For those of us who grew up in conservative or even moderate versions of Christianity, the Christmas story often begins with a pretty twisted premise: Jesus was born to die.
It’s as if the entire purpose of his life was to die.
We find this idea in Christmas songs, Christmas sermons, and all sorts of other places. I mean, heck, John Piper even wrote a book called 50 Reasons Jesus Came To Die (and he also wrote a second book called 10 Reasons Jesus Came To Die, which just seems weird.)
But was dying really the reason why Jesus came to earth?
Spoiler alert: No.
Let’s quickly dissect the claim:
First, the entire premise behind Jesus coming to die is that God is angry and needed a sacrifice to mitigate his wrath. This is why street preachers often begin teaching the Christian story with terms like “sin” and “judgement” as they transition to the birth of Jesus.
But that’s not how the Christmas story begins. At least, not if you’re reading it out of the Bible.
In the Bible, the birth announcement that the Christ has come is made by the angels to shepherds– and what’s interesting is that there’s no mention of God’s anger, wrath, or anything else. In fact, the opposite is true.
When the angels announce the birth they say, “Fear not! For behold, we bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day a savior, who is Christ the Lord…” The angels went on to praise God, saying “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth toward humanity, with whom his favor rests.“
But wait? God sent Jesus because his favor was with us? I thought he was pissed off? If the Bible were to line up with the “Jesus came to die” narrative, shouldn’t they have been a bit more clear in telling people that God was really, really angry with them, but that they could now have hope because his son came to take the beating for us?
The idea that Jesus came to die also hits a brick wall when considering other principles we know from the Bible.
For example, we know from the Old Testament that God utterly detests human sacrifice– are we then to believe that God’s plan to save humanity required him to do something he thought was an abomination? Or, from the New Testament we find out that the entire sacrificial system found in the Old Testament was never commanded by God and that it never pleased him– the idea that God demanded animal sacrifice was a profound misunderstanding of what God actually does desire.
Plus, if the entire point of Jesus coming to earth was to die, why not just let a sleeping baby Jesus die of natural causes warm in the manger? Why wait so many years and have it be one of the most horrific forms of execution humanity has ever devised? If it was all about dying, dying as a baby would have done the trick.
Listen, I know your childhood pastor was probably a decent person. I know this whole idea of “Jesus came to die” has been ingrained in us since our earliest memories.
But they got this one wrong.
Jesus didn’t come to die– he came to show us how to live.
Jesus came to show us how drastically we had misunderstood God– that God does not delight in sacrifices.
Jesus came to show us that we are not to repay evil with evil, that we must not retaliate when we are sinned against, but that we are to do kind things even toward those who hate us– because, as Jesus said, we are to emulate God who is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
Jesus came to show us that God in the flesh can stand in the presence of sinners, and instead of anger and rage, says “neither do I condemn you.”
Dying wasn’t the point at all– the point was coming to live.
This is precisely why in the book of 1 John we’re told, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” It’s why 1 Peter says, “He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.” And it’s also why, just hours before Jesus is executed, he looks at each one of his followers and tells them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have.”
When it comes to the story of Jesus, it was never about dying at all– it was always about living.
And that… that was the whole point. The whole goal. Jesus was sinless, and thus did not owe God his death. We were the ones who killed him– and even in that act, he shows us what love looks like.
Jesus wasn’t born to die– he was born to be a living invitation.
An invitation to live differently, to live fully, to be an imitator of God by being an imitator of Jesus– the one who was the ultimate revelation of what God is like.
If you’d like to wrestle in more depth with the theological question of God sending Jesus to die, I’d invite you to explore my series on the penal substitution theory of the atonement, by clicking here.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.