Friday, May 04, 2007

Why did Jesus have to die?

This post is a continuation of some earlier stuff about (gulp, but I must say it) penal substitution. Now let's forget those two words and try some new ones. We may have to get back to them.

Although this is a public post it is written for one person. We will call him Theophobus (He posts at Life, the Universe and Everything).

Me and Theo can go only a very short way towards agreement. The most tentative statement he is prepared to make about Jesus is, '...the character of Jesus was sold to me as one of the good guys.'

'So why did Jesus have to die?' he asks. It's a great question and answering it used to be easy in the days when I followed rather than thought. Answering questions such as this as carefully as I can has led to my being black-balled by most of the paramilitary wings of the Church of England and all the biblical literalists I know. Too much preamble. On.

Let's start with Jesus. And I'll try not to say more than can be supported by multiple-attestation; that is what we can know from more than just a gospel that could have been copied from another gospel or common source. So if it's in Matthew, Mark or Luke we have to check it's also in a New Testament letter or John's gospel, for these came to us by different routes to end up in our Bibles.

We know little about Jesus' early years or birth on this basis. As this young, Jewish, infant then child then teen grows up there is so little we can be certain of that all we can do is piece together assumptions; that the son of a carpenter would have been a carpenter and a Jewish family would have taught their son the Scriptures (our Old Testament) are pretty likely. He was raised as someone who believed that there is a God who has revealed himself uniquely to the people descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That he was born in a stable to a virgin cannot be part of my argument.

At about age thirty a crazy Old Testament prophet type of guy, John the Baptist, appears in the desert saying that someone special is coming. Jesus goes out to meet John, possibly because they were related, possibly because he was big news.

John is dipping people in the river to 'baptize' them. This is a sign of repentance, drowning and washing, meaning death to an old way of life and cleaning up ready for a new one. The crowd hear John quoting Isaiah the great Old Testament prophet saying 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' This passage (Isaiah 40 we now call it) had been a great encouragement to a sixth century BC people when they were about to come out of exile. It had come true once but now John uses it to foretell that he sees God about to do another, great thing through another great person.

Jesus offers himself to be baptised and something special happens. Somehow John or Jesus or both see a sign which they interpret as God's call on Jesus to be this 'One'. For a people again in captivity, this time in their own land to Roman occupiers, this may at first have set Jesus up as another Moses, or a great leader/king in the style of David. Whatever, from this day forward Jesus begins to understand who he thinks he is and what he feels called to do.

As he travels on the road he calls followers (Rabbis did this in those days it wasn't odd) and, however much doubt you place on the sources, it seems likely that some supernatural stuff must have happened - healings, feedings, exorcisms. He also finds it necessary to reject the idea of kicking out the Romans. His developing theology is that God is doing a bigger thing than this.

Jesus' self-understanding grows and he knows he must head for the centre of the action and that is Jerusalem. He begins to teach, talking about God's Kingdom as a present reality and giving examples of ways that should work out in people's lives - generosity, hospitality and peacemaking for instance. He seems to have an intimate relationship with God the way many of the great Old Testament characters did. He perhaps uses the precious term 'Abba' (Father) to describe his relationship with God.

This brings him into conflict with the Jewish leaders. Firstly because they were the guardians of relationships with God and didn't want anyone treading on their unique relationship with God. If anyone could be intimate with God this rather spoils their temple-based livelihoods. Secondly because all the Gospel writers agree that Jesus welcomed notorious sinners, ate with them and offered them forgiveness. They saw this as blasphemy; claiming to be God.

So Jesus, steeped in Isaiah, develops the understanding that this conflict is going to cost him. The central Old Testament passage of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 tells him that the servant of the Lord, the ultimate servant, will suffer, be despised, rejected and in doing so 'take up our infirmities.' Through doing this he will 'see his days prolonged' but he will 'bear the sins of many.'

Jesus therefore began to know that sticking to his self-understanding would cost him his life. He struggled with the idea of renouncing but eventually decided not to. Jesus believed he had to keep saying what he was saying and do what he was doing and this would lead to his death. It did. He thought he had to die because there were things he had to say and do and he shouldn't back down from them.

