All the great religions of the world talk a lot about death, so there must be an essential lesson to be learned here. But throughout much of religious history our emphasis has been on killing the wrong thing and avoiding the truth: it’s you who has to die, or rather, who you think you are—your false self. It’s never someone else!
Historically we moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to various modes of seeming self-sacrifice, usually involving the body. For many religions, including immature Christianity, God was distant and scary, an angry deity who must be placated. God was not someone with whom you fell in love or with whom you could imagine sharing intimacy or tenderness.
The common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Theologians later developed a “substitutionary atonement theory”—the strange idea that before God could love us God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to ”atone” for our sin. As a result, our theology became more transactional than transformational.
Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used in the New Testament written by observant Jews). He was instead inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the first chapter of John’s Gospel. For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the divine incarnation; rather, God’s motivation was infinite divine love and full self-revelation! For Duns Scotus, God never merely reacts, but always freely acts out of free and unmerited love.
Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. God’s abundance and compassion make any scarcity economy of merit or atonement unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) all notions of human and animal sacrifice and replaced them with his new infinite economy of grace. Jesus was meant to be a game changer for religion and the human psyche.
This grounds Christianity in love and freedom from the very beginning; it creates a very coherent and utterly attractive religion, which draws people toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing, and universal “at-one-ment,” instead of mere sacrificial atonement. Nothing “changed” on Calvary but everything was revealed—an eternally outpouring love. Jesus switched the engines of history: instead of us needing to spill blood to get to God, we have God spilling blood to get to us