Good Friday: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Good Friday: Why Did Jesus Have to Die? April 21, 2011

Today we celebrate the crucifixion of the Lord.  Reread that sentence.  We celebrate Jesus’ death.  To Christians this is a great comfort.  We know that Jesus died out of love for us in order that we might be saved.  To many non-Christians this is an outrage.  Why should someone need to die in order that we might be saved?  What does this say about the God Christians worship?  Indeed, too often, Christians present the crucifixion in an unnuanced way so that it seems that God somehow needed a death – and not just any death, but the death of an innocent man – in order to be able to forgive sins.

That this is a distortion should be clear from the simple fact that Jesus forgave sins long before his death.  I am not saying that Jesus’ death has nothing to do with forgiveness, but I am saying that it is not a matter of God’s anger being appeased by a human sacrifice before we can be reconciled.  What I want to do in this piece is present a strand of the Christian tradition that is often overlooked when we think about Jesus’ crucifixion.  It is my hope that, by integrating this strand into our thinking, we will see that the crucifixion has nothing to do with appeasing an angry God and that we will also see the essential character of the resurrection for our salvation, something that is lamentably ignored in many of the standard answers to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?”

I want to start by looking at Chapter 2 of the Wisdom of Solomon.  I will not reproduce the whole thing here, but it is worth your time to read it all, to get the fullest sense of the text.

1 For they [the ungodly] reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,

‘Short and sorrowful is our life,

and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,

and no one has been known to return from Hades.

9 Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;

everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,

because this is our portion, and this our lot.

10 Let us oppress the righteous poor man;

let us not spare the widow

or regard the grey hairs of the aged.

11 But let our might be our law of right,

for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

12 ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,

because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;

he reproaches us for sins against the law,

and accuses us of sins against our training.

13 He professes to have knowledge of God,

and calls himself a child of the Lord.

14 He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;

15 the very sight of him is a burden to us,

because his manner of life is unlike that of others,

and his ways are strange.

16 We are considered by him as something base,

and he avoids our ways as unclean;

he calls the last end of the righteous happy,

and boasts that God is his father.

17 Let us see if his words are true,

and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;

18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,

and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.

19 Let us test him with insult and torture,

so that we may find out how gentle he is,

and make trial of his forbearance.

20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death,

for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’

21 Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,

for their wickedness blinded them.

Pope Benedict notes the extraordinary fact that Plato came to a very similar position:

In the Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world.  He comes to the conclusion that a man’s righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice for its own sake.  So according to Plato the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in the world; indeed Plato goes so far as to write: “They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.”  This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply.  (Introduction to Christianity, 292)

A little later Benedict continues:

The fact that when the perfectly just man appeared he was crucified, delivered up by justice to death, tells us pitilessly who man is: Thou art such, man, that thou canst not bear the just man – that he who simply loves becomes a fool, a scourged criminal, an outcast. Thou art such because, unjust thyself, thou dost always need the injustice of the next man in order to feel excused and thus canst not tolerate the just man who seems to rob thee of this excuse. Such art thou. St. John summarized all this in the Ecce homo (“Look, this is [the] man!”) of Pilate, which means quite fundamentally: This is how it is with man; this is man. The truth of man is his complete lack of truth. The say­ing in the Psalms that every man is a liar (Ps 116 [115]: 11 [Douay­Rheims]) and lives in some way or other against the truth already reveals how it really is with man. The truth about man is that he is continually assailing truth; the just man crucified is thus a mirror held up to man in which he sees himself unadorned. But the Cross does not reveal only man; it also reveals God. God is such that he identifies himself with man right down into this abyss and that he judges him by saving him. In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love. The Cross is thus truly the center of revelation, a revelation that does not reveal any previously unknown prin­ciples but reveals us to ourselves by revealing us before God and God in our midst. (Introduction to Christianity, 293)

According to these passages Jesus had to die because fallen man is a murderer.  There is indeed a bloodthirsty deity.  And our critics are right that such a deity is not worthy of worship, though that doesn’t stop them or us from paying him homage and sacrificing on his altar to this day.  That deity is us.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the final condemnation of man.  We who slaughter the innocent because they are “inconvenient” to us killed God’s own Son.  Our sin was indeed condemned on the cross, not because God condemned Jesus, but because we did.  In condemning Jesus, we condemn ourselves.  That is why his death, as essential as it was in God’s plan of salvation, was not enough to save us.  If Jesus had merely died on the Cross and not risen, Good Friday would be Black Friday.  The gavel would have fallen once and for all, the verdict on humanity final.

