Why did Jesus have to die?

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The Rev. Cynthia Rigby was helping her daughter get ready to play Butterfly No. 4 in their church’s Easter play and asked the 8-year-old: “What does the cross mean?”

Her daughter thought for a bit and then answered. “Well, I think it’s kind of like when a firefighter goes into a burning building and rescues someone but dies in the fire.”

Rigby was thrilled her daughter even gave a response. After all, Jesus’ death and resurrection pose hard questions for grownups too.

Even today, Christian theologians wrestle with how best to explain the meaning of the cross and why Good Friday is good.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23-25, the Crucifixion — “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — makes Christianity a tough sell. But as Paul also writes, preaching Christ crucified is an essential part of the faith. 

Church Doctrine on Atonement

“Christ’s willingness to suffer and die is equally remarkable with his ability to conquer death,” said the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, associate dean and William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School. He is also an ordained United Methodist elder.

“If one seems to challenge his divinity, the other challenges his humanity. One task of Christian doctrine through the ages has been to hold these two together with their full force.”

But over the ages, theologians also have reflected on why Jesus freely submitted to such a violent death to atone for humanity’s sins. Was there no other way for God to redeem humans?

Among those theologians is Rigby, who ponders that question in her article “Prodigal cross” in the magazine Presbyterian Outlook. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, where about a third of the students are United Methodist.

“The idea that the Son had to die so the Father would be able to forgive us has never made much sense to me,” she writes. “If God loves us no matter what, why can’t God just go ahead and forgive us?”

She and other Christian thinkers offer a variety of answers to that question.

The importance of the cross

Make no mistake: Crucifixion was a horrific and ignominious way to die. Roman authorities reserved this public form of execution for particularly heinous crimes such as treason and for certain classes of people, namely non-Romans and slaves. Perhaps appropriately, the Latin verb crucio — torture — shares a root with crucifixion.

Yet, the cross tells us something significant about God, said Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now a professor at Duke Divinity School and pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.

“God is the God who achieves what God wants through suffering, self-sacrificial love (the cross),” Willimon said.

The New Testament uses a variety of metaphors and models to explain how such sacrificial action redeemed humanity. In Scripture, Christ is described as giving his life as ransom, as acting as the Lamb of God who carries away sin, and as serving as the ultimate high priest who uses his own blameless life to purify the populace.

For many theologians, the cross reconciles two attributes of God — divine justice and divine love.

One of the more influential explainers of atonement was Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the 11th century. Anselm argued that human sin dishonored God and corrupted creation. By suffering as a substitute for humankind, Christ provided satisfaction to restore God’s honor and purpose for creation.

But over the centuries, Anselm’s theory has drawn plenty of detractors. Many theologians have accused Anselm of treating Jesus’ death almost as a business transaction. Others see Anselm’s portrayal of God as abusive rather than loving.

Willimon said it’s a mystery why Jesus endured such a violent death, but it also makes sense given the nature of human sin.

“We have the cross because humanity is a violent, brutal species,” said Willimon. Among other books, Willimon has written “Thank God It’s Friday” about the seven last words of Jesus from the cross, and “Thank God It’s Thursday” about Maundy Thursday.

“Any God who would love us, must not be a God who shirks from some blood and pain for that’s how we treat our enemies and our saviors!”

What the Wesleys taught

Both John Wesley, in his sermons, and Charles Wesley, in his hymns, used a variety of images to explain what Jesus achieved on the cross — including substitionary atonement. Methodism’s founders also emphasized God’s wondrous love.

“Both John and Charles Wesley set a precedent for Methodists of refusing to limit themselves to only the ‘penalty satisfaction’ model,’” said Maddox, the Duke professor. The Wesleys used a range of biblical allusions, he said, “to stress that Christ not only dealt with the ‘penalty’ of our sin but also brought healing power to deliver us from the ‘captivity’ of sin and enable us to walk in newness of life.”

The Wesley brothers considered one aspect of atonement nonnegotiable, and it is still an essential part of the movement they founded, said the Rev. Jason Vickers, former president of the Wesleyan Theological Society.

“Whatever it is Christ undertakes in his death and resurrection, however Christ’s death accomplishes salvation,” Vickers said, “we’ve always said that Christ undertakes his saving work for all — not just for the elect, not just for the rich, not just for certain people. He died for all.”

God with us

Vickers sees Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as bridging human separation from God. In the Incarnation, he said, God does more than make a cameo appearance in human history.

God incarnated in Christ “is the most intimate joining of God and creation,” Vickers said. “God then knows what it’s like to be a finite creature, to be dependent, what it is to be a human — that which is not God.”

Rigby, the Presbyterian theologian, offers a similar view. She sees the meaning of the cross in Jesus’ well-known parable of the prodigal son. Just as the father in the parable does not hold back anything in his love for his sons, so too does God in Christ risk and endure everything to show love.

The Crucifixion is the culmination of that love. Although Jesus was free from sin, he undeniably experienced the wages of sin firsthand — the feelings of abandonment, the pain of violence, the chill of death.

“It’s not only that God walks in our shoes,” Rigby said. “But God takes our shoes and goes into places where we couldn’t walk without being destroyed and takes on even that which would annihilate us.”

Rigby does not see the cross as necessary to appease God, but it does shows the lengths God will go to show divine love.

Jesus is Emmanuel — God with us — on more than just Christmas, Rigby said. 

Perhaps the greatest comfort the cross offers is the knowledge that there is no sorrow, pain or despair humans can undergo that God does not know and walk through with us. And because of the Resurrection, we know that sorrow and death do not have the last word.

Editor's Note: This story was first published April 16, 2014.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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