Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
by Dee Dowdy
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”- The Apostle Paul I Corinthians 1:18
During the Lent-Easter season, we are reminded of the great sacrifice that our Lord made in order that we might be redeemed, forgiven, and reconciled. Last year, I did a class on various understandings of the cross event. I know that many of you did not get to attend the class, so I thought I might provide a condensed version of the teaching from the class. Below is that teaching:
The very idea that the death of one person could save humanity seemed crazy to people in the Apostle Paul’s time and for many it still seems irrational. In fact, many modern theologians have even begun to teach that the death of Christ had nothing to do with the salva- tion of human beings. The very idea that the blood of Christ would have any impact on the God-human relationship is far-fetched to them. In fact, you will notice that many of the newer hymns and praise songs do not even mention the blood of Christ anymore for fear of offend- ing someone.
Yet, the Church has held that the death and resurrection was the single most important event to happen in all of human history. For Jesus’ death made a way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to be reconciled to God. And his resurrection proved that Jesus was the Son of God and through faith in him, one can be given eternal life.
To understand the situation, we must remember what is written in Genesis 2:15-1 that God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they died. However, we learn in Genesis 3:1-8, that they both chose to listen to the lie of Satan rather than the truth of God. Thus, God was put into what St. Athanasius called the “Devine Dilemma.”
The basics of this dilemma: (1) God told humanity if you eat of the tree, punishment (death) will occur. (2) Humanity listened to the lie of Satan over the truth of God. (3) By disbelieving that led to disobedience, they sinned against God and sin became part of the hu- man condition. (4) Since God is holy and just, he could not just go back on his word and let them (and us) off the hook. Otherwise God would have been a liar and God, being holy, cannot lie.
So what was God to do? He had created us so that he might be able to share his love with us. So, he did not want us to die. He did not want us to suffer eternal estrangement and punishment. So how could he offer grace and mercy while at the same time remain true to being a God of holiness and justice? Also, since sin had polluted us and pulled us away from God, how could God cleanse us of sin and bring us back?
The answer is found on the cross of Calvary! On the cross, Jesus (the eternal Son of God made manifest in the flesh) took the pun- ishment that God’s justice required. (See Isaiah 53:1-10) So, God offered grace and mercy for satisfying what should have happened to us. Through the cross, God made a way for us to be forgiven and be brought back into a right relationship with God. (See Colossians 1:20)
Over the last two thousand years, there has been various “theories” concerning why Jesus had to die in order for this to happen. To understand many of them, it is necessary to understand what is written in Hebrews 9:22, where the writer states: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” Why? We know that God set up the Old Covenant that had as part of it the sacrificing of animals. God probably had the Jews do this to foreshadow what he was going to do on the cross because the writer of Hebrews also says that the blood of animals never really led to forgiveness of sin, but the blood of Christ did. (see Hebrews 10:1-7) So here are some of the various “theories” (note: this is only a few)
A. The Ransom Theory
Note: Greek word translated “ransom” means- “price of release, or means of release or means of redeeming.”
Scripture Reference: Mark 10:45- “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Explanation: St. Gregory (an early bishop of Nyssa and Christian theologian) argued that humanity had sold itself into slavery and Satan was the slaveholder. Thus, God had to pay a ransom in order for us to be released. He said that God’s justice would not allow him to strong-arm Satan into releasing us from his grasp because Satan had a right to “adequate compensation for sinners.” He believed that Jesus did many miracles while on earth to trick (or deceive) Satan into accepting him as the ransom for us. He believed that Satan thought that by accepting the death of Christ as payment that he (Satan) really was the winner because he had in some way defeated God. But by Christ being raised, Satan saw that he was really defeated himself.
B. Satisfaction Theory (A revised version of Ransom Theory)
Explanation: Anselm (an early theologian and bishop of Canterbury) saw a problem on other theories. While his view of the cross could still fall under the “ransom theory,” he argued that Christ’s sacrificial death acted to ransom us from the sin debt that we owed God. He claimed that our sin harmed God and thus we “owed” God a debt. In his mind, Christ’s death paid that debt for us. Also, he argued that what Christ did, was for all time, for those who accepted this work of Christ.
Scripture Reference: Colossians 2:13-14- “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross”.
C. Atoning Sacrifice/ Scapegoat Theory
Explanation: This theory is built on the “Day of Atonement “found in Leviticus 16. As can be seen there were two key animals involved in this day. The first was a goat that was to be killed as a sacrifice for sin and its’ blood spilled to atone for the sins of the people. The second animal was also a goat. Aaron was to place his hands on this goat and confess all the wickedness, rebellion and sins of the people. The goat would be driven away from the people. Then we read, in Leviticus 16: 22 “As the goat goes into the wilderness, it will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land.”
Proponents of this theory stress that Jesus’ blood acts as cleansing sacrifice for our sin as supported by the scriptures listed above. They also mention that like the goat driven away from the people, Jesus was driven out of the holy city of Jerusalem and killed outside the city walls. Finally they cite the fact that as Jesus was dying on the cross, the sky drew strangely dark for three hours. It was during this time; Jesus cries out,” My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”(See Matthew 27:45-46) They (including this writer) believe it was during this time; Christ took on our sins and became sin for us.
Leviticus 16:15-16, 20-22- as mentioned above
Romans 3:25- “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice.”
D. Penal Substitute Theory
Explanation: Charles Hodge, a leading American Reformed theologian, really gave credence to this most popular understanding of the cross. He agreed with Athanasius believing that since God is holy and just that he “cannot simply pardon sin without a satisfaction to justice, and He cannot have fellowship with the unholy.” He believed that God, through His Son, provided a substitute to receive the just punishment for our sin and through acceptance of that act, a person can be justified and sanctified.
Though John Wesley lived before Hodge, it could be said that his teachings about the cross could fall under this “theory”. In his sermon Justification by Faith, Wesley writes, “As our representative he ‘bore our infirmities.’ He was ‘wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our inequities.’ Christ ‘made his life an offering for sin.”
2 Corinthians 5:21 – “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Galatians 3:13- “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
1 Peter 3:18-“ For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit”
NOTE: THIS IS ONLY A BRIEF PART OF WHAT I WROTE FOR LAST YEAR’S STUDY. IF YOU WOULD LIKE A FULL COPY, EMAIL ME AT dee firstname.lastname@example.org TO REQUEST A FULL COPY.
Note: In this text, the word translated as “record or written code” is a Greek word that literally means “record of one’s debt.”
John Wesley, Justification by Faith, in John Wesley on Christian Beliefs: The Standard Sermons in Modern English by Kenneth King- horn, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 99
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