Why did Jesus have to die?” For centuries the church has used several different concepts to answer this question, which underlies what we call “atonement.” But these concepts are problematic for peace churches, at least in part because they are answering the wrong question.
It might be surprising that the most well-known answer to this wrong question comes from a form of government abandoned centuries ago, although a remnant still influences our society. That well-known answer is that Jesus died in order to satisfy a debt owed to God by sinful humanity, that is, to satisfy the penalty of death demanded by God’s law. This concept is called “satisfaction” atonement.
The first full version of this concept appeared in the book Why the God-Man, published in 1098 by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The society Anselm knew was structured by feudalism and ruled by a feudal lord. In this system, when an underling offended the lord, stability of the social order depended on the ability of the ruler either to punish the offender or to require satisfaction.
In visualizing Jesus’ death as a debt payment to God, it is obvious that Anselm imagined God in the role of the ultimate feudal lord. Anselm believed that human sin had disturbed the order of God’s universe. To restore order in creation, God needed either to punish sinners or to receive satisfaction. Consequently, God sent Jesus as the God-Man so that his infinite death could bear humankind’s punishment and, on our behalf, supply the satisfaction God required.
In this understanding of the atonement, the act of God prompts difficult questions like this one that a 5-year-old asked his mother after Sunday school: “Parents would never put their child to death on a cross, right?”
We can find the better question and its answer in the New Testament. When we read the story of Jesus in the Gospels, we realize that it says nothing about his death satisfying a debt owed to God or paying a penalty required by God’s law. Further, the satisfaction concept deals only with Jesus’ death. It does not mention his life, and ignores entirely the resurrection, the real climax of the story of Jesus. Lastly, it features a vengeful God, who has Jesus killed to satisfy God’s own justice. This is a violent God for whom justice depends on violence and punishment.
These images should disturb peace church people for several reasons. Let me explain.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus’ life, his actions and his teaching, made present the reign of God. He healed on the Sabbath to show how it was being misused, challenged racism against Samaritans, and raised the status of women. These actions challenged the legitimacy of the religious authorities. If people learned from Jesus to approach God directly and find forgiveness, that would threaten the authority of the religious leadership and the system of temple sacrifices they administered. They developed a plot to have him killed. Evil powers, represented by the religious leadership in Jerusalem and above all by the Roman Empire, put him to death on a cross. But after three days, God raised him from the dead.
This brief outline of the life of Jesus presents the story as one in which the powers of evil are confronted by Jesus’ life and defeated by the resurrection. When we accept Jesus and live in his story, we participate in the salvation that comes with his resurrection. Rather than asking only why he died, the real question about Jesus is, “How do Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection save?” He saves by living a life that makes God’s reign present, and his resurrection invites us to accept Jesus—and thus to join life in the reign of God, both now and after we die.
In classic language, the atonement image that features victory over evil and Satan through resurrection is called “Christus Victor,” which means Christ the Victor. In the early church, Christus Victor described a confrontation in the cosmos between God and Satan. However, I like to bring the confrontation down to earth. On one side I picture Jesus, who represents the reign of God, and on the other side Rome and the religious leadership, who represent the powers of evil. Because my version uses the story of Jesus, I call it narrative Christus Victor.
Think about the action of God in this way of looking at the atonement. God does not require death. On the contrary, God acts to restore Jesus’ life. From the perspective of God’s action, narrative Christus Victor is a nonviolent atonement image. Humans performed the evil that killed Jesus and God acted to restore his life. Restoring life stands in sharp contrast to the role of God in satisfaction atonement, where God needed a death and sent Jesus to be killed for the death required by God.
To make clear the nonviolent role of God, I call this “nonviolent atonement.” It is a concept that features salvation without violence by God. With this understanding, the resurrection invites people to join in the reign of God with Jesus as its Lord.
Feudalism has long disappeared, but the atonement image based on feudalism is still common. And the idea of satisfaction is alive and well under another name in the criminal justice system, in which the state has replaced the feudal lord as the one who punishes or demands satisfaction. Crimes are said to be against society or the state, and it is the state that punishes. At whatever level the trial occurs, from local to federal, the prosecuting attorney represents the state. The idea of satisfaction is clearly visible in the expectation that one who commits a crime must pay his or her debt to society. Justice is said to be done when punishment has been handed out. This form of justice is called retributive justice, in that the punishment is retribution for the crime committed against the state.
With retributive justice, nothing is done for the victim of the crime. Nothing is done to restore a broken relationship or to restore harm done. Even when a fine is levied, it goes to the state and not to the victim of the crime.
The alternative to retributive justice is restorative justice, which seeks to reconcile victims and offenders. It does not pursue punishment of an offender apart from the victim. Rather, restorative justice focuses on both. It stresses the needs of the victim and the rehabilitation of the offender. As much as possible, the offender brings about restoration. Restorative justice is not a way to let offenders off easy. It clearly calls offenders to be responsible for their offenses, while also focusing on the needs of victims.
Restorative justice echoes the story of Jesus. When he heals, he pronounces forgiveness of sins without punishment (Luke 5:19). He does not punish the woman caught in adultery, but tells her, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8.11). He does not punish Zacchaeus’ dishonesty. Instead, his welcome moves Zacchaeus to repay four times the amount of money that he gained illegally (Luke 19.8).
Restorative justice corresponds to nonviolent atonement. Sinners are reconciled to God when they accept the invitation offered by the resurrection to join in the reign of God. Joining is actually taking up a new way of life, modeled on the life of Jesus. There is no punishment involved but, as with Zacchaeus, people who join the reign of God will want to restore wholeness and undo the harm of wrongs committed.
There is also a practical reason for supporting restorative justice: It is more effective than retributive justice. Restorative justice has been practiced at all levels, from justice circles in schools to programs under the jurisdiction of a judge in criminal court. Multiple research studies show that there are significantly fewer repeat offenders when restorative justice is applied rather than merely seeking punishment.
The entire discussion of nonviolent atonement, restorative justice, and the image of God is demonstrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The father represents God, and the prodigal son stands in for sinful humankind. After wasting his inheritance, the son decides to return and offer to work as a hired hand. This is repentance and taking on a new life. But the father does not seek punishment. Instead, even before the prodigal’s return, the father is waiting with open arms. He welcomes the changed son with a forgiveness without punishment.
This nonviolent God waits lovingly for God’s people to return. This is the image of nonviolent atonement. This is God’s restorative justice.
J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University. Among his several books are The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd revised and expanded edition (Eerdmans, 2011); The Nonviolent God (Eerdmans, 2013); and a popular version God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World (Cascade Books, 2016).