Good Friday is only good because it is not the end of the story.  Before we could be forgiven we needed to be exposed.  Think of Jesus with the woman at the well.  He read her like a book.  Or the woman caught in adultery, brought out to be publicly shamed.  Sin, before it can be forgiven, must be acknowledged; but because we run from the light, the light must search us out.  Christ came to us to shine light on our most shameful practices so that we might be healed.  Humanity has a history of scapegoating, of lynching the innocent.  This running from responsibility, to the point where we would rather kill the innocent than own up to our mistakes (from Cain and Abel to the Holocaust to your friendly neighborhood Planned Parenthood), is what makes forgiveness impossible.

We find it very easy to justify ourselves.  We must be shown that self-justification is impossible.  The only justification of any avail is justification in Christ.  The Cross prepares the ground for forgiveness by calling us out.  When we behold the one we have pierced, the decision is before us in an ultimate way:  will I or will I not admit my brokenness and my sin and seek forgiveness and a new way of life?

We know forgiveness is available if we have paid attention to Jesus’ public ministry.  But forgiveness for this?  For unjustified and selfish murder?  For deicide?

If the disciples doubted for one minute that they could be forgiven for their complicity in the lynching of their Lord that doubt was answered in the resurrection.  When Jesus came among those who had abandoned him and fled, he came again with words of forgiveness.

And so today, fellow sinners, we are exposed for who we really are so that on Sunday, when he says, “Peace be with you,” we will perhaps hear the true depth of those words.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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  • “The truth about man is that he is continually assailing truth; the just man crucified is thus a mirror held up to man in which he sees himself unadorned. But the Cross does not reveal only man; it also reveals God. ”

    Most excellent. Truly an enlightening way of looking at it. I know those were Ratzinger’s words, but your post caused me to focus and reflect on them. Thank you.

  • This seems to tie a couple of things together for me, which previously were disconnected in my mind: First, the notion that Jesus did not have to die to save us; that being infinite and eternal God, any single act of his could have sufficed. And yet, that he did die to save us. Why was that method of salvation chosen? This seems to go far towards answering that question, i.e. that it was a matter of revelation, a way of revealing both man to himself, and God to man.

  • Dan

    Well this is very interesting. I scoured the net searching for the verses stuck in my mind that supported a vicarious atonement theory, which I believed was necessary to support the punitive legal requirements of the Jewish framework of thought of Jesus’ time. I’ve always hated the idea, but it seemed so patently obvious that this was the framework in which the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ sacrifice, that I felt it intellectually dishonest to try and re-interpret the message to soften the inconsistencies with the nature of God.

    The funny thing is, I found nothing to support my case. My entire arsenal of scripture applies substantially better to Razingers’ interpretation above (skillfully expounded by Brett), than to what I perceived to be the obvious interpretation. It is amazing how subtle cultural indoctrination over the course of one’s life can make things seem so obviously apparent, even under the microscope of scrutiny, when they may in fact be slanting your view in the wrong direction. I am elated.

    Of course, in light of this new interpretation, I now need to figure out why the resurrection is of such critical importance….

    • brettsalkeld


      Three things. First, try rereading the Letter to the Hebrews with this new point of view. It is positively exciting. The great Jesuit scholar of the Letter to the Hebrews, Albert Vanhoye, says that there is an “optical illusion” in the letter, namely that it looks like the author is talking about a straightforward fulfillment of the Temple sacrifices as if Jesus were some sort of super-goat whereas, in fact, the fulfillment of the temple comes about precisely through its subversion.

      Second, I too have found it amazing to see how this point of view opens up the Scriptures. For me, Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation had a profound impact as a reading of Scripture that made several difficult to understand passages positively sing.

      Third, I know of a couple books on resurrection that may be helpful. F.X. Durrwell’s Christ Our Passover: The Indispensable Role of Resurrection in Our Salvation and James Alison’s Knowing Jesus. I would start with Alison if I were you. You could read it in a day. Or, why not skip ahead a few pages in Ratzinger’s Introduction and read the section on resurrection. It’s only 10 pages long.

