The Rt. Rev. Frank Weston (1871-1924), when Bishop of Zanzibar, declared his diocese to be out of communion with the diocese of Hereford in England in 1912. The appointment of Professor B.H. Streeter as a canon of Hereford Cathedral prompted Weston’s declaration. Weston was outraged, because Streeter had the temerity to deny the historicity of Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection.
Today, Streeter’s claims are more likely to evoke a yawn than outrage in most Christian circles (apart from fundamentalists!). The truth of Christianity is not contingent upon historical facts but upon an ultimate reality that transforms the metaphorically dead into the genuinely alive.
Sadly, a goodly number of Christians still link that transformation to the necessity of Jesus’ death on Good Friday. The only reason that Jesus had to die was that he was a human. Humans die. All of us.
For the first several hundred, Christians generally believed that sin put humans into the devil’s grasp. Thus, Christians interpreted the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of freeing sinners from the devil’s grasp. Explanations of how Jesus achieved that liberation all proved unsatisfactory, especially once the Church began to teach the divinity of Jesus (how and why would God need to ransom or otherwise free anyone from the devil?).
Then Christians began to interpret the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of satisfying the demands of a just God. For example, Anselm taught that sin was an offense against God's honor; Jesus’ death satisfied that debt of honor.
In time, that feudal understanding of salvation yielded to various theories of expiation and substitution. None of these theories is coherent. Why does God create a system of justice such that injustice requires the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb? Surely God could devise an alternative system, of God is less than omnipotent, i.e., the concept of justice did not originate with God. Traditional conceptions of the atonement make God into a masochist or child abuser, depending upon how one understands the relationship between the first two persons of the Trinity. Furthermore, any human-divine intercourse dependent upon a sacrificial theory of the atonement substitutes a just exchange for the God's free gift of grace.
In the last two or three centuries, a fresh consensus has begun to emerge among theologians who recognize the pitfalls of traditional atonement theology (for a fuller exposition of these, cf. John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, pp. 112-126). Hick writes, “The real meaning of Jesus’ death was not that is blood was shed – indeed crucifixion did not involve a great deal of bloodshed – but that he gave himself utterly to God in faith and trust. His cross was thus a powerful manifestation of and continuing symbol of the divine kingdom in this present world, as a way of life in which one turns the other cheek, forgives one’s enemies ‘unto seven times seven’, trusts God even in the darkness of pain, horror, and tragedy, and is continually raised again to the new life of faith.” (p. 132)
In Jesus, God convincingly and clearly manifested God's love for humanity. The father of the prodigal welcomes the prodigal’s return, embracing the prodigal and never demanding a repayment of a wasted inheritance or life. God is this parent who rushes to embrace those who seek the one who is ultimately real.