Why did Jesus have to die?

18 Apr

In this post I am wanting to flesh out my views on the Easter story: why it happened and what it means. I was inspired to write it after a conversation on Twitter that ended up with me needing to respond but not wanting to do it over the course of about 50 tweets. I am also aiming to do this in a way that makes it accessible to Christians and non-Christians and also to those who are not particularly academically inclined and so prefer things to be straightforward to understand. (On this last bit, do feel free to comment if anything I have written needs more or better explanation)

 

So, where do we start? Well, I guess the first question that needs to be asked is “What is Easter all about?”

In very basic terms, Easter is the Christian festival where we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where He was tried by the Jewish authorities, then the Romans, flogged and beaten, crucified, died, buried and then raised back to life.

The next question that seems to follow would be the simple one of “Why?”

I want to look at this question in 2 segments:

  1. Why did Jesus have to die?
  2. Why did He come back to life?

Within these I will be aiming to cover the idea of penal substitution and also the reason why I have said “raised” and not “rise”.

 

So, why did Jesus have to die?

In order to answer this question we have to go back to the beginning of things. Now, whether you believe in the literal story from Genesis of the Fall, whether you believe it in some figurative sense or whether you don’t actually believe anything about it at all, we can all agree that the world, and more particularly the people in it, are not perfect. Indeed, we are quite a rum lot, really. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we kill, we worship all sorts of things, we fornicate, we are jealous of others. I could go on, but to put it simply we, as the human race, have done pretty much every negative thing it is possible to do (killing with eye lazors is still not possible, so there are some things we have yet to achieve!) and they are done by us on a regular basis every day. Yes, we have our good moments as well. But the short and tall of it is that we know how to do bad stuff and we also do it.

Now, from a Christian perspective we have an understanding of a word called “sin”. It can be defined as “transgression of divine law“, which, when put in simple terms, means breaking God’s laws. Now this premise of sin comes from the idea that there is a God who has a design and a plan on how He would like us to live, but that He also gives us free will to choose what we do. And, unfortunately, we are prone to choosing wrong a lot of the time. The God, who Christians believe created everything, made this (our free will) possible because His desire is that we would worship Him. However we cannot be forced to worship, because that would be like having a wind-up music box that He can set off any time He chooses, rather than having people who choose of their own free will to praise and worship Him.

So we are given free will to do as we want, it would seem that God has designed us to fail. But the thing to understand about free will is that it’s not a design flaw but simply a way of giving us a choice in everything that we do. We can choose to watch TV, we can choose to go to the toilet, we can choose to pay our taxes. In all these things we must be prepared to live with the consequences, but they are choices that we are all able to make. For example, I can choose not to pay my council tax bill. As a result of this I would be punished (fines, possible arrest etc), which would be the consequences of such an action, but at no point am I forced to pay my taxes. It is simply the best way to live in our society, rather than the constant agitation of legal consequences.

So we have this free will and we end up doing things that are not part of God’s plan. And we can know about this plan that God has, because we can read about it in the Bible. In the Old Testament we are told about the various commandments (613 in total) from God on how we are to live our lives, so it’s not like we don’t know them or can’t get to know them. They are written down for us. So whilst we might not follow them, they are there for us to find out about, if we choose to, and it is our choice as to whether we follow them or not.

Now, all of this might seem like it is nowhere near answering the question of why Jesus had to die, but we are now at the point where it starts to become clear how it is all connected. You see, God wants us to worship Him. And not just on earth but in Heaven, with Him. But our sin, all the things we do in our lives that break God’s laws, means that we are not able to go there. You see, God is perfect. I don’t mean this definition of perfect, because that is based upon what we set as the best things to be, the most desirable qualities that define perfect. God’s perfection is the sort that is without blemish. When we say that God is perfect we mean that He is pure, that He does nothing wrong. This means that everything that He does is right and He does it all exactly as it should be done. He is also described as being “incapable” of doing anything any way other than perfect. This is not to say that He can’t do anything any way He wants to, because Christians believe that God is able to do anything, He is omnipotent. What we mean when we say that God is “incapable” of some things is that they are not in His nature. Just like it is not in the nature of a Tottenham Hotspur fan to suddenly start supporting Arsenal, or a kleptomaniac to suddenly stop stealing things, it is not in the nature of God to do anything that is not perfect. If God were to do anything imperfect it would change who He is for all time. As soon as God does something that is not perfect, even if it is only slightly off perfection and only once, He is no longer perfect and will forever be imperfect. But because God is perfect, not just as a state of being at a particular moment but by His very nature, He cannot do anything imperfect. And, because of this, He cannot allow anything imperfect to come into His presence. That means that we, as people who break God’s laws (and are therefore imperfect), are not able to be in God’s presence as we are. And in a situation where only the perfect will do, everything that is not perfect must be destroyed. Which means that we must die.

