Why did Jesus die?
This series is entirely given over to exploring answers to that question. It’s an odd question to ask in some ways. What sort of question are we asking?
It could, of course, be a medical question. History tells us Jesus died by crucifixion, but a coronial inquest might want to go into exactly how crucifixion brings about someone’s demise. Was exposure, or asphyxiation, or heart failure the actual cause of Jesus death? Jesus did after all die with unusual speed. A death by crucifixion often took days; for Jesus it was a mere six hours. There’s something here worth exploring.
Historians, on the other hand, are interested in the historical causes of Jesus death.
A historian might ask whether the claim that Jesus died by crucifixion is historically plausible. The French atheist Michel Onfray claimed several years ago that the Romans didn’t crucify Jews at this period in history, and therefore the claim that Jesus died by crucifixion was historically suspect. Onfray’s claim is a little perplexing, given the preponderance of evidence for first century Roman executions of Jews. Still, it is a claim that could be asked and answered in good faith by historical method.
Historians might also be interested in the political question. On which charges, and under who’s authority, and through the action which historical actors, was Jesus crucified?
These are all questions to which we may return. Christian theology is not easily partitioned off from history, politics, or even biology. But the primary purpose of this series is to address a different question, the theological question. What was God doing in the death of Jesus?
Forgiveness of Sins
If you are familiar with Christian teaching, six articles might strike you as an overly generous allocation of verbiage for what is a simple, albeit profound answer. Jesus dies to forgive our sins. Isn’t that really it?
The first thing to say is, “Yes! That’s it!” Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. Amen! Even as I write I am humming in my head the words of the hymn—
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I’m tearing up just a little bit at the very thought.
But even if we were to spend all our time on the forgiveness of sins, we’d still have some work to do. How precisely does Jesus’ death lead to the forgiveness of our sins? Why does our forgiveness require the death of Jesus in the first place? Couldn’t God just forgive? That’s what God requires of us. Why doesn’t he do the same?
Why does our forgiveness require the death of Jesus in the first place? Couldn’t God just forgive? That’s what God requires of us. Why doesn’t he do the same?
And why Jesus’ death? Would the death of any perfect person have achieved the same result? Do we live in a universe where there is some deep magic associated with such a death? What if Jesus had died as a baby? Or in old age? Or through a long battle with cancer? Would our sins have been forgiven then?
You see, even if this entire series were given over to Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, that would still give us plenty to work with.
But according to the Bible, the death of Jesus does more (not less) than win the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, according to the New Testament, the death of Jesus achieves a bewildering host of extraordinary outcomes—it defeats Satan, it overthrows the “powers and principalities”, it reconciles Jew and Gentile, it changes the way we exercise leadership. The death of Jesus affects the way we plant churches, share meals, worship God, love strangers and exercise our rights. The cross changes everything.
The contested meaning of the cross
Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t an event in search of a meaning. Christians didn’t pipe their meaning into a vacuum. It already meant something. It meant something to the Romans; it meant something to the Jews. The challenge for the early Christians to was to persuade the world not that it meant something, but that it meant something else.
The Romans, you see, weren’t just executing people in the only way they knew how. In the USA a lot of work goes into making sure judicial deaths are neither cruel not unusual. For Roman crucifixions “cruel and unusual” was the point. For this reason, it was reserved for insurrectionists, slaves and rebels.
The Romans, you see, weren’t just executing people in the only way they knew how: ‘cruel and unusual’ was the point.
One of the features of crucifixion, says the first century historian Josephus, is that you could contort the body however you wanted. Arms up, arms, down. Right way up. Upside down. Funny clothes. Naked. Whatever. You were in control—the body was your toy to have fun with.
The death was slow. The sheer height of the victim made it public. The opportunities for humiliation were legion. For Rome, crucifixion meant, “This is a non-person. This is what comes of people who dare take us on.”
For the Jewish people, steeped in Scripture, the cross had another meaning. The Bible gave a very specific interpretation of the death of anyone who died in such a matter:
Cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree.
For Bible-believing Jews, death on a cross meant “cursed by God.” In some stories that general cursedness has a quite specific content. For Absalom, the son of David who died by his hair getting caught in a tree, it meant “Cursed by God and therefore not Israel’s true king.”
Do you see what this means? If Jesus died at 3pm on Friday 3 April AD 33, already by 3:01 it meant something. For the Romans, it meant “failure”, “non-person”, “usurper”. For the Jews it meant “cursed”—and, by biblical precedent, “not our true king”. Christian sense-making had to contend with the sense others had already made of it, even when that sense was in some cases the opposite of the Christian sense.
In the next article, we’ll explore more deeply the contested meaning of the cross, and consider the challenge that it posed for the Christian message. Getting from “death by crucifixion” to “God has displayed his power and wisdom here” was not an easy step to make. But the whole coherence and power of the Christian gospel relies on making precisely that move.