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Why did Jesus Christ have to die on the cross?

When people are posed the question, "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?" a typical answer is something like, "So that we might be saved." This answer is the answer of vicarious suffering. The logic is that, somehow, we all deserved to suffer at the hands of God, but Jesus accepted that suffering in our stead. In other words, Jesus was punished in our place. If that's the case, however, then why wouldn't God do the punishing? Why would he leave it to sadistic Roman soldiers?

It seems to me that this answer is fundamentally flawed in its logic. Furthermore, when we look to scripture for evidence of this answer, we get ambiguous support, with the closest support coming in the form of John the Baptist describing Jesus as "the Lamb of God," [John 1:29,36] and Revelation referring to Jesus as "the Lamb." (These are clearly references to the lamb of sacrifice in the Passover described in Exodus 12. We see the theme of vicarious sacrifice repeated over and over in the Old Testament.) On the contrary, consider the following from Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 9 and 10:

…we do see Jesus "crowned with glory and honor" because he suffered death, he who "for a little while" was made "lower than the angels," that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering.

Furthermore, Jesus describes himself as "the way, the truth and the life," and he goes on to say, "No one comes to the Father except through me." [John 14:6] The Hebrews verses suggest that Jesus, himself, benefited by the sacrifice, while the citation from John 14 suggests that the sacrifice had multiple purposes, because Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life" not just in his divinity, but also in his humanity.

Furthermore, saying that the agonizing suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday was directly willed by God is to say that God the Father is a cruel God. Yet nothing could be further from the truth! It seems to me that the Father's permissive will required that Jesus suffer and die on the cross. The question that begs to be answered is "Why?"

Let's briefly consider alternatives.

Why didn't Jesus just die of old age? Clearly there would have been merit in that, and the Church Fathers have declared that shedding one drop of his blood would have been sufficient for our salvation. This presents us with the first key question. Why did Jesus have to suffer at the hands of the Romans, as arranged by the Jewish authorities?

Obviously, the lesser question here is "why the Romans?" The answer here, as recorded in the Gospels, is that the Jews could not put someone to death during the Passover. Otherwise, they would have arranged that Jesus be stoned to death, the prescribed penalty for blasphemy. [Lev 24:16] This clearly raises a more important question: why did Jesus have to suffer and die during the Passover?

The suffering and death of Jesus was, of course, prophesied in scripture. Indeed, the Passover sacrifice was clearly intended by God to be a type of the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus death during the Passover was ordained by this connection. To put this another way, the suffering and death of Jesus was to be regarded for all time, as ordained by God, as a singularly holy sacrifice.

For the same reason, we can conclude that Jesus had to suffer and die in Jerusalem, the place where the Temple of God and the Arc of the Covenant were situated. The Temple of God in Jerusalem was ordained by God, from its beginning, as a commemoration of the sacrificial death of Jesus. Furthermore, the Arc of the Covenant was to be known as the repository, indeed the conveyance, of the "Word of God." But, you will say, Jesus died outside the city limits, and he certainly died outside of the Temple. True enough, but the words used to convict him were testified as having been uttered by him in the Temple area. Furthermore, it was in the Temple area that Jesus, referring to himself, uttered the words that would be used against him during the trial before the Sanhedrin, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." [John 2:19. Cf. Matt 26:61.] So, why did Jesus have to die outside the city limits?

It seems to me that the key here is that Jerusalem is a symbol of the final City of God, and for Jesus' suffering to be vicarious, Jesus had to be identified as a sinner, and this required that he die outside of the City of God. His physical death symbolizes the second death of final damnation. It is only in this symbolic way that his suffering is a vicarious substitute for our own, for without it, we all merit final damnation. Jesus, of course, as the innocent one, could not be damned. He could, however, suffer as though he were damned. This is the key to understanding his utterance,

And about three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Clearly, as the innocent one, he deserved none of this! This returns us to the question, why didn't Jesus just die of old age?

Jesus set his face like flint and journeyed to Jerusalem in order to give his final testimony. As he declared to Pilate, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." [John 18:37b] He had to give his testimony in Jerusalem, in the Temple area, because he is the Word of God. Giving that testimony during the time we call Holy Week corresponded to the testimony of Moses to Pharaoh. If we identify Pharaoh with "the prince of this world," namely the devil, then Jesus testimony during Holy Week was fundamentally a testimony to Lucifer as well as to Lucifer's domain, the world.

It was Lucifer that persuaded Adam and Eve to testify to a lie, and it was that testimony that put Adam and Eve beyond redemption in the Garden of Eden. It was ultimately fitting that Jesus' testimony would, therefore, be to Lucifer. What was that testimony, fundamentally? It was fundamentally this, that a human being could and would suffer and die for the sake of love. and truth. God already knew that this was true. Lucifer had to receive this testimony in order that he might be defeated.

Lucifer is described in the Book of Job as Satan, the accuser. Job suffers at the hands of Satan in order to testify to his own righteousness, not to God, who already knows his righteousness, but to Satan. Job, of course, is a type of Christ. The purpose of the Book of Job is to explain and to declare this relationship!