You see, we have been set these rules on how to live by God and we don’t follow them. We regularly break them and, as we know, when we break rules there is almost always a punishment. In this case, the punishment is death. It is a consequence of not meeting God’s standard for living with Him in Heaven. This might seem a bit harsh, given what I have already said about how we are created pretty much predisposed to breaking God’s laws. But, as I have also pointed out, each time we break them we have a choice as to whether we do or not. So each time we break God’s laws it is our choice to do so and we need to face the consequences of doing so, which is punishment by death. It may not seem fair to us, but to a God who is perfect and who cannot allow anything imperfect into His presence it is the only thing, and the right thing, to do. However, and this is where Jesus comes in to it, as well as being perfect God is also love. And look at what I wrote. I didn’t write “God loves”, I wrote “God is love”. This means that, just like it is in God’s nature to be perfect, it is in God’s nature to love. And because God is perfect, so is His love. And it is because of His love that Jesus died on the Cross. God loves us so much that He wants us to be with Him in Heaven, forever. And so Jesus’ death on the Cross is His way of making us perfect, so that we are able to be in His presence and not make it imperfect.

Ok, so that last sentence had a lot packed into it. So I am now going to try and make it as simple as possible to understand. So, we have a God who loves us, but who is perfect and so not able to let anything imperfect (like us) into His presence. The only way that we are able to be with God is if our sin is removed. In the Old Testament this was done by sacrificing an animal. This was done first in Genesis 3:21 where God kills an animal so that it’s skin can be made into clothes for Adam and Eve, but it then happened all the way through, up to the time of Jesus and beyond (in Jewish practice). We see sacrifice in the story of Abraham, it is commanded in Leviticus 6:24-30 and became a regular thing that was done, eventually becoming an ritual done at the Temple by the priests there on behalf of the people. The animal had to be one without a mark on it, as though it were perfect. The ritual included a moment where the head of the animal that was going to be sacrificed and the head of the person offering it to be sacrificed would touch, symbolising the passing of the sin of the person onto the offering. When the animal was killed, the sin was no more. However, by the time of Jesus even this ritual commanded by God had become sinful. People didn’t always do it because they were actually sorry for what they had done, but simply because it was what people did. And the way that it was done was also not always proper. Priests were known to abuse the offering ritual and there were people in the Temple courts who were looking to make money from those without animals to sacrifice by selling them there, often at highly increased prices. The whole thing had become corrupted, because imperfect people were left in charge of it. So God had to create something that humans could not mess up and corrupt. And the only thing that was perfect, that could replace the animal sacrifice, was God.

Ok, now, if you’re not a Christian, you’re probably wondering where that came from. After all, I was talking about Jesus and all of a sudden we are reading that God is the sacrifice. Well, Christians believe that God is both 1 (God) and 3 (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We call it Trinity. Now, it is almost certainly beyond our human understanding to completely understand this. But there are 2 things that I want to say to try and help before returning to why Jesus had to die. The first is that, as I have already said, God is love. But we all know that you cannot love when there is nothing to love. And because Christians believe that God created everything, that means that He was around when there was nothing but Him. So how does someone know how to love when there is nothing to love? By there being 2 others there with you. So God is able to be love by the 3 persons who are God being able to love each other (as I said, this is not an easy thing to understand). The second thing is that we have the Bible telling is that there are 3. In the very beginning of the Bible we see, in the first 3 verses, God the Father (called God), God the Son (called the Word in John’s Gospel, thus seen when God speaks in verse 3) and God the Spirit (or “the Spirit of God”) all together. We see it again at the baptism of Jesus, where we have the Father’s voice, the Son in the Jordan and the Spirit coming down like a dove. There are many other bits from the Bible that I could mention, not least Jesus talking about the Father, yet also declaring “I am” (harking back to God’s response to Moses when asked who He is) when asked if He is God’s son and then also referring to the Spirit and describing Him as a “helper” and also refers to the Holy Spirit as “he” and coming from God. There are many other things that I could say (and probably will do in a future blog) on this subject, but won’t right now. If you want to look into this more now, I can recommend this video from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics as a good starting point. But hopefully I will have, at least in part, explained how Jesus is God and thus how He was a perfect sacrifice, replacing the animal sacrifice I have mentioned above.

