Why did Jesus have to die? – a long journey: Part 1


Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God just forgive?

Part One

I must confess, this is a question I have struggled with for most of the last ten years. Its actually a little awkward to admit, but if you look at my albums (which you can here and here) you won’t find a single song about the cross there. I mean it crops up in songs like ‘One Voice‘, ‘May we grow‘ and ‘Break the bread‘, but isn’t the central focus in any of them. I just haven’t known what to write. That’s quite an admission to make. While we’re in the mood, I have also never watched the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (shocking I know). My defence was that I wouldn’t watch footage of any friend getting tortured and killed, least of all Jesus. Apparently most of the disciples felt similar, so I feel like I’m in good (if not terribly faithful or courageous) company.

Growing up in a solidly evangelical family and church, I grew up believing Jesus died to ‘pay for my sins’. When I started to think about it, and specifically when some of my theology professors invited me to think about it, I began to ask questions like, ‘pay who?’ If the answer was ‘God’ then why did God set up a system that could only be satisfied with the death of his Son?

I have just been asked to speak at the Easter Camp in Timaru. Initially I said ‘thanks but no thanks’. But the idea of going wouldn’t leave me alone. So I explored a little more. When I was told the theme was, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ I knew Jesus wanted me to go. Because Jesus wanted me to face this question I had avoided so long, this question that had previously left me with a helpless Jesus and a helpless God who couldn’t avoid this horrific ending at the cross. Even worse, with a God that could somehow be satisfied by Jesus’ torture and death on the cross.

We have recently been studying Leviticus through the season of Lent, and a week or so ago, Simon my senior minister, pointed out that the sacrifices that the Israelites were asked to make were not causing God to forgive them. God didn’t have a fetish for chargrilled steak, which caused him to go all gooey on the inside and say, ‘that’s ok’ to anything. Instead these sacrifices were marking a forgiveness that had already taken place, and marked the people’s engagement with it and appropriation of it. Likewise, the elaborate ceremonies to do with cleanliness were not the means by which cleanliness was dispense or achieved, rather they marked when healing had happened, when wholeness had been restored. As foreign as this bloody system of ritual sacrifice is to us, it was first and foremost a sign of grace not a mechanism of justification. A mechanism of justification reduces forgiveness to a legal transaction, where God is obliged to forgive because we have satisfied certain requirements. A sign of grace, however, like the sacraments – gives earthly form to a heavenly truth. It’s as if to say, God has forgiven you, God has healed you, now live into that reality, and here’s a physical practice that will help you grasp that spiritual truth, and make it real.

Yet all too easily we slip into the mistake of assuming that the sacrifices of the Levitical system actually changed God’s mind regarding our sin (even though God himself was adamant they didn’t – see Amos 5:22 or Isaiah 1:11). So if sacrifices didn’t appease an angry God, but instead allowed a broken people to participate in the forgiveness God was already offering them, what does that mean for Jesus and the cross? If God was already eager to forgive us, why did Jesus have to die? And what about that troubling line in the otherwise wonderful song,
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied,
For every sin on him was laid…’

Really? God was wildly angry with us. Fair enough. We’re idiots and we’re hurting and killing ourselves and each other all the time. But how could that anger be satisfied by the death of the Innocent One. I had images of God aiming a gun at me and Jesus throwing himself in front of me to take the hit at the last minute. The notion that God could be as callous as to not even care who he destroys, as long as he destroys someone is appalling. This seems like a far from satisfying conclusion to me!

There are lots of problems with this perspective, but mostly because it places the Father and the Son at odds with one another. The Father wants to destroy us, but Jesus deflects the blow onto himself. This means I feel loved by Jesus, but also protected by Jesus from the Father. It means I love Jesus, but feel slightly skittish around his Dad. By skittish, I mean bloody terrified. We end up with a Family of God that is divided against itself, exactly the kind of family Jesus said could never last. We end up with images of a Jake-the-Muss God, who takes out all his anger on Someone who didn’t even deserve it, making that violence seem all the more horrendous, and ironically, unjustified.
Yet Jesus is adamant throughout John’s Gospel that he and the Father are singing from the same songbook. There is not internal conflict. Jesus is not catching God out on a loophole.

So then, why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven humanity?

Check out part 2 tomorrow…

  • Stuart

    Hey Malcolm, this reflection is great, would you mind if I used some of it for a talk I am doing at a Scots College service in couple of weeks time. It will be great to catch up next week.

    March 12, 2013
    • Totally Stu, go for it. Will be great to reconnect, its been too long!

      March 12, 2013

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