For me, this is one of the most mysterious issues in Christianity. Like many of the other posts on this blog, this one is not going to provide a precise answer, but rather some possibilities to consider.
Nevertheless, while I’m unclear as to the why and the how of it, I affirm that Jesus did indeed die for us. This is not a peripheral part of the Christian message. It does not at all appear to be something added on by the biblical writers or later Church leaders, nor is it something where Jesus has been misunderstood. Rather, it seems to be the abundantly clear teaching of the New Testament that Jesus gave up his life for our sake.
It is true that Jesus taught a lot about morality. But He didn’t present Himself as a moral innovator, but rather as one who illustrates (and calls us back to) timeless moral truths that we already knew inside our hearts. For example, at the end of the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus doesn’t deliver the punchline Himself, but asks the listener “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?”.
The central mission of Jesus’s ministry on Earth was not to teach, but to die for our sake. Any attempt to exhaustively list all of the biblical evidence of this would run many pages, and throughout this blog I’ve tried to avoid bombarding readers with quotations. But in this case I think it’s important to go through a few of them just to show that this is what Jesus taught and what the apostles believed. If there are sound reasons to believe the Christian message is true, one cannot help but accept this as one of its major themes.
“God is love.” — 1 John 4:8(b)
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” — John 15:13
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” — John 10:11
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Mark 10:45
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” — Matthew 16:21
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'” — Luke 22:19-20
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” — Romans 5:6-8
“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” — John 10:18
“He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:10
The same idea appears over and over throughout the New Testament. There are no serious rivals to be found in scripture or anywhere else as to what was the purpose of Jesus’s life. He came to die, for our sake. And this demonstrates God’s love for us.
Where it gets confusing is when we try to explain the meaning of it all, the reason it happened, the mechanics of how such a horrific thing as a crucifixion could benefit all of mankind. Sure, it’s easy to see that someone willing to die on a cross on my behalf must love me a great deal. But what was the point of it all? Why did it happen? How does it benefit me?
The New Testament generally uses seven different images or analogies: Ransom, Redemption, Justification, Salvation, Reconciliation, Adoption, and Forgiveness. A short article describing these ideas and referencing the various scriptures can be found here.
Attempts have been made to summarize the explanation neatly as follows:
- Man is a slave to his sins. Try as he might, he’s not capable of being good for a lifetime. No one is without sin.
- God is perfect and holy and it’s against His nature to tolerate sin.
- Sin separates man from God and puts man under God’s wrath.
- God’s justice demands punishment for sin.
- But God loves us and wants to show mercy, and call us His children and His friends.
- God solves this problem by taking the penalty of sin upon Himself.
- Jesus’s death on the cross paid the debt built up by the sins of the world across all of time.
- When a person accepts this, God now counts Jesus’s righteousness in their favor, and forgives that person’s sins.
Sometimes this summary is called the “Romans Road” (or “Roman Road”), because the epistle to the Romans is the most useful source of biblical quotations. A few examples of the Romans Road can be found here, here, here, and here. You may notice that in each case the selection and ordering of quotations is a bit different, and crucial bits of tying things together are done by the authors, and it usually ends with a “sinner’s prayer”. This is because St. Paul’s own presentation is never quite so clear-cut as the modern evangelist would like it to be; there is no one plain-English (or plain-Greek, to be more specific) executive summary of salvation theory in Romans or anywhere else in the New Testament. It resists being distilled into a few sentences or bullet points.
It is true that most of the “Romans Road” attempts to summarize salvation have many more commonalities than differences, but I think this is because many of them were influenced by the same theologians of later centuries, or desire to conform to to the written text of some organization’s statement of faith. (Try Googling here to see how many things people can be excluded from for not agreeing 100% with one of these statements.)
I think Paul himself realized that the reasons behind Jesus’s death were mysterious and hard to grasp, and that even he did not have a compelling explanation to offer. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-29, Paul quite frankly admits that to the mind the whole thing sounds offensive and/or foolish! For me, the most difficult issue has been why God couldn’t find a gentler way to accomplish His purpose. If God’s wants mercy to trump justice, couldn’t He just have forgiven everyone without the need for bloodshed? And if Jesus is one person of the Trinity, an aspect of God Himself (hard enough to grasp as it is) then what was the point of God punishing, in some sense, Himself? And in other sense that Jesus was also a man, a completely innocent man (as is emphasized throughout the New Testament, e.g. Luke 23:40-41), what possible justice is there in punishing such a man? I suspect I’m not the only one to have been puzzled by this.
I think that a Christian’s appropriate personal response to this and other difficult issues is to trust that God had good reasons and a good purpose in mind for everything, even a tragedy like the crucifixion of Jesus that can strike us as being so unnecessary. As Isaiah expresses it, God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Or as Paul expresses it, now we understand only in part, as if seeing only a reflection in a mirror, but in the future we will understand fully and see God face to face. Coming to terms with uncertainty is part and parcel of the Christian experience.
Nevertheless, when this or any other difficult issue has the potential for creating doubt in a person about the overall Christian message, it is useful to suggest possible ways to resolve the difficulty, even if this is a speculative exercise. If Christianity implies as a central tenet that “Christ died for us”, then if all explanations of why “Christ died for us” is nonsense, then this would reasonably count as evidence for Christianity being false. However, if we can show one or more possible ways to explain why “Christ died for us”, then we have eliminated a reason one might have had to reject the claim that Christianity is true (having argued for its truth on other grounds).
