Actually, the meanings of words matter. Someone can say something to you, use a word, but if you don’t know what it means, or think it means something different, their meaning is lost.
Mostly around Easter I think about this. That’s when Christians use a whole lot of Christian-ese to talk about their faith. (Not that we don’t at other times.)
Even though, growing up Christian and going to seminary, I should know these terms, sometimes I still pause and think in-depth to remember their meaning.
Like, when we say that Jesus died for our sins. Or how great eternal life will be.
Do these terms even mean anything to us these days without a religious education?
Even worse what if someone defines the same word similarly but with significant enough differences to change an entire religious viewpoint but not enough difference that a person just hearing the term would know the difference?
WHAT I MEAN BY DEATH
For a concept that’s not really appealing, we actually use “death” in common vernacular quite often.
Here’s a list of common ways I often use this concept:
1. Something ceases to exist. “I’m a bad gardener, everything I plant dies.”
2. Something is wrong now, but can be revived. “My phone died because I forgot my charger.”
3. Something is wrong with a part, but causing the whole to not work. “The alternator died on my car, I need a new one.”
4. I feel tired/sick/whatever. “I’ve been up for so long I feel like I’m dead.”
Personally, I talk about death in relation to technology the most. The battery on my phone doesn’t last long so I’m always saying to people, “Sorry, my phone might die!”
So, if that’s my most common definition of death in my day-to-day experience, (and it probably is for most people nowadays) it’s no wonder I need to pause a bit when talking of death with an entirely different meaning.
JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS
The phrase “Jesus died for our sins”, seems to me like it would make no sense to the uninitiated and sound a bit crazy. I guess I don’t know that for sure, since I’ve always been initiated but, honestly, the phrase carries so much meaning and not much clarity.
Let’s break it down.
Jesus = In Christendom, this means Jesus as fully man and fully God. Not everyone everywhere defines Jesus as this, so it’s important to note. Christianity defines Jesus as God and as part of the Trinity. Of course, Trinity needs definition also. You can read more on that in another article I wrote on the Trinity.
Died = He died a physical death as a human. This doesn’t mean ceasing to exist or that His spirit died. Jesus was actually alive in the sense that His spirit was alive. The part that this phrase seriously overlooks is that Jesus then came back to life and was resurrected, in His human body.
For our sins = Really this means more accurately, that we don’t have to suffer the penalty of sin since the penalty of sin is death. And the way “death” is used here is meaning separation from God, now and forever. (Which is not the same as the previous definition just noted of Jesus dying a physical death.)
So given those definitions, the phrase really means, “God, as Jesus, suffered physical death as a human and then came back to physical life so we don’t have to suffer eternal separation from God.”
Hopefully that definition makes more sense to many people, but of course it’s not as easy and fun to say, which is why the shorter one has caught on.
ONE MORE THING: ETERNAL LIFE
Equally as frustrating is the phrase “eternal life”. Sometimes it’s tacked on the end of the previous phrase so, “Jesus died for our sins so we can have eternal life.”
This really bothers me, because everyone has eternal life. I will note, some strands of Christian theology don’t believe this, but the overwhelming consensus states that every human has eternal life—either with God or separate from God. With God means heaven and separate from God means hell.
That’s the thing, in Christian-ese, we know what we mean when we say these things. Hopefully, at least.
But, when we start posting these phrases on Facebook, talking to non-Christians, or even new Christians, we really do a disservice by not clearly defining the terms in a way that emphasizes clarity over good Christian-sounding terms.
Photo by Waiting For The Word