil and choosing to die rather than to compromise the truth, has shown that evil can be overcome. And even if we insist on believing that the Devil is real, the message is still the same: it is God who has the last word, not evil or the devil.
The great appeal of this understanding of Jesus’ death is that we can understand it. It not only makes sense of what happened, but gives us a framework for understanding the story of Jesus and for how we should live as followers of him now.
So where does ‘sin’ fit into all this? After all, traditionally the Church has believed that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). Sin, on this understanding of the death of Jesus, is overcome by the love and goodness of God in Jesus. Jesus teaches us how to avoid sin in our own lives and shows us how to free others from it in theirs.
I call this way of understanding the death of Jesus, the LEGO model of the atonement. (Atonement is the word given by theologians to how we understand the death of Jesus.) So, taking the word LEGO, L-E-G-O:
(L) A Loving God, (E) Enters our existence as one of us, (G) Gives us freedom and forgiveness, and (O) Offers a new way of living. Jesus’ death on the Cross shows just how much God loves us.
It is a model that explains and accounts for much that we read in the New Testament. It answers many of the questions that people have about the life and death of Jesus. Take the following three questions for example:
1. Was there no other way? Answer: There was certainly no better way than for God himself to become one of us and to reveal himself to us in the person of his Son.
2. But did Jesus have to die? Answer (again, on this way of understanding Jesus’ death): Jesus had to die, not because his death was desirable, but, again, because it was inevitable given what he taught and how he lived. Jesus’ message was such that there would be people who would want to get rid of him as they have many others who have stood for what is good, right, and true. Take Gandhi, for example.
3. Couldn’t God just have forgiven us? Answer: Yes, he could and, indeed, God has been doing so for all our history. However, God wanted to do more than forgive us; he wanted to demonstrate how much he loves us and to show us the way to live that enables us to be the people he made us to be and motivate us to create the sort of society where all his children can flourish.
The attractiveness of the LEGO model of the atonement is how it answers, explains, and accounts for so much in the story of Jesus and gives a rational and plausible reason for his death.
It is like someone making a model with actual Lego. The bricks are all there; it is up the person making the model to put them together. The LEGO model of the atonement takes various parts of the Gospel story and puts them together to create a model for understanding both the life and death of Jesus.
So, what’s the problem? It seems a perfectly good way to understand the death of Jesus. The problem with it, to change the metaphor, is what I call the IKEA problem.
Much of the furniture that you buy at IKEA is self-assembly. It’s often not easy making sense of the instructions, and frequently, even when you think you have understood them and have put it all together, you still discover that you have bits left over.
These left-over bits fall into one of three categories:
1. Bits that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and so can be safely ignored.
2. Bits which are not really needed, and so you don’t have to worry about them.
3. Bits which are essential, and so if you try to use what you have assembled without them, what you have assembled will all fall apart.
The LEGO model of the atonement quite deliberately doesn’t use all the bricks in the set. There are statements in the New Testament that don’t easily fit into the model. So, using our IKEA analogy, which category do they fall into? Are they bits of the New Testament that can be ignored, perhaps because they are incidental to the story? Are they bits that aren’t needed because they were only relevant to the particular time and culture in which they were written? Or are they essential so that our model, nice though it is, is the wrong one?
The majority in the Church, I would suggest, have decided that the LEGO model of the atonement is very much the right one. If you listen to the various Christian leaders talking about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus this Easter, you will soon see that the LEGO model of the atonement is behind much of what they say and preach. The question, then, is: are they right? You will have probably gathered by now that I don’t think they are. In fact, I not only think they are wrong, but dangerously wrong.
I realize that this leaves me open to the accusation of arrogance. Who do I think I am to disagree with people who cleverer and more important than I am? I would, to begin with, say in my defence that while I may be in a minority at the present time, I am not in a minority historically. The LEGO model of the atonement, while it has been around for some time, has never been the dominant model in the past in the way it is in the present. But, in any case, God’s truth cannot be decided by majority vote. It was the majority vote that got Jesus crucified.
It is, then, perhaps worth asking why the LEGO model of the atonement is so appealing at the present time. The answer is that it fits with other ideas that have now taken centre stage in the Church.
Firstly, I have talked much in previous sermons about the ‘ideology of self’. This is the belief, central to our age that life should be about self-fulfilment and self-realization; that our goal in life should be to believe in ourselves and to realize our potential. The LEGO model of the atonement tells us that this is what God wants for us too. Why else would he have sent Jesus? By his life and death, Jesus shows us that God is on our side and wants to help us to be the person we want to be. God wants to help us achieve our dreams and Jesus shows us how to.
Secondly, the ‘narrative of oppression’, which I spoke about in the sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this year, describes what prevents people from living fulfilled lives. It is not because there is any deficiency in them that they need saving from, but because of unjust structures and systemic evil in society, which they need liberating from. These are structures such as patriarchy, which oppresses women, and evils such as racism, which privileges those who are white. The LEGO model of the atonement shows us how Jesus in his life sought to free people from what oppressed them and how it was precisely because he opposed such structures and evil that Jesus was killed by those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The LEGO model for understanding the death of Jesus is demanded by both the Ideology of Self and the Narrative of Oppression. Indeed, it is the only way of understanding the death of Jesus that fits. Together these three are three legs to the stool that is contemporary Christianity. It is why, as I explained in my ‘Thought for the Week’ on March 7, that I no longer call myself a Christian. These three ideas are now so central to how many understand Christianity that to call oneself a Christian is to identify with a philosophy that I believe to be both demonic and deceptive.
But to return to the LEGO model of the atonement itself. Just because it is associated with these other ideas doesn’t in and of itself make it wrong. It may sound a note of caution about accepting it, but we still need to explain why it is wrong.
In trying to understand what is wrong with the LEGO model of the atonement, we need to see which parts get left out. Are these parts, using our IKEA analogy, parts which can safely be left out or are they parts that are essential? What is there in the New Testament about the death of Jesus that the LEGO model of the atonement leaves out and does not include? How important is what is left out? And does it matter?
In the next part, I want to identify 4 areas that the LEGO model of the atonement does its best to ignore. Each area needs at least a sermon on their own, but, at the least, I hope I can show why I think that this common understanding of the death of Jesus both fails and misleads, so much so, that it is not only inadequate but false.
I also hope at the same time to suggest a way of understanding the death of Jesus that is truer to how Jesus himself understood his death and to what the New Testament teaches us about it.