Why did Jesus have to die?

April 5, 2023

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Most people understand that the cross lies at the center of the Christian faith and that somehow this was God’s way of dealing with our rebellion and failure, but this is precisely what causes so much consternation.

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    The single best known fact about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was executed on a Roman cross. But what makes Jesus’ brutal death so astonishing is that he not only predicted it, he willingly subjected himself to it. Most people understand that the cross lies at the center of the Christian faith and that somehow this was God’s way of dealing with our rebellion and failure. The Apostle Paul put it succinctly: “He gave himself for our sins.”

    But this is precisely what causes so much consternation among modern people today. I’ve met many who have said: “The cross is offensive! I haven’t done anything so wrong that it requires the death of another person for God to forgive me. On top of that, it’s immoral for someone else to bear the blame for things that I have done and said. I’m responsible for my own actions. If God wants to forgive me, why doesn’t he just do it?” The critics have a point. So why did Jesus have to die?

    From the outset, it’s important to remember that there is a key difference between someone turning you into a scapegoat, and you voluntarily choosing to cover another person’s debt. Jesus wasn’t a helpless victim. Jesus chose to do something for us that only he could do. But still the question remains: Why can’t God just forgive? 

    Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to bring things down to a human level first. If you’ve ever been hurt–if you’re ever been deeply wronged–you know that you cannot just forgive. A wrong has been committed, and it cannot simply be shrugged off or ignored. Any offense–large or small–whether emotional, physical, or spiritual–creates a sense of debt. The other person owes you. And when you are confronted with that debt, you essentially have two options. 

    On the one hand, you can make the other person pay. You can seek retaliation or force them to make up for what they have done by causing them to suffer. But these tactics only serve to multiply evil and wrongdoing. They don’t stop the cycle.

    On the other hand, you can forgive. When you forgive, you refuse to give in to vengeful thoughts and actions. You absorb the debt yourself, rather than dishing it back to the other person. But if you have ever been harmed, you know that forgiveness is never easy. Real forgiveness always costs something to the giver. It always hurts. We know that to be true in all the relatively minor ways in which we forgive those who sin against us. How much more would it cost for God to forgive the sins of human beings for all the crimes that we commit against him and one another?

    The problem, of course, is that most modern people do not feel particularly guilty. We say: “Nobody is perfect.” “To err is human.” Therefore, we do not think that we need forgiveness. But imagine for a moment that there really is a loving God who created a world of goodness and beauty for us to enjoy. Imagine that the Creator God designed us to find our freedom and fulfillment by centering our life on him and living lives of loving service to others. This, after all, is what Jesus suggested was the very heart of human existence–to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

     When we refuse to acknowledge the reality of God and make ourselves the center of our lives, and when we fail to treat others in accordance with their worth, we not only diminish ourselves and hurt others, but we wrong God. Why? Because every little infraction is ultimately an offense against God. It is his love that we have scorned, his people we have mistreated, his world we have damaged. And the Scriptures suggest that the consequence for all of our misdeeds is devastating. It results in death.

    So, if God wants to forgive us–rather than making us pay–for all the sins that have ever been committed against him from the beginning of time, what would that look like? The answer, of course, is the cross. The cross provides us with a cosmic picture of what it means for Jesus to bear the consequences and absorb the debt we owe rather than making us pay for what we have done. The cross was the only way for God to condemn sin without condemning us.

    Written by Jason Harris

    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee

    Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker