While listening to Jordan Peterson lecture on his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, I heard an interesting discussion by Dr. Peterson about the meaning of the death of the Messiah in his discussion of rule 7 of his book (beginning at 58:45). There, he ponders the meaning of the story, and then he comes to an interesting conclusion: Drawing on anecdotes from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men about Nazi military police brutality, he concludes that “taking the world’s sin upon oneself” is a metaphor for acknowledging our tendency towards evil actions and deciding to act otherwise and do what is good. He dismisses the idea that “you just have to believe that that happened and you are redeemed,” referring to it as “a slightly corrupted form of Christianity.”
While Peterson’s interpretation of the crucifixion story is certainly fascinating, it is not what the story has been understood to mean throughout history. On the contrary, it is not at all hard to find that what he refers to as a “a slightly corrupted form of Christianity” is actually the original understanding. To demonstrate that this is the case, one need go no further than the Bible. In the Old Testament, there is a prophecy of the “Suffering Servant” (Isaiah 53), which is interpreted in the New Testament and by Christians ever since as a prophecy of Christ’s death. Verses 4-6 are particularly poignant, as they describe the purpose of his death:
Yet he himself bore our sicknesses,
and he carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced because of our rebellion,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on him,
and we are healed by his wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished him
for the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
To corroborate this, we have Jesus’ own self-understanding, which he explains in terms of giving his life as a redemptive payment. In the Gospels, he is recorded as saying the following:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
It is interesting that the original Greek word for “ransom” (λύτρον) means a purchase price that is paid to release someone who is under slavery. The connotation is that we are slaves to our sins, and that the Messiah’s death purchases freedom from the power of sin for those who believe (cf. John 8:32-36).
This is further elaborated by one of Jesus’ closest apostles, Saint Peter. In one of his letters, he describes the purpose of Christ’s death as a bearing of others’ sins. He writes:
He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:22-24)
Moving on from Biblical times, we can find these ideas elaborated further in the writings of the ancient Christian church. One ancient Christian writing, known as the Epistle to Diognetus (ca. 2nd century), attempts to explain to outsiders with no prior understanding of Christianity why Jesus’ death is important to Christians. In chapter 9, it states:
And so, when he [God] had planned everything by himself in union with his Child, he still allowed us, through the former time, to be carried away by undisciplined impulses, captivated by pleasures and lusts, just as we pleased. That does not mean that he took any delight in our sins, but only that he showed patience. He did not approve at all of that season of wickedness, but on the contrary, all the time he was creating the present age of righteousness, so that we, who in the past had by our own actions been proved unworthy of life, might now be deemed worthy, thanks to God’s goodness. Then, when we had shown ourselves incapable of entering the Kingdom of God by our own efforts, we might be made capable of doing so by the power of God.
And so, when our unrighteousness had come to its full term, and it had become perfectly plain that its recompense of punishment and death had to be expected, then the season arrived in which God had determined to show at last his goodness and power. O the overflowing kindness and love of God toward man! God did not hate us, or drive us away, or bear us ill will. Rather, he was long-suffering and forbearing. In his mercy, he took up the burden of our sins. He himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us—the holy one for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.
For what else could cover our sins In whom could we, lawless and impious as we were, be made righteous except in the Son of God alone? O sweetest exchange! O unfathomable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation! The sinfulness of many is hidden in the Righteous One, while the righteousness of the One justifies the many that are sinners. In the former time he had proved to us our nature’s inability to gain life; now he showed the Saviour’s power to save even the powerless, with the intention that on both counts we should have faith in his goodness, and look on him as Nurse, Father, Teacher, Counselor, Healer, Mind, Light, Honor, Glory, Might, Life—and that we should not be anxious about clothing and food.
Notice that the Epistle of Diognetus’ explanation of why Christ’s death is important is an inversion of Peterson’s explanation. Rather than attempting to change our behaviour and choosing to do what is good, the epistle asserts our inability to make such a change in behaviour, and that rather than banking on such a change, we must instead confess our inability and, to use Peterson’s words, “just believe that [what Jesus did] happened and you are redeemed.”
Further on, we have the most universally acknowledged creedal confession of the siginficance of Jesus’ death in the Nicene Creed. In the second section of the Creed, the purpose of his life, death and resurrection are explained:
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
Two lines are worth looking at in more detail. First, “for us and our salvation” encapsulates in brief what Jesus came to accomplish. Salvation has to do with rescuing souls from the effects of sin, which are a miserable existence in this life, and eternal punishment in hellfire in the next. Second, “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate” affirms the historicity of the event in question. The mention of Pontius Pilate may seem like an incidental detail, but by connecting the events of Jesus’ life with an identifiable historical figure, the Creed is communicating that what is being affirmed are events that really happened.
This idea of Christ’s sacrifice being for our salvation receives further explication in the following centuries. It is elaborated on in the Middle Ages by St. Anselm of Canterbury in Cur Deus Homo, who explains it as a “satisfaction” for violating God’s holiness and justice. In its most mature elaborations, it is explained in terms of “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”–Christ paying a legal penalty on behalf of sinners. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), a manual of doctrine for Christian laypersons, describes the substitutuionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice as follows:
37. What do you confess when you say that he suffered?
During all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
38. Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?
Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
39. Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?
Yes. Thereby I am assured that he took upon himself the curse which lay on me, for a crucified one was cursed by God.
40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?
Because of the justice and truth of God satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.
This belief is not hard to understand, and can be explained even to young children, as seen in the many catechisms that have been produced to teach it to them. To give just one example, the American theologian James Petigru Boice (1827-1888) wrote A Brief Catechism of Bible Doctrine, which is designed to explain Christian beliefs to children ages 10 to 12. In his section on the sacrifice of Christ, he explains the importance of Jesus’ death in simple terms:
1. What was the sacrifice which Christ offered.
He offered up Himself for sin.
2. In what way did He become the sacrifice?
He took our sin upon Him and suffered the penalty in our place.
3. When did He suffer that penalty?
When He died on the cross.
4. Did He suffer in both natures?
No; in the human nature only. The Divine nature cannot suffer.
5. Was not the union of the Divine and the human nature necessary in the work of salvation
It was necessary; otherwise the human nature could not have sustained the sufferings it endured.
6. For what else was that union necessary?
To give value and efficacy to sufferings which, but for that union, would have been those of a mere creature.
7. Why would not the sufferings of a mere creature have sufficed?
Because every creature is bound, as his own duty, to do and suffer all that God wills, and therefore can do nothing to secure merit or pardon for others.
8. Of what value is this sacrifice to those for whom He died?
It delivers them from the guilt and punishment of all their sins.
In conclusion, the idea that believing in Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice in order to be redeemed, far from being a “corruption” of Christianity, is actually the original understanding of it. Any other interpretation of the crucifixion event, while it may provide a secondary layer of meaning to the events in question, cannot displace or contradict this historic understanding.