Why Jesus Had To Die

by Gary C. Burger, MDiv

When we read about Jesus Christ in the gospels a logical question that many people ask is, "Why did he have to die?" He was such a good man. He taught people to love their enemies. He healed people. He raised people from the dead. He showed kindness, compassion and mercy in a world that had little. What other great things could he have done if he lived a long life?

Few people seem to realize that Jesus' life purpose was, in fact, to die. Let me explain why. In this article I am going to start off with the analogy of committing a crime and receiving the death penalty to relate what the Bible teaches about salvation. You may or may not think that any crime is worthy of the death penalty. It is not the purpose of this article to debate that issue. I hope you will look beyond that debate particularly if you are against capital punishment. No analogy is perfect yet hopefully this story will help you understand what the essence of Christianity is about and how it is very different from how salvation is to be attained through other religions.

The second part, which explains the Biblical doctrines of sin and salvation are full of Bible verses. My intent is not to beat the reader over the head with as many verses as I can find. The reason for including so many verses is to both show that this is not just my interpretation of Christianity and to give the reader plenty of references to check the validity of my explanation for him/herself.

An Illustration

Let us suppose that I have committed a crime. This crime is so heinous that society has decided that the only just punishment and payment is my death. Let us further suppose that when I get to prison to await my execution on death row I begin to attempt to free myself from this end. Here are some possible scenarios:

I escape from prison.

My first attempt might be to escape. Although I am able to escape I would still have the death sentence hanging over my head. Because of this I certainly would not be or feel free. I would have to live in hiding with the perpetual fear of being caught. In this case, I might commit other crimes, thinking, "What have I got to loose if I get caught? I'm already under a death penalty. And besides, maybe I'll be able to escape again." However, at some point I will be caught, put under more careful watch and finally executed. Escaping is only a temporary stay of execution.

I try to pay for my crime by being good and working hard.

My next attempt might be to work out a deal with the warden of the prison, sentencing judge, the victim's family and even with society. I would promise to do good. I would promise to never to do evil again. I would be a model prisoner if only my death sentence could be changed to a life sentence or freedom. What would all of the above people say? "Forget it! The only just payment for your crime is your very life not a bunch of good works."

Someone else pays the penalty for me

At this point, I have exhausted all of my possibilities for getting myself out from under this death sentence. I can't escape it. I can't pay it off by good works. I am helpless to help my self. I can, however, hope that someone else with the right power and authority will release me. The first possibility would be a pardon from the governor or even the President of the United States. This is certainly possible and it has been done. However, there is a problem with a pardon. I still committed the crime and caused pain and suffering. While a pardon legally gets me off the hook, by definition it doesn't really pay for what I've done. The fact of the matter remains. The crime is not paid for until somebody dies. This brings us to the fourth scenario. What if someone else paid that penalty for me? What if even a member of the victim's own family stepped up and said, "I want to die in his place to pay the penalty for his crime for him." Let us further suppose that this is legally permissible and actually takes place.

I would be set free because the crime was paid for. If someone walked up to me on the street and said, "Look at you. You're free. You don't deserve to be free. You committed that terrible crime. You deserve to die for what you did." I could correctly reply, "Yes, I deserved to die for what I did, but someone else, a member of the victim's own family died in my place to pay the penalty for my crime for me. Since the crime has been paid for I am now free. I am no longer under condemnation. I am free."

Would anyone be able to arrest me and haul me to court and convict me of that crime again? No. Should I feel shame and remorse for the terrible deed I did? Yes, of course. Should I feel guilty? No, because I am no longer guilty. Would I have to live a good life to pay the family and society back for what I did? No. Remember they my crime has been paid for. While it would be very appropriate to serve that family and society with good works to show appreciation, those good works can't pay for that crime. The crime has already been paid for in full.

The Biblical Perspective

Now let's look at how this relates to us from Biblical perspective

Our Crime

To put it simply and bluntly, our crime is rebelling from God and breaking His moral laws. Many people's immediate response is something like, "That is ridiculous. You mean God is going to send me to hell for not being perfect? Look, I live a good life. I don't lie, cheat or steal as much as others do. You mean God would send me to hell for falling just a little short of perfection? You've got to be kidding."

Well, first of all, I don't make the rules and I'm just relating what God has said so don't shoot the messenger. Second, Christianity is not the first or last religion to assert this. Other religions have different conceptions of heaven and hell and what a person must do to be saved, but they all agree that every person has fallen short of God/god/gods and is eternally separated if something is not done. Furthermore, to claim that all religions are wrong, that there is no supernatural, no God, no heaven and no hell doesn't release one from that nagging guilt and shame of doing morally wrong things. Third, it is important to come to grips with the fact that even the best of us falls hopelessly short of God. If you and I and the best long jumper in the world stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and tried to jump to the other side, he would certainly jump further than you and I could. But he would still fall miserably short. In fact, if a judge stood on the opposite side she probably would not even be able to tell us and our results apart.

