Why did Jesus have to die?

Jesus died an extraordinarily brutal death, being nailed to a cross. But why did a man who was also God have to submit himself to that kind of fate?

     The San Damiano Cross

     The San Damiano Cross

Getting to the meaning of Jesus’ death and why it happened – indeed, had to happen – is the subject of centuries of extremely complex theology, and more controversial debate than you can imagine. And there are many, many explanations, each of which has many subtle nuances of difference.

Collectively, the academic study of the question of why Jesus died is known as Atonement Theory. Now, the word Atonement is rather wonderful, because, broken up into its constituent parts it means this: At-One-Ment. It is the way whereby Jesus in some way reunited us to again be At One with God in the way that God always intended for us from the origin of creation.

God wants more than anything to be united to his creation – to us – because we are his children and he loves each one of us and, like any child of ours, we cherish that child, want to be with it, and would do anything for it – including giving up our own lives if need be.

However, something got in the way of that direct relationship with God and prevented us being at one with God in the way he longed for and – if we are honest with ourselves – the way we long for as well.

That something that got in the way was evil in all its forms. Evil contaminates everything to some extent or other, even sometimes in very small amounts – you know, the little things that aren’t exactly major wrongdoings, but things that in some way have become tainted by selfishness, or spitefulness, or carelessness.

How the entity of evil, in all its forms, came to be is something that we and every mind throughout history have grappled with. Some see it as an actual and existential set of beings – demonic forces of evil that are at work in this world. Some see it as more allegorical, something abstract that we label evil to give a description to a concept. We believe in the spiritual realm, because we know the existence of God, who is present to us in our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and acknowledging the existence of a spiritual realm means that we ought to be able to therefore acknowledge that that realm can contain evil as well as good.

Whether evil is an actual entity, or a philosophical and theological concept, what we do know about it is that it definitely exists, and that it spoils things and ruins lives and that it stands between us and God. And Jesus died to stop evil having the last word. Jesus death opened up the way again for us to be at one with God.

Evil can only be overcome by good. And we are not strong enough by ourselves to overcome it, because we are tainted by it. But Jesus, as God in human form, and therefore, literally, the embodiment of pure and perfect good, 100% so, meant that evil had no leverage, no purchase, no hold at all over him.

That doesn’t explain why Jesus had to die, though. Surely Jesus could have defeated evil simply by living and walking among us doing good. No. It demanded it showdown. There had to be a culmination. The only way to prove oneself to be utterly committed to something is to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, to lose one’s life. Evil was betting that Jesus wouldn’t go that far – we know from the account of the temptations of Jesus – a narrative, incidentally, that was going on in Jesus’ head and not with creatures with horns and hoofs and pitchforks – that he was tempted to take the easy route.

We know that the night before he died he was in turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane, fervently wanting some kind of way out.

But Jesus knew that he had to carry out his mission because the only way for ultimate good to assert its utter authenticity was to be prepared to die.

And, thus, pure goodness itself is nailed to a cross, and dies.

And to the observers there at the foot of the cross, and to Jesus’ followers, this crucifixion to be the end of good. And when we in this world have day after day after day of terrible atrocities and all kinds of hatred seeming to have the upper hand, perhaps we are tempted to feel that good is being obliterated. Certainly the disciples at the foot of the cross must have felt that they were seeing the defeat of good. But that, in fact, is not what was happening.

Evil wanted to avoid the crucifixion of Christ on the cross because it knew that it the end not of good, but of evil. Because pure goodness was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. God himself was prepared to be killed, and by so doing he broke, once and for all, the dominion that evil had over us. Good paid the ultimate price – it redeemed the value of the cost levied on us by evil – and reunited us with God.

That is not to say that evil does not exist. It does, and we know that only too well in our daily lives and in our broken world.

But the death of Jesus does mean that never, ever, not for all of eternity, will evil ever have the upper-hand, or the final say.