  • From Jesus; An Experiment in Christology by Edward Schillebeeckx:

    In a post-medieval theory of Christian redemption as ‘penal substitution’ (offering a thoroughly false interpretation of Anselm’s doctrine of satisfaction), man really was condemned by God’s ‘transcendent righteousness’ to blind submission and barren culpability: God demands the sacrifice of an innocent Jesus in order to release mankind from its guilt in the sight of God. It is just what the aeroplane hijackers do nowadays with their innocent hostages in order to expose at the bar of world opinion the guilt of society as a whole.

  • Ronald King

    Beautiful Brett! The crisis of death strips us of our delusions. Have a great Easter.

  • Mark Harden

    In the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger/Benedict continues on the positive aspect of atonement (page 232, with my emphasis):

    “Again and again people say: It must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement. Is this not a notion unworthy of God? Must we not give up the idea of atonement in order to maintain the purity of our image of God? In the use of the term “hilasterion” with reference to Jesus, it becomes evident that the real forgiveness accomplished on the Cross functions in exactly the opposite direction. The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the image of God – this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself “drinks the cup” of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.”

  • Julian Barkin

    Brett, this is a simply awesome and meaningful reflection of Good Friday. Thank you. And an extra thank you for liking my facebook status. You didn’t have to.

  • A beautiful reflection.

    But, I would question whether it is really mutually incompatible with a notion of God’s anger being appeased by human (or, rather, divine-human) sacrifice.

    We can only speak of God by analogy. And though you (or a given culture in general) might prefer one analogy to another…the actual inadequacy of our formulations are such that the “justice and God’s wrath” analogy is EQUALLY valid compared to the “love” analogy or whichever other (post-)modern (or Eastern, etc) parsing of the atonement you prefer. In fact, it is the one that even the New Testament itself often uses still.

    As long as they maintain internal “structural” equivalency with each other and the revealed dogmas in question, all these analogies are equally valid. It is valid to say that “God’s wrath was appeased by the death of Christ” if we assume a proper, non-anthropomorphizing understanding of “God’s wrath”

    • brettsalkeld

      I think that we can say God’s wrath was appeased, along with the Tradition, as long as it is clear that this is not meant in the sense that he demanded innocent blood. I think this sense has meaning when we consider that the reason God is wrathful is because of God’s great love. God’s love for us means that he hates that which harms us, namely sin. If God hates sin, and if Jesus’ death exposes sin in order that it can be acknowledged and forgiven, then God’s wrath will be appeased.

      Also, this basic consideration was the reason I highlighted my reflections as “one strand of the tradition.” It is also one of the reasons why there is no “official” atonement theology.

    • brettsalkeld

      As for human sacrifice, that is something that also needs parsing. As I mention at the end of the previous post that I linked to, God wants us to sacrifice, not in the sense of cultic ritual murder, but in the sense of giving up our lives for love and truth. Jesus death looks a lot more like the death of MLK or Oscar Romero than of some poor virgin in Tenochtitlan.

      • Again, I think these are all analogies, and any analogy can be valid depending on what exactly is being analogized. God may want sacrifice in the sense of “cultic ritual murder” depending on which aspect of that we are using in the analogy. St. Patrick was able to compare the Trinity to a shamrock. It depends on what you abstract from the subject of the analogy to understand the target. Albeit, in the case of God, the analogies reveal more by their inadequacy than by their aptness. But there are definitely similarities that can be drawn between cultic ritual sacrifice and Christ’s death; that was the whole point of 1500 years of Jewish animal sacrifices, of Christ being portrayed as sacrificed at the same time as the passover lambs, etc. God definitely was demanding innocent blood “in some sense,” how can we say otherwise with all of St. Paul’s talk of blood and sacrifice regarding Christ the High Priest in Hebrews?? He draws an explicit analogy between what Christ did and the “angry God appeased by the blood of cultic victims” idea. It’s only an analogy. But, understood properly, it’s very much an analogy that can be apt, just as much as the post-modern-esque analogies of “meaning” or “love” can be apt.

        • brettsalkeld

          Re: analogies, I am agreed. There is an aspect of cultic ritual murder that is analogous, namely that you have to give up something extremely valuable. I think that without serious qualification that one is bound to misrepresent the nature of God to contemporary culture in a way that totally discredits the Gospel.