We see how far short we fall of God's standards when we compare ourselves to him, not to others. God told the Israelites

"Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy." (Leviticus 19:2)

Similarly, Jesus said,

"... unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 6:20)

In effect, He was saying that nless you are perfect you can't go to heaven. No matter how good a life a person might lead he still falls infinitely short of God and his holiness. Isaiah, the prophet, said,

"... all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away..." (Isaiah 64: 6)

Fourth, the Bible teaches that it is not just our acts of sin that make us guilty; it is our sinful nature. In other words, we are all born with a propensity to do evil. Some people act out this urge more than others, but we all have the same capacity for evil. So we must admit that this sin and the need to deal with it is common to all people. It is a universal problem. Paul wrote to the church in Rome,

"... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) Isaiah continues the verse from above,

"No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins." (Isaiah 64:7)

Our death sentence

As a result of our sinfulness we are in a state of alienation or separation from God, our Creator. This separation is what the Bible refers to as death, that is, a spiritual death. Paul wrote,

"For the wages of (payment for) sin is death." (Romans 6:23)

We, ourselves, are broken and our personal relationship with God is broken. The Bible is very clear about the fact that we are born under a death sentence.

The analogy above showed that it is futile to try to escape. We will ultimately die a physical death and stand before God. We also see that the payment for our sin is not good works. The sin is not paid for until somebody dies for it. For this reason, we can not be pardoned. That may work under man's imperfect legal system but not God's. It is a death sentence that can not be pardoned. This is a horrible reality. On our own we are hopelessly, helplessly doomed. We would have to face an eternity separated from the only source of the love and goodness of God. That is the true nature of hell.

Our Savior

Jesus died for us because He loves us

But we have hope. Jesus came to die in our place to pay the penalty for our sins for us. John, one of Jesus' closest disciples recorded Jesus' very words on this,

"For God, so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Jesus went on to say,

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:17,18)

Jesus' death atoned for our sins.

Remember the verse above that starts out: "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"? Well Paul goes on to write,

"and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice..." (Romans 3:23-26)

There are several key words here that need to be defined to get the full impact of what he is saying. "We are justified freely" means that we didn't have to do anything to earn our salvation. God's grace is his ability to give us something we do not deserve. "Redemption" is the act of God buying back what is rightfully his. He created us so he is our original owner. However, we chose to rebel from him and take ownership of our lives. Then he, through Christ's death bought us back. How? ThatĚs where the sacrifice of atonement comes in. In Leviticus (4:32-35) the Israelites were instructed to bring a lamb without any defects to be slaughtered on the alter once a year on the Day of Atonement. It states,

"In this way the priest will make atonement for him for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven."

Then Leviticus 17:11 says,

"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life."

In other words, the killing of the lamb symbolically paid for one's sins, but only once a year.

But there is much more to it than just killing a cuddly, harmless, innocent, little lamb. God made this lamb of atonement a symbol of the ultimate sacrificial Lamb. When they sacrificed the little lamb they applied their faith in God to forgive their sins through the future death of the ultimate Lamb. This ultimate Lamb of God would be the Jewish Messiah. He would die once, for all of our sins. The first time John the Baptist saw Jesus he immediately identified him as such,

"Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

Jesus is the one who died in our place to pay the (death) penalty of our sins for us. God's justice is satisfied in that someone has died for the crime. John reports that Jesus' last words were "It is finished." (John 19:30) This is actually translated from the Greek word that means literally "paid in full."

Our Sinless God is our Savior

Going back to the analogy above, remember that a family member offered to die in my place. Now let us suppose instead that he actually helped me commit the crime and was also sentenced to death. He wouldn't be able to pay for my crime. He would have his own crime to pay for. The only just way he could die in my place would be if he was totally innocent himself. Similarly, if Jesus was just another man like me or you he would have his own sins to pay for. Even if he was history's greatest teacher and did the most good of anyone who ever lived he would be under the same condemnation as you and I are. That is why Jesus had to be perfectly sinless. To be sinless, Jesus had to be God himself in the flesh. (For more on this see Did Jesus Really Believe He Was God?) Jesus proved he was God by the miracles he performed and ultimately by his resurrection from the dead.

It seems awfully unfair that God, being innocent and perfect, died for us. What did we do to deserve that? We didn't do anything to deserve it. He came for one reason and that was to die in your place and my place to pay the (death) penalty for our sins for us.

Our Salvation is by God's Grace Not our Good Works

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus,

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9)

No one can earn their salvation. What about good works though? Does all this mean one can receive Christ's forgiveness and then live for oneself or even do evil because it will be forgiven? This would make a mockery of what God has done for us. That is not a good idea. Paul goes on to write,

"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Ephesians 2:10)

Besides being created to do good works and live a lifestyle that reflects God's holy character, it is a very appropriate way to thank God for his salvation.

True salvation is a free gift. What do you do with a gift? You accept or reject it. Will you accept it?


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