Lucifer's own damnation comes because of his claim that God is unjust in elevating man the way he does. God had to prove Lucifer was wrong! Lucifer would then know that his judgment proceeded from his own pride, and not from the truth! God had ordained Lucifer for service to human beings. Lucifer refused out of pride in his own obvious superiority over human beings. Lucifer's minions share in his guilt because they share in his refusal to serve.

Here we are reminded of the significance of Jesus' words, "Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." [Matt 20:26b-28] The purpose of service is self-donation. Self-donation is the nature of God within the Trinity. In demanding that Lucifer serve humanity, he was demanding that Lucifer emulate the divine nature of self-donation. God was prepared to give himself to Lucifer. Lucifer, for his part, had to be prepared to give himself to humanity! In refusing the latter, he would forfeit the former!

Jesus act of suffering and death would therefore be counted by God as an act of ultimate service and self-donation. It had to be a service of love and truth. We could call it a service to the truth. God demands of us that we serve the truth and each other in order to serve Him. We would need the grace of God, given in the Holy Spirit, to accomplish this. In accomplishing this, we would be worshiping, as Jesus said, "in Spirit and in Truth." [John 4:23] In participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we participate in Jesus' act of worshiping the Father in Spirit and in Truth. Fulfilling this task, in the power of the Holy Spirit, completes the elevation of humanity to communion with the Trinity.

Jesus' suffering had to be a direct consequence of his testimony to the truth, a testimony that would be rejected by the world as the proxy for Lucifer. Thus, Jesus' suffering would be the moment when "darkness reigns," [Cf. Luke 22:52-53] but "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." [John 1:5] Jesus' testimony, backed up by his willingness to suffer and die for the sake of the truth, would be the light shining in the darkness of Lucifer's dominion over humanity1. That faith is represented by gazing upon the witness of Christ signifies the fact that this faith is an orientation to Christ and his sacrifice!

Our ritual participation in the sacrifice of Christ must therefore be matched by our emulation of his sacrifice in the self-sacrificial witness, the martyrdom, of our lives. As Jesus put it, "he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." [Matt 10:38] This is the full significance of faith as an orientation to Christ.

There are two matters remaining to consider here. First, when Jesus was dying on the cross, why wasn't his suffering sufficient? Why did he have to die? Why didn't he respond to the taunts, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, (and) come down from the cross!" [Matt 27:40] It seems to me the answer to this question is quite clear. Jesus died on the cross to witness to his being fully human. If he had stepped down from the cross he would have witnessed to his divinity, but not to his humanity. It was essential that he suffer and die as a human being in order to complete his witness.

Second, why was it permissible that Jesus would go through life without the impediment of personal sin? The witness of Christ did not require personal sin because the original challenge of Lucifer was to a humanity that had not fallen, a humanity that had not sinned. Nevertheless, it had to be a witness in the fallen world because it had to be a witness in solidarity with fallen humanity. Furthermore, Jesus identification with humanity had to be complete so that his suffering and death would have vicarious merit for humanity.

Lucifer tried to prove God wrong by tempting humanity to fall, and succeeding. God proved Lucifer wrong by proving in the passion and death of Christ that humanity in its original sinless state, was, in the power of the Spirit, capable of perfect self-sacrifice, and was therefore capable of entering into the communion of the Trinity with God's help. Lucifer tried to prove that humanity was irreparably flawed by nature, that even God could not perfect such a miserable creature. God proved that humanity was ultimately perfectible with the help of his Spirit. Christ, in other words, fulfilled God's claim to Lucifer, and, thereby, God's own expectations of humanity. It is for this reason that Christ is described as "the first-born from the dead." [Col 1:18ff]

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
making peace by the blood of his cross.

Does this tell the whole story? Not quite. There's one final matter to discuss that is essential to understanding both why Jesus was able to endure the cross and why "in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." Jesus, in his humanity, was able to give of himself, to sacrifice himself, even to the point of death on the cross, because the Spirit of God was in him. The Spirit was and is, of course, in his divinity (perichoresis), but also within his human soul (indwelling), because he was, from the moment of his conception, in a state of sanctifying grace, untouched by any stain of sin. This brings us back to the citation from Hebrews 2:10. "For it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering." Thus the indwelling of the Spirit within his human soul was perfected, as his soul was perfected, through his obedience and love to the point of death. And thus it was that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell within his soul. It was in this way that he made peace, peace between God and mankind, "by the blood of his cross."

On its own, Jesus' humanity lacked the power of redemption. It was only through cooperation with the Spirit of God that he brought about redemption. That cooperation constituted "worship in Spirit and Truth." In the completion of that cooperation, and in his identification with fallen humanity, Jesus was able to give us the Spirit. In our cooperation with the sanctifying action of the Spirit of God, we are raised up with Jesus. That cooperation takes the form of orientation to the person and the sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, it takes living in faith.

  • 1. This helps us to understand Numbers 21:6-9, as well as Jesus' reference to it in John 3:14. God's sending the fiery serpents to kill the people for their pride represented the dominion of Lucifer and his minions, while the bronze serpent, mounted on a pole, represented, of course, Jesus' sacrifice. Gazing upon the bronze serpent represented gazing upon the witness of Jesus, a witness that took the shape of martyrdom on a pole. That gazing represents faith in Christ, and it is this faith that saves us from the dominion of Lucifer and his minions.
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