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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

Did Jesus Have to Die?

Did Jesus have to die?


It’s a fair question, especially as we approach Holy Week – the week that begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Holy Saturday, the week leading up to Easter. The event we call “the cross,” celebrated on what Christians ironically call Good Friday, is also the climax of the six week season of Lent.


So again, did Jesus have to die? For many Christians, it’s one of those questions that's rarely thought about because the answer seems so obvious. “Of course, he had to die. He had to die for our sins. That’s why he came.”


Fair enough. But the language we use matters, and I’m not sure that using words like “have to” is ever a good idea when talking about God. It sounds like he didn’t have a choice. Some people have a mechanistic view of God, which makes sense, since, until recently, we’ve been taught to think about the universe in mechanistic, often deterministic ways.


Quantum physics teaches that the universe isn’t nearly so predictable. Given what we’re learning about the physical universe, it’s important that we let go of the idea that God is locked into only one way of doing things.


More interesting questions to ask might be why God chose to send Jesus, and why Jesus chose to die, and why Jesus and his Father decided that Jesus should die in the way that he did. For example, in John’s Gospel the word “hour” is repeatedly used to refer to Jesus’ death. In John 12:27 we read:


Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.


Earlier, Jesus says this about his life:


No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.


In his letter to the Philippians, Paul sees Jesus’ decision to die as one in a long string of decisions, beginning with his decision to become human:


In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:


Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!


I don’t know what you, as a believer or unbeliever, think about the cross. The New Testament talks about the cross displaying both God’s power and his boundless wisdom. In other words, it was an act of pure genius.


The Wisdom of the Cross


If you’re thinking, “Don’t be ridiculous,” you would be in good company with virtually every non-Christian in the first century. The idea of a crucified Messiah (Jews) or Lord (Romans), was, according to Paul, a stumbling block to Jews and utter foolishness to everyone else:


Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).


The oldest rendering of Jesus’ crucifixion is a piece of graffiti from the 2nd century A.D. depicting a man worshiping a crucified donkey, obviously meant as an insult. It wasn’t until the fifth century that Christians themselves began to depict Jesus’ death through art. It was that grotesque and offensive an image. In his recent book, The Wood between the Worlds, Brian Zahnd writes about what’s happened since then:


On canvas and wood, in stone and metal, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been painted, carved, sculpted, and molded billions of times. Billions! Everyone has seen a crucifix. Its long history and sheer ubiquity have rendered it almost invisible. Yet if we give just a moment of serious consideration to a crucifix it is still capable of shocking us, if for no other reason than it is such an outrageous anthropological absurdity.


So what is it about Jesus of Nazareth being portrayed as crucified that makes it the most replicated work of art in human history?


Zahnd goes on to say:


Depictions of deities and their avatars have been common throughout history, be it Ra shining like the sun, Krishna riding triumphantly in his chariot, or Buddha sitting in the tranquil bliss of enlightenment. But the depiction of a tortured god nailed to a tree is not something we would expect. A crucified god is an absurd incongruity, yet it’s the event we have depicted the most. That must mean something!


The Paradox of the Cross


So what does the cross of Christ mean? It’s going to be difficult to answer that question unless we can hold together two seemingly contradictory truths. First, that human beings, with their own free will, chose to kill Jesus, and kill him in this particular way. They weren’t puppets on a string. Their actions followed their own logic. So that’s one truth.

The second truth is that, within God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty, this was part of God’s plan. He meant for this to happen. This is what Peter said in his first sermon after Jesus' resurrection:

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2:23).

Maybe it feels impossible to you to believe both these truths at the same time. From my understanding (which is laughably limited), quantum physics and relativity theory allow for this paradox more than the old Newtonian physics. (Dr. Chris Kaiser, my seminary professor who had a PhD in both theology and astrophysics, was the first to bend my mind in this direction.)


So if God meant for the cross to happen, what meaning did he intend for it to have?


When talking about the cross, Christians often point to Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:


For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.


A Living Masterpiece


While there’s lots of intriguing historical detail in Paul’s description of the gospel story, the line that stands out for our purposes is, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Some Christians read into this line a single, simple atonement theory. But I don’t believe this line is meant to simplify anything. It’s more of a summary than a definition. For example, Paul doesn’t say, “Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins according to the Scriptures.” No doubt, Paul believed that. But there’s more to the cross than just the forgiveness of our sins, even as virtually everything the cross means has something to do with this thing called “sin.”

Forgiveness is fantastic, but God knew that we needed more than just forgiveness if we were to be healed of this destructive and ultimately fatal disease. Sin has its tentacles in everything, and requires an extensive treatment plan, including everything the cross represents and accomplished.


Let me say outright what the cross wasn’t. It wasn’t God the Father taking his anger toward the human race out on his Son. Any attempt to drive a wedge between the Father and the Son is heresy, plain and simple. It’s heresy because it denies the Trinity. It’s impossible for the Father and Son (as well as the Spirit) to be separated – including in that moment when Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. In other words, in his desolation, he used the sacred words of the psalmist to cry out to God. Because of Jesus’ uniting with us in our sin, he felt its effects, and prayed this prayer on our behalf as well as his own, identifying completely with the suffering and trauma that can make us feel cut off from God.

Jesus no doubt had this entire psalm memorized, finding comfort in the many parts that pointed to the particulars of his execution, reminding him that this was all part of the plan. For example, the psalmist also prayed:


Dogs surround me,

    a pack of villains encircles me;

    they pierce my hands and my feet.

All my bones are on display;

    people stare and gloat over me.

They divide my clothes among them

    and cast lots for my garment (16-18).


