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Why did Jesus have to die?

Posted September 21, 2017 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

One question anyone wanting to understand Christianity can’t help but ask is, Why in the world did Christians put a crucifixion—a hideous, brutal act and, in Jesus’ case, one of gross injustice—at the very heart of their faith? The answer, in short, is that it never was their idea at all. The New Testament makes that abundantly clear.

Still, most non-Christians are repelled by the biblical view of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jews and Muslims both reject the Christian view of Jesus’ crucifixion, but on different grounds. Jews view the Messiah as a savior-king who frees his people from their enemies to usher in an age of peace and prosperity. Assuming that Jesus couldn’t save himself from crucifixion, they see him as just one of many failed messiahs.

Muslims, by contrast, believe God would never have let evildoers crucify a great prophet like Jesus. But the early Muslims couldn’t simply deny Jesus’ crucifixion outright because everyone around them—Christians, Jews, pagans and Mazdaeans, also called Zoroastrians—accepted the event as fact.[1] The fix the Muslims eventually settled on was to say that, while Jesus appeared to die on a cross, God took him to heaven and miraculously made a surrogate look like him. They claimed the surrogate was crucified in Jesus’ place.

Nearly all Muslims today believe the Qur’an denies that Jesus died on the cross. However, there’s another way to interpret the passage they think denies it. And for many reasons, it’s unlikely that the Qur’an actually does so.

To begin, why God would trick the entire world into believing that Jesus was crucified, especially when our eternal destiny hangs on whether or not we believe him—i.e., his revelations? Then assuming that God did so, why he would wait six centuries (until Muhammad’s time) to correct his lie? Perhaps if the Qur’an consistently denied Jesus’ death, it would justify our disregarding those two issues. But the Qur’an does not do so at all.[2]

Nearly all Muslims, however, assume that Q 4:157 provides a solid scriptural basis for the surrogate theory and see no other way to interpret it. Many then take the spurious Gospel of Barnabas as further proof.[3] As Zamakhshari pointed out, however, the Arabic grammar of Q 4:157 doesn’t support the theory at all. Instead, the verse argues only that the Jews were wrong to boast that they took Jesus’ life from him, since God was in full control of everything that happened. (This is actually in agreement with what the New Testament teaches.) But long before the 12th century CE—when Zamakhshari wrote—the Muslim community had closed ranks around the verse’s popular misinterpretation, leaving little room for dissent. And few Muslims now dare to question a Qur’an interpretation so polemically charged.

The Christian view

Biblically, Jesus didn’t accept the title Messiah openly because he knew his people wanted a Messiah who would save them from their Roman oppressors.[4] He knew that would never do. They needed to be set free from their own sins too—and not just their sinful acts, but also the thoughts and desires that pollute heart and mind. Such sins often lurk behind religious piety. They did in Jesus’ day. Refusing to submit to Israel’s religious leaders, Jesus exposed their hidden sins. So they plotted to kill him.

If he’d wanted to, Jesus could easily have responded to their violence with violence. But while violence may defeat a human enemy, it cannot defeat violence itself. Only love can do that.

Evil met its match in Jesus, for no amount of violence could defeat his love. His enemies thought they had overpowered him. In fact, everyone watching the event unfold—his disciples included—thought the same.

Only later, after Jesus’ resurrection, did they remember that he had said he would freely lay down his life in obedience to God. If there’s one thing all four Gospel accounts make crystal clear, it is that no one took Jesus’ life from him. Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, wasn’t in control of anything. Neither were Israel’s leaders who called for his death or the Roman soldiers who drove the nails through his hands. Jesus submitted to them only by choice.

As soon as Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, used his sword, Jesus told him to put it away. Jesus said, “Don’t you know that, if I wanted, I could ask God to send an army of thousands of angels to defend me at any time?[5] This shocked Peter, who didn’t then understand that Jesus wasn’t concerned about how things looked on the surface. Peter didn’t know that Jesus had chosen to defeat evil by good. That is, by showing the same perfect justice, mercy and humility in death as he had throughout the rest of his life. The forces of evil had hoped to break him down and make him do its bidding, even just for a moment. But until his very last breath, Jesus’ justice, mercy and humility shone out.

Everyone looking on thought evildoers had defeated Jesus. But God knew better: Jesus had actually defeated evil. God raised him from the dead to show that he had done so and to empower Jesus’ followers to follow him in the true path.

Thus, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. Centuries before Jesus, the biblical book of Genesis had promised that this would happen:

  • After creating Adam, God commissioned him to rule the earth under him.
  • By submitting to Satan’s temptation, Adam made himself Satan’s slave.
  • When Adam fell under Satan’s power, our entire race fell and, with it, the earth God had given Adam to rule.
  • But God promised that one day a child of the woman would fight against Satan and defeat him to set us free.[6]
  • By perfectly submitting to God throughout his life, Jesus did just that.
  • Though Satan did his worst to Jesus in the crucifixion, Jesus never submitted to him for even a second.
  • By Jesus’ victory in death, he made it possible for us to live free again and rule over the earth under God.

Shattered by the horror of his cross, Jesus’ disciples were very slow to grasp that, in his death, he had won the greatest victory of all time. But the risen Messiah gradually opened their eyes to see that his apparent failure was actually a spectacular success.

By the time Jesus ascended to heaven, 50 days later, they understood his death very differently. They knew he had freely chosen to die as God’s perfect sacrifice for sin. John the Baptist had announced beforehand that Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[7] John meant that Jesus’ death was the supreme sacrifice pointed to by all the animals sacrificed from Abraham’s time and beyond. In his death, Jesus took not just our sins, but also the curse they deserve. He did this in order, in exchange, to offer us his perfect goodness and all the blessing it merits. Some people view this as contrary to God’s justice, but biblically speaking, this rests on a false assessment of both sin and God’s justice. No number of good deeds on our part can ever remove the sins we’ve committed. That being so, God made another way for us to be forgiven—through the Messiah’s sacrifice.[8]

Jesus’ disciples also saw that his resurrection was actually his coronation and that he now reigns as king over all. Before the risen Jesus ascended to heaven, he promised to return in power and glory to cleanse the earth of evil and put away violence forever. That is every Christian’s hope.

In that hope, Jesus’ disciples lived, following Jesus’ example, loving and forgiving their enemies. In that hope, they died. Like them, Christians today seek to submit to the Messiah’s royal law, which calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Some people consider this folly. But for all who have found forgiveness in Jesus’ sacrifice for us, it’s the only way to live. It’s also the only way to overcome the violence and evil in our world. To Christians, all this is the meaning of Jesus’ cross.

———————

[1] Christians have always put Jesus’ historic crucifixion at the heart of their faith. Jews have never denied that Jesus was crucified: they denied his resurrection, but not his crucifixion. Neither have pagans denied that Jesus was crucified. And a letter written by the Persian emperor (Mazdean) who ruled during most of Muhammad’s prophetic career (590-628 CE) indicates that he didn’t question the historicity of Jesus’ death either.

[2] When we examine everything that the Qur’an says about Jesus’ death, it’s not at all clear that the Qur’an meant to deny that Jesus died.

[3] There’s evidence in the so-called Gospel of Barnabas that its author wasn’t familiar with the language, geography or history of Jesus’ time. He has Jesus deny that he was the Messiah and calls the Prophet Muhammad the Messiah. Contrary to what some Muslim polemicists claim, there’s no evidence that this document was ever read or believed by anyone in early Christian history. The oldest copies of it are written in Italian and Spanish—not Greek, like the rest of the New Testament—and there is no copy of it dated before the 15th century CE. Most scholars believe the Gospel of Barnabas to be a European forgery composed in the 14th century.

[4] Two cases where Jesus acknowledged that he was the Messiah are found in John 4:25-26 and Matthew 16:16-17. In the first case, Jesus was speaking with a Samaritan, outside the Jewish mainstream. In the second, he was speaking privately to his disciples.

[5] Matthew 26:53.

[6] Genesis 3:15.

[7] John 1:29. The Qur’an refers to John as Yahya.

[8] To think that today’s good deeds could cancel out yesterday’s sins represents a failure to understand both God’s justice and the gravity of our sins. It would be like thinking that a convicted quisling, for example, could be pardoned if he simply agreed never to commit treason again. God demands our full submission 100% of the time. This means that today’s full submission can only meet his demand for submission today. This leaves us unable to produce any extra submission today to make up for yesterday’s rebellion.

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