Why did Jesus have to die?

Religion / Sermons and audio

This Sunday’s Passion reading places us squarely at the foot of the cross by the time we come to the middle of our liturgy. It’s an annual struggle for me as a preacher to find a way to make sense of what is being read to a group of people who may be just joining us mid-story.

That the cross is a central part of the story of Jesus, and a key feature of the Triduum can’t be argued. Mark’s Gospel has been described as an extended introduction to the Passion. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was clearly the most important part of the Early Church’s proclamation of the Gospel – just read any of the early sermons of the Apostles or the first Christian writers and you’ll see the way the keep coming back to it.

But for many people today the cross and Christ’s death is sort of an odd thing that gets between them and the Jesus they’re following. I recently had the opportunity to read a number of student essays that tried to share the gospel in a couple of sentences. Most of them focused on the idea of Jesus as God’s exemplary human; who’s life showed us what each of us were capable of being. (I’m told by someone smarter than I am that this is an idea that was first fully expressed in the writings of Peter Abelard.) But none of them talked about the cross, and none of them mentioned the word atonement.

That’s probably because the idea of the atonement has been put aside lately in modern thinking; mostly because the simple version of substitutionary atonement just doesn’t make sense to modern ears. But it’s a mistake to imagine that there’s only one way to look at the cross, and it’s historically inaccurate to imagine the Church has always held to the same explanation. Because it isn’t and it hasn’t. There’s multiple ways of understanding the death of Christ. And Palm Sunday is a chance perhaps to talk about them.

Tony Jones has written what is an effectively a quick start guide to the main views of the Atonement. He starts off by asking the question, “If the cross is the answer, what’s the question it’s answering?”

“You’d think that this is among the most central of all Christian doctrines to work out. And, indeed, much ink has been spilled, and many pixels typed, regarding this doctrine, called the “atonement” by theologians. But it’s also worth noting that never in the 2,000-year history of the church has one’s take on the atonement been a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy. Never was it the subject of an ecumenical council, nor was it ever enshrined in an early church creed.

That historical reality affords us some latitude to consider the major ways that Christians have understood the atonement over the years, and to ponder some minority opinions as well. In each, the crucifixion is the solution. Where they differ is the problem. In other words, what is the problem that the crucifixion solves?”

More here.

He lists the major historical views of the Atonement, the patristic understanding, the medieval understanding, and some of the more recent ones as well and goes on to sketch out what they claim the question is. It’s a shame he doesn’t point out the difference between the medieval understanding and the reformation ones. And it’s a shame he labels some of the more modern understandings – like the Girardian one that I find so helpful as “minority views”. But I give him a ton of credit for what he does do…

The key take away for me is that he reminds us that there is no agreement about what the cross means. Atonement is not a part of the creed, it’s never been a required belief, and that means that Christians have always been free to speculate on their own about what Jesus’ death means for them. The traditional answers might be helpful, but honestly, for lots of people today they aren’t. But there are lots of answers, and this Holy Week might be a time to meditate on them to see what makes sense for you.

If you want to do something interesting this Holy Week – go and see “The Hunger Games.” Watch it as an attempt to pose the question that the cross answers. Or try re-reading any of the great Tragedies; how are they posing the question that the cross is answering?

But whatever you do, at least spend some time asking yourself this Holy Week, the same question I pose in our title. “Why did Jesus have to die?” Because any attempt to explain what Jesus means without answering that question is probably going to be only partially right.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. An interesting post, particularly because one of the chapters in my book Your Forgotten Self is entitled precisely, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” The answer I give comes from Sebastian Moore, who for me has nailed it (not to be too puny).

  2. Yes – Sebastian’s reworking of the cross by asking us to see Jesus as an “everyman” – and therefore ourselves and our inner lives – is really interesting. And I think it’s in keeping with the classical allegorical way of reading biblical texts.

    Yet another of the modern interpretations that are unfortunately not listed in the linked article.

  3. I completely agree with the idea that the Atonement remains an open question – and how great that fact that is, just by itself! It allows people to answer the question for themselves – and it means we will never – we can never – come to the end of its meanings.

    For me, it’s the Incarnation itself that’s shocking and amazing: I mean, imagine that God becomes human, and lives and dies as one us – “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross”! That’s just beyond belief; it’s unlike any other story ever told about God. God doesn’t submit to torture and die! It’s beyond thinking, really. Except that in our faith, God does just that. And as Paul asks: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? …. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are….”

