Why did Jesus have to die? It might seem like an obvious question, especially among church professionals, but perhaps it’s not. Think about it. Why did the deity of the entire universe have to come and suffer in the hands of his creatures who already said, “Go away!”? Why did it have to be so violent and at a time just before Rome would come into Jerusalem and destroy the city? Why does it matter today?
Jesus’ Death: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
As ministers, we are invited into the great responsibility of shepherding our congregations into all truth. And none is more profound than the truth and mystery of our God come to die and live again. It’s the core of everything we do, everything we are. Paul says in I Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”.
How then do we make this message resonate with the people God has entrusted to us? How do we preach the good news so the expectation is radical transformation (which is our reasonable service according to Romans 12:1)? Here are seven thoughts to consider.
I recently responded to the question of why Jesus died simply with, “Substitutionary Atonement”. Just two words given in a setting of educated Christians. The murmur around me was, “What does that mean”? Too often we run away from doctrinal words because our audiences are growing more illiterate of them. In our avoidance, we sometimes present too much. C.S. Lewis says it this way, “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula” (Mere Christianity). Introducing precision in our language may provide fresh discovery.
“If it be your will, Father”
Yes, Jesus died to make reconciliation with his creation possible. But he died for the Father, to complete the plan of redemption and defeat the Devil. We are certainly participants in God’s plan as creatures made in his image, but it doesn’t start or stop with us. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12 that our battle is with, “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. It was also Jesus’ battle, as we see in his wilderness experience and the time leading up to the cross as Peter and Judas try to distract him from his purpose. Jesus says in John 12:31-32, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” It was God’s will, so Jesus accomplished it, killed any false hope for the Devil, and invites us to his table.
All our myths fulfilled
This is a beautiful truth that resonates with many people. Sitting alongside all the apologetics of Jesus’ death and resurrection is Jesus, the God-man, as the completion of all the stories humanity presents about gods interacting with earthly creatures. C.S. Lewis connects this important point in his essay, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. …God is more than a god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.
Independent musician Andy Gullahorn sings, “There are other ways that Jesus could have saved the world, ones that wouldn’t end up with him dead. He could’ve done it with an order from the throne of God, but he did it with a broken heart instead” (“Broken Heart” from Fault lines, 2016). Why Jesus’ incarnation, his life, his struggle, his death, and his resurrection? It’s about a person and a personal relationship. It’s about entering his brokenness and being broken. If he simply declared our redemption, we would only know it and we’d never love him. We wouldn’t know how broken we are.
It’s about the blood
It seems foreign to us when Hebrews presents us with all this blood–of goats and heifers and bulls and Jesus. It’s a picture that makes us uncomfortable. Blood everywhere. We’re accustomed to seeing it on TV, usually in circumstances of crime or revenge or some other stirring mania. The crucifixion was certainly a crime and unjust in every way… except one: it justifies us. It’s part of the paradox of our faith: how blood makes us whiter than snow. Hebrews says,
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (9:11-15)
It’s our cross, too
Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). For the early church and in many generations that followed, it was a literal cross. Even now, martyrdom is a reality for some Christians. I would suggest that it is more helpful to present our joys and sorrows of bearing our cross as literal, rather than figurative language. Making it only figurative can reduce the impact, not only of Jesus’ suffering, but his invitation to suffer with him for God’s greater glory.
Be Holy as I am Holy
Peter quotes from Leviticus when he says in I Peter 1:16, “Be holy, because I am holy”. It’s curious that of all the attributes of God– omnipotent, sovereign, judge, immutable, infinite, omnipresent, omniscient–he calls us into holiness. Being holy as he is holy is about a relationship. Jesus died in order to open up the pathway for our holiness. Peter goes on and says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1:18-19).
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. …I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11,14-15). Jesus had to die as our substitute, to fulfill the will of the Father, to break in and fill out all our myths, to show us our brokenness, to shed the final blood, and clear the way for us to take up our cross and enter into the Holy of Holies–the throne room of God–because now we can be holy as God is holy.
Let us prepare our congregations for the passion of the crucifixion and the victory of the resurrection.
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.