Why did Jesus have to actually die by crucifixion?
Historically there have been different ‘theories’ of the Atonement, of Jesus’ making ‘at-one-ment’ - peace for humans with God through his sacrificial death. Like a blindfolded person trying to describe an elephant by touch, these theories each emphasise one aspect of the Atonement and even taken together do not describe the whole fully or even well.
The ‘classic or ‘dramatic’ theory was articulated by St Athanasius of Alexandria (296 - 373). He asked and answered. ‘Why the Cross, of all deaths?’ He concluded that Jesus ‘had to bear the curse for us. On it He held out His hands to unite all, Jews and Gentiles, in Himself. He defeated the Prince of the powers of the air in His own region, clearing the way to heaven and opening for us the everlasting doors’ (On the Incarnation : 25). Athanasius determined that Jesus fought with and defeated the devil on behalf of us all. The crucifixion was the means of his dying ‘off the ground’ as it were, ‘in the air’, that is ‘in the spiritual realm’ where the transaction was accomplished, because it was not primarily done among human beings.
St Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) wrote ‘Cur Deus Homo?’, ‘Why the God- Man?’, completed on retreat in Bari in Italy in 1099. His work became the classic treatment of the satisfaction or debt theory of redemption. According to this theory, which is based upon the feudal structure of society, finite humanity has committed a crime (sin) against infinite God. In feudal society, an offender was required to make recompense, or satisfaction, to the one offended according to that person’s status. Thus, a crime against a king would require more satisfaction than a crime against a baron or a serf. Finite humanity, which could never make satisfaction to the infinite God, could expect only eternal death. The instrument for bringing humans back into a right relationship with God, therefore, could be rendered only by someone who was both God—because God could overcome sin by sinlessness—and human—because humans were those who were guilty of sin. Anselm held that the death of the God-human, Jesus, on the cross was the only rationally intelligible way in which sinful humankind could have been reconciled with God. Anselm’s theory was significant for presenting a comprehensive system that focused on the interrelationship between God, Jesus, and humankind. Anselm’s doctrine of the Atonement eventually formed the basis of both Roman Catholic and orthodox Protestant ideas of the work of Christ.
Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) was a French monastic scholar. He is famous for his love affair with and marriage to his brilliant student and eventual wife, Héloïse d'Argenteuil thereby breaking his vows. He is also famous for The Moral Influence theory of the atonement. In this view, the purpose and result of Christ's death was to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God's love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. This was the antithesis to that of Anselm. Abelard is the hero of every liberal Christian who emphasises love over justice.
John Calvin (1509 – 1564) was, of course, the intellectual leader of The Reformation in Switzerland and through John Knox (1514 – 1572) in Scotland. He propounded the penal substitution theory of the Atonement. In this, Christ’s divine nature enables him to pay the penalty for sin; his human nature enables him to do so on humanity’s behalf. This is in keeping with Anselm’s teaching on the atoning work of Christ in 'Cur Deus Homo?', but for Calvin the satisfaction of Christ is less as payment of a debt and more as a payment of a penalty, to satisfy God’s justice and the demands of the law and to redeem humanity from the power of sin and death into which their sin had enslaved them. ‘Another principal part of our reconciliation with God was, that man, who had lost himself by his disobedience, should, by way of remedy, oppose to it obedience, satisfy the justice of God, and pay the penalty of sin. Therefore, our Lord came forth very man, adopted the person of Adam, and assumed his name, that he might in his stead obey the Father; that he might present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to the just judgment of God, and in the same flesh pay the penalty which we had incurred’. (Institutes II : 12)
John McLeod Campbell (1800 – 1872) was a Minister of the Church of Scotland from 1825 – 1830. He was accused of the heresy of universalism by Calvinists within the Church of Scotland, found guilty and deposed as a Minister. Campbell published ‘The Nature of the Atonement’ in 1856. His theological antecedent was Peter Abelard. He rejected Calvin’s penal substitutionary theory of the Atonement and proposed a novel alternative. Campbell suggested that Jesus made Atonement for humanity by his perfect prayer of confession on our behalf in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus felt acutely the truth and reality of human sin and confessed it fully. God accepted this perfect confession and so humans are forgiven their sins through prayer and worship. But according to this reasoning Jesus did not have to die at all.
Muslims do not accept that Jesus was the Son of God. Neither do they accept that he was crucified. They do not accept forgiveness of sins through his sacrificial death. ‘Isa (Jesus) is a created being and is only a man’. (Quran suras 3 : 59, 5 : 75) ‘Isa is not the son of God or divine’. (suras 9 ; 30, 19 : 34 -35) ‘Isa did not die on a cross and he did not rise from the dead. Another man died in place of Isa on the cross.’ Muslims believe that Allah would not allow one of his prophets to die a death of disgrace.’ (sura 4 : 157) ‘Adam and Eve were cast down to earth without sin’. (sura 2 : 36) Because their sin was a personal lapse it did not bring innate sin on the whole of mankind. Therefore there is no need for a Saviour to pay the ransom for sin.
