How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?


How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?
Brian Zahnd

When we say “Jesus died for our sins,” what does that mean? It’s undeniably an essential confession of Christian faith, but how does it work? This much I’m sure of, it’s not reducible to just one thing. I’ve just finished preaching eight sermons on “The Crucified God” and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the cross means. To try to reduce the death of Jesus to a single meaning is an impoverished approach to the mystery of the cross. I’m especially talking about those tidy explanations of the cross known as “atonement theories.” I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!

Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?

When we confess with Paul that “Christ died for our sins,” we don’t mean that God required the vicious murder of his Son in order to forgive. How would that work anyway? Did God have some scale of torture that once met would “satisfy his wrath?” Think it through and you’ll see the problem. Was death not enough to satisfy this god? Did it have to be death by crucifixion? Did torture have to be part of the equation? And how does that work? Was there a minimum number of lashes required in the scourging? Did the thorny crown have to have a certain number of thorns in order for this god to call the scales balanced?

Are you squirming yet? Do you want to say, “Well, some of the abuse Jesus suffered was gratuitous torture by the hands of cruel men.” But if that’s the case, how does this division of labor work? How much was necessary to “satisfy God” and how much was just for the sport of it? No, this approach to understanding Jesus dying for our sins clearly won’t work.

So what do we do? Let’s begin here: Before the cross is anything else, it is a catastrophe. It is the unjust lynching of an innocent man. This is precisely how the Apostles spoke of the crucifixion of Jesus in the book of Acts.

“This Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” –Acts 2:23

You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –Acts 3:15

“God raised up Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” –Acts 5:30

“The Righteous One you have now betrayed and murdered.” –Acts 7:52

The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was offered as a sacrifice in that the Father was willing to send his Son into our sinful system in order to expose it as utterly sinful and provide us with another way. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in that sense. But it was not a sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice.

Let me suggest that when we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving us. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was not asking God to act contrary to his nature. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was, as always, revealing the very heart of God!

At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first world of the new world: “Peace be with you.”

When I say “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are the very political and religious systems that executed Jesus. At the cross we see where Adam and Eve’s penchant for blame and Cain’s capacity for killing have led us — to the murder of God! At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!

So let’s be clear, the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god. The cross is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.

The cross is both ugly and beautiful. It’s as ugly as human sin and as beautiful as divine love. But in the end, love and beauty win.


The artwork is The Crucifixion (1515) by Grünewald Matthias.

  • Brother John

    Brian Zahnd, are you familiar with Dr. Paul Peter Waldenstrom’s view of the atonement? His relatively brief book, “Be Ye Reconciled To God” really helped me to understand the atonement so much more clearly (and powerfully!) than the penal sub view I had always been taught. I’m not sure if links are allowed here, but you can just do an internet search for Waldenstrom atonement and you can find the book online.

  • planet8788

    FTA: At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first world of the new world:“Peace be with you.”

    That’s still atonement.

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  • Ian Mills

    I agree with your rejection of PSA but working exclusively with quotes from Acts isn’t very persuasive. Most informed PSA advocates would gladly concede that Acts lacks the Pauline penal and economic soteriology… a convincing case against PSA needs to deal with Romans and the Johanine epistles. Might I recommend Henk Versnel’s “Making Sense of Jesus’ Death” (available free online) as a scholarly non-PSA treatment of violent atonement language in Paul.

  • Aaron McGuire

    Hi Brian, I think it’s important to remember, too, that these models of atonement you’ve referred to must have been alive with meaning and immediacy to people of those times (from the time of Gregory of Nyssa and Origen to Augustine to Anselm and Abelard to Luther to Charles Hodge to Aulen to now!). Atonement models over time use language and metaphor that make sense within those historical/socio-cultural/political/economic contexts. The problem, I think, is not necessarily with the model, but that we no longer find utility, immediacy, or meaning in these models because their language and imagery no longer ring with truth. In the same way, I think the language people use today to make alive again the mysterious meanings of atonement will one day lose their immediacy and relevance as the world changes.

    So, I’d suggest instead of dismissing old models and images as morally repugnant, it would be better to admit that even todays models, images, and symbolical frameworks will probably one day need to change, as they may one day appear morally repugnant at worst, or irrelevant unable resonate meaningfully with people at best.

    There’s more I’d like to say, but I just wanted to offer this point. Good article.

  • cristine

    wow and exactly and thank you.

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  • Verity

    amazing and beautiful article

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  • Anon.

    What is the wrath of God from John 3:36? I do believe that His wrath is a facet of his love. It doesn’t mean He is a “wrathfully deity”, but it is wrath all the same. And what about Romans 5:1? What does it mean to be justified? I’m not being rhetorical, I am really asking.

  • George Norman Lippert

    Hi Pastor Zahnd,

    The mistake you are making (if I may be so bold and you are open to consider it) is in groping for understanding using your intellect alone.

    Where does the actual Bible come into play here? Are there not dozens upon dozens of verses that explain, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus paid for our sins with his blood?