Later though, Gospel writers, theologians such as Paul and other New Testament writers saw all this as fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy that 'he was wounded for our transgressions'. They began to formulate a theology that the Old Testament pictures of an angry God who wanted sacrifice had been satisfied by this sacrifice. Somehow a new relationship with God had been ushered in by this death. They wrote that Jesus had to die that we might live. They saw and heard the evidence that Jesus was alive after death and concluded that this pointed to the resurrection of us all. They described Jesus as God's Son although Jesus probably only described himself as 'Son of man', an ambiguous term.

Why do I think Jesus had to die? Up to this point it may be possible to say that he didn't. He could have started a new movement to which the religious leaders subscribed and everyone started to be nice to each other again (Douglas Adams has a lot to answer for in my theology). It didn't work out like that.

All I know is that had he not died, and had not people been convinced he was alive beyond death, we would have had no history (or myth) of him. The gospels would not have been written. He had to die for the big story he told to be heard. We can only surmise that this was planned but we can be sure we wouldn't have heard of him were it not the case. He died that we might live, fully, properly, consistently, neighbourly, hospitably and hope-filled that this wonderful world is seen through the right lenses and that the future is always born in mind.

For me the big question is not why he had to die but what his death means. A meaningless sacrifice? A waste of a life? Or a pointer to a new way that wouldn't have been possible without the symbol of a cross in the middle of human history from which we date the future. I'm in.


Simon said...

If you need an answer you'll find one.

"He had to die for the big story he told to be heard."

So, a bit like terrorists flying themselves into big buildings.

"All I know is that had he not died, and had not people been convinced he was alive beyond death, we would have had no history (or myth) of him."

How can you know this? Are you God yourself? Can you see all paths?

St said...

Yes Simon, a 'bit' like terrorists flying themselves into buildings. A shaving of a shaving of a bit. Disappointing comment.

And no I'm not God (although I have been known to get a little messianic when preparing for an event and people are being slow to tidy up). All I was saying was that if the story hadn't been written down we wouldn't have heard it. Nothing grander than that.

Matthew McMurray said...

I suppose it is an interesting parallel. "Martyrdom" is always a strong way of getting your cause in the public domain.

I suppose for me the crucial difference is what you are dying for and what else happens.

The 9/11 hijackers were not simply martyring themselves to highlight their cause, they were also killing many, many people who were not necessarily the cause of their problem.

The crucial difference is that Jesus didn't kill anyone else, he did die to show us something, a "better way" and give us a means of accepting God's forgiveness.

chris said...

St, I wonder whether you might comment on a blog post that raises a question about a "Nooma" DVD? I don't know if you have seen any of these? A guy called Ben Witherington has posted reviews of them and he raises some stuff about one of my favourite ones, number 8, called Dust. You can read the review of this (and the others numbered 6 - 10) here:

The reason I question here is that he says Jesus was not a rabbi and you suggest that he was (perhaps?), much as I had been presently thinking. Also he mentions things like Bet' Talmud not being around at the time of Jesus. Do you know anything about these things? I don't, so am not sure who's account is the more accurate!


Darren said...

Looks like your invite to new WordAlive won't be in the post :-)

Great blog post though

fotofill said...

I am a bit confused (No surprise) Are you saying that Jesus allowed himself to die of his own free will or was it God-intended? (penal substitution – switched punishment)

Simon said...

Why is it a disspointing comment?

Is death good or bad?

Apparently, it's good when people get to hear about your good cause and God is willing to encourage death for this purpose - what does it matter how many people and whether they were willing participants?

Going back to:

"...had he not died, and had not people been convinced he was alive beyond death, we would have had no history (or myth) of him."

There's a little clue here, in brackets. What if God had just banged out the Gospels himself and persuaded some enthusiastic individuals to go round promoting it as fact?

The end result would have been the same. The message would have been just as strong. Yes, he would have fibbed, but surely preferable to killing, no?

Or how about another scenario: Jesus dies of old age. And then comes back to show everyone he was "alive beyond death". Same result, surely.

Matt said...

your thoughts leave me with some questions
some of them come from different voices

so what
many people have died for their beliefs/practices/politics/ideas, what made this jesus different.
Witches have been killed for practicing their beliefs, buddist's the same.

What stops jesus being another matyr who's stories got hijacked by vlever men who want power and fame and so created a religon and institution that from your writting jesus wasn't so interesting.

no mention of divinity
So we're all god's sons like the JW's believe?

