Pondering a central Christian question: Why did Jesus die?

Today many Christians are asking not only what the apostles preached but also what Jesus himself thought about his death.

Many Christians never ask questions about the fact that Jesus died to “take away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In some churches it would be considered irreverent to ask questions about that.
However, in other churches, sincere questions are always welcome, and today many thoughtful Christians are asking: “Why was it necessary for Jesus to die in order for God to forgive us?”

Questions like this have been around for a long time, and across the centuries the church has answered them in different ways. These three answers have been especially influential:
Christus Victor — Throughout his public ministry Jesus engaged in a battle against evil in the form of the devil, demons, death and other dark forces. At the cross Jesus defeated evil and thereby freed humans from being enslaved to and tormented by evil.

Some theologians believe that for about a thousand years this was the church’s principal understanding of Jesus’ death. Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén argued for this in his widely influential book, Christus Victor (1930).
Penal Substitution — At the cross Jesus voluntarily took upon himself the sins of the world, and he experienced the divine punishment for those sins. As a result, sinners have been forgiven and will not be punished by God.

In the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin expounded this interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice at great length. Today it is known as penal substitution; it is penal because what Jesus experienced was punishment, and it is substitutionary because Jesus experienced punishment not only for our benefit but also in our place, as our substitute.

Today this is an immensely popular understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice. In fact, some evangelical Christians believe that it is an indispensable component of orthodox Christian faith.

This is an innovation; the great councils of the church and the great creeds such as the Nicene Creed do not affirm any particular interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice. What they affirm is the fact of atonement, not a particular theory of atonement.

Transforming Example — Jesus’ example of self-sacrificial love empowers his followers to live the way Jesus taught. This understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice became widely influential among Liberal Protestants in the 19th century. Today it is attractive to many Christians who have reservations about other understandings.

As diverse as these three understandings are, they nevertheless have two immensely important things in common.

First, in all three understandings Jesus’ suffering and death are taken seriously. What happened on the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday is important in all three.

Second, all three affirm that the reason Jesus’ sacrifice is important is that by it he has accomplished salvation of the world. His suffering, death and resurrection are saving acts of God in human history.

I believe it is important for Christians to continue doing both of these things: take the cross seriously and affirm that in Jesus God acted decisively to save the world.

British New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd demonstrated in his book The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (1936) that this is the gospel the earliest Christians preached and Paul spelled out in passages such as 1 Cor. 15:1-7.

To me it is fascinating that each of these three interpretations of Jesus’ sacrifice offers a different understanding of the salvation Jesus accomplished.

Christus Victor emphasizes salvation as redemption: By defeating evil, Jesus freed us from the tyranny of evil powers.

Penal Substitution emphasizes salvation as forgiveness. By experiencing the punishment due for our sins, Jesus made possible the forgiveness of our sins, as a result of which we will not be punished in hell for our sins.

Transforming Example emphasizes salvation as moral transformation: By sacrificing himself, Jesus empowered us to live lives of sacrificial love for others.

I believe salvation includes all three of these things: redemption, forgiveness and moral transformation. (It also includes other things such as, for example, eternal life).

In the New Testament, Jesus’ sacrifice is directly associated with all three of these things. For example, Christus Victor is present when the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus shared fully in our human experience “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

Penal Substitution is present when Paul writes that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Gal. 3:10).

And Transforming Example is present when Peter writes that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

Today many Christians are asking not only what the apostles preached but also what Jesus himself thought about his death. Two companion themes that stand out in the teaching of Jesus are the kingdom of God and a particular way of life.

The kingdom of God is the central image in Jesus’ teaching. Mark summarized Jesus’ message this way: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'” (Mark 1:14-15).

The kingdom of God is not a political entity such as the nation of Israel or a geographical area such as the Holy Land. It is not a group of people such as Jesus’ disciples or the church.

The Kingdom is God ruling as king. It is the gracious reign of God over the people of God. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Thy kingdom come,” we are asking God to extend God’s gracious rule over the lives of more and more people.

Jesus’ teaching also included instructions about how those who enter God’s kingdom should live. The Sermon on the Mount includes many of these instructions.

You should be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and not hate anyone. You should be faithful to your spouse in your mind as well as in your behavior.

You should let your word be your bond. You should never take revenge on people who hurt you. You should love your enemies and pray for them.

You should be generous to those who are poor. You should never display your generosity in public. You should not pray to impress people but rather pray privately and sincerely.

You should forgive those who wrong you. You should not be anxious about the future. You should make the kingdom of God your priority in life.

You should not be judgmental. You should ask God to provide the things you need in your life. You should treat others the way you want others to treat you.

Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God and its companion way of life are a marvelous, life-giving gospel — and they don’t say anything about Jesus’ sacrifice.

However, that’s not the whole story.

For one thing — and the importance of this cannot be exaggerated — Jesus went to Jerusalem fully aware that his enemies would kill him. He even carried out provocative acts — entering the city on a donkey in the manner of a king, driving the money changers out of the Temple — that were sure to enrage his enemies.

Why did Jesus do these things?

The four Gospels are clear: Jesus went to Jerusalem and provoked his enemies because he saw religious meaning in his death. He knew God was calling him to do this (Matt. 26:36-46). His death was purposeful, and its objective was salvation.

At the last supper he expressed this to his inner circle of disciples. While instructing them to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him, he described the wine as his “blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).

Centuries before this, the prophet Jeremiah predicted a coming time when God would make a new covenant with Israel, and he said that once the new covenant was in place God would “forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

Since this is the only passage in the Old Testament where the phrase “new covenant” is used, it is probable that Jesus was thinking about it when he referred to his “blood of the new covenant.” Covenants were routinely made by blood.

