In the church's understanding of redemption, the physical death of Jesus was absolutely essential, representing an atoning sacrifice which allows God to overlook our sin and divert our punishment. In this motif, this death is a necessary step in a process which culminates in an offer of forgiveness to those who then recognize the importance of Jesus' sacrifice and subsequently follow a prescription of their own to make the sacrifice effective for them personally. Salvation or redemption results from a methodology in which the actions of Jesus are coupled with the actions of the individual.
There is a distinctly different and, for me at least, more powerful way to view Jesus' physical demise on the cross. That is to see the event as a symbol, a demonstration of the mode of living which Jesus taught and promoted as the road to abundant life.
So much of what Jesus said about reality flew directly in the face of Jewish theology under the Old Covenant. Though He proclaimed Himself to be the Jewish Messiah, Jesus routinely sidestepped the strict provisions of the Law, in favor of charity, forgiveness, and selflessness. His was never a message of glorying in the exalted state of Jewish exclusiveness or the transformative power of personal piety. To read the New Testament and see it just a call to obedience to new religious rules and rituals, as so many do, is basically to miss the entire point of Jesus. To notice Jesus' almost complete lack of reference to the church and then postulate a present day church as the intermediary between God and man, in any form of fashion, is a total misrepresentation of Christ. Paul not withstanding, the present day church was not destined to rule over man's spirituality through its creeds, its clergy, or its practices.
No one should imagine that any religious institution constituted as the church has been could ever promote the real lessons of Jesus. Power invested in the church is just like all exercises in power- corrupt by its very nature. If God wanted to devise a scheme to promote the Truth, the institutional church would be His last option, for sure.
If the life lessons of Jesus are considered to be transformative and redemptive, as I believe they truly are, then every action of Jesus, including His submission to death on the cross, was designed to reinforce those lessons. When Jesus spoke about the power of forgiveness, love, humility, self sacrifice, unity, and service, He followed up by living the words He spoke.
In making life's decisions, Christians often ask the question - what would Jesus do? (WWJD). That is a very pertinent question; in fact, it is the most essential question. Unfortunately, the church likes to paint a confused picture of what Jesus would do. Supposedly the Savior is not just that but also the coming judge and punisher of the unrighteous, the ignorant, the disbelievers, the impious, the non- church affiliated. Therefore, people feel perfectly justified in answering the "WWJD" question by condemning, scorning, ostracizing, persecuting, and segregating. Under this popular picture of Jesus, the counter intuitive life lessons of Jesus become irrelevant because humility is replaced by arrogance, forgiveness yields to retribution, service is trumped by piety, selflessness is forsaken in favor of self promotion, and love is rejected as too risky and replaced by fear.
We needn't wonder very long about the ineffectiveness of church doctrine in transforming our society and the world at large. When the church continously subverts the message of Jesus, transformation is impossible. Redemption under the traditional paradigm should have been accomplished under Moses, if obedience to rules was the ultimate life lesson. No one seems to believe that was supposed to happen. Why live in the delusion that obedience to church doctrine will make a great difference now?