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.