Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Answering a One Question Challenge to Christians
Jesus’ death and resurrection is a huge obstacle to belief for many seekers and skeptics. They don’t understand why Jesus would have to die in order for God to forgive us or what it is about blood sacrifice that makes salvation possible. Indeed, their gut reaction is to be revolted by the idea that the Jesus’ crucifixion somehow triggered God’s willingness to provide a ticket to Heaven.
For example, a popular internet atheist has posted a “One Question Challenge to Christians:” Why does blood sacrifice make anything better? We wouldn’t have respect for a tribe that throws virgins into a volcano, why should we respect a god who requires “a bloody, sadistic human sacrifice just to be persuaded to forgive us.” If God wanted to forgive us, couldn’t he just do that without having anyone killed? Could you please explain the mechanics of the situation to me?
Likewise, Christopher Hitchens was flabbergasted by what he perceived as the call to follow a god who subjected his son to a vicious death in order that Hitchens might be forgiven:
Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life…..(p. 209)
How does this make any sense?
In response, the first point to make is that these skeptics have too narrow a view of salvation. They seem to view it as a one-time legal transaction in which sinners are forgiven. As I explain at more length here, salvation is about much more than forgiveness: it is the creation of new life. Frankly, if salvation was simply and only the legal forgiveness of a debt, I think the skeptics would have valid concerns here. However, it isn’t. Salvation is about making us into new, righteous people, not giving unrighteous people a new name.
That still leaves us with the question of what the cross accomplishes in this process, but at least we can start with a more accurate soteriological foundation.
So how does the death and resurrection of Jesus result in new life for us? On one hand, we don’t really know. There is an inherent mystery in the atonement in that we simply don’t understand all the “divine mechanics.” As such, Christians should not claim to know more than they do when discussing this topic with skeptics.
However, that does not mean that we can’t offer some insights. Over the past two thousand years theologians have focused on several different models to explain what happened at the cross. I don’t have space here for a full treatment of the atonement, obviously, but here is a nice summary of Christian thinking on the topic from Roger Olson:
Some of the church fathers described Christ’s accomplishment of salvation primarily in terms of his uniting deity (divine nature) with humanity (human nature). Others described it more in terms of his ransom of captive human beings from Satan. Later, in the medieval era, certain theologians of the church developed latent themes such as sacrifice into elaborate theories of satisfaction and penal substitution. Luther preferred the imagery of battle – Christ invading the territory of the evil powers and principalities and conquering them, thus freeing humans from their domination. Some medieval and modern Christians have preferred to think of Christ’s atonement as his moral influence on humanity. (p. 245)
While it is true that sometimes Christians hold strongly to one of these models at the expense of the rest, for the most part these theories have been presented as different aspects of the same reality. They each accurately describe an aspect of the atonement and find support in scripture.
Speaking particularly of the theories presented by the Church fathers, J.N.D. Kelly states a principle that I think applies to all of the atonement models mentioned above:
Faced with this diversity, scholars have often despaired of discovering any single unifying thought in the patristic teaching about the redemption. These various theories, however, despite appearances, should not be regarded as in fact mutually incompatible. They were all of them attempts to elucidate the same great truth from different angles; their superficial divergences are often due to the different Biblical images from which they started, and there is no logical reason why, carefully stated, they should not be regarded as complementary. (p376)
I encourage everyone to research all of these models and see how they each add something valuable to the rich mosaic that is Jesus’ ministry. In this post I’ll focus briefly only on an explanation made famous by Irenaeus, a second century bishop and theologian who was a student of Polycarp, one of John’s disciples. It is an aspect of Christ’s work that Kelly suggests runs through most of the atonement theories and, I believe, should be emphasized more.