    By disregarding those passages, you’ve been forced to rely only on your own intellect to make sense of the cross, and come up short and apparently frustrated. Understandably.

    However, if you do choose to go this route, I’d submit that the onus is on you to explain why it had to happen at all. Surely you’ve considered the following:

    Jesus predicted his death. When Peter warned him away from it, Jesus rebuked him as Satan.

    When the time came, Jesus asked his father to take the cup (responsibility) from him. “Not my will but yours be done.” He knew it was God’s plan and went to it, despite his human fear.

    These things imply– even more, they demand– that Jesus not only knew the cross was coming, but knew it was his purpose, and God’s will.

    If one believes the Bible at all, this is undeniable: Jesus went to the cross willingly, despite his fears, because it was “God’s cup” for him.

    People killed Jesus, but God allowed it for his purposes.

    So. If Jesus’ death on the cross was *not* (as the Bible repeatedly explains) a substitutionary payment by the only perfect human for all of imperfect humanity…

    Then why did God will and allow it?

    If the cross was not the only way for God to build a bridge to us, to satisfy his absolute righteousness, what possible purpose could it serve?

    Let me be blunt: if you are suggesting that God allowed his son to be tortured and killed *for anything less* than the sole salvation of us lost sinners, then that truly is a monster God, worthy of no devotion.

    If your God sent his son to die as some sort of object lesson or symbol or just because he didn’t want to stop those unruly murderous humans, then truly, he is not a god worth following.

    Forget measuring the thorns or the lashings or the drops of blood. Your intellect has reduced you to attempting spiritual calculus by counting your fingers and toes. The real tragedy (and dubious logic) is in suggesting the cross happened for *any other reason* than to satisfy God’s righteousness and grant us Jesus’ perfection.

    I’m sure you have an answer, and I see why it required weeks of sermons. But it will all boil down to the same thing. With respect, if your god made his son “drink the cup” of the cross for any other reason than to pay for the sins of all, then yours is the monster god, the helpless god, the capricious god, and I reject him utterly.

  • Randy Starkey

    George – Great post. I have just finished reading Is. 53 in the Message Bible. Incredible translation. Really mirrors your post and PSA thought in general. Plus it’s a very good rendering of the Hebrew thoughts. I know Brian respects Eugene Peterson, the author. I’d encourage him to reread this translation.

  • Christopher

    He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (‭1 Peter‬ ‭2‬:‭24‬ ESV)
    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (‭Romans‬ ‭3‬:‭21-26‬ ESV)

    Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (‭Isaiah‬ ‭53‬:‭4-12‬ ESV)

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  • GardenofEdenOrg

    This explanation is exactly what the Holy Spirit revealed to me about 10 years ago as I was falling asleep one night. It came to me like a flash of light without me even pondering on the subject. Enlightening. I thought I’d write it down when I woke up but it had slipped away from me and I could not remember it when I woke up. Similar to those who’ve had a NDE and said that they had access to all knowledge and tried to hold onto it as they were coming back to Earth. Once they were back here it was gone.

    It was mankind that believed we needed a sacrifice, not God. That’s why they performed animal sacrifices. God wanted us to know that sacrificing innocent blood was not necessary to please him. The sacrifice was in sending Jesus here to this dark place to reveal his true nature, knowing what his fate would be as a result. He came anyway. That is pure love. This evening it was bothering me that I had forgotten what was revealed to me that night which is what led me to this article. Thanks to you for writing this, the Word of Wisdom has returned to me. God Blesses You!

  • Randy Starkey

    I am sorry. I find your “revelation” entirely anti-thetical to the Scriptures. Read Hebrews where Christ is the FULFILLMENT of the sacrificial system of the OT. Passover is a type.

  • Brian Zahnd

    Right on.

  • Richard Monyer

    This is the perfect, complete goodness of God revealed to the world that our God and no other god would demonstrate so much love for His creation than to overcome evil with good.

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  • Dirtbeard


    i just finished “Farewell to Mars” – i completely buy into the polemic of not waging war in the name of god, even a secularized cultural god. i am still wrestling with what this actually looks like in the age of isis (the islamic group, not the egyptian goddess). i am also wresting with your view of the atonement.

    i was helped in this way by scott mcknight’s metaphor of the bag of golf clubs. if i understand him correctly, he offers this metaphor to say we should not hold to just one theory of the atonement in the same way we do not use just one club.

    with this in mind, as much as i agree that we should not force a penal substitution theory to the fore as an acid test… i cannot abandon it altogether and soley embrace your view as well.

    maybe i just need to listen to your sermons, but what do you do with passages that speak of god’s wrath being satisfied, of the need for a sacrifice, for the need for death? this sounds like there is an aspect in which the death of jesus did save us from god – in the sense that it propitiated his justice.

    i get that this is waaaay over played. but how can it be completely abandoned?

  • Brian Zahnd

    Here is my sermon series on this topic.

  • Dirtbeard


  • Yvette

    I’ve had these questions for so long…in fact, they were impeding my growth as a Christian because I couldn’t get past them. Thank you so very much for so simply explaining this. It’s made a world of a difference to me.

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