If jesus's death is symbolic and points to a new way, why bother when people orientated around this symbol are often so shit, and do really horrible things, how am i to believe in this symbol when the examples of the those wearing it and following it have almost obliterated its significance.
Whats the point of following a way that seems
unable to make an impact even on those who think the guy who said and lived those things was a good can't make it work or not mess it up right royally let alone a world that seems so orientated in the oposite dirrection

Also if
"He died that we might live, fully, properly, consistently, neighbourly, hospitably andhope-filled that this wonderful world is seen through the right lenses and that the future is always born in mind."
couldn't god found and easier way to send that message like cloud writting or something i mean like really killing someone to send the world a message is still a bit like a terrorists thought process.

St said...

Will deal with all these but it will take time. Need to take some of this weekend off so be patient. And thanks for the interesting comments.

danny2 said...


your cavalier attitude toward the Word of God causes me to think maybe you and simon have more in common than you admit.

perhaps it's an apologetic tool that i've misunderstood, but if you are willing to consider much of the New Testament to either be hyperbole or that the epistles are merely Paul's thoughts about Jesus and not divine in origin...what keeps you from throwing the rest out.

if the miracles make you nervous...what's to keep the erosion from going back to whether Jesus even really died on a cross...or even existed for that matter.

i hope i'm misunderstanding much of your post, however, you do ignore the primary reason the Scriptures lay out that Jesus died.

St said...

OK a few comments. There will be more:

Chris, I'll post on Nooma, but I have read Ben's reviews and seen the DVD's. I think his big error is to misunderstand the nature of a discussion starter. His tradition is that the biggest sin in the world is to communicate without verbal clarity. Mine isn't. Parables good. is a helpful place to look at the Jewish tradition. John's Gospel has Mary calling Jesus 'rabboni' - teacher in Aramaic. It is an error to think that no informal systems of folowing teachers were set up before the formal. Jesus is either unusual, if I'm wrong, in that he called followers or, if I'm right, that he called followers who had been rejected by others.

Fotofil - I don't see a problem between free will and God's will but I was trying to imagine how Jesus got to the point of feeling he knew god's will.

Simon. 'If you need an answer you'll find one.' You move the goalposts so many times in our discussions I wonder if you need an anwswer. There are many alternative possibilities in this life and your question seems to be, 'Why didn't something different happen?' All I can respond is that if things had been different they might very well have been different.

Matt and Danny2 I think have both misunderstood the task I set myself - to use the evidence that is historically as reliable as possible rather than the statements of faith we find later in the Bible.

I sometimes worry that when people steeped in the Bible call people they forget they are calling them to faith and are actally calling peopleto certainty.

Mark said...

I look forward to our future conversation, your post has given me some interesting thoughts that I would like to look into. Mostly around different areas to what is being discussed above. I like the idea of Jesus becoming more aware of who he was and thinking of him facing human difficulites and choices. It makes it harder for me to dismiss my weaknesses and sin and say well it was easy for Jesus because he was God.

Simon said...

Sorry, St, wasn't really moving the goalposts, but that probably wasn't my most incisive moment.

OK the goalposts were: Why did Jesus have to die to save us?

Not: "Why did Jesus feel he had to die to save us?" or "How did Jesus' death lead to the expansion of Christianity?"

Your answer, I feel, is more appropriate to those questions, than the title of your post.

My question isn't 'Why didn't something different happen?' but actually, 'Why couldn't something different happen?' (Jesus being God and all) I'm merely putting forward some other options for Jesus, where he could have saved us without getting himself killed, and asking why these couldn't have worked (thereby demonstrating that Jesus did not have to die, if it is concluded they could).

Matt said...

I'm not sure my responce was about missing the point of your post.

You attempted (by the means you chose) to answer the question "Why did Jesus have to die?

I simply posted my reaction and questions based on what you said not so much on what the bible later says about jesus weather or not i am steeped in the bible. what your statements made me think about jesus or believe about him as much from my churched background as not.

by using the method you have i don't feel like there was an answer to that question just some interesting insights or guess work as to what jesus might or might not have thought about himself and what he was doing as well as some guessing (possibly not accurate) about what might have happened had he not died.

in the end when explaing what i believe i talk about mystery's
about the things we don't know
about the faith i do know (what has happened directly in my own life)
About a story that might and happened and if it did what that might mean
i couldn't call people to certaintys cos i'm in no way certain myself
I ask people ask,question,be confused
and I like to explore with people

Sam said...