In this spirit, I will suggest my own point of view on why Christ died for us. It starts with the idea that there are two kinds of sins – sins against God, and sins against another person. In the case of sins against God, I believe that God can and does forgive directly from His heart, without the need to punish the offender (or an innocent third party) to satisfy His own honor or desire for vengeance. The picture of God’s merciful character is best expressed in the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. Mercy and reconciliation are available without punishment or preconditions (although for the mercy to be received and the reconciliation to actually happen, the prodigal son does need to return home).
In the case of sins against another person, the situation is different. God can’t simply waive His justice in favor of His mercy, because to do so would be unjust to the offended party. It is up to them to give or withhold forgiveness. The noble way, the one that imitates Christ, is of course to forgive, but God cannot force anyone to forgive. And God is just, not in the sense of being unwilling to forgive sins against Himself, but in the sense of unable to legitimately forgive sins against others. Punishment is being demanded, not by God, but those offended parties who refuse to forgive. In this sense, God may still be faced with the “problem” of how to have both justice and mercy. Christ’s sacrifice is still the solution. Not to appease God’s self-inflicted need for vengeance but man’s.
Satan may also play a role. The descriptions of Satan that we find in the Bible are sketchy, and attempts by any man (including myself) to draw a more detailed picture should be acknowledged as speculative. The vivid, medieval picture of Satan owes more to Dante than the Bible. The picture of Satan as someone whispering in man’s mind amidst modern life as found in Lewis’s Screwtape Letters was more useful to me, but Lewis himself would readily acknowledge the speculative nature of it. The main scriptural references to Satan are mostly found in contexts that seem to me to be more allegorical than literal/historical. However, the descriptions we find do match very well with the literal translation of Satan’s name – “accuser”. Whether accusing God to man (as in Genesis), man to God (as in Job or Revelation), or God the Father to the Son (as in Matthew), Satan is seen as holding God and man accountable to rules, standing in the way of God and man relating to one another in generosity and mercy. Whatever kind of free will God granted to Satan (typically thought of in Christian theology as a created being rather than an independent opposite to God) might have come with some kind of ground rules attached. Just as God (as we can all-too-often directly observe) typically fails to intervene when a bad man is abusing his authority over fellow men, God may be showing the same forbearance in refusing to intervene in Satan’s abuse of mankind. Perhaps Satan has some kind of dominion over man in this life – he is called “the ruler of this world” – and even though Satan is misusing this, God is going to respect that freedom for a time, much as he respects ours. Simply ignoring Satan’s accusations – his demands that God execute justice on man rather than mercy (echoes of which we might hear in Shakespeare’s complicated play The Merchant of Venice) – is not something God is willing to do, but nor is He willing to withhold mercy from a man who cries out for it. Again, God faces a problem needing a solution, and coming down Himself is the solution.
The details of how God can become man, can suffer as a man, can have the nature of Trinity at all, is still hard to grasp. But it makes more sense to me to think of Christ’s sacrifice as not satisfying the bloodthirstiness of God but that of man and/or Satan. To anyone still unconvinced of mercy’s superiority to justice (and there are many among us, and corners like that in all of our hearts), God points to Jesus and says “here is the punishment you demanded.. this innocent one took it upon Himself”. It is, or should be, enough to put to shame the instinct for vengeance wherever it is found.
“God is love”, so the notion of Him being the one to demand punishment from His own Son for His own sake is very problematic. I think this misconception has driven many a man away from Christianity entirely. It’s understandable why some would think that, I suppose, since there are parts of the Bible (e.g. the blood-sacrifice system of the old temple) that do portray God in this light, and even some of the New Testament writers may have had that understanding. But I’ve come to view things through an interpretive lens that sees Jesus as correcting Old Testament misunderstandings of God (sometimes using the Old Testament itself in the process…. He quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, on two separate occasions, here and here, in the same Gospel). While not common to all Christians, this approach has helped me make sense of Christianity and have an outlook which, if not always entirely correct (I’m sure I’m in error about some of my specific beliefs, I just don’t know which ones), is at least internally consistent.
In this narrative of course, God still has a mysterious sense of honor. He is still keeping whatever commitments He may have made to Satan, even though Satan has become His enemy. He still honors man’s free will and man’s need for justice, despite all of the suffering that results from it. We may wonder why He has decided the benefit is worth the cost. But we need not make God Himself into the one who demands the blood of Jesus.
There are other possibilities of course. Maybe a sacrifice to atone for sin wasn’t the only approach, but it served other purposes of God’s as well. For example, if free will results in suffering but also the potential for love, perhaps God wants to show us His love by being willing to suffer with us. Or perhaps something in the human religious impulse expects atonement and the sacrifice of God’s own innocent Son was able to put that to rest (or to shame).
As I said above, my explanation is speculative. I don’t believe it contradicts with any clear New Testament teaching, but I’m not sure that it is correct. If you don’t find it helpful, disregard it and keep your mind open to discovering a better one.