One of the many things that we need to do during Lent – besides growing personally in freedom from our many inordinate attachments – is to deepen our understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In addition to the additional prayer, fasting and solidarity we want to adopt during Lent, we should try to reflect on our faith so that we can better communicate it and share it with others. One of the basic questions that we need to ponder especially during Lent is: Why did Jesus die?
There is little disagreement over how Jesus died: we all know that he died on the cross and that he had been sentenced to death under Pontius Pilate. But there is greater disagreement revolving around why Jesus died. Most contemporary theologians insist that Jesus was condemned to death because of the way that he lived. They insist that Jesus was killed much for the same reasons that so many prophets throughout history had been silenced: Jesus spoke truth to power.
But not long ago, there were other Christian theologians who embraced a crude form of, what is sometimes referred to as, a “theology of atonement”. According to this theology (or, at least, one particular form of this theology), it was actually God who had Jesus killed in order to “atone” for the sins of humanity. Such an extreme and radical sacrifice was supposedly necessary as a remedy and reparation for the sin of Adam and its grave consequences over history.
There are several problems with such a theology of atonement. At face level, this theology suggests a very problematic image of God who needs “pay back” for Adam’s grievance by killing His only Son. Although one might find some basis for this kind of theology in a certain Pauline texts, good theological sense would advise against such an incoherent interpretation. This type of theology, far from clarifying the paschal mystery, only complicates matters further!
Besides promoting a negative image of God, atonement theologies tend to justify violence as a remedy. Such theologies endorse – or, at least, can be used to endorse – violent responses to human problems. The “myth of redemptive violence” that undergirds such theologies are often employed to support justification for many of the wars we fight. After all, if God chose to heal the world through violence, why shouldn’t we?
My humble suggestion is simply that, during Lent, we return to the question of why Jesus died? And, if we truly intend to answer that question, we will need to examine exactly how he lived. Clearly there is a connection between his manner of living and the manner by which he died. Or to state the matter differently, I feel fairly confided that, if Jesus would have minded his own business and refused to promote the Kingdom of God and its justice, he probably would have died at a ripe old age. What does this tell us?
When we focus on Jesus during Lent, we are not merely contemplating a passion play or a script that had been planned in heaven from the beginning of time. Jesus lived a real human existence and he shows us by his example how costly it is to follow one’s conscience and to be faithful to God’s word. That is the true message of Jesus’ life and death; that is the invitation that we receive, during Lent: to reproduce in our lives, the radical justice of Jesus.
Dan Hartnett, S.J. is the new pastor at Bellarmine Chapel. Hartnett has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Loyola Chicago. He spent nearly 20 years in Lima, Peru, in pastoral leadership and university education before, most recently, serving as pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan, Ill., in suburban Chicago. He also taught philosophy at the University of Loyola Chicago.