Last time we looked at the human and historical reasons why Jesus ended up on a cross. But, on a theological or spiritual level, did he really have to die? Why?
Couldn’t God have ushered in his Kingdom in some other way? Couldn’t he have found some other means to establish his reign; some other way to redeem and renew the cosmos; some other way to forgive us and to reconcile us to himself, to ourselves and each other?
To answer this I think we need to explore what Jesus’ death was for, what it means, what it was meant to achieve and why Jesus seems to have seen it as so essential.
Meanings of the cross
So, was Jesus’ death primarily to propitiate God, to satisfy the righteous wrath of a sin-hating Deity who just had to punish someone for the misdeeds of humanity, in order for there to be justice?
Or, to nuance that view slightly, was a perfect representative needed who could bear once for all the sin-penalty due to all humans, and Jesus was the only one who could fulfil that role? Was it a sacrificial payment for the ‘debt’ we all owed to God because of our offences against him, but that none of us could fully pay?
Or was it rather so that Jesus – and so God – could identify with us completely in the uttermost depths of our shame and indignity and alienation, and so bring an end our alienation and restore us?
Was it to utterly disarm and destroy evil through complete self-surrender and perfect love, even to the extent of forgiving those who were torturing and killing him? Did Jesus’ death in some way absorb all of evil into himself and neutralise it?
Was it to pay a ‘ransom’ to rescue or free us, and if so, paid to whom? One view (portrayed famously in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is that Christ’s death was a ransom payment to the devil, rather than to God, because it was the devil who held us in his power. In this view the rescue is not so much from God’s wrath as from Satan’s power and realm.
Or did Jesus have to die simply because that’s what Love does when faced with evil that threatens the life and welfare of the beloved? When we love someone we often promise ‘I’d die for you’ – is it just that Jesus actually meant it?
Indeed, is the cross simply the full and perfect expression of Love and Goodness – love doing what love does just because it’s love? Goodness and love by their nature cannot overcome evil by using the methods of evil, by using brute force or violence or sheer imposed power. Rather they have to follow their own path of self-surrender, of self-sacrifice, of apparent weakness that nonetheless ultimately disarms the flawed strength of evil and hate and violence.
So was it also a model, an example of the way Jesus wanted us to follow, the path of self-sacrificial love?
Or was the cross a battle, a mortal combat between the Prince of Life and our age-old enemies of evil and death, of chaos and darkness?
Did Jesus have to die, to go through death himself, in order to defeat and overcome death, to establish a new kind of life that could no longer be subject to death and decay?
Finally, was Jesus’ death on the cross a symbolic gesture, an enacted sign or parable of some sort, with meanings that are deeper, more poetic and more endlessly inexhaustible than any attempt to explain it can ever be?
Metaphors and models
I’d actually argue that this is very much a case where it’s both/and, not either/or. Jesus’ death may well have been for all of these reasons and purposes; may well have all of these meanings, and a whole lot more besides.
We also need to remember that all of these ways of understanding Jesus’ death are models, metaphors, symbols. They are not complete or precise accounts of how atonement works or what the cross achieved, because atonement isn’t like that. It isn’t a matter of scientific law or mathematical equation, or even legal satisfaction, but rather of the intricacies of the human heart and soul, of relationship, of love and goodness, of personhood.
The various models and ideas about what Jesus’ death achieved and how are fine and good and can be helpful. But the atonement isn’t a theory to be analysed, it’s a reality to be encountered and experienced and entered into.
I don’t personally find the penal substitution model very helpful, but I’m content to let it stand alongside the others so long as we accept that it’s not a scientific-style explanation. I personally think that if we focus on this view of atonement too much it can distort our view of God and even do damage to our faith.
I also find the ransom-payment-to-Satan idea somewhat disturbing, but I can see mileage in it if viewed mythically or metaphorically rather than literally. In other words, if it’s about love rescuing us from the grip of whatever evil or evils torment and oppress us, even rule over us, rather than from a specific being we call Satan.
Jesus’ own understanding
But what did Jesus himself think his death meant, or was for?
NT Wright argues (convincingly, to my mind) that Jesus’ own understanding of his death on the cross – why it was necessary and what it was for – arose from his very particular Jewish understanding of his role as Messiah.
The Messiah was to be God’s anointed liberator priest-king. He would fight and win the decisive battle against the great Enemy, liberating Israel from oppression and captivity – physical and spiritual – and thus bringing about the true and lasting return from exile. And in doing so he would establish the everlasting kingdom of God’s rule and reign here on Earth. God would dwell fully among his people (fulfilling the Jewish Temple), and his ways of justice and peace and love would be fully known and followed (fulfilling the Torah).