So, now that we know that the way that God had designed for getting rid of sin was through sacrifice and that, after the version started on earth had been corrupted, the perfect version of this was by [God] the Father sending [God] the Son, Jesus, to be the perfect sacrifice for us, the next bit to look at is what was going on when Jesus died on the Cross. This is an area where there has been a lot of disagreement in recent years. I am going to give you what I think, which I believe to be true. But it is not the only view on what happened. As I have already said, the problem God has is that we are not perfect and yet He wants us to be with Him. The only way that this can happen is by our sin being removed, making us perfect. And there was also a debt to be paid, a punishment to be taken. You see, the problem with our sin is that it can’t just be fixed by us saying we are sorry, like we might do with another human being. As I have said, it makes us imperfect. It is an eternal stain on us. And it hasn’t simply been committed against any old person, it has been committed against the King of everything that is both inside and outside of the universe, God. It is the Heavenly equivalent of treason, because we have gone against the will of the King. And because the mark is permanent it means that we have a permanent mark of rebellion on us, which must be destroyed. But God sent Jesus into the world to take our place before the executioner. He sent Jesus, who lived a perfect life in accordance with all of God’s commands, to come and take our punishment so that we wouldn’t have to. He sent Jesus to die in our place, even though Jesus had done nothing wrong to deserve such a punishment. People often use the term “wrath” to talk about how God’s reaction to our sin, particularly as regards the punishment that Jesus took on the Cross. Indeed, there is a song that says “the wrath of God was satisfied” when Jesus was on the Cross. This word has come to be seen as a very negative word because of it’s link with revenge and action taken in anger. It is suggested that when people talk about Jesus suffering on the Cross as “satisfying God’s wrath” they are talking about a vengeful God who is taking out His anger on His Son. It has even been called “cosmic child abuse”. However, we need to first of all look at what the word means. Wrath means “strong, stern, or fierce anger“. And let’s face it, if you had set out the commandments and asked the world to follow them, sending many people to remind the world that they were getting it wrong, you’d get more than a bit angry. You only have to look at the impact that teenagers have on their parents when they get rebellious to see how children (for that is who we are to God) can infuriate their parents. And, unlike human parents, God’s anger is righteous and good. This is because He is angry at us breaking the perfect commands set by a perfect God, who gave them to us out of love and a desire for us to live life to the fullest. So He is rightly angry at the sin of the world (not just all that has happened up to that point, but all that is yet to come as well) because His laws had been broken. And this wrath, this anger needs to be dealt with, to be satisfied. If not, as John the Baptist says, then God’s wrath remains. So God’s righteous anger at the sins we commit is not turned into the punishment that we see, although it does appear at the same time as the punishment because the punishment is upon the sin, which is the target of God’s wrath. Instead it is the reaction of a perfect God to the stains on what was once His perfect creation. So, if God’s not punishing out of anger, what is He punishing out of? Well, the answer is that there are 2 aspects to this. The first is that it is the right thing to do. Sin needs to be properly dealt with, which means destruction of it. This happens with the death of the sacrifice that the sin has been put upon. The second is that He punished out of love. That might seem a bit strange at first glance, but anyone who is a parent knows that they must sometimes use punishment as a corrective for the disobedience of their child. For some it may be the “naughty step”, for others is can be sanctions or even corporal punishment (I had smacks by hand and slipper when I was younger). In most cases the punishment is done so that the child knows not to do something again or else be punished again, because the parent loves their child and wants them to behave correctly so that they can get the best out of life. The same is true with God, except that there is no multiple punishment. There is the warning of what will happen and then the carrying out of the punishment at the end.  Now, you might say that by only doing the punishment at the end it is not particularly fair as there is no space for learning from the punishment. But given that the punishment for disobeying is death and destruction it is hardly possible to get a little bit of that as a taster to help you mend your ways. So we are given the warnings of what will happen if we break the rules and then we are to expect the punishment. But then up steps Jesus (God the Son), saying that He will take our punishment for us because God loves us so much that He will do anything He can to make it possible for us to be with Him. So not only is the punishment not out of anger, but it’s not being dished out on someone who has no choice but to receive it. You see, Jesus has a choice in this too. Whilst this way of doing things, as I have mentioned earlier, was the only way to make it possible for us to be with God, Jesus still has to decide to do it. He can choose to not do it at any point, even when He is on the Cross. But He doesn’t, He willingly takes the punishment that we deserved for our actions. He is not forced or coerced, He does it because He loves us that much. And He does it despite knowing that it is the most barbaric form of punishment that human beings have ever created. And there is a reason why it is this form of punishment that He suffers – because it is an example to us of what we would have suffered if it hadn’t happened. It shows just what Jesus was willing to suffer for us because of His love and it tells us just how bad God thinks that sin is.