    God knows and – unbelievably – has lived the very worst things that can happen to people. So even these terrible, terrible things can have deep meaning: everything in human life is redeemed and brought from meaninglessness into the life of God. This doesn’t mean that we ignore all these terrible things and simply shrug our shoulders at them; it does say that even when these terrible things happen in this fallen world – and they will always happen – there is meaning in them. (I’m a little bit of a Girardian, too – maybe a semi-Girardian or a quarter-Girdardian; I definitely don’t know enough to call myself a full Girardian! But even if you don’t go there, there is so much to this story.)

    In addition to all that, of course: Christ is a mirror for us. Our pain is validated when we see him in his pain; God understands us at the deepest possible level. Somebody’s listening to us. He understands the oppressed and the tortured: he’s a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And everybody will deal with grief at some point; it’s so good – so deeply validating – to have that mirror.

    See this, too, from Heinrich Heine.

    So perhaps Jesus had to die (although I would not put it this way, myself) because we do.

  4. Thanks bls – excellent points – it sort of echo’s what David is referring to above.

  5. (In fact, I think the Incarnation/Crucifixion is like nothing so much as Christian koan; it stops us completely short, and the mind gives up trying to understand and make sense of things – and becomes open to a reality we could never imagine or conceive of on our own….)

  6. (And, as Heine notes, our hearts become open, too – and we are able to learn, through pain, how to love one another in our frail, mortal bodies…..)

  7. Hmmm – nice to see that the atonement is not part of the creeds – but the Nicene does have – for us – and for our salvation, and crucified – for us in strategic positions. It was Bach in the B Minor Mass who so fully and repeatedly sets the word ‘Et’ = And.

    Now – for me – why did Jesus die? So that I could die in him. I have no life apart from this recognition. And it was not my doing – though I was allowed to say no during the times that I have been learning what it means to live – as if dead – but alive unto God… in the one who was put to death for our sins and raise to life for our justification. (1 Peter 3:18 and Romans 4:25.)

    I am not sure I can ‘explain’. And from that point of view – I was struck by the earlier comment that “it’s unlike any other story ever told about God”. It cannot be totally unlike or we would not be able to hear it at all. I strongly suspect I can find it repeatedly in the Psalms – Yhwh sat in the deluge (Ps 29.10 H). The deluge is the judgment – a hapax in the Psalter, but suggesting the torrents and floods of Psalm 69 for example. Given the conversation between Father and Son that the Psalms represent, perhaps there is a story here. OK that’s once maybe – how about twice? … Well – it’s quite hidden – but how about the final stanza of Psalm 7? Preserving the ambiguity of the Hebrew text. The translation here may be out of date but it preserves this ambiguity.

    Here also we read (Psalm 85) that mercy and truth are met together – how can this be without cost? This mercy and truth preserves the king (Psalm 61.8 H). The truth has to grow from the earth and the land give its produce – what is right comes from heaven (Ps 85 alluding to Ps 67).

    Perhaps we find it also in the burnt offering of Abraham – he is referenced in the Psalm about ascension (Psalm 47) the completion of the whole offering. This ties the image of the ascension of Jesus to the sacrifice of Isaac. (Burnt offering and ascend are the same word in Hebrew).

    thanks for the post – when do we here more about atonement? (You promised a couple of years ago 🙂

  8. Jon says

    I would answer that Jesus had to die because we chose death, repeatedly and mostly for ourselves, although the authorities chose it for him too, and to bring us out of death Jesus had to join us in death. Sort of tearing the veil which (we assume) separates us from God.

  9. Wm Paul says

    That the church has not settled on one doctrine of the atonement is, I would say, because of the fullness of the event itself (vicarious humanity, sin bearer, victor over death, victim of social injustice, etc.,) not because (as some in high, very high,TEC positions suggest) it was not efficacious or is less important than the Incarnation (the only Incarnation we know being, of course, directed toward the mission of death and resurrection). Our reconciliation with God according to the NT from Jesus’ own teaching trhoug the Epistles happened, and still happens, in Christ. He is not merely revelatory of an already existing state of affairs, he accomplishes it. It’s fullness allows it to speak, of itself, to an astonishingly wide scope of human experience, if not all of it, in some way.

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