This is none other than the ancient idea of recapitulation which Irenaeus derived from St. Paul, and which envisages Christ as the representative of the entire race. Just as all men were somehow present in Adam, so they are, or can be, present in the second Adam, the man from heaven. Just as they were involved in the former's sin, with all its appalling consequences, so they can participate in the latter's death and ultimate triumph over sin, the forces of evil and death itself. Because, very God as He is, He has identified Himself with the human race, Christ has been able to act on its behalf and in its stead; and the victory He has obtained is the victory of all who belong to Him. (p. 377)
Irenaeus’ theory of recapitulation is based on a biblical truth about the world that St. Paul understood (see Romans 5, for example) but most people miss today: all humans are interconnected with each other. Douglas Wilson quotes René Girard in labeling us “interdividuals.” He notes that modern philosophical materialism requires us to think of men and women as “so many marbles in a box. But we are more like individual leaves on a tree—distinct from one another, and yet still connected, always connected." (Kindle Locations 971-972) The trunk of that tree is our common father, Adam. From him we all draw our common essence. As such, our lives are a “participation” in Adam, even thousands of years after his death. This truth is essential in understanding how the first Adam caused us to fall and what the second Adam did for our salvation.
One of the more common objections to the doctrine of the atonement is that that the gospel of the cross makes no sense because people living today shouldn’t be implicated in Adam’s sin anyway. Hitchens complains: “In order to gain the benefit of this wondrous offer, I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part… Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I also had no part, the sin of Adam." (p. 209) But this is to think of the sin of Adam in a simplistic way. It was not just a one-time event of rebellion. It was a choice that resulted in a change to Adam’s very nature. That new fallen nature flowed out to all of Adam’s children; it reaches all people in every generation. Just as we all currently share Adam’s blood, we all also share his sinful nature. As descendants of Adam, we all participate in his rebellious life. Hitchens did not have to be there handing Adam and Eve the fruit to be a part of the fall. He participates in it by being in the bloodline of Adam.
The only way for that sinful nature to stop perpetuating is for that bloodline to end. As I mentioned above (and discuss in my sermon), God’s plan for dealing with man’s rebellion is simply to destroy the sinful line and start again. The wages of sin is death. That is to say, there is no fixing sin; it simply must be done away with. As such, the sinful family line had to die and a new family line had to be created.
Jesus is the start of God’s new righteous line. He is the new Adam who does not have a sinful nature. One of the “problems” God faced, though, is that he wanted to bring people from one line to the other. He wanted to give those people in the first Adam’s family the chance to join the second Adam’s family. There was only one way this was possible: death and resurrection. They had to be killed and re-created. The cross made that possible. Wilson puts it this way:
God does not wave a compromise-wand over us and declare us to be forgiven. That would justify us, but He would not be just. Or He could send us all to hell—then He would be just, but not the one who justifies. Rather, He sent a new Adam. He established the whole human race all over again—Jesus Christ established a new way of being human. But the only way to get out of the old human race and into the new one is by means of death and resurrection. This is why there is no injustice in the gospel. I do not just walk away from my sins. Sinners are guilty and all sinners must die. What the cross does is provide us with a way of dying, with resurrection as a promised consequence. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live. This is our hope, and this is our glory. And God in His kindness has authorized His people to extend this offer—full of grace—to people like Christopher Hitchens. (Kindle Locations 987-994)
When people think of Jesus “taking their place on the cross,” it seems they usually have the idea that he suffered so that they would not have to. “Thank God for Jesus, because otherwise I would have had to die.” But that is not quite right. We still have to die. The difference is that now that Jesus has died and been resurrected to new life, we can do that too. Jesus dies so that the bloodline of Adam can die without staying dead. The way to enter into the family of God is to participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just as all who are born of the physical Adam participate in his sin and gain death, so all who are born of the spiritual Adam participate in his death and resurrection and gain life.
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Rom 6:3-7).
A Scott Hahn and Leon Suprenant point out, Only after crucifying the old self “will our sonship be revealed fully, as Christ’s sonship was revealed, in resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 8:23).” (p. 107)
That is why Jesus taught his disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.… Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:22-24).
As Paul claimed, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) To get to that point, we are to “present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). Dietrich Bonheoffer, a man who literally did just that, wrote, “When God calls a man, he bids him come and die." (p. 89)
Without the cross, that would simply not have been possible.
 Bonhoeffer understood the call to death in every sense of the word. An outspoken critic of the Nazis during World War II, Bonhoeffer had plenty of opportunity to safely wait out the war working as an academic in America. However, he decided that God wanted him back in Germany, working with the resistance movement to free his homeland. After being arrested for taking part in an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life, Bonhoeffer was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before it was liberated by the Allies.