So, the answer to the first segment is that we have done things wrong against God that need punishment, and the only punishment that is right for sin is death. But Jesus comes to take the punishment for us so that whilst our sin is destroyed we are able to be with God. So Jesus dies that we can be with God.

 

So now I come to the second segment, answering the question “Why Jesus came back to life?” Or even “Did Jesus need to come back to life?” I mean, the punishment for sin has been done and Jesus has died for us. But why, ignoring that the prophecies say it, does Jesus need to be raised to life again?

Well, the first thing to point out is that I believe that the use of “raised to life again” as opposed to “rose to life again” is very important, for the simple reason that Jesus can’t rise on His own. He needs someone else involved in order for Him to be raised. Why is this important? Because if Jesus rises on his own then how can he have been truly dead? And if He is not truly dead then that means that the punishment for sin has not been paid and that Jesus suffered the Cross for nothing. It is also how Peter describes it when he speaks at Pentecost.

The second thing is to explain why Easter Sunday is just as important, if not more so, than Good Friday.

At first glance we can look at the resurrection and say that it’s no big deal. I mean, Jesus raised Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter from the dead, Lazarus after several days of being dead. How is it any different?

Firstly we need to look at what it points to. By coming back from the dead, we see that death is not the end. So, by being raised Jesus shows us that we have a hope for the future, beyond this life. And that hope is in Him.

Then we need to look at what Paul writes in Romans 6:

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

Here we see that Paul is saying that despite being fully human Jesus is no longer bound by death. And this is because of what death is. In Genesis 2 God says that if they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then they will die. At that time there was only 1 way for Adam and Eve to sin (eating the fruit), so there is a sense in which God is laying out at the very start the punishment for sin. So death is the end result for sin. But Jesus, by dying whilst without sin, has suffered sin’s punishment and been raised. And, because He is perfect and without sin His being raised shows that God has judged Jesus innocent. Additionally, He is not going to do anything that would require Him to die, because He will continue to live without sinning. Nor will He need to die again for us, because His death on the Cross is enough for everyone across time and space. He only needed to do it once.

There is another aspect regarding the future that the resurrection shows us. When Christ died He WAS sin. He had every single sin that had ever and would ever be committed on Him at the point of His death. And yet, when Jesus was raised, all this was gone on the Sunday. This gives a glimpse of what it will be like for us when we are given our resurrection bodies.

And finally we must have a look at what the resurrection did for the disciples. They went from a bunch of quivering wrecks hiding in an upper room to a confident and fired up group that went out and preached about what Jesus had done even when they were threatened with deaths as painful as Jesus’s. Without the resurrection we might never have seen the Church.

So yes, Jesus had to come back from the dead. If He didn’t then the assumption would have been that God saw Him as guilty and His being raised renewed the faith of the disciples. And the reason why, as well as being answered by those first 2 points, is also that it showed that Jesus had mastery over death, showing us what we can have faith in for our future with God.

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