Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

When an eleven-year-old boy asks me theological questions, I get suspicious. Circumstantial evidence told me this particular kid was only trying to get out of singing slightly catchy but incredibly annoying VBS songs in the next room. (Exhibit A: the suspect had spent most of lesson time clocking another kid in the head with an inflatable taxi.)

Fortunately for him, I also hated those songs. Bring it on, kid.

He started out with questions related to the lesson—the Good Samaritan—but then moved on to things like why there was suffering in the world and how we knew the Bible was true.

Kid had been saving up. I liked him considerably more than earlier in the morning when he’d thrown glitter in my hair during craft time.

He nodded through my explanations, sometimes looking like he got it, and sometimes looking like I’d just started explaining trigonometry in Elvish. But he kept asking questions, finally getting to this one: “Why do Christians think Jesus have to die? It doesn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins without the cross?”

Okay, kid. That’s a good one. You’re thinking these things through with Gungor and The Shack and a bunch of others.


This is way past my pay grade (since, you know, I’m not getting paid), but here we go anyway.

It’s the basic plot of lots of mysteries and thrillers, right? Someone who cares about the real criminal—a spouse or parent or lover—tries to take the blame for the crime. The detective finds out about the noble gesture…and the guilty person is punished and the innocent one released.

We like that ending. Sacrifice is all well and good when it’s a Tale of Two Cities situation where both people are innocent, but we have this instinctive sense that the penalty should go to the one who earned it. This is not the story of the cross, as the kid pointed out.

One problem is, the alternative he suggested doesn’t work. If you don’t think it’s fair that God let Jesus take the punishment for our sin…would it be any fairer if God didn’t punish anyone for our sin?

I’d say it isn’t be fair or just. But I’d go a little farther and say it’s not possible.

Let’s take another common metaphor for salvation: a debt to be paid. One rainy day, my sister and I were playing Monopoly, because apparently we had nothing better to do than beat each other over the head with capitalism. I was losing. Badly. Motivated either by compassion or a desire to keep the game going, Erika suggested we just dismiss my debt.

“That’s not allowed in the rules,” I said.

She shrugged from behind her stack of 500 bills. “Okay, then let’s forget the rules.”

Here’s my claim: God couldn’t say, “Let’s forget the rules.”

For reference, here’s the rule itself: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”—Hebrews 9:22 (And other variations throughout the Bible.)

We’re not going to address the Trinity issues here. That is *really* above my pay grade.

For a while, I wondered, quietly, if this was an arbitrary law. Why does it have to be that the wages of sin are death? Didn’t God etch that rule onto a tablet one day, passing down a complex sacrificial system to appease his anger like any other god? Couldn’t he switch out the death penalty anytime he wanted to…and just chose not to?

(And you thought your questions were risky, eleven-year-old kid trying to get out of song time.)

In case you were worried about real heresy, the answer is no.

So the question becomes: why not?

Think of the most basic physical laws you can imagine: gravity, maybe, or the water cycle, or some obscure formula I don’t even know about. From a Christian point of view, those are constants because God is an intricate designer who built them into the universe. God loves order.

But God is light. God is holy. God is love. See the difference? They’re not just patterns that come out of his character, they are the essence of who he is. The holiness of God isn’t the thread that binds everything together with rules of right and wrong, it’s the fabric itself.

Miracles can subvert the smaller laws because those laws were created. Christians believe God parted the Red Sea, multiplied food, and healed the sick. He can change the rules he set in place, rearrange molecules, command the natural order of things to stop and start at will.

But some laws can never be subverted. “The wages of sin is death” was not created to show the power of the Creator. It has to exist because the Creator is holy, in the 1 John sense of: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Sin is the opposite of holiness, and it cannot exist with God, with light and life.

So, “Sin leads to separation from God” wasn’t a corporate memo dictating an invented punishment, but a reflection of the uncreated, unchanging moral structure of the world.

Back to Gethsemane. When Jesus begged the Father in the garden to let the cup of wrath pass from him, if there had been any other way to accomplish salvation, God would have taken it.

But there wasn’t.

God didn’t sign a divine pardon for humanity because that would violate the core of who he is, and that is not a thing that can happen. Ever. It is the greatest, deepest impossibility.

I think sometimes we try too hard to make salvation a court case, a debt, a hostage situation. It’s a little bit of all that, but there will never be a perfect analogy for atonement. Even Jesus’s own parables only illustrate one aspect of what it means that he took our place.

You can’t explain a symphony with a chord. You can’t summarize the full depths of a novel with a one-sentence synopsis. You can’t sample a three-inch section of the Sistine Chapel to show the whole scope of it.

Every example and explanation and allegory we have is smaller than the paradox we’re trying to illustrate. Justice, love, and holiness—the character of God—interacted with our sin through the cross in a way we’ll probably never fully understand.

And maybe we shouldn’t try. Maybe it’s the “Deeper Magic” that Lewis wrote into Narnia, and we accept it not because we can diagram it out and force it all to make sense, but because it fits the story in an unexpected-but-inevitable way. We come into these conversations aware that we’re talking about paradox, and we can question and debate and seek to know more…but we have to get comfortable with not having all the answers.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21

Obviously, this isn’t a complete explanation. Theologians have written books on this topic. I’m not sure exactly what of this I said to the eleven-year-old kid and whether it made sense. I do know he squinted up at me and said, “You think about this stuff too, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“I do.”

“Okay, then.” And we walked back into the song room in time for the last bars of the theme song, leaving a trail of glitter and mystery behind.

3 comments

  1. There’s something ironic about Penal Substitution: grown-ups like it because it’s probably the simplest and tidiest of the atonement theories, but children can’t wrap their heads around it. My four little ones can’t make sense of the injustice of it, of the warped father-son relationship it requires. There are a lot of things I’ve given up believing for the sake of my children, and satisfaction theories of atonement are one of them.

    What they do understand is something that most grown-ups feel is too messy, too immature, even too complicated: Jesus came to free us from the dominion of Satan. Yes, it requires a belief in monsters. But on the other hand, it requires no gray areas between good and evil, and no knowledge of economics (so much of modern, western theology is transactional). Since the emphasis is not upon what God “must have” or “cannot do,” but is instead upon breaking a system and demonstrating alternatives, the father-son relationship stays intact. I can take my kids (ages 3 through 8) through the three temptations in Luke chapter 4, and they begin to understand what Jesus was up against and why his death was the only way to overcome it.

    But again, it’s not very tidy. We can’t plug anything into it. We can’t add weights to either side of a scale. We can’t diagram it or blueprint it. All we can do is paint pictures and sing.

    1. That’s super interesting! I never thought about why it would be hard for kids to grasp atonement but easy to understand Satan’s defeat. Thanks for sharing!

  2. “We can’t plug anything into it. We can’t add weights to either side of a scale. We can’t diagram it or blueprint it. All we can do is paint pictures and sing.”

    Some days I feel like that’s one of the leading reasons God made things this particular way, as opposed to an infinite amount of “other” ways. To get us to the point where we paint pictures and sing. 🙂

    Good thoughts all around!

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