That Jesus died for our sins is so ingrained in Christianity it seems almost absurd to question it. It’s in our creed: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” It’s in our prayers: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” It’s in our hymns: “Who did once upon a cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!”
But the concept of atonement—that God and humanity have been reconciled through Jesus—hasn’t always focused so exclusively on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice and payment for sin. Like most teachings, it has evolved over the past 20 centuries of Christian thought, and today is being critiqued by some as problematic, not only for what it says about God but also for what it may mean for victims of violence.
This is an interesting and nuanced article about the history of theologies of salvation in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. Few people realize that the story of salvation which is usually identified as “Christian” is actually more accurately called “Anselmian” — that is, derived from the theology of the 12th century theologian, St. Anselm — and that it is only one of several competing theologies of salvation.
Indeed, according to Father Robert Barron, professor of systematic theology at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, who is himself sympathetic to Anselmian theology, many modern Protestants and Catholics even “out-Anselm Anselm,” taking his theology to lengths he himself would not have approved:
Without overstating Anselm’s theories, Barron rises to defend him, noting that he, like his medieval contemporaries, saw God as utterly perfect, never needing anything from creation nor experiencing passing emotions. Anselm’s atonement theology “does not mean that God has fallen into an emotional snit or that he is a raging dysfunctional father demanding to be placated, or that he needs to see blood before his rage will die down,” Barron explains. “All of that would have struck Anselm as pagan and idolatrous, utterly irreconcilable with a proper understanding of the transcendence of God.”
I see this as somewhat parallel to the issue of Creationism: many people identify think that every Christian must believe that the universe was created six thousand years ago, in six days, and many people similarly believe that every Christian must believe that Jesus had to die to appease God’s demand for retributive justice in the face of human sin. Both have some Biblical justification, both have been supported by fathers of the Church, both have been accepted by many good and thoughtful people, and in both cases, the idea that those beliefs are necessary and defining for Christians have driven many people far away from Christianity.