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.
So God’s final approach, strongly hinted at in Isaiah 53 and several other places, points to a healing strategy that does not repay wrong-doing with violent punishment, but bases human community on vulnerable, persevering love instead.
The gospels then take the story much further. They tell about God’s involvement in the life of this one person and his friends—involvement that does promise to be about a kingdom, but a “kingdom” not centered on power politics, not centered on coercive efforts to separate truth from falsehood, even with violence when necessary—a different kind of kingdom.
The Old Testament sensitizes us to see two central conflicts that fuel the dynamics that led to Jesus’ death—and that help us understand why he died. First, seen maybe most clearly in the exodus story, is the conflict between the Egyptian empire and the Hebrew community. The Hebrews sought to establish their identity as heirs of God’s promise to Abraham—and Egypt sought simply to absorb the Hebrews and eradicate their sense of peoplehood—the conflict with empire.
The second conflict turns out to be tragically similar—conflict between leaders within the Hebrew community, kings and priests of Israel and Judah, and the prophets who called the people back to their original identity—the conflict with religious institutions. In both conflicts, the powers that be often did resort to death-dealing violence to hold on to their positions of domination.
So, what do we see when we get to the actual story of Jesus? One of the terrible things about the Christian tendency to dismiss the Old Testament is to lose sight of these basic conflicts. We then fail to recognize the presence of the same dynamics right from the start of Jesus’ life. Then we fail to see how focused Jesus was on resisting empire and on resisting oppressive religion.
Luke’s gospel begins with a powerful song from Jesus’ mother Mary—words not of a holy virgin meek and mild, but words of a genuine radical. The rich will be brought low, the lowly lifted up. Mary’s God takes sides. Based on his mother’s words, we easily imagine Jesus being brought up to ask lots of questions (as he does as a boy in the temple). Jesus likely was trained to question authority!
When Jesus reaches adulthood, he grows in power and understanding. After some time with his cousin, the rabble-rousing prophet John the Baptist (who later also was executed by the powers that be), Jesus retreats further into the wilderness before taking on the task to which he finds himself called. While in the wilderness, Jesus undergoes an intense process of clarification where he is challenged in his deepest self to be sure about his identity.
Jesus understands himself to have a special calling, to bring God’s word to the people, to embody God’s kingdom in the world, to make present God’s work of healing—that is, to be “the Son of God” in human flesh. But what kind of Son of God? This is what Satan challenges him to clarify. In a nutshell, what Satan offers is a career as Son of God based on coercive power and domination—based on control. In a sense, this is the temptation faced by God in the Flood story. To be a God who makes things right through force. God in the end turns from that temptation—as does Jesus in his encounter with Satan.
So, here is another reason why Jesus died. Jesus died because he chose the path of vulnerability, not the path of control. In a sense, when Jesus turned away from Satan here, he sealed his fate. Not because he made Satan so mad that Satan would stop at nothing to kill him. Rather, Jesus sealed his fate by embracing the path of the suffering servant, the one who brings healing to the world by accepting weakness and persevering love as the means—rather than violence and domination.
But still, Jesus embraces his calling to be “son of God”—that is, to be king, to be political, to be a leader of a social movement, to remain directly in conflict with the empires and with the religious institutions. When Jesus begins his ministry, his very first words as reported by Luke profoundly underscored the purpose of his calling. He came to bring good news to the poor—and to do it right now, not in the sweet by and by.
From then on, Jesus does two things that reinforce each other. He offers welcome and healing to the poor, the vulnerable, the outcastes—and he challenges the people in power, the people in power in the political structures and the people in power in the religious structures.
Luke clarifies Jesus’ path in his ninth chapter. The political leader of Jesus’ home area, Herod the Great’s son, King Herod Antipas, learns of Jesus. He asks, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” Herod wants to meet Jesus—but this encounter will wait for awhile. Luke, though, after giving us Herod’s question, provides his readers with some answers. The people say Jesus is a great prophet like Elijah. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” who is called to suffer. God’s words come down at Jesus’ transfiguration: this is my son. Luke means for us to recognize that all of these belong together—prophet, suffering son of man, Messiah, each one defining the other two.
Jesus dies because that is what happens to great prophets and even to Messiahs who directly challenge political and religious power—and who challenge this power defenselessly, who challenge this power in ways that do not bruise and crush.
