“If not to appease the wrath of an angry God, then WHY did Jesus NEED to die? If to conquer Satan, sin and death, WHY did Jesus NEED to die? Couldn’t he just declare it?”
Why did Jesus need to die? Okay, I can accept that it’s not to placate God’s wrath directed at humanity. But then why? I believe that you have answered elsewhere, ‘To defeat Sin, death, and the Destroyer.’
But the question is not so easily resolved. Why was his death necessary for Jesus to die to defeat Sin, death, and the Destroyer? If God chose to forgive without preconditions – as you suggest Hosea teaches – then why couldn’t God similarly defeat Sin, death, and the Destroyer without preconditions (i.e., the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus)?
Why couldn’t God simply declare victory and make it so?
I understand this question. I hear it semi-regularly. Here are my current thoughts:
What we cannot and must not do is simply presuppose and impose a theological system from which we reason our way to a conclusion. This was the mistake of Reformation theology. It created a forensic theological system based on medieval and late scholastic legal premises.
E.g. “God can’t freely forgive. God must punish. God’s wrath must be appeased.”
And from there, they built a strange atonement theory of wrath-appeasement that directly contradicts so much of what Scripture actually reveals and often directly contradicts.
Instead, we have to start with what has actually been revealed and from there, see if we can humbly infer a few ‘WHYS’ while staying within the parameters of what has been revealed.
So what has actually been revealed about “Why Jesus died”?
We shouldn’t even start with the premise that Jesus HAD to die at this point. That’s running ahead.
What we KNOW first is that he did die.
Why did Jesus die?
Most obviously, the Bible says Jesus died because we (humanity) killed him. That’s what the Gospels and Acts reveal.
Why did we kill him? What is revealed about OUR WHY?
We are told that “his own (the Sanhedrin and Temple establishment specifically) did not receive him” (John 1).
And that ‘men (humanity) love darkness rather than light (1 John).
It appears that the four Gospels focus the human WHY on a growing hostility toward Jesus that climaxed at his triumphal entry, the temple incident and final trials.
Then instead of answering ‘Why did he NEED to die?” the New Testament reveals more exactly “To what end did he die?”
“To what end did Jesus die?”
This subtle shift changes our focus from a requirement that leads to Christ’s death onto the results that stem from his death.
Not “what brought about his death?” so much as “what did his death bring about?”
We move from “What causes the Cross?” to “What does the Cross CAUSE?”
This is where I believe our responses must align with and come from the New Testament. Namely,
* “In dying, Christ reveals God’s nature as self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love.”
* “In dying, Christ defeats Satan, forgives sin and undoes death.”
Said another way, the Cross (i.e. which includes both Jesus’ death and resurrection) is God’s redemptive victory of:
- * light over darkness,
- * love over dread and,
- * life over death.
These facts are still all derived from the revealed truth, the gospel. They don’t answer “Why did he NEED to?” but rather “What did he die for?”
We’re not guessing at unknowns here. We’re only saying THAT Christ died and WHAT his death accomplished (i.e., what is “finished”).
These answers are not speculative statements or theological systems or atonement theories.
These responses are merely the gospel as the New Testament reveals it.
So, if we must ask WHY Jesus died on the Cross, we can answer the question from multiple points of view, all reported in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Jesus died because of:
- * “God’s love for humanity and God’s plan to redeem us,”
- * “Christ’s actions in the temple,”
- * “The conspiracy of Pilate, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin,”
- * “The cross itself, as the instrument of Jesus’ torture and death,”
- * “Our sins and sorrows, which Jesus bore,”
- * “For our salvation,” etc.
Why did Jesus death matter?
Likewise, my friend Glenn Runnalls suggests we shift the question from “Why was the death of Jesus necessary?” to questions the New Testament actually answers: For example:
* Why did Jesus death matter?
* What did it mean?
* What did it afford/ accomplish?
Naturally, we would want to ask these questions of the best sources and in the right context. Glenn suggests (as I do with my grad students) that we go to the sermons in Acts to hear what the early Christians said. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of evangelistic messages he found online:
Act s 15:13-21
What do the evangelists say? I’ll let you do the assignment. Ask what they always include and what they sometimes include. Take note of surprising inclusions and omissions.
For now, let’s return to the original question: “Why did Jesus NEED to die in order for Satan, sin and death to be defeated? Why NOT just defeat them with a word and declare it?”
I don’t KNOW if we can KNOW that.
What I do KNOW is that Christ died and that his resurrection was the living gospel the whole world would hear.
What I do KNOW is that “for us people and for our salvation, Christ suffered and died under Pontius Pilate and rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures,” thus accomplishing our salvation from Satan, sin and death.
I know this by the testimony of the apostles and evangelists of the first church. Not by speculation. Not by deduction. Just by the gospel story that we’ve received, with all its mystery.
Because of God’s love
Now, here’s a little more revelation:
1 John reveals that the active ingredient at the Cross that CAUSED the Cross to be our salvation (rather than our damnation) was the love of God.
Divine love compelled God to come into the world, to forgive our sins, bear our sorrows and endure our death in his body.
The story is not about necessary conditions through a particular mechanism … it is about a Lover rushing into a burning building to save us.
But why couldn’t he just anounce it and make it so? Because he didn’t.
What we KNOW is that God became human, in his humanity he died, and in his deity destroyed death.
That’s the revealed truth.
To imagine other ways that we think he could have done it or should have done it are what John Behr calls “counterfactual hypotheticals” which typically get us nowhere … other than to the realization that reason fails us at some point and we rely on revelation and trust Mystery to fill in the gaps.
The Mystery between the Gaps
Much later, St. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation, will venture to fill in some of the logic to the mystery, but he only does so with further revelation.
Here is his train of thought:
- * Humanity was dying.
- * God loves humanity and determined to solve the problem of death.
- * How? By entering death to destroy death and to save us from death.
- * But the only entry to death IS death BUT God cannot die.
- * Therefore, God assumed human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ. Human nature can die, so Jesus can die and invade death.
- * Jesus enters death by dying BUT he is also still God, so what happens next? Death dies!
- * Then Jesus exits death along with its plunder (humanity).
Each of these points is revealed in Scripture.
What these points still don’t answer is WHY God needed to enter death to save us or WHY God needed to die to enter death.
Answer: Again, we don’t know. But these are not premises Athanasius brought to the gospel. They are inferences he drew from the gospel.
The only leap of logic he takes is that if it WAS this way, it HAD TO BE THIS WAY.
Why? We don’t KNOW why. But we know that it IS.
My counter-questions would be two-fold. Is the NEED to know WHY about a NEED for certitude about HOW it all works? Will that be a condition of our faith in the crucified One?
Or is there a question behind the question that arises from the heart? What is the heart-need that drives the question … and what is it seeking?
I also ran this question by a theologian/priest friend, Fr. Sean Davidson of St Mark’s Anglican Church in New Brunswick.
Here was Fr. Sean’s response:
“Jesus needed to die” … that’s in the frame of a strict determinism and is framed to satisfy a certain brand of rationality.
We don’t know what was needed or what wasn’t.
We know what happened to Jesus.
And we know from Jesus and the apostles that what happened to Jesus was not accidental but served the purpose of atonement, orchestrated by God.
There are different ways of articulating the how of that orchestration—within Scripture itself and beyond it. Elaborate articulations have been debated down the ages, though we don’t find anything like that in Scripture.
One of the reasons for this is that the NT writers were more comfortable than later theologians with literary approaches to truth-telling via simile, analogy, metaphor, paradox, etc.