Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Some Post-evangelical Musings.

            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.


  1. John--Thanks for your always stimulating, ever more interestingly heretical musings. I too have long wondered about WHY Jesus had to die. The very multiplicity of atonement theories seems to indicate to me that 1) The Bible isn't clear about it (and many other things many people blithely assume). and 2) The limits of human thought, imagination, inspiration and language in trying to link the supernatural and the human urge us to keep trying to get it right, even though we probably won't because it's impossible to mine the depths of God's mind. Thanks again.jcd

  2. I agree with both points, but maybe especially the second.
    And as long as we recognize the frequent lack of clarity in scripture and the even more frequent failings of human thought, imagination etc., the more it makes sense to me to see this endeavour of "trying to get it right," as a playground thing rather than a deadly serious thing.

  3. Many years ago while still a CRC member I recall looking at the stars and thinking that the God of the universe cannot be concerned about the minutae of the theological framework to which we were bound. A number of years later while at a (progressive) retreat I discovered that the life of faith is a journey, not an end. Now in our United Church we are involved in the study of Living the Questions. This reflection and your "musings" directly touch on the very issues that we have recently discussed at length. I am quite familiar with the writings of Spong, Crossan and Borg but (and especially with your CRC background) appreciate your thoughts and insights tremendously. May your "ever more interestingly heretical musings" continue for a long time.

    1. Thanks Nick. I am trying to find the right language to express how and why it can't be that important to God that we get categories like "nature" and "person," right. It is the loving that matters. Ironically, for most of Christendom's history, when most Christians could neither read nor write, most of what we call theology was totally beyond most Christians, who were told by their priests that they needed only know the story, obey the church, and do caritas (okay, so that is an over simplification of a long, long era. But pretty close.)

  4. John, it seems your blog serves also as a forum for ex-CRC, now UCC folk! I once gave a short meditation on this question and one of my ministers said to me afterward that it seems from some of the gospel passages that Jesus almost went out of his way by what he said and did late in his ministry to draw attention to his subversiveness, almost as if he were taunting the authorities. This gave me pause for thought and raised an intriguing question as to whether towards the end of ministry, he knew very well that he his execution would be a probable outcome, and if so, why he carried on the way he did? I don't subscribe to atonement theory but the question of why remains an interesting one. Thanks once again for your setting out your thoughts.

    1. I am running into more former CRC types all the time. There were a few in my congregation when I came as pastor. But I'm also struck by how many new members are looking for a church that values high commitment to social justice with high commitment to exploring the faith (as opposed to memorizing its 16th century promulgation in some creed).

  5. Thank you, John. Our journeys have been somewhat are much more the scholar and I am an activist. But, like your book, your blog reflects the mind-journey a trained theologian and retired pastor can't avoid. I resonate with this discussion...lean toward a Christus Victor approach. But more than anything, I lament--no, I grieve--that the theological window through which the church in general, and the CRC in which I am (for now) still ordained, looks at the world has placed it squarely in corporate-controlled right wing camp. Judy and I now spend our time almost exclusively with non- or former-Christians, doing the things it always seemed to us Jesus was calling us to.

  6. Stan, I'm reading a book you would love, Douglas John Hall's, "The Cross in Our Context." In chapter 8, discussing the crisis of faith that seems to be facing the church in the West, he writes, "I would characterize the crisis as it is perceived from inside religion as one of overwhelming temptation to fundamentalism. In the face of the ubiquitous and (I believe) irreversible secularization of global consciousness, in the face of the attendant questioning and depletion of many religious traditions and communities in the West, and in the face of the pluralistic clash of cultures and cults globally, the religions are tempted to articulate themselves in increasingly doctrinaire, militant, and simplistic forms. (p. 157).


What do you think?