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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