And Jesus introduces a key element of the picture here in Luke 9 when he calls upon his followers to imitate him—“take up the cross daily.” The cross, the instrument the Roman empire used to execute rebels. The cross, the symbol of horrible shame and impurity to the religious leaders. Take it up daily—as in, live each day like Jesus did, filled with compassion and love and acting to resist injustice and oppression. Doing so may lead to death, but the “daily” implies more a way of life than a simple end point.
The rest of Luke’s gospel (and the other gospels, too) show Jesus’ approach to life. He heals through resistance, generosity, disillusionment toward powerful people and embracing the beauty and transforming potential of vulnerable and marginalized people. This is why Jesus died: He refused to turn away from oppression and violence; and he refused to add to the spiral of violence with retaliation and hatred.
In the account of Jesus’ arrest and execution, various actors reflect the conflicts that go back to the beginning of the story in the Old Testament—you have the empire represented by Pilate, you have another, lesser, king represented by Herod Antipas (who does finally get to meet Jesus and push him toward death), you have the religious leaders who conduct a trial, declare Jesus guilty, and then pressure Pilate to execute him.
Now, we all know the next step in the story—God raises Jesus from the dead. And that is crucial. But we need to linger more on Jesus’ death itself. How does the story of Jesus’ death point toward life?
Why did Jesus die? Because he insisted on life. Because he refused to accept the account of humanity’s place in the world that is given by people in power. Because he without equivocation linked his own life—and God’s life—with the vulnerable, the outcasts, with sinners and unclean people, with those who the guardians of peace and order tried to crush. Because he did all of this with open hands—no swords, no horses and chariots, no police, no military.
And Jesus did not leave himself without witnesses. Luke writes a second part to his gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Early on in Acts we read of a follower of Jesus named Stephen, who echoed Jesus’ witness for life—all the way to his execution. Then Acts tells of Paul’s similar witness. We may find examples throughout history.
Again, just a few, almost random examples. We have the many 16th century Anabaptists, perhaps most famously Michael Sattler, who were killed by a combination of political and religious leaders for insisting, among other things, on making their faith communities free from state control and on refusing to participate in wars between so-called Christian Europe and the Muslim Turks.
I learned of a direct ancestor of mine named Susannah Martin, a midwife and woman of faith who was executed in Puritan Massachusetts as part of the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. The famous church leader, Cotton Mather, personally pronounced her condemnation. Again, it was at least in part a matter of the powers that be squashing dissent, eliminating one who might threaten their control.
More recently, in my research into World War II, I have found out more about numerous individuals and small groups of people who met death in Nazi Germany for refusing to cooperate with the death machine—such as Franz Jagerstatter, a “solitary witness” of refusal to go into the military when drafted due to his Christian faith. He ended up executed; or the small group of college students known as the White Rose, including a young woman, Sophie Sholls, all executed for distributing anti-Nazi literature.
More well known, nonviolent leaders voicing dissent such as Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and Medger Evers and Martin Luther King in the American South. And Steven Biko in South Africa.
Of course, these names are only the tip of an iceberg. In every century we can find examples of people of conscience who faced hardship, even death, simply due to following the path Jesus walked—welcome, compassion, dissent, independence, saying no to the powers-that-be.
Each of these stories, in a genuine sense, is part of the same on-going story going back to the exodus and to the suffering servant of Isaiah and to Jesus. They each help us understand why Jesus died—and how there is life in such a death. They witness to a God who is vulnerable, who does not dominate and coerce, but who remains present, who inspires witness after witness to embody the way of wholeness.
My final example is from a song by Bruce Cockburn, called “Down Where the Death Squad Lives.” It tells of the violence in various Latin American settings in the last part of the 20th century—though there are countless other examples from throughout the world.
People followed the two main steps of resistance to domination—disbelieve in the story told by those in power and band together in communities with others who also disbelieve. But when they did so, they met with more violence: “Goons in blackface creeping in the road/ farm family waiting for the night to explode/ working the land in an age of terror/ you come to see the moon as a bad news bearer.”
But this cycle of violence is not the only reality. People do continue to band together, hope springs out of the rubble. “Like some kind of never-ending Easter passion/ from every agony a hero is fashioned/ around every evil there gathers love/ bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above.”