Richard Dawkins, the militant atheist describes The Atonement as ‘vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent’. He adds that Christianity is about ‘sin, sin, sin’. Dawkins mocks Christianity, ‘God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam...If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them’. ‘Progressives ethicists’ he says, 'oppose retributive punishment and scapegoat theory'. Christopher Hitchens, another of that ilk describes Jesus’ death as human sacrifice and murder.
John Lennox responds by saying that sin is a critical reality in humanity and atheists cannot deny its existence. He speaks of ‘the sorry moral landscape that is human history’. Sin however is a God-directed category which presupposes the existence of God. Wrongdoing and bad behaviour are human to human categories. These are subject to laws, courts and punishments agreed by societies. Even genocidal atrocities are judged by history. Ratko Mladić the former Bosnian Serb colonel-general was found guilty of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2017 and is serving a life sentence in prison. It is possible that Vladimir Putin, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, General Valery Gerasimov, Sergey Lavrov and others may may tried and convicted someday of genocide and war crimes.
God, says Lennox, takes sin seriously not because he hates us but because he loves us. The courts do not just let people go. Neither does God. ‘But God will never accept that our lies, greed, theft, adultery, violence, murder etc, do not matter...His universe is a moral universe...he...must deal justly with human sin’. For Lennox, Jesus was not just another man. ‘He could bear other people’s sins, as a true mediator because he was both God and man’. But Lennox does not specifically explain why Jesus had to die by crucifixion. We need more than referring back to Isaiah 52, 53 and to the Old Testament sacrificial system for context. John Lennox appears to accept the consequence of physical death caused by the sin of Adam and Eve. Physical death is a fact of life. Unavoidable. Any explanation is therefore welcome. A remedy is even more so. It appears then that for Lennox the penal substitutionary theory of the Atonement is the correct one for it solves the ultimate puzzle of Calvary. God was actually punishing Jesus for the sin of humankind. But this was in effect God doing this on our behalf in Jesus. Therefore any sense of a hate-filled, violent despotic Creator is mitigated.
That the world cries out for justice is clear and apparent. Everywhere the plight of the oppressed is articulated and highlighted. When significant crimes occur such as child murder there are popular outcries for justice often with a tinge of revenge. When governments are overthrown ‘justice’ is meted out by the victors. What final justice applies to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot? Do they spend eternal life in Hell? Are human beings guilty of infinitely lesser wrongs subject to the same punishment? Is this proportionate? ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18 : 25)
Whatever it was on Calvary (and no-one really knows) it worked. Ever since in every generation, men, women and children have found reconciliation and peace with God through Jesus Christ. If something works it has to be taken seriously. As Paul put it; ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.’ (2 Corinthians 5 : 17 – 19) Christianity is the proven antidote to human sin and wrong-doing. But it is much more than that. Christianity has provided the highest meta-narrative for understanding human existence. It has provided a vast array of empirical evidence of what it has and continues to contribute to the betterment of the human condition. It offers the prospect of eternal life thus making sense of why we are here at all. This lies in taking up the personal relationship with our Maker available for us in Jesus Christ so that we know here on earth in our own human consciousness what is to follow hereafter. This is much better than new atheist nihilism.
Why then did Jesus have to die by crucifixion? Was it a historical coincidence that Romans were in charge of Jerusalem at the time? Was it the all consuming hatred of the Jewish leadership for this upstart ‘false’ messiah? Did Jesus do enough to bring this fate upon himself? The cross is the best known symbol / logo in the world. Had Jesus been stoned, would the image of a great stone convey anything? Calvary was the experiencing of the worst that human nature can inflict on a person, it was identifying with human suffering at its most unjust. Thus Calvary contextualises all human suffering ever since. Our Creator identifies with the basest condition of human existence. Everything else is put in perspective.
Surrender, forgiveness, acceptance – there are some of the contents of Calvary. We regard these as the highest of human virtues when we see them practised. Calvary was also briefly life without God for Jesus. ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ It became then the way back to eternal life for Jesus. Death is the way to eternal life for us all. The true perspective of Calvary is not as the new atheists preach, horror upon horror, made up of human antipathy. It is in the eternal purposes of Calvary that its meaning is to be found. That is a very big picture. We remember Jesus’ death annually on what we call ‘Good Friday’.
It is all much too big a story to be considered a coincidence of history. Calvary brought together the history of the People of God, the Jews, their discredited sacrificial religious system, the spiritual blindness that accompanies human exercise of power in nation and society, the conjunction of politics and bad faith, the brutal and inhumane world conquering empire of the time, a demonstrably good person, false accusation, injustice, incitement to hate and murder, friendlessness, the most appalling means of public execution for criminality, non-violence, unimaginable physical prolonged pain, even worse mental and spiritual suffering, a historically verifiable human death, and an amazing once for all resurrection. It is too complex to be determined just by random forces on earth. It is grounded in the mind and heart of the Creator and Redeemer of all that is.