The bottom line here is that at the last supper Jesus was saying that his blood would be the means by which God would make a new covenant with humans, and once that covenant was in place, sins would be forgiven.

Even before that last week Jesus had begun to prepare his disciples for his approaching death. After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great sufferings … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).

He then challenged his disciples to follow his example: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

In speaking of his suffering and death as benefiting others, Jesus was repeating a theme found in the Old Testament. For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).

Jesus may have been thinking of texts such as this when he told his disciples, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “Son of Man” was a reference to himself, and a ransom was something that has the power to liberate people who are enslaved.

One can be a good follower of Jesus simply by embracing his message about God’s gracious kingdom and then trying to live according to his moral teachings. We know this is true because during Jesus’ lifetime many Jews and some Gentiles became Jesus’ followers in just this way. Jesus welcomed them as his “little flock” and told them that God was giving them the kingdom (Luke 12:32).

Across the centuries many people have continued to do just what those early followers of Jesus did. They have accepted his gospel of the kingdom of God and tried to live according to his moral teachings. It is, I believe, a mistake to deprecate this way of following Jesus.

H. Richard Niebuhr did that when he criticized forms of Christian faith in which “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 1938).

It’s a clever sentence, but by allowing for only one way of following Jesus, it disinherits people whom Jesus said would inherit the kingdom of God. Surely this is a mistake.

On the other hand, it is natural for those who follow Jesus to try to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, as Walter B. Shurden has said so beautifully. And it is clear that Jesus took seriously not only the kingdom of God and a particular way of life that he proclaimed to wide audiences but also the idea — which he seems to have taught principally to his inner circle of disciples — that his suffering and death were filled with religious, salvific meaning.

He took that so seriously that he went to Jerusalem knowing it would provoke his enemies to violence against him.

When we try to take seriously what Jesus thought about his suffering and death, we may proceed in either or both of two ways.

The first way is to study carefully the 20 or so New Testament interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is difficult work because the context for all these interpretations is first-century Palestinian Judaism.

To do this work well, we must not only acquire a great deal of historical information about Judaism in that long-ago era but also employ our imaginations to feel our way back into what those biblical interpretations of Jesus’ sacrifice must have meant to the people who first wrote about them.

Let me give an example. The New Testament includes interpretations of Jesus’ death that have been drawn from at least six different Jewish animal sacrifices, namely:
• Passover sacrifices (see John 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:7)
• Day of Atonement sacrifices (Heb. 9:1-14)
• Covenant-making sacrifices (Matt. 26:28)
• Sin offerings (1 John 1:7, 2:1-2)
• Thank offerings (Mark 15:34 together with Psalms 22)
• Gift offerings (Eph. 5:2)
First-century Jews were familiar with all these different sacrifices and their varied meanings, and when they were in Jerusalem they took animals to the Temple for the priests to offer up to God.

Repeated participation in the sacrificial ceremonies made it natural for faithful Jews to assume that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Our situation is quite different from theirs:

We are not thoroughly familiar with the Jewish sacrificial practices. We don’t take animals to be sacrificed to God as part of our worship services.

The idea that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood is for those who believe it is today a concept they have intentionally accepted rather than an assumption they have unselfconsciously made because they have repeatedly and routinely offered animal sacrifices to God.

To understand the New Testament interpretations of Jesus’ death that have been taken from the Jewish sacrificial system, we must first acquire historical information about that very complex system and then try to imagine our way back into the first-century situation. This is important work, and the church should always be carrying it out.

There is a second way we may take seriously what Jesus thought about his suffering and death, and that is to understand it in light of modern experiences that are already familiar to us.

This kind of understanding won’t carry the same authority as the understandings found in the New Testament, but it can help us to answer our questions about Jesus’ suffering and death.

Here’s an example: Most people have had the experience of being mistreated and hurt by others. When someone hurts us unfairly, we naturally become angry and want to retaliate.

In our hearts we know it is better to forgive than to retaliate, but we nevertheless feel reluctant to forgive, and if we do decide to forgive, we discover that it’s a very hard thing to do. To forgive, we must accept the pain others have caused us and also accept the frustration of not doing what we want — which is to get revenge. Then, we must live with and live through all that pain until we come to a place where we no longer want to take revenge.

This, of course, is not fair: the other person hurt us and should have to suffer, but instead we have to suffer because in the real world of moral relationships, it is only the one who has been wronged who can forgive. In the real world, forgiveness is always costly. I suspect that any adult who does not understand this probably has never tried to do it.

Many Christians today find it helpful to think of Jesus’ sufferings as his experience of the costliness of forgiveness. By going to Jerusalem, he became vulnerable to the violence of his enemies. He suffered the most outrageous consequences of human sinning — you can’t do much worse to a man than crucify him — as his way of forgiving the sins of the world.

For God as for us, forgiveness is costly. At the cross we see what it cost for God in Christ to forgive us all.

This modern understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t appeal to everyone, and of course it doesn’t have the authority that the biblical understandings of Jesus’ sacrifice do. But it does help to answer a question that troubles some thoughtful Christians today: Why was it necessary for Jesus to suffer and die in order to forgive?

The answer is: Because forgiveness is costly to God just as it is to us.

I sometimes think about the costliness of God’s forgiveness when I see a cross on a church steeple or share in the Lord’s Supper or sing about the old rugged cross. I remember that Jesus made his sacrifice for the best of all possible reasons: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2).

I also remember that this is the good news we all need, namely, that God has acted decisively in human history for the salvation of the world. It is this that makes it possible for us to say with all our hearts: “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). NFJ

By Fisher Humphreys

—Fisher Humphreys of Birmingham, Ala., is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University. He is the author of numerous books including Thinking About God: An Introduction to Christian Theology. You may write him at fisherhumphreys@gmail.com.

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