Did Jesus Really Have to Die?

It’s Good Friday, my second favourite day of the year. My first favourite is my birthday. Just kidding! Easter Sunday is by far my favourite day because we celebrate Jesus’ power over death, a victory that came out of His non-violent servanthood, seen in His willingness to bear the cross and die. Because of that victory, we are made new and have the hope of resurrection. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is Good Friday, the day when billions of Christians all over the world remember what happened on a hill called Golgotha, over 2,000 years ago. It was not a fun time or a pretty sight. Jesus knew what was coming, but instead of fighting or defending Himself, He let it all happen.

Jesus was betrayed and deserted by those closest to Him. He was falsely accused by the religious leaders. No Roman wanted to take responsibility for Jesus or the execution that the crowds wanted to see. He was handed over, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, slapped, and spit on. His clothes were taken and He was given a crown of thorns for His head. He carried the cross to Golgotha where He was nailed to it and hung there, fighting the pain of suffocation. 

As much as the cross has become a symbol of hope and identity for the Church, it still carries with it the meaning of death and despair. Jesus suffered and died, and as He breathed His last, He did not fight, try to get down, or yell and curse the people who did this to Him. Instead He talked to His Father in heaven and said “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” In His last moments, He made sure His mother was taken care of and He promised the criminal who was crucified beside Him that he would be with Him in paradise that day.

Even when it felt like Jesus was totally abandoned by God, He quoted from Psalm 22, asking God why He had forsaken Him. Jesus never lost sight of His mission to reconcile us and all of creation to God. He never wavered (even though He prayed about it) and because of that we are no longer doomed to die because of our sin. 

But what really happened on that first Good Friday? 

I don’t know what tradition you are a part of or how you grew up, but I was always taught that we are atoned (at-one-ment, made one with God) because Jesus took our place and took the punishment for sin that we deserved. Through His death the wrath of God was satisfied. This view is commonly known as substitutionary atonement. It rings true to Paul’s theology (Romans 3:23-26) and Peter’s as well (1 Peter 2:23-25), as far as I could ever tell.

So what’s the big deal? Jesus had to die for us to get to God, right? Well, over the last few years I have encountered Christians who think differently about atonement. I still remember the teacher at Bible school who first suggested that Jesus did not have to die. Things could have gone differently if the Jews at that time accepted Him as the coming Messiah. 

My brain could not comprehend this, and I couldn’t be silent. I asked him countless questions and I can still remember hearing the sighs and groans of my classmates when I brought it up the next week with a different teacher. I got the sense that they wanted me to give it a rest, but this thinking was heretical to me and I couldn’t let it go. Jesus had to die, otherwise there is no salvation. I left Bible school certain but also confused.

As the years have gone by, I have heard of theologians who propose other ways of viewing atonement. I’m not an expert on these, not even a little bit, but I have been intrigued by their thoughts. These views are not that new and were not considered heretical by the Church in their day. I have learned that the Church is sometimes much more open to a diversity of views than I, as an individual believer, am. 

I think one of the problems people have with substitutionary atonement is the idea it gives us about who God is. It’s quite easy for us to make the leap from a God who is just and cannot tolerate sin, to a judgmental God who requires a human blood offering in order to love and forgive people. I don’t believe this is what substitutionary atonement strives to do, but because it has done that for some Christians, people have offered other ways to look at it.

Christus Victor (Christ is victorious) is a view of atonement that puts its emphasis on what Christ has done rather than on us. God did not just come to wipe away our sins, He came to overcome death and defeat evil once and for all. Christ is victorious through His resurrection, and because evil and the devil are defeated, we are no longer bound to the punishment of sin if we follow Jesus. Think of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Evil is present, but it is not the lion who demands blood for Edmund’s betrayal, it it the White Witch. Aslan offers himself and thereby breaks the power of death and evil. Christ’s victory and resurrection give us hope for our resurrection too. Greg Boyd has a good article about Christus Victor.

Richard Rohr comes from the Franciscan rule of thought that looks at atonement in a slightly different way. Whereas substitutionary atonement sees Christ’s death as a necessity for God to be able to forgive us, Rohr sees Jesus’ death as the length to which God was willing to go to show us His love. He did not have to die, but by dying, we will hopefully be convinced to change our minds about God, to buy into His love for us. To see Jesus’ death as necessary is to put a restriction on God. God can offer us forgiveness even without death, can’t He?

I don’t think any of these three ways of looking at atonement change our faith or view of salvation. All three have Jesus as the centre of reconciliation. In all three, grace is given as a gift. We cannot earn forgiveness, but we receive it through Jesus Christ. That gift is open to all. I also don’t believe any one of these views has it all together. Perhaps all three have something to offer, not being complete without the other.

So did Jesus have to die? The fact that Scripture foretold it and that Jesus knew it was going to happen before anyone else did, suggest that this was the road Jesus had to walk. But did Jesus have to die to appease the wrath of God, or to overcome evil and death, or to change our minds about God, or all three? Honestly, I’m not sure. What I do know is that Jesus did die. He did not fight back with force or violence, but with love, a love so deep and so great that He was willing to give His life for us. We are made new. In fact, all of creation will be made new in Him. He’s the creator as well as the redeemer, not because He has to, but because He wants to. If there is one thing that Good Friday reminds me of, it's that Jesus actually loves me and that I'm made whole in Him. If His death isn’t enough to convince us of that, I don’t know what will be.

Happy Easter. Jesus is Alive!