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Episode 65: Why did Jesus have to die?

This episode was recorded just before Easter 2023 and Dan welcomes a guest, John Launchbury, to discuss the vital question: why did Jesus have to die? They explore the meaning of the word atonement and consider the pros and cons of some, so-called, atonement theories that theologians have proposed over history. As they explore the key scriptural passages involved they find that the impact of the death of Jesus can be just as profound today as it was in the 1st century – and it’s all about changing us rather than changing God!

Show Notes

Dan begins by introducing John Launchbury to the podcast, and outlines why this is often seen a perplexing topic. Acts 2:23 states that Jesus was killed by the hands of lawless man “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and therefore God somehow allowed or even enabled this terrible event to happen. This begs the vital question, why did Jesus have to die?

Atonement theories

Dan and John talk about the word “atonement” which tends to be used to summarise explanations for why Jesus needed to die. A word that was invented by William Tyndale, literally ‘at-one-ment’, it doesn’t necessarily convey anything about death or sacrifice itself and is instead a way of referring to God’s plan to reconcile humanity to himself.

However, the death of Jesus is central to God’s reconciliation of humanity and many theologians have proposed differing ideas to explain this. John talks through the main atonement theories:

  • Ransom theory: dating from Origen in the third century AD, this interpretation sees the death of Jesus as paying a ransom to the devil to buy humanity back from their slavery to the devil.
  • Satisfaction theory: much later, Anselm in the 12th century saw the sacrifice of Jesus as necessary to restore God’s honour, which had been affronted by human sin.
  • Substitutionary atonement: the atonement theory that has been the most prevalent since the Protestant reformation, (e.g. Luther, Calvin), understands Jesus dying in our place as a substitute.

Problems with transactional atonement theories

However, Dan and John notice several problems with these atonement theories. Each of these explanations sees there being a problem in heaven or a problem with God preventing him from forgiving us and bringing about reconciliation. The death of Jesus in these views becomes some mechanical necessity to enable God to be at one with humanity. The whole Biblical message, however, insists that humans are at fault, not God. The problem is with humanity and therefore these transactional theories seem to be addressing a problem that isn’t really part of the Biblical narrative.

The death of Jesus - it wasn't about changing something in heaven or fixing God, it was about changing us.

John points out a crucial element that is missing from each of these theories, namely the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul said that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). This is a shocking statement if we believe that the death of Jesus enabled a metaphysical switch allowing us to be forgiven. It seems that the death of Jesus wasn’t all that was necessary, but his resurrection was also crucial to forgiveness.

Forgiveness and problem passages

John explains that God’s forgiveness in the Bible is very simple: He just forgives. There is no process or mechanical set of events that enables God to show forgiveness, so there must be something more to the death of Jesus than a metaphysical event that altered circumstances allowing God to forgive from that point on.

With that said, Dan brings up some passages that seem to suggest that the death of Jesus was more transactional in nature, starting with Romans 3:23-25: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

The English word ‘propitiation’ is generally understood to mean appeasement of a deity, but John explains that ‘propitiation’ is a very poor translation of the original Greek. It is actually referring to the mercy seat, the covering lid on the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament tabernacle. This was the place where God met the people of Israel to bring them forgiveness and mercy, and now, according to the apostle Paul, the place where we can find forgiveness from God is in Jesus Christ. Romans 3 therefore doesn’t teach that the death of Jesus was in any way appeasing God.

Dan and John continue to discuss Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”) and 1 Peter 2:24 (“he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”) and note how context is crucial when reading isolated verses.

So why did Jesus have to die?

With all of this background and discussion, John outlines a further theory of the atonement which is not transactional in nature and is rooted in the Bible’s narrative. The moral influence theory of the atonement is clearly laid out from Augustine onwards, but it’s also seen across the New Testament (John 14:30-31, Matthew 10:38, 1 Peter 2:21).

The main difference is not to see the death of Jesus as something necessary to God, but necessary for humanity. We needed this tragic event to shock us into realisation of our sinfulness and requirement to change. The death of Jesus becomes a clarion call to wake us to change our behaviour and follow Jesus and his example.

Dan and John acknowledge that the death of Jesus was murder. On that terrible day we see human beings, just like us, both religion and state, rulers and crowds working together to kill this wonderful human being who had done nothing wrong. It presents the worst of humanity alongside the best of humanity and puts a choice in front of everyone who considers the cross of Jesus. Who are we going to be like? In this way the death of Jesus on the cross becomes the motivator to change our direction and walk with him rather than with the rest of humanity and the perpetrators of the crime.

The haunting words of a Stuart Townend hymn capture it well; “Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.” Reflecting on the death of Jesus and realising people just like us killed the innocent Son of God is meant to change us. It’s meant to affect us profoundly and make us desire to live differently.

Further resources on the death of Jesus

John’s book on this subject “Change Us, Not God: Biblical Meditations on the Death of Jesus” is available on Amazon both as a paper copy and on Kindle, as well as an audio book. You can find out more about John here.

We considered Matthew’s portrayal of the crucifixion in our series on Matthew here.