While some lament that Christmas has become increasingly secularized and materialistic, others have posted blogs and Facebook statuses reminding us of the real meaning of Christmas.
Recently, Benjamin L. Corey published a very thought-provoking, well-articulated and convincing article titled “No, Jesus Wasn’t Born to Die (The Part of the Christmas Story We Mess Up).” Corey suggests that Christ’s birth was not primarily meant to end in death, but rather took place in order to show us how to live. Corey’s premise is intriguing and helpful in allowing an Anabaptist Christian space to wrestle with some of the key points of our theology. For many of us who claim Anabaptism as our faith tradition, we recognize the importance of social justice and peacemaking in a variety of settings. We live out our faith in an active and engaging way, rather than as passive observers. We dismantle the idea of God simply appeasing his wrath and replace it with a theology of love and service. Corey definitely has earned my respect in this regard. However, I disagree with the main theme of his post. I would like to argue that Yes, Jesus WAS born to die, but that’s not the only reason he came.
Over the past several years, I have noticed a shift in church theology whereby words like “sin” and “judgment” are considered archaic and even abusive. Some Christians wonder how God could possibly have killed his own Son (isn’t that divine child abuse?). Others suggest that Jesus willingly went through his suffering and consequent death in order to espouse a theology of social justice. Many claim that Jesus’ death and resurrection were symbolic of the breaking down of oppressive systems and that Christ’s sacrifice was nothing more than a moral example to the rest of us.
I have studied many of the atonement theories in-depth, and I have come to see the merits and shortfalls in almost all of them. I believe there are definite pieces each one contributes to the puzzle and that there are reasons to agree with one over the other. Although I grew up in a church that believed solely in penal substitution (meaning Christ needed to die in order to transfer our own punishment on himself), I also agree heartily with the moral example theory. In many ways, Christ did come to show us the right way of living. He did many radical things in his life that caused people to wonder. He pushed back on issues that were restrictive He repeatedly stood up for those who were not able to claim their own voice. Furthermore, Christ taught many moral and ethical lessons. He healed people with debilitating diseases in order to give them back their life and social status. He ultimately showed through his death the height of what it means to a non-resister in the face of oppression and extreme violence.
All these things are very good and important for us to take note of. However, the core of who Jesus is was not a moral teacher. He was (and is) the Son of God. Our churches have a tendency to downplay the seriousness of our own human depravity. Instead of focussing on individual ills and wrong-doings, we tend to pour our efforts into seeing the entire creation and systemic structure as lopsided. Thus, we promote economic and environmental stability, we protest poverty and violations of human rights, and we practice civil disobedience when need be.
Yet to relegate Christ to merely the status of “the greatest moral teacher who ever lived” is to strip him entirely of his rightful status as Son of God and savior of the world. The very word “savior” implies that there is something we need to be saved from. Not only do we need to be saved from the impact of violence and the ravages of war, but we primarily need to be saved from the mess we have created for ourselves that stems from our own wrongful view of ourselves, the overall creation, and God. This is best described as sin.
In his groundbreaking book, If You Will Ask, Oswald Chambers poses the following question: “Are we merely devotees of a social cause or are we disciples of Christ?” I think God calls all Christians to be both. However, at the core of our worship and our theology lies the acknowledgement that Christ is capable of doing something far greater than any other moral teacher was ever able to accomplish. He died in order to set us free and to enable us to share an eternity in heaven with him.
When we look at the Bible, we see a divine drama starting in the very first chapter of Genesis and then swiftly moving toward Revelation (from the origins of our humanity to the culmination of the new humanity). God’s original design for this world was perfection. Yet, because of free will, humanity chose to go the wrong way. We chose our own direction in our pride, rather than God’s direction in our humility. This resulted in sin entering this world within the very first generation. And the Bible tells us that with sin came death, destruction, and disease.
