Why Did Jesus Die?

by John K. Stoner (April 14, 2017) 

Why did Jesus die?  Or, put differently, why was he killed?

The second way of asking it is better, because it shows an intention to take the history seriously. 

Good Friday has been a great Christian celebration across centuries and continents.  The crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday is the focus of the celebration.  Why celebrate the death of Jesus?

Let’s start with the hardest and the worst of it.  Over the centuries a tradition developed by the church and believed by millions of Christians holds that Jesus died because God willed and/or needed Jesus’ death.  Notice, however, that this tradition attributes not a bad motive, but a good one, to God.  God did it in order to make possible the forgiveness of human sins. 

Now let’s be honest—human failure, or sin, is common and big.  Who can look at their own life and not know that?  And we find it is not always easy to forgive ourselves, and consistently try to do better.  So, our forbears looked for a big solution to a big problem.  Let’s make it God-sized, and see how God solves our problem.  They picked up on religious traditions of sacrifice to the gods, and lo and behold, we get a notion of sacrifice in which the very son of God is the sacrifice which pleases God and makes the forgiveness of sins possible.  

If that doesn’t work well for you, fine.  Join tens of millions of other fellow humans who are appalled by such an image of God and way to deal with our problem of recidivism in sin. 

There is a better way to understand Good Friday and the crucifixion.  Start by asking who killed Jesus and why.  

Start with the obvious.  He was killed by people who thought that killing a person was acceptable human behavior, and—we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt—that they could improve the general human condition by performing an execution. It was the logic of empire.   Maybe we can give them a little more:  they killed him thinking he was a bad person.  They were wrong about that, so his death was collateral damage.   

In short, Jesus was killed by bad people for being a good person.

Let’s parse that a little.  Bad and good are relative terms, but that does not mean they are meaningless or useless.  The bad here is the ancient and widespread human belief that some other individuals or groups are so bad that they  must be killed in order to cleanse the land.  They are scapegoated:  those bad must be sacrificed for the sake of us good. 

Jesus taught a different thing, another way.  He said that none of us are so good, nor so hopelessly bad, that we can indulge this practice of killing each other to make the world a better place.  The world is not improved by pillaging and burning.  Scorching part of the earth will not save the whole earth.  

So Good Friday was a contest over the central teaching of Jesus.  Who understands best the real human nature/condition (or the will of God, to put it the other way)?   Is it Jesus, who says that the way to deal with human imperfection or sin, is to forgive one time after another, to help each other try again, loving as Jesus loved, or those who killed Jesus, believing that some bad people have to be killed so that us good people can inhabit the world peacefully?  

The vignette of Peter’s denial is a microcosm of this contest.  There is a double sadness in this story: that Peter denied, and that the church has so universally misunderstood Peter’s denial.  It was not a denial rooted in human weakness as generally understood, but rather in what is generally thought to be human strength and greatness.  By both his actions and words Peter stands out as a brave man, ready to fight and die for Jesus.  What he was not ready for was the disclosure of Jesus’ nonviolent response to the attacking enemies.  Peter was overcome by unbelief and embarrassment when he saw Jesus refusing to take up the sword and defend himself, loving his enemies, and he denied that he was identified with this man.  

The story of Jesus is so irrepressible and universal because he taught this way of compassionate forgiveness, and placed it in tension with imperial practices of dominating power over nature  and justified killing of humanity.  Every person and every culture/nation lives in the tension between these ways of running the world.  It is the existential choice of humanity, standing on the verge of ecological collapse and death by war.

But again, in the ironic words of W. Edwards Deming:  “It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory."