Why did Jesus die?

by Elias Blum


I’m sure, back in the days when I was spiritually fed on the infantile milk of Alpha Course pamphlets, there was one entitled ‘Why did Jesus die?’ This set out the usual conservative evangelical line: Perfect creation, Man’s fall, ‘Woe we are all hellbound sinners!’, God needs blood, so he sends (becomes? – not clear on that part) his Son, kills him(self), punishes him(self), and thereby can forgive us for the sins that we did because of Adam’s fall, so that we can go to heaven when we die.

It did not take long to dismiss this thin and brittle theology. Aside from all the problems this story creates (like, ‘Why did God put a talking snake in the garden anyway?’ and ‘How come all this happened 20,000 years after man domesticated to dog?’), it makes God out to be a blood-thirsty monster, whose insatiable wrath can only be appeased by an act of horrific, sado-masochistic slaughter.

To the conservative evangelicals, Good Friday is, indeed, ‘good’. It is the day on which their salvation, as they understand it, was purchased by blood on Calvary. Once we have moved to a Unitarian and Universalist theology, in which Jesus is a prophet, teacher, revolutionary and mystic, but no more a ‘Son of God’ than Moses was, and in which none shall be consigned to torment because God’s nature is to love and forgive, not to punish and destroy, what significance does Good Friday have?

Can it still be ‘good’ for a progressive Christian who has rejected the myth of redemptive violence along with all literal interpretations of the creation and fall stories?

Indeed, why should we bother to mark and observe it at all?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to return to that posed by the dog-eared pamphlet that someone once gave me at a Christian Union Events Week back in 1997: ‘Why did Jesus die?’

One alternative position is to see Jesus’ death not as a necessary blood-scarifice to appease an angry God, but as a tragic martyrdom. Jesus died because he was good. He had the courage of his convictions, and those convictions upset people. Jesus opposed the rulers, the priests, the bankers, the moneylenders, the landlords, the whole imperial-hierarchical system. This great reformer of religion and ethics, who was deeply absorbed in, but not uncritical of, the traditions of his people, offered a radical creed of love, forgiveness, community and equality. He broke down barriers. He exposed hypocrisy. He called for the redistribution of land and the forgiveness of debts. To the Romans, he was a threat to state security who might incite the people against occupation. To the colluding temple authorities, he was a threat to their wealth, power, and priestly monopoly of religion. To the zealous people – ah, this is the rub! – he was a bitter disappointment. They wanted a king, a new David, but Jesus refused to play that part. The kingdom he had in mind was of a different, more subtle sort, brought in not by military force but by love. He masterminded a policy of non-violent resistance, of being-the-change-you-want-to-see. And they killed him for it. In the words of John 3:19, ‘light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’. It was so predictable. So tragic.

And, like every good tragedy, he saw it coming. He knew at the outset that to follow his great calling would require him to lay aside any trappings of wealth and power (that’s what the story of Jesus in the wilderness being ‘tempted of the devil’ is all about). He knew that his radical teaching, in the tradition of the social justice prophets of Israel, would bring him into conflict.  He knew in the garden of Gethsemane that he was about to be killed. And yet, although he knew it, he could not avoid it. He could not turn from the path on which he had set out. Not my will, but thine. “Here I stand”, he might well have said, “I can do no other”.

Not only is this death tragic, it is also heroic. His martyrdom was an act of political theatre. It did not disarm the military might of the Roman empire, but it stripped it naked, and revealed its oppressions in a light so stark that even Roman centurions were forced to question their motives and their loyalties. He could have flinched. He could have run, or have gone into hiding. He didn’t. He allowed himself to by killed, so that the evil of his killers and the system they supported could be unmasked, and so that the way of non-violence and love could be vindicated.

Evangelicals believe that Jesus’ death was a one-off, a unique event in history. For Unitarian and Universalist Christians, this is not so. Rather, Jesus’ death, sadly, is all too familiar. It is shockingly similar to too many other deaths, beatings and imprisonments. Every freedom fighter in an infested cage, every investigative journalist facing punitive damages, everyone who stands on the side of love, of justice, of peace, of freedom, will encounter, to some degree or other, the same opposition, and perhaps the same fate. As we recall on Good Friday the martyrdom of Jesus, we are also invited to remember all those before and since, and all those still to come, who will be moved by their conscience to ‘pick up their cross’ and follow his Way.

The salvation wrought by the Cross is not that of the passover lamb, but that of moral example. Every act of martyrdom, great or small, weakens the moral authority of the systems of power and domination which seek to exploit and oppress, and strengthens the claim of those who are working for liberation and justice. For the seeds do indeed bear fruit. The gains are fragile and often temporarily reversed, and the struggle continues, but we are moving forward. The kingdom of love and light expands. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. From darkness into light; from a narrow, bitter, tribal ethic into a broad, gracious, universal ethic; from vengeance to forgiveness, from hatred to love, from division to harmony.

That is the way of salvation. Salvation is not an escape-card from the imaginary underworld of hell, but a call into wholeness and newness of life. That, and that alone, will wipe away all the tears from our eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. That alone is what causes former things to pass away, and lions to lie down with lambs. And this is not for the future, at some great eschatological explosion. It is for now. I know because I have seen it. I have seen it in many transformed lives and in restored relationships. Moreover, this salvation is never merely individual. It is social and civic, too. I’ve even seen it in the rebirth of delicate democracy, in the end of brutal conflict, and in the passing of bold, generous, reforming legislation.

So this, then, is what is good about Good Friday: As we remember the death of Jesus, we remember that force and fraud may prevail for a time, but cannot endure. We remember that power without moral right has no authority, but righteousness produces an authority whose power, while soft and silent, overcomes all things.