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Jesus Died for Our Sins... What Does That Even Mean?

04/01/2015 08:39 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

I have no idea why a teenage existentialist would ever end up in a Christian coffeehouse. Still, there I was, listening to an acquaintance share her faith in Jesus. As she gushed on about her Savior, I kept stumbling over her favorite phrase: Jesus died for our sins.

I got the Jesus died part. But what was this for our sins? Her specific response is lost to memory, but I vividly recall that it did nothing for me.

This, I'm beginning to think, is where Christians and others stand today: on either side of a yawning language gap--where the sides are separated by millennia and geography and culture and the way they view the world.

Consider this one phrase: Jesus died for our sins. Hebrew Christians of the first century C.E. could grasp it with relative ease. They knew about the ancient system of animal sacrifice designed, among other things, to atone for the sins of the nation of Israel. They also knew the story of Abraham and the near sacrifice of his son Isaac, so the notion of human sacrifice, while highly unusual, was still within their universe.

In 2015, however, how many Americans offer goats on altars to appease a God furious about disobedience? No wonder Jesus died for our sins draws so many blank stares when Christians use it outside their own circles. Often, given the implied violence and vengeance in the backstory, those blank stares turn to looks of disgust.

So, in this Christian Holy Week, let's try translating Jesus died for our sins without losing the original wisdom therein. Maybe it goes like this:

We humans are a mixed bag. There is a lot of goodness in us. There is a lot of brokenness in us. It would be marvelous if we could have the goodness without the brokenness. Much of humanity has dreamed of this for many, many years.

Over the centuries, we developed--or rather, assuming the Divine for a moment, we were given--a variety of ways to achieve this. The Law of Moses is one way. So is (in one sense) the dharma of Buddhism. So is the Golden Rule. These moved the needle toward goodness and away from brokenness. They certainly helped us to be good to one another rather than break one another.

In the Christian story, God decided that yet another way was needed. To create that way, God needed to find out what it was really like to be human. So God went all in on the experiment, experiencing humanness with all its brokenness: birth, conflict with parents, an itinerant life, opposition from authorities and neighbors, the press of crowds, misunderstanding, violence, death.

As Jesus experienced all this brokenness, he talked incessantly about a vision for eradicating it. He called it "the kingdom of God." It involved loving one's enemies, taking the attitude of a servant, befriending the disreputables, helping everyone in distress, standing up for justice, transforming the world. Most important, it involved a personal transformation from the inside out, so we could pursue the good and leave the brokenness behind.

The proclamation of this message, eventually, got him killed. He offered a way out of our brokenness--our sins, to go back to ancient language--and was executed for it.

In other words, Jesus died for our sins.

That's one story. There are so many others. I wonder if this is one of Christianity's grand challenges in its third millennium: to overhaul the way we tell the stories of our faith so that everyone--especially those unfamiliar with the ancient language--can access the wisdom contained in our faith.

That wisdom, like the wisdom in so many other traditions, is too priceless to lose to a language barrier. Let's see what happens when we start translating.

An invitation. If you are among the billions of folks with little or no knowledge of Christian language, symbols, and stories, I'd love to hear what you think of my "translation" of Jesus died for our sins. Did it make more sense? Is it still irrelevant to our lives here and now? Or does it better communicate the wisdom that the story contains? Because, truth be told, this is not something Christians can do on their own. It's something they must do with you--because only you know whether it makes sense to you. Let me know your thoughts.