Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God just forgive?
Jesus had to die to show us the truth of where our version of life was heading, and what it was doing to ourselves, to one another and to God. God couldn’t ‘just forgive’ us because forgiveness requires an acknowledgement of the wrong and the damage that has been done to the victim. And here we see that God is the victim (Ps 51:4).
Jesus did not save us from an angry God; he came to save us from ourselves, and the systems of oppression that enslave us (the idols we created that have ended up owning us; economies, governments, cultures etc). He died to show us, not what God wanted to do to us, but what we had done to him. And from the cross, in the midst of his agony he calls out, ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing‘
This is astounding love. God does this because he knows we must come face to face with our frailty, to know ourselves honestly and understand that God is still full of love for us in this state. He does not love who we might become, or who we could become. He does not love the fake self we project to the world because we are ashamed of the real thing. He loves the ‘me’ who crucified Jesus. He loves me as he lets himself be crucified, knowing his death alone might open my eyes to the truth, truth that will hurt like hell, but truth that will rescue me from hell and ultimately set me free.
Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr writes,
Quite simply, until someone dies, we don’t ask bigger questions. We don’t understand in a new way. We don’t break through. The only price that Jesus was paying was to the human soul, so that we could break through to a new kind of God. Most of religious history believed that humanity had to spill blood to get to God (human sacrifice or animal sacrifice), but after Jesus some were able to comprehend that actually God was “spilling blood” to get to us.
I don’t want to have caused Jesus to have gone to the cross. I wish it was because of some cosmic loophole that Jesus found so he could save us from Grumpy-god. But the truth, the truth that hurts and also heals, is that all of God is for me; that all of God purposed to submit to the world I helped create, to show me the truth and the damage, and then when my eyes were finally open, to speak forgiveness over the mess I had made. Any other forgiveness would have been worse than meaningless, for it would have given me permission to continue. That world needed to ground to a halt, and it did when God died on a cross, because of me and for me.
Graciously, God is showing me how his love can be expressed even in the midst of our violence. In order to protect myself I figured God must be the one with the issues; the angry, holy God lashing out at anyone who strayed within his reach. But the truth is that it’s me who needs help. The cross is my testimony. It is part of my story. It is part of my relationship with God. But as I face the absolute worst that I have done, I encounter the very best that God has done. In the moment I touch the darkness of my own soul, I feel the hand of Jesus taking hold of me, because he has joined me in facing my terrors and assures me they will not be the end of me. Just as they weren’t the end of him, even though they killed him first.
Because I have come to see the cross is part of my story, I have real hope that the rest of Jesus’ story might be mine also.
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Somehow. God only knows how. Thank goodness.