Dear assembled lively debaters,
I'd like to say a bit..

The question "Why did Jesus die?" probably gets a clearer answer when replaced with the question "what was God doing?" That's the main perspective that the NT wants to talk about. (This is similar with the resurrection... not so much: "Jesus rose", rather "Jesus was raised [by God]).

That's the way the apostles talked about the death of Jesus in Acts - it happened according to God's set plan and purpose. If we want to get a headache about higher questions of philosophy then we can, but the apostles talked this way and it was a comfort to them and made them say "stuff the emperor, stuff the high priests, we're going to be faithful to our King, Jesus" (the story's in Acts 4). This is backed up by all the gospels, which talk about Jesus saying, "I must / I've got to / not my will but yours" Jesus death is about God's will happening.

But what is God up to? There are several answers in the NT. One of them is that through the death of Jesus, all the powers of darkness are being shown to be pathetic (Colossians 2:15). This is shown by the fact that in the gospels, Satan is portrayed as deeply involved in the crucifixion, but in the end he has been used to bring about the beginning of the new creation issued in by Jesus resurrection.

Another answer is that God is showing his justice at the cross, that he's punishing sin (Romans 3:25-26). This is shown by the images of the cup (of wrath and suffering) reserved for God's enemies in the OT being drunk by Jesus, or that of darkness (meaning anti-creation/curse) at the crucifixion. Additionally, the simple formula: "Jesus died for sins / for us" is in one of the earliest Christian creeds (1 Cor 15) and dotted around all of the New Testament.

Another answer is that he's showing us his love (John 3:16). God the good shepherd is laying down his life for the sheep (compare Ezekiel 34 with John 10).

So, what was God doing? Showing his power, showing his justice, somehow dealing with "sins" and showing his love.

I'm sticking with the good old-fashioned idea that Jesus died for my sins, bearing the punishment that I deserve for being the dirty selfish disobedient idiot I was/am. Now because of Jesus I can come to God without fear.

Simon said...

Sam, your answers appears well-informed. But... I don't trust long answers to simple questions.

Still, we get to a simple answer at the end:

Jesus died for my sins, bearing the punishment that I deserve for being the dirty selfish disobedient idiot I was/am.

How, in a logical sense, does that work?

If my neighbour murders his wife, but I volunteer to go to prison in his place, has justice been done?

As Jeremy Paxman might say to a politician trying to bluff his way out of a tricky corner: Yes or no.

Rich Burley said...

Surely the salvation of the whole cosmos by its transcendent creator is not a simple question.

I think that's the whole problem - Christians often make out like it's easy, as if any particular model we use to understand salvation sums it up entirely.

Justice is not served by Simon going to prison when his neighbour has committed the crime, but that's largely because neither Peter nor the criminal justice system are divine beings.

To me 'substitutionary atonement' is a model which tells me two things: one, that 'sin' cannot simply be ignored by God - that would be to assume that justice didn't matter, and two, that it is only God himself who can affect the reconciliation of humanity with himself, and chooses to do so through the death of his Son.

To get the whole picture you have to look at the many ways in which the Bible descrives salvation, through exodus, exile and homecoming, and the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. The whole Bible is awash with it.

Would you really want an answer to the meaning of life which could be explained on the back of a postage stamp?

Simon said...

Surely you're not suggesting Jesus died to save the entire cosmos, Rich. I thought it was just a tiny, tiny spec in the cosmos called mankind.

Mark said...

God is playing by his own rules here. It is God who set the price for sin, he did so knowing that he was going to send Jesus to die on the cross. He is God, he could have said the wages of sin is a slapped wrist, but he didnt.

So my first question is why set the price so high? I can only conclude that God wanted Jesus to die on the cross. That doesnt sound comfortable perhaps a better way to put it would be that God chose the cross before creation. But why? My own understanding is that all of creation is about God, and it is about him expressing who he is. I think on the cross we see God character more clearly than anywhere else.

The more I read the bible the more I see it is all about the cross everything before it points to it and everything after it refers back to it, it is the focus.

Why did Jesus die on the cross? my answer so that we could know God and have a relationship with him. Why did it have to be the cross? Because thats what God chose. as for the machanics of what is actually happening at the cross, I know what I think but I think the above questions are more important.

Rich Burley said...