          Re: the Letter to the Hebrew, I think it says the opposite. But there are tiny people about who have no interest in letting me articulate this right now. More anon.

      • Dan


        I have to back Brett on this one. If you’ve studied the previous discussions on this topic, you’ll know that I’m the one who led the charge against this interpretation for exactly the reasons you mention above. I found this particular post interesting, but unsatisfying, so I went to amass scriptural evidence that I could use to present a counter-argument. In doing so, I found myself empty-handed. I couldn’t find a single verse to back my argument; the verses in Hebrews (and virtually all the others) clearly are more coherent in Ratzinger’s interpretation than the blood-debt interpretation. If you look at them all side-by-side, and read them in that context, you’ll be as shocked as I was.

  • Ronald King

    What does it mean to give up our lives for love and truth? How is that to be lived?

    • brettsalkeld

      I think it means that one’s own goals and priorities need to take second place when it becomes clear that they are not what God is calling us to. Not my will, but thine.

      This might mean all kinds of different things in different people’s different circumstances. It may mean having one more child. It may mean taking a lower paying job. It may mean spending time with someone who annoys the heck out of you. It may mean saying what is true in circumstances where the truth is not welcome. This last one, in particular, sometimes gets you killed.

  • Ronald King

    How do we know that God hates? Is it a projection on to God of a blblical writer? Attributing to God the human response of hate seems quite dangerous to me.

    • If we take love and hate as just emotions, we can’t attribute them to God. But inasmuch as we can define love as “willing the good of another” we can also define hate similarly and apply it to God in some sense. As Aquinas says in the Summa (specifically regarding the reprobate):

      “God loves all men and all creatures, inasmuch as He wishes them all some good; but He does not wish every good to them all. So far, therefore, as He does not wish this particular good–namely, eternal life–He is said to hate or reprobate them.”

  • muldoont

    Brett, two things: first, have you read Rene Girard on his reading of the atonement? His discovery of mimetic desire, the need for a scapegoat, and God’s interruption of this pattern in Jesus is what led him to an intellectual conversion to Christianity. What you propose here sounds rather similar in some respects.

    Second: see the Christ depicted in the chapel of the castle where Saint Francis Xavier grew up. It is a stunning image which I have not seen reproduced elsewhere.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’ve been reading Girardians like Alison and Schwager, though I haven’t yet got to Girard himself. It is amazing that he discovered the scapegoat mechanism in anthropology and then became Christian when he saw how Jesus shattered it. Really cool stuff. It is also interesting how Ratzinger incorporates these ideas, perhaps via Balthasar who was interested in Girard and Schwager (see TheoDrama IV).

      The image is stunning. Care to elucidate what it my post made you think of it? I’m really not good at art.

  • brettsalkeld

    A couple quotes from Albert Vanhoye’s Old Testament Priests and the New Priest, a very worthwhile study. The emphases and square brackets are mine.

    “Critique of the Old Testament Cult (Heb 8:3 – 9:10):
    In the first paragraph of the section we again find the polemical orientation already present in 7:11-28. At first this does not appear clearly, because the author must first of all introduce his subject by a general affirmation on the necessity of sacrifices (83a) and its application to Christ (83b). But the polemical aspect quickly becomes apparent and takes on more and more strength until it achieves its climax in the last lines of the section (9:9-10).
    It is important to keep this fact very much in mind if one wishes to avoid becoming the victim of a kind of optical illusion. A superficial reading of the Epistle to the Hebrews can give the impression that the author remains very attached to ritual cult. Indeed, he does not cease – especially in this section – referring to this worship and employing its vocabulary. He seems to be carrying his readers backwards and bringing them back to the ancient institutions. But this impression does not correspond with reality. The author is in no way moving backward; rather he is inviting his listeners to go forward. His purpose in speaking of the Old Testament ritual worship is only to submit it to a methodical criticism and to set forth a new and profound concept, which requires a change of mentality, or rather, a conversion.” (p. 178)

    “From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people became “purified in the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: “But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possibly take away sins” (Heb. 10:3ff.). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and taking no pleasure in them, even though “these are offered according to the law” (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.
    The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament [something Ratzinger talks about as well], a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which – in awakening consciousness of sin – was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguistic function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in with the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ’s own words (Heb. 10:8ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.” (p. 183)

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