Why did Jesus have to die? This is probably one of the most popular questions that I was asked by my friends once they heard that I was a regular at church, and then even more so as I started my training to be a pastor. And, to be honest, back in the day when I was just starting out it felt like the greatest question in the world to me. Why? Because in the world of evangelical Christianity, of which I was a part of for much of my teen to young adult years, a question like this was seen as an open door for evangelism, for converting a non-believer, for the aggressive proselytizing that have given evangelicals such a bad reputation in the secular and some religious circles alike.
Because to me, at the time, the one who posed the question, “why did Jesus have to die” showed interest in my beliefs. It was my opportunity to plant that seed of the gospel. It was my chance to spill my guts about my convictions and maybe, just maybe, I would be able to convince this inquisitive mind that I am right, that my religion is true, and “win them for Christ”. I mean, isn’t that the ultimate goal for the evangelical Christian? To convert as many as possible to store up those treasures in heaven? To be that catalyst in saving these souls? To act as some religious super hero, swooping in to rescue those who are less informed, less educated, less knowledgeable of the truth that they didn’t know the answer to something so simple as to why Jesus had to die.
But, as I grew older, I found that the question “why did Jesus have to die” actually at times came from a different place. It wasn’t out of general curiosity, out of a desire to learn, or even from the need to feel saved, but it came out of a place of mocking, a place of ridicule, a place of wanting to educate me of the fallacy of my beliefs and convictions. You see, in asking “why did Jesus have to die” is to point out a circular God, arguing with itself, unable to control its own urges for blood and punishment and thus requires the death of an innocent man.
Isn’t that the story that we’re taught in Sunday School? Or for at least those who attended Sunday School and actually paid attention. Aren’t we told that Jesus had to die to satisfy God’s need for a sacrifice, to pay the price for sin, to take the punishment that was actually reserved for us in order to save us from the wrath and justice of God? Isn’t that how all of this works?
What do you think? Does that make sense? So you’re telling me that God came up with this plan that everyone would be perfect, but because they weren’t perfect God decided to condemn everyone to hell because they didn’t live up to this standard that they didn’t even know about. But it doesn’t end there, God couldn’t change God’s own mind, so instead God sends Jesus, the God incarnate, to suffer and die for our sake, in order to appease God’s unquenchable anger so it won’t be taken out on us. So basically God sets us up to fail in an eternally damning way, but then decides to “save us” through self-mutilation and basically suicide. All of this designed, instigated, and carried out by God.
It sort of reminds me of this comic that I’ve shared with you before:
I don’t mean to poo-poo on anyone who agrees with this, but it is hard not to see how illogical it is when it is put this way. So I found the more I was asked this question why Jesus had to die, the more I saw that answering that question wasn’t really doing anyone any favours.
Because that question is somewhat of a catch 22 (or at least by how I understand what a catch 22 even is). By being asked and answering a question around why Jesus had to die, it is to admit that Jesus had to die to begin with. That it was some necessary event that needed to happen in order to satisfy some sort of plan, some sort of requirement, some kind of sick and twisted idea that God is this blood thirsty sacrifice monger that manipulates us into doing and believing some pretty crazy stuff for the name of justice and salvation.
Again, I don’t say all this to convince you that your faith is wrong, or that you shouldn’t be here, or that my job as this professional Christian is just a front. Instead, I’m trying to perhaps deconstruct the erroneous things that we might have learned in the past, I’m trying to shed light on how the world might see us and our faith, I’m trying to peel away the layers of misguided tradition, misinformed theology, and misplaced belief, and uplift the gospel, the good news of a God that isn’t out looking for blood but brings healing in the midst of it, a God that doesn’t demand death but provides a way to make sense of it, a God that isn’t bound by rules around punishment and sacrifice, but only lives and acts out of grace and mercy, ruled only by the strong love for this world.
So why did Jesus have to die? The truth is, Jesus didn’t. He died, yes, but he didn’t have to. Jesus did hang on the cross, but God didn’t require it or command it to happen. Jesus did suffer, was mocked and spit upon, and was brought to a gruesome demise but that wasn’t to appease the wrath of this angry God who wanted nothing but someone to pay for the sins of the world… but it was to appease our own wrath, needing someone to pay for our discomfort and disagreement with the grace and mercy that Jesus was teaching us.
Whoa, wait, we weren’t there. We weren’t even born yet. Our grandparents, our grandparents’ grandparents, and even their grandparents weren’t born yet. This wasn’t our fault!
Agreed. The actual death of Jesus wasn’t our fault in that we weren’t there flogging him with a leather whip or hammering the nails into his hands and feet. But it is human brokenness, human hatred, human sin that led Jesus to the cross. It is the human inability to embrace love, human unwillingness to live in equality with all people, human stubbornness preventing us from learning how to forgive and see everyone as worthy parts of this human race, members of Christ’s own body, citizens of God’s own kingdom that caused Jesus to suffer and die.
We weren’t there yes, but we are as broken as those who were. We weren’t the ones shouting crucify him, but we resist and push God away just the same. We weren’t the ones who were so blinded by hatred that an innocent person was sentenced to execution, but we still hate, we are still blinded, and we are still in dire need of a saviour. Not to save us from the punishment dished out by an angry God, but to save us from our own shortcomings, our own failures, our own sinfulness that brings upon us shame, guilt, and brokenness.
And just our luck, someone deemed us worthy of this Saviour. Someone came up with a plan to save us. Someone loves us enough to provide a way out, teach us a new way of life, show us a forgiveness and peace that the world has never before known. Someone frees us from our guilt. Someone alleviates our shame. Someone heals us in our brokenness, that we might be strengthened to tell the good news of what this someone has done in granting us love, peace, and freedom from all that holds us back, teaching us by example what it means to live in community, equality, and as a holy kingdom of God.
As we begin this journey into Holy Week, looking forward to the empty cross, may we remember our brokenness and sinfulness but be filled with hope and peace in knowing that Jesus didn’t have to die… but Jesus had to be resurrected. Thanks be to God. Amen.