God makes it right
(After reading the story of Jesus crucified, per the 4 yo request)
7 yo: But why did Jesus have to die?
Me: That is a good question. Well, Jesus always chose love and so when those leaders were mean to him, he chose love.
7 yo: Yeah but he could have just loved them, he didn't have to die.
Me: Ah, well, good point. Hmmm. Well, some people think that Jesus died to take away all the bad choices that people made. Like, He took them all into himself and the bad choices died with Jesus.
7 yo: Yeah but I have made bad choices after Jesus died so what about those?
Me: Well, some people think that Jesus took away all the bad choices that ever happened and ever will happen.
7 yo: (Pause) Oh wait, I know why Jesus had to die! So he could come back to life!
Me: Well that's true, there wouldn't be an Easter if Jesus hadn't died.
7 yo: Yeah, that's it.
Working title of this reflection: narrow escape from classic theories of atonement. (Atonement in Christianity: how people are reconciled or made right with God). It's been awhile since seminary, so I had read up tonight to reacquaint myself with theories of atonement. Yes, it's a pretty exciting Saturday night around here.
Thousands of years before my 7-year-old asked the question, theologians asked it too: why did Jesus have to die? Theology titans like saints Augustine and Anselm pondered these things, and wrote books about them. More books, more ideas and more arguments followed. Most Christian theologians say that Jesus Christ is the one who reconciles, or reconnects us with God, but the "how" is where it hits the fan.
Diverse theories of atonement exist. In my chat with my 7-year-old, the one that first came to mind is the satisfaction theory of atonement. In this theory, the obedience of Jesus to accept death on the cross is the substitute for human disobedience. God's need for justice is satisfied. "Jesus died for our sins," is the common version of this, and I myself have said it in many a children's sermon.
Another common theory of atonement is the Christus Victor model. This theory posits that Jesus defeats sin, death and the devil once and for all through his death on the cross. A fairly common theory in Protestant and Catholic traditions, the Christus Victor model has also been favored by liberation theologians addressing the plight of the oppressed and poor. It is comforting to think of Jesus as defeating all powers of evil, including the ones that oppress you personally. I'm sure I've used this theory in a sermon, too.
There are a bunch more theories of atonement, and you can read more about them here or do your own Google search. You can choose the one you like best, or that makes most sense to you. But what do you say to a 7-year-old, late at night?
The weakness of many of these theories of atonement, and why I answered my child first with the loving, non-violence of Jesus, is that they often portray a violent God. Why does God need to kill Jesus off to be a sacrifice for our sins? Some theologians label this as divine child abuse. The version of the children's Bible that I was reading on this night didn't help. It said that God was sad when Jesus died (okay, good) but added that when Jesus prayed for help, God looked the other way (no, absolutely no, hard pass). I actually skipped that line. I'm not reading something aloud to my children that suggests that the God we worship will turn away when we are in pain. No.
We tell young children that God is love, and that is developmentally what we need to do. The complexities can wait. We can go over theories of atonement together when we've arrived at abstract thinking. We can allow the death of Jesus to be sad, but also the result of a wildly inclusive love that challenged an empire focused on violent power and acquisition.
And, like my wiser-than-his-years child, we can put it together with what comes next: Easter and the power of new life, resurrection and new possibilities. My child is not too young to know that bad things happen. Sometimes they just do. But God can transform that. God can use it. Maybe God will even use our human-generated atonement theories, fashioning them into something based on love.