Yet, there was good news — really good news. God is holy and thus not able to look upon imperfections (thus the reason for all the sacrifices in the Old Testament), but he is also merciful, extending his mercy to generations upon generations of those who will only call out to him to receive them into himself. As soon as sin enters the world, God gives a solution. The solution doesn’t happen for thousands of years; however, God promises it will eventually take place. Whereas humans chose death over life, God the Father chose life over death. God proclaims that one will come who will have the power to crush the very one (Satan) responsible for this mishap. The rest of the Bible follows the premise of Christ eventually becoming the victor over death.
Repeatedly we read prophetic utterances that point to Christ’s appearance. Particularly in Isaiah 53, we read that we will be healed by Christ’s sacrifice. The Bible shows us that Christ is able to do what we as individuals are unable to do. We needed someone pure and perfect to erase our own impurity and imperfection.
Eventually we wind up in the New Testament, where the story of Jesus really takes off. Mary submits to God’s will for her and gives birth to Christ, whom the angels then praise from the highest heights and urge shepherds and other villagers to see. The fact that Christ came into this world through a virgin is significant. It shows that his entrance was not tainted by what others could perceive as “mere physical means.” Rather, he was set apart by God right from the start and appointed to a specific task.
Corey interestingly poses the question: “If it were all about dying, why couldn’t the baby in the manger just have died? It would have done the trick.” I submit that this question really lacks the theological depth of all Jesus came to do and all he was. Jesus’ atoning death resulted from his ability to say yes to it. His willingness to submit to the Father ultimately showed his love. For God, it wasn’t merely about the sacrifice, but about the method and reason behind the sacrifice. God is not a merciless baby-slayer, but he IS a patient sin-slayer. Isaiah points to this when he writes that “he took our punishments upon us, by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Corey also challenges the reason for the sacrifice. He states that God abhorred human sacrifices; thus, why would he demand this very thing from his own beloved Son? Corey’s first statement is correct — God did explicitly state he didn’t want his children to act like neighboring peoples who willingly killed their kids off in order to appease a fake god. However, because Jesus Christ was not simply a human, but God himself, this makes the whole premise much more difficult. I don’t think it’s something our finite human minds can grasp. How could God be dead and still living at the same time? And it is because of this confusing passage that I know a few believers who really struggle with the concept of the Trinity. While I cannot give a clear answer on this, all I can say is that it entirely shows the depths of the Father’s love for us. He could have completely held us under when we messed up, but instead he chose to do the most devastating thing in order to show us true life. If this isn’t the height of love, mercy and forgiveness, I don’t know what is. And this is where I appreciate what Corey said — because at the core of what this message is about is how to live, but also why Christ died.
So we celebrate Christ’s birth, and it is important to spend time relishing his arrival. We then spend the year going through the rest of his life. We should not negate his miracles, his teachings, his compassion and his wisdom. We shouldn’t rush to Good Friday, but should take time to pause and reflect upon his life. To simply say Christ came to die is not enough, but to simply say Christ came only in order to show us how to live is also to miss the point entirely. It’s sort of like attending a funeral. When a eulogy is given, we don’t dwell on the fact the person is dead — we recount his or her life. And that’s what we do with Christ. But we also don’t dismiss his death lightly.
When we live in the here and now, it can be easy to forget that there is a heaven. C.S. Lewis referred to us as being little children content to play with mudcakes all the while forgetting that there is a greater vacation about to take place. We cannot spend our lives too focused on death, though, or else we’d never do anything for the common good of humanity. On the other hand, we also cannot forget that death will embrace all of us, or we will only focus on the earthly and forget the eternal.
I appreciate Corey’s cutting-edge ideas and his overall concern with moral welfare. I relate to his questions concerning some of the more troubling passages of Scripture and his wrestling with how we, as Anabaptist pacifists, deal with them. I support Corey’s conclusion that Jesus’ life has many moral and ethical lessons to teach us, which we should more readily become aware of rather than just reaching for a simple “Sunday school answer.” However, I fundamentally disagree with his premise. Jesus did not just come to die, but his atoning sacrificial death was perhaps the most important part of why he came. Jesus was born in order to die, and by that death to ultimately show us how to live.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a field associate with the Anabaptist Disabilities Network currently residing in Ontario. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.