Why Did Jesus Die?
Truth be told, I don’t know.
And neither do you, really. Even if some answers might be better than others, it’s still all a bunch of guesses.
That’s not a bad thing, though, it’s just normal. With any given event there exists the possibility for multiple explanations, reasons, or interpretations of why said event occurred. And the more significant the event, the higher the odds for diverse perspectives on its cause and meaning.
Were an investigative journalist on the scene 2000 years ago she’d surely get dozens of different answers. One from the Roman soldiers, another from Pontius Pilate, and three more answers from the high priests or pharisees or saducees. Then she’d get all sorts of answers from Jesus’ followers—those who fled, those who betrayed or denied, and those who stuck around. His family would have their own ideas, as would those who simply observed the situation from afar. And should the journalist come back through town 30 years later for an update to her piece on Why the Son of a Nazarene Carpenter Was Executed as a Common Criminal, she’d no doubt be shocked to discover the myriad folks who decidedly altered their lives in order to mimic that of the stories and teachings they heard about Jesus.
And the answers those people would’ve given as to why Jesus died? Good gravy, they'd have sounded nothing like what she heard three decades prior.
As the Christian Church established itself, spread, and rose to power, the reasons given for why Jesus died continued to evolve. Toss a rock hopscotch style on the timeline of Christianity and anywhere the stone settles you’re sure to find an explanation of the crucifixion distinct from the one given 50 years in either direction. To be sure, some common threads bind many of the responses together, but to insist that Christianity has proffered one simple, clear, and consistent answer throughout its history as to why Jesus died would be foolish. And wrong.
Growing up, my religious heritage taught me that Jesus died in order to satisfy the wrath of God.
Why was God angry?
Because humans aren’t perfect, and he (sic) hates imperfection.
And how does a dead Jewish guy make a difference?
Because God can now decide to let people off the hook for their mistakes by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice as sufficient payment for the debt we owed our perfect Creator.
The logic is at once both entirely absurd and strangely defensible (if you string together the right combination of verses from the Bible). Yet such an explanation for the death-of-Jesus represents only a tiny fraction of the many variations suggested throughout history, even though myself (and many others) were taught it as though it and it alone is the one true answer.
As a result, the crucifixion of Jesus became a big deal in the church.
I mean, think about it: if that one grim evening on Golgatha truly did open a pathway through which the God of the Universe might finally have means to grant forgiveness to billions of humans, well then yeah, that’s no small thing! Massive celebrations and dramatic reenactments would make sense in light of such an event.
For my part, as someone who spent over a decade as a Worship & Arts Pastor, I used to love Good Friday, the annual celebration of the death of Jesus. I relished the chance every spring to set aside one night where we could go full darkness, where we could lean all the way in to the gory, gruesome, yet glory-filled moment of Jesus giving up his life so that we might enjoy eternal bliss.
I loved singing about the cross, meditating on the blood, and inviting people to give thanks for a God who loved us enough to sacrifice his (sic) own child on our behalf.
But now? I see things differently.
The story of a God, separate from us because of our sin, who requires a blood sacrifice in order to be appeased no longer resonates with me. In fact it kind of mortifies me. And the idea that Jesus died so that some divine cosmic transaction might occur, where my sins are now paid for and where I might now be acceptable to God, has lost all sense of appeal and logic.
My ideas about God and my beliefs regarding Jesus have evolved significantly, with the ensuing result being that for the past couple years I’ve been unsure how to feel on Good Friday. And I’m so much slower to answer the question, “why did Jesus die.”
When I think about them now, most of the old answers I used to give are like stick figures. When you’re first learning to draw you can’t conceive of three dimensions on flat paper, or of proper bodily proportions, so you learn to draw a circle for the head followed by a series of lines for the body. Lots of people never move on from there, and even as adults they still draw stick people—even if by now they’ve at least upgraded the hair, the face, and maybe put some shoes on. Still, it’s just a fancier stick person.
But for those unsatisfied with how stick-figures can’t really represent the world around them as they see it they might mature their artistic skills in order to better create sketches of what a human being truly looks like. And once you can do that, once you can utilize shading and perspective, once you add details and nuance and depth, then the world of stick figures no longer satisfies.
For years now I’ve leveled up my drawing skills as it relates to God, Jesus, the Bible, humanity, the cosmos, relationships, and so on. But when it comes to the cross, when it comes to the execution of a first century radical rabbi, when it comes to Good Friday, I’ve been stuck with a circle and five sticks.
But not any more.
So in tomorrow’s post I’'ll share what I’ve discovered recently about why Jesus might’ve died.
For me, it’s helping put the good back in Good Friday.
And I hope you might find it helpful as well.