I've no idea what salvation might look like beyond earth, but the Bible seems to talk about sin effecting a fundamental rupture between God and what he has made, which would seem to include all things (!)

Certainly salvation means more than just the satisfaction of my or your sins. The apocalyptic vision in Revelation talks about a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, where death and suffering will be no more. Sin has had a disastrous effect on the planet, so redemption's remit is equally wide.

As for humans, Genesis poetically describes us as the pinnacle of all creation and therefore stewards of it, created to be like God and through Christ having the power to do so. Much more than a tiny speck in the cosmos, with a hefty responsibility to match.

St said...

It's all got a bit explosive and long-winded for a post that tried to answer things simply. Thought it might.

A couple of points. Matt, I apologise. I read your comment too hastily and lumped it in with something in with which it didn't deserve to be lumped.

Simon. Why couldn't something different have happened? I don't know. It's a scandal that something so particular received world-wide acknowledgment of being the thing that needed to happen.

Mike Peatman said...

Wow, what a conversation.

I guess it all hinges on who you think Jesus is in the first place. And, of course, some people judge that on what they see at the cross. Hence we have a potential for circular arguments!

If you don't assume Jesus is someone unusual (and for Christians that means human and divine - god 'incarnate') then his death becomes hugely significant historically and theologically.

If you think he's an just an historical character who has generated a lot of interest, then his death is a tragedy or a strange gesture.

Central for me is the point that if (and it's a big 'if' for a lot of people, I know) Jesus is God incarnate, then it means that God has entered into the entirety of human experience and transformed it.

To use the language of the Bible - he dies the death of Adam so we can die the death of Christ - ie one followed by resurrection. [And by the way, Simon, I don't believe in a literal 7-day creation, so the reference to Adam is allegorical, but that's another lengthy conversation]

Simon said...

It's a scandal that something so particular received world-wide acknowledgment of being the thing that needed to happen.

haha! Love it. This is why St is the coolest Christian in the world (probably). If Jesus had said stuff like that I might take more interest in the Bible.

You ARE the Messiah!

St said...

No, just a very naughty boy.

Martin said...

Good comments people, especially Rich.

As for my two pennies worth, all this keeps reminding me of the Hymn "And Can It Be" by Charles Wesley (link to the words and a midi file of the tune playing in the background).

Lines like "’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?" describe how, although we can get glimpses at what the cross does, by human standards we can never really grasp it - it seems madness - yet we can celebrate it, for it goes on to say "My chains fell off, my heart was free".

Matt said...

my short answer
stollen from a slightly crumpled yellow photocopied booklet this wednessday lunchtime is

Dying he destroyed our death
Rising he restored our life

Simon said...

it seems madness

Sometimes, things that seem madness are, indeed, madness.

Its for poetry. It's for a way of life, freed from wondering. It's about judging and punishing. Not love, as I know it.

But does it make sense? Nope.

Rich Burley said...

Oh, there's so much more wondering when you believe there's a Being beyond thought. You might say that's the only way you can have wonder at all.

And yes, it's definitely poetry, if poetry is an attempt to express the inexpressable. And if there's no God then there is no inexpressable, and what kind of love as you know it can be described without poetry.

In the atonement, poetry is trying to work out how pure love and pure justice can go together in the same thought. And yet what the New Testament writers wondered at most was that this was best expressed in action not thought, and in particular the action of on man giving up his life for his friends. That is love as I know it.

Matt said...

Isn't it possible that god (if thats what he is if he is) gets to decide and set the standard of what love is.

Simon said...

It's possible.

It's also possible that I'm the President of the United States Of America.

Is it probable?

Rich Burley said...

With God there are two 'possible' options - a) he exists or b) he doesn't.

If 'b' is true the idea of God defining love is neither probable nor possible.

If 'a' is true, and a God exists who created everything, including love, it's 'probable' that He gets to define what love is.

If 'a' and 'b' are both options you have to think both through properly. You can't admit the possibility of God without admitting that he's above human empirical enquiry, or you wouldn't be admitting the possibility of God at all.

St said...

And at that I think we'll call it a day on this one. There is a basic difference between those posters who belive God exists and those who don't. Of course. But we have engaged with each other.

And also, different shades of the believing community see things in different ways.

I'll try and get us talking again soon because I think this sort of level of discussion does get us somewhere, for all its twists and turns.

Thanks everyone.

Simon said...

But me and rich were just getting warmed up.