You have a problem. You’re a sinner.
Sin separates you from God and God requires you pay the debt you owe to God.
You’re in luck: Jesus paid that death-debt for you.
That’s what I grew up with, and that’s what I want to leave behind.
It’s when hearing this that I begin to ask, “Wait! God wanted me to die, but Jesus died instead? God wants me to die because I’m a sinner and “the wages of sin is death”? God requires death to forgive?”
Those questions deserve answers, and the answers they usually get are pretty scary.
Even still, this is the theory of “why Jesus died” that is most popular in modern evangelical Christian thought. In theological circles this theory is called, “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” which is a fancy way of saying Jesus died in your place to appease God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus suffered under the weight of God’s judgment so that we wouldn’t have to.
The feminist in me would call this, “cosmic child abuse.” An angry God wanted to kick someone’s butt so He (this theory is usually colored in masculine language) killed His own son instead of us. Terrifying.
This theory picked up speed in the 1500’s during the Reformation with theologian John Calvin who worked with some earlier theological arguments birthed (out of bloody wars) around year 1000.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became a Human Being) grapples with the death of Jesus, and generates the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.
(Side Note: Images of Jesus’ corpse did not appear in churches until the 10 century.)
Anselm, a privileged young man who left his home at 23 because of his abusive father, got caught up in the middle of a holy brawl between the King and the Pope, who fought for Christian allegiance (Brock, 266). In the midst of anger and violence, he wrote in length about Jesus’ gift of death (not the gift of life, which was a central theme to earlier Christianity’s). With Anselm, God took pleasure in death. He even made the argument that dying for God was the highest of achievements, as it would be imitating Jesus (Anselm, 160). He never really mentions resurrection, but why bother when your sole purpose is to die anyways?
Anselm’s theology crystalized the religious foundation of the Crusades, “Peace by the blood of the cross.” As Rita Brock puts it, “killing and being killed imitated the gift of Christ’s death, the anguish of his self-sacrifice and the terror of his judgment” (Brock, 270).
So why did Jesus die? Jesus died to appease his angry daddy.
Anselm, Why God
Rita Brock, Saving Paradise