Questions about Jesus’ death can be pretty complicated. We can ask why Jesus died in historical terms—looking at the actual human actions the resulted in his execution (e.g, he died because the religious and political leaders colluded to have him crucified because they didn’t like what he stood for). We can ask why more in theological terms (e.g., he died as a necessary sacrifice that enables God to bring salvation) or in personal faith terms (he died so I can go to heaven when I die). We can ask in terms of what we think biblical prophecy had in mind.
In my reflections here, I want to focus on the big story the Bible tells. More than on later theological constructs or on the popular views of Christian tradition. There are points even in the Old Testament that help us understand why Jesus died. I’ll mention just a few, chosen almost at random.
Right near the start, we read of Abel’s untimely death. Why did Abel die? Well, as least in part, because he was imitating God, following God’s expectations for him. So from the beginning we get the message that faithfulness to God’s ways can actually be a reason for suffering and even death. Abel died because he did what God wanted. A troubling thought, indeed.
Two famous texts that allude to death are Psalm 23 and Isaiah 53. When we read Psalm 23 together with Isaiah 53, we realize God’s presence does not guarantee no suffering. God’s presence does not keep us away from the valley of the shadow of death. Not at all. In fact, if we enter that valley and refuse to take others with us through violent retaliation we may actually point to what is necessary to heal our broken world—breaking the spiral of violence.
Why did Jesus die? Starting from the Old Testament part of the story, we might say that Jesus died because in this world, there is brokenness. God seems to have tried massive retribution against human wrong-doing but this leads only to massive death—as seen in the story of Noah and the flood. God seems to have tried establishing a kingdom based on geographical boundary-lines, and reliant upon violence for its survival—and this ended when the greater violence of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires left the Hebrew kingdoms heaps of ruins. Continue reading “Why did Jesus die?”