In this series on the death of Jesus, I have presented four different perspectives on why Jesus had to die: Roman, Jewish, Jesus’, and Early Christian. I believe that each of these points of view has merit, and that we cannot fully understand the necessity of Jesus’ death without taking them all into account.
But many people today disagree. They prefer to accept one perspective as true, and reduce or deny other perspectives. You can see this, for example, in the letters to the editor in respone to TIME Magazine’s cover story “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” One of these letters said:
Jesus stood up to the injustices of the world and was crushed in the process. That is happening all over the world today, and not only to Christians. People of every religion who see wrongs and try to right them lose their lives. That is what the Christian spirit is all about. LOUIS OSTROM Madison, Wis.
Now it’s certainly true that when people stand up to injustice, as Mr. Ostrom observes, they are often crushed in the process. Remember, for example, the brave soul faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He, as it turns out, wasn’t killed for his effort. But other students who protested against the Chinese government were put to death because they stood against oppression. Yet Ostrom’s explanation of Jesus’ death, however true, doesn’t go nearly far enough, either historically or theologically.
A pastor from New York City got the historical point in his letter to TIME:
It is inappropriate to look for explanations of Jesus’ death that blame God. God is not the one who killed him but the one who raised him from the dead. Jesus died because those in power ordered him killed. They could not tolerate someone who challenged the status quo as forcefully and thoroughly as Jesus was capable of doing. (THE REV.) DOUGLAS P. CUNNINGHAM New York City
Rev. Cunningham is also correct, to a point. Jesus did die because he challenged the status quo, and therefore people in power ordered him killed. But the Reverend mistakenly believes that this historical explanation tells the whole story. It doesn’t. At least it doesn’t if we take seriously the perspective of Jesus and early Christians. It’s not “inappropriate” to look for theological explanations that “blame” God (though the word “blame” misses the biblical nuance), even though we can accept historical explanations that blame people.
Yet, even as we allow for divergent perspectives on the reason for Jesus’ death, the New Testament presents the theological reason as foundational bedrock. Though it’s true that Jesus died “because those in power ordered him killed,” this answer doesn’t get to deepest truth. The bottom line is this, according to the New Testament: Jesus died for our sins, in fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation. The human agents who killed Jesus, though acting freely and responsibly, were, nevertheless, unwittingly carrying out the divine plan (1 Corinthians 2:8)
By claiming that the theological reason for Jesus’ death is somehow more basic than others, I’m not thereby denying the importance of historical explanations, but simply placing them in what I believe to be the ultimately proper context. You haven’t really grasped the reason for Jesus’ death until you’ve seen it in light of God’s plan. Of course the theological rationale for the necessity of Jesus’ death is also something that goes beyond historical proof. I can show you on the basis of historical data that early Christians believed Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan, but I can’t prove that this belief is true. If one takes the New Testament as God-breathed and authoritative, as I do, then one will accept that what the early Christians believed is also reflective of God’s own perspective
Ironically, the immense impact of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made it both harder and easier to accept the idea that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan for salvation. The film has made it harder because it exposed us to the brutal, bloody reality of crucifixion. As I have argued elsewhere, The Passion of the Christ forced people in to confront the scandal of the cross. Yet this film also made it easier for some people to see Jesus’ death as an expression of God’s loving plan. Almost all of those who view The Passion through the eyes of faith come away with a much deeper sense of God’s love and grace. They don’t blame the Jews for killing Christ, or Pontius Pilate, or even God. Rather, they take the blame on their own shoulders, realizing the Jesus died for their sins.
Let me close with the classic words of Isaac Watts. They seek to answer in a poetic way the reason for Jesus’ death on the cross:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.