God with Us in Extremis

Isenheim altarpiece crossWhy must Jesus die?

Bible text: Mark 8:31
Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must [Greek: dei] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (NRSV)

There are few things more disastrous that a pastor can do at a time of sudden and tragