The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
It is an odd question. Of course Jesus had to die, because he was human. All humans and all creatures that have the breath of life in them must die. Only a Docetist—someone who says Jesus only seemed to be human but really wasn’t—would argue that Jesus didn’t have to die. But if he was a man, the die was cast. On Christmas Day only the when and how of Jesus’ death was still a mystery.
So the question isn’t really “why did Jesus have to die?” Rather, the question—assuming that Jesus was (and is) God—the question is, “why the incarnation?” And from this follow several more questions, including the one that people seem to be asking most often when they pose, “Why did Jesus have to die?” namely, “why did Jesus have to die on a cross?”
And of course, scripture contains the seeds of many answers that were developed for this question over the next few centuries. One suggested that Jesus’ birth and death were together a positive moral influence. Another said that his death atoned for sins—made up for our sins, somehow. For the former, a favorite text is the Carmen Christi, Philippians 2:5-11. The idea there is that we should do as Jesus did—have his mind. And what Jesus did, of course—though he was “in his very nature . . . God” (2:6) was an act of surpassing humility, even death on a cross.
Other passages suggest that his death was an atoning sacrifice, or a rousing victory against evil powers, or an act of surpassing empathy. Over time, various versions of Anselm’s theory of the atonement, in particular, won pride of place, at least in the West. You can hear echoes of that tradition in the statements of faith of the United Church, for example. According to the Basis of Union (1925), “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” The United Church’s most recent statement, A Song of Faith (2006) broadens the scope of Jesus’ work to his life, but finishes with a familiar, if somewhat more ambivalent statement, that echoes the older statements of faith. “In Jesus’ crucifixion, God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.” The Heidelberg Catechism specifies the cross was necessary for Jesus to shoulder “the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God,” and only later gets into a substitutionary atonement description of the crucifixion’s benefits.
All of these answers presuppose that crucifixion was necessary, in particular, because it was something God demanded of Jesus to set things right. Many will go so far as to say that crucifixion was not just a divine demand but also a cosmic requirement because only that sort of death could satisfy the honor or justice of God, which because of the very nature of things, or God, had to be satisfied. In other words, the how of redemption was really not up to God—God needed a crucifixion to make it happen.
Really? Is God so bound by circumstances and legal theories and human ideas about what is fair? Can God not graciously, in his or her freedom and omnipotence and compassion choose to forgive those he chooses to forgive? Or does the “necessary” in Jesus’ words to some disciples on the way to Emmaus, as in “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24;26) speak to some sort of cosmic necessity that even God is subject to before humans could be forgiven?
I doubt it. In the Old Testament, Jews were mostly of the opinion that they would be forgiven if they simply (but really) repented, and turned again to the Lord. Though there might be punishments for sinning against God—exile perhaps or losing some battle to the Philistines—yet repentance usually led to forgiveness and new beginnings. So the prophet Joel says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . . Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-14).
And as long as Anselm can use an analogy based on human experience, perhaps I can too. I often forgave my children, when they were little, when they were repentant. That is, they might break a vase or lamp by recklessly riding a trike through the house, even when warned not to. But usually the crash led to tears and repentance and how could I ever ask them to buy a new vase to make things right again? That would be ridiculous. I might even forgive people who did me great wrong in the past, but who have died without repenting, just so that the anger of it doesn’t eat me up. The point is, why wouldn’t God forgive people who made a good faith effort to follow Jesus’ example? Who, in the words of Joel, rend their hearts and not just their clothing? We forgive people who try and fail all the time.
So why the crucifixion? Well, it was how some people in power—Pharisees and Romans—wanted Jesus to die. It was likely given Jesus’ counter cultural message and radical lifestyle and challenge to the powers that were. His courage in the face of possible crucifixion—he seemed to know that he would be crucified, one day—was the courage of a revolutionary who wanted to change the world (not to mention the cosmos). But I doubt that there was some constraint in the nature of God or the cosmos such that some sort of “an eye for an eye,” justice had to be inflicted on the perfect lamb to cover for the actual (never mind original) sins of people who were not perfect, even if they wanted to be.
At least, that is what I’m musing about right now.
I have sitting on my desk J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines and Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (all four volumes) as well as several systematic theologies. I’m going to make a bit of a project of rereading these works with a view to reminding myself what others have said about these sorts of questions. But as long as I’m musing, I think the greatest temptation we face when it comes to atonement theories is probably to make God too small; to impose upon God some finite necessity that we’re tied up in knots about but which also prevents us from focusing on the bigger picture: God’s infinite love, grace, and other perfect attributes, and especially God’s penchant for forgiveness.