This then (argues Wright) was what Jesus believed he must achieve as Messiah. Jesus also extended and reinterpreted this picture in several key ways. First, that the salvation and liberation the Messiah would bring would not be solely or primarily for Israel, but would be through Israel for the whole world – even the whole cosmos.
Second, that Israel had entirely failed in her God-given duty to be the Light of the World, the true Temple and follower of God’s Torah for the benefit of the nations. Therefore he (Jesus) – as Israel’s true representative, the Messiah – would have to fulfil this role that she had forsaken.
Third, that in straying from God’s calling and seeking other political or religious ways of ‘bringing the Kingdom’, Israel had embarked on a path that would bring down great suffering and destruction on herself from the worldly powers – Rome. It seems Jesus believed that it was his role as Israel’s representative to take the first of this suffering and destruction on himself. In so doing he believed he could overcome and redeem it, offering a way out of exile into freedom for those who would follow him.
Up to Jesus’ time, it seems no-one had really expected the Messiah to die or be apparently defeated in order to achieve his Messianic goals. (There were the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah, but this hadn’t been developed into a full theology.) But Jesus understood the situation differently – that only through his suffering and death could Israel fulfil its destiny; only in this way could the powers of evil and oppression be overcome, exile be ended, and God’s Kingdom be ushered in.
Jersualem and Rome
For Jesus it was also no coincidence that his final ‘battle’ against the forces of chaos took place in Jerusalem. This was the symbolic and spiritual heart of Israel; this was where judgement and destruction would ultimately fall on Israel through Rome. As Israel’s true representative and king this was where Jesus believed he had to face his fate and fulfil his destiny to redemptively bear Israel’s suffering. It was also symbolically significant that he was executed in ‘exile’, outside the city walls in the place of outcasts. In dying this way, he bore Israel’s exile in order to end it.
I also can’t help wondering if it’s significant that both Rome and Israel – both Jew and Gentile – were involved in his death. Paul wrote that on the cross Jesus reconciled Jew and Gentile to each other; perhaps the fact that both colluded in his death actually meant that both could be included in his mercy. Jesus’ blood is in some sense (at least symbolically) on all our hands; and by the same token his forgiveness and reinstatement of his executors is also for all of us.
All this means that Jesus’ death was about far more than just saving us as individuals from the penalty of our sins so we can go to heaven when we die rather than hell. It may well include something a little like that, but it extends far further, wider and deeper – to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.
So did Jesus have a fully worked-out theological understanding of his death and what it meant? I’m not sure he thought about it in quite this way, or that he would have seen a theology of the atonement as very important. But I do think that he saw his self-sacrificial death as vital to God’s redemptive purposes.
Did Jesus’ death have to be so brutal?
I can accept that Jesus had to die in order to fulfil his Messianic role and achieve his Messianic purpose. One thing that’s always bothered me though is why he had to die such a terrible, brutal, barbaric death. Couldn’t some other means have sufficed – a peaceful and painless death, or at least a swift and relatively merciful execution like a beheading? Did he really have to go through the most humiliating, inhumane and (literally) excruciating kind of death ever devised?
People have sometimes argued that if, rather than choosing 1st-century Palestine, he’d say come today to a more ‘civilised’ country, Jesus could have suffered no worse than lethal injection. In some countries (like the UK) he wouldn’t have been executed at all, which presumably would have missed the point of his Messianic ministry and mission.
But indeed the whole question misses the point, for perhaps the primary reason we have ‘civilised’ societies with humane (or no) death penalties is precisely because they’ve been historically founded on Christianity. Without Christ’s death, who knows what kind of world we’d now be living in?
If we accept that Jesus died because he chose to (even intended to), we have to wonder if he did not also in some way choose the manner of his dying. It almost seems as though Jesus chose deliberately to bring down on himself the worst kind of death possible, as though only by taking on the utmost depths of evil, shame and pain could he overcome and redeem them.
Perhaps only by dying in such a way could he show the full extent of his utter commitment to love us out of our hells, our darkness, our self-imposed exiles. Perhaps he had to take the worst evil it was possible for us to throw at him, and bear it, and forgive it. Perhaps he had to experience the worst that humans could devise, and also the worst that humans could endure, in order to redeem both our spitefulness and our suffering.
Next time I’ll look at whether Jesus’ suffering means that we’re now exempt from suffering – or quite the opposite…