Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? March 25, 2013

On Palm Sunday, as we of St. David’s Episcopal Church entered into Holy Week, we sang the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus,” a classic take on a theology of substitutionary atonement:

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;

the slave hath sin-ned, and the Son hath suffered.

For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,

God interceded. (Heerman/Bridges)

As I wrote in The Other Jesus, though, as powerful as the idea of unworthy sinners being saved by a loving Jesus may be, the corresponding idea of an angry God so unwilling to forgive that he has no choice but to murder His only son causes many of us some problems. So is it possible to push back against the atonement theory formulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury and imagine other meaningful reasons for Jesus to go to the Cross this week?

First and most obviously, Jesus died because he stood up against the world-shaking power of the Roman Empire. To assert that Caesar was not Lord was treason — and to assert that there were powers beyond the temporal power of Rome was enough to get anyone killed.

Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan remind us in The Last Week about the prophetic and counter-cultural courage of Jesus. The very Palm Sunday celebration many Christians reenact was actually a prophetic demonstration against the power of Rome: Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives on his donkey, a peasant hailed by the people for his message of the Kingdom of God. Pontius Pilate rode in from the west at the head of a column of Roman legionaires, bearing the power of Rome. It was a collision between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, and as Borg and Crossan write, “The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.” (2)

Jesus staked his life on the belief that God’s power is supreme — and his resurrection proves it. The power of the Empire to torture and kill, to impose its will, is nothing compared to the power of God, which will not let sin and death have the last word.

One of Anselm’s rivals in making theological meaning of the crucifixion was Abelard, whose moral theory of atonement argued that Jesus constituted for all of us a model of obedience to God’s will, even to the point of his death — and that this radical love moves us to love God in return. The Jesus who in the Gospels prays that God will allow him to escape this fate — and yet who closes that prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane by accepting God’s will, wherever it may lead him — is the model for all of us who follow Christ. Whether we are standing up to the powers and principalities of this world, calling the Church to greater love and service, or turning our backs on what the world has to offer to accept the grace and love of God, we are called to be like Christ — and, Abelard argued, Christ’s crucifixion is the ultimate lesson for us in what love and service look like.

One does not have to believe that God was so unwilling to forgive that someone had to die to be grateful for Jesus’s death on the Cross. This Holy Week, we can love and cherish Jesus, can give thanks for the Jesus who loves and cherish us, and can sing without reservation these words from “Ah, Holy Jesus”:

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,

thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;

thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,

for my salvation.

Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church. Garrett’s column, “Faithful Citizenship,” is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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132 responses to “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”

  1. Abelard is a little more complex than you make him out to be. See my translation of his Romans commentary (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), which contains the theology you describe, along with my introduction to the commentary. There’s been a lot of discussion of him in recent years that advances his atonement theology beyond a moral theory of atonement. Abelard also promoted more traditional atonement theologies in the same commentary and in his sermons and hymns.

  2. “To assert that Caesar was not Lord was treason — and to assert that there were powers beyond the temporal power of Rome was enough to get anyone killed.”

    But that wasn’t why they executed him, was it? Pontius Pilate saw no fault in Jesus and only gave in to the crowd’s demands. The Gospels present the Empire as merely the executioners, while the condemners are the local people, the Jews.

  3. This holy week, we should not forget what Jesus did for us. Let us remember all the happiness and celebrate it with Him, and be with Him while He is enduring all of the painful suffering. Let’s give thanks and be grateful because He loved us unconditionally and saved us from our sins. Thank you for this post and may God bless you!

  4. I understand the hesitation to imagine God as angry, but if you had created a beautiful work of – well, creation – and had given it freely to others to steward and they ripped the shit out of it, wouldn’t you be a little pissed off?

    I don’t have a problem with seeing this aspect of God, but it is not the ONLY one I see in the crucifixion. I see deep sadness and grief over lost possibility. I see despair of those who see nothing other than the harsh reality of living. I also see a judgement against our self interest and inhumanity to one another nailed to a piece of wood and taken to the grave. Where God transforms it. See? he seems to be saying, I am a God creative enough to take the wreck you have made of my gift and turn it into something unimaginably better. Now what are you going to do?

  5. Thanks, Steve, for pointing out the Romans commentary. He does have a complex view.

  6. Thanks, all, for these comments. I am always reacting to the God of Wrath I was taught growing up and trying to make room for the God of Love who has transformed my life. I am especially drawn to the rabbinical tale of how God spends half the day on the Throne of Justice–then gets up, sits back down, and spends half the day on the Throne of Mercy.

  7. Greg
    Thanks for this article. My sermon on Sunday talked about the angry, wrathful God who centered all that anger on Jesus reminds me more of an abusive parent, than a loving Father. If I remember about Anselm is that he talked about a debt needing to be paid rather than a wrathful God. I think those are two different ideas. My impression is the angry, wrathful God developed more with continental reformers who are reading back on Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin. Thoughts?

  8. A common view among biblical scholars is that is the evangelist’s hand reflecting two things i) the community (early Christian) community’s conflict and frustration with the larger Jewish community that looked down on them and wouldn’t accept their claims of Jesus

    ii) The early Christian communities, wary of potential state persecution, not wanting to pinpoint the Roman Empire as the culprits of the death of their Lord. The nascent religion was inflammatory enough as it was without it’s main story hinging blame on killing the Son of God on corrupt Roman authorities

    I think it is clear there was complicity between Pilate and the Temple’s chief priests in killing Jesus, but to declare Pilate, a known ruthless butcher, as unwilling to executive a Galilean peasant to not be historical and more a product of the community’s that created the Gospels.

  9. One of the things I’ve learned studying medieval theology is that for many medieval theologians, there is no distinction between justice on the one hand and love and mercy on the other–they are the same thing, not counterbalancing opposites, as many Protestants would like to make them out to be. See, for example, Dante’s account of the entrance to hell in the Inferno: It was love that created hell.

  10. Fr. Everett–I have a picture of the stained glass from the Anselm chapel at Canterbury at my seminary office, and I suspect you’re right–he and I would have more in common than those who developed his idea of a debt to be paid into this retributive justice. Blessings.

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