Jesus also undoubtedly knew where the psalm was heading:


I will declare your name to my people;

    in the assembly I will praise you.

You who fear the Lord, praise him!

    All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

For he has not despised or scorned

    the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

    but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

    before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows (22-25).

And I love the ending:

They will proclaim his righteousness,

declaring to a people yet unborn:

He has done it!

(I hope you'll read the whole psalm. It's quite incredible how accurately it describes Jesus' death.) 

So no, Jesus wasn’t actually separated from his Father. The Father and the Son experienced the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering of the cross together. This was a joint venture carried out by Team Trinity. This was all of God suffering for all of humanity. This was God doing what only God could do.


And the implications of what God did are staggering. Zahnd writes:


If you’re going to dabble in atonement theories, at least keep it plural. Reducing the cross to a single meaning quarantines the cross so it doesn’t touch too many areas of our lives.


Zahnd doesn’t hold back, offering at the beginning of his book this initial summary of some of what the cross means


It’s the pinnacle of divine self-disclosure, the eternal moment of forgiveness, divine solidarity with human suffering, the enduring model of discipleship, the supreme demonstration of divine love, the beauty that saves the world, the re-founding of the world around an axis of love, the overthrow of the satan, the shaming of the principalities and powers, the unmasking of mob violence, the condemnation of state violence, the exposé of political power, the abolition of war, the sacrifice to end sacrificing, the great divide of humankind, the healing center of the cosmos, the death by which death is conquered, the Lamb upon the throne, the tree of life recovered and revealed. And with this brief list of interpretations, I’ve come nowhere near exhausting the meaning of the cross, for indeed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible revelation of who God is.


That's not a bad start. Like I said, the cross was an act of pure genius. It was and is a living masterpiece, in spite of its grotesqueness and inhumanity. Such are the paradoxes of God’s kingdom.


The Treachery of the Cross


I have a few of my own lists to add to the discussion. I’ll mention one here, and then share a couple more in future posts.


I suggest that the cross addresses our treachery, trauma and training. Jesus’ first disciples weren’t able to escape the treachery of their forebears. Judas betrayed Jesus. When threatened with the possibility of his own arrest, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. After the rest of Jesus’ disciples promised they would never leave Jesus, that very night they abandoned him when he was being arrested, especially after he told them they couldn’t fight.

Like I said, this was part of a long-standing pattern of God’s chosen people. (I'm not meaning to sound anti-Semitic. The church has had plenty of its own betrayals and idols.) For example, at the beginning of Israel’s covenant with God – a kind of marriage covenant – within 40 days they were worshiping a golden calf. This pattern repeated itself through most of Israel’s history until Jesus arrived over a millennium later. What God’s people and the human race did to Jesus wasn’t just an error in judgment, it was treachery. The Bible sometimes calls it rebellion. That may not have been our intention (“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”), but objectively that’s what it was.


The Trauma of the Cross


And then there is the trauma of the cross. A lot has been taught and written about trauma over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, this aspect of the cross has been underemphasized and underutilized. We often talk about the pain and shame of the cross, but this form of execution had to have been incredibly traumatic not only for the victim but for family and friends. (For example, consider what Mary must have felt.)

My good friend Jim is a trauma expert, spending his entire career working with severely abused kids, as well as training therapists, social workers, educators and even judges about both trauma and secondary trauma (i.e. how it affects the helper). As a therapist and teacher, Jim has a gift for making a connection with people of all ages. He repeatedly sees what a difference a real connection with a child can make, especially when they feel understood for the first time. Jesus said:


Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him (John 3:14-15).


Jesus is referring to an event that took place during the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness to the promised land. One of their patterns was to grumble and complain against God and Moses whenever things got tough, in spite of God always coming through for them. After years of this behavior, when the people were attacked by snakes, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. You see, when the people grumbled and complained against God, they were acting and talking like the serpent in the garden of Eden who questioned God’s love and provision for Adam and Eve. God told Moses to tell the people that if they looked at the bronze snake (i.e. faced their sin), they would be healed.


Healing can begin when we face our faults and admit our wrongs. In AA, it's doing a Fourth Step. When we sin, it’s not usually only against God but against one another. One of the tragic effects of sin can be trauma. It’s also one of the accidental effects of living in a broken world. Jesus, the Traumatized God, the God who becomes sin for us, invites us to gaze upon Christ on the cross, to know that he understands and that there is a path to healing if we follow him. In describing his death, Jesus said:


Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:31-33).


Through the very action by which we attempted to reject and expel God for good, God draws us to himself so that we can be healed.


The Training of the Cross


Finally, the cross addresses our need for training. We're made in God’s image. The first chapter of the Bible says that we were made to reign over God’s world, to be his vice-regents, which includes bringing order, contributing to the world’s beauty, and making God’s creation an even more fruitful and bountiful place for all his creatures and for creation itself. The vision Jesus gave for his kingdom was the opposite of self-aggrandizement, exploitation and empire.

When Jesus said that his followers would need to take up their cross, he was saying they would need to learn from him the way of self-giving, forgiving, self-sacrificial love. We needed to be retrained in how to reign like God. Before Jesus’ death, he said that leaders in his kingdom don’t “lord it” over people, but regard themselves as slaves of everyone else. Instead of giving us a new law, Jesus gave us the cross. The cross would be our law and teacher going forward.


My friends, behold God’s Masterpiece! God taking the most evil, grotesque event in history and turning it into a masterful work of art and an instrument of healing. What Jesus and the triune God have done is breathtaking, which is why I consider myself honored and grateful to call Jesus my Savior and Lord, and to be part of his mission to redeem the world.

That’s enough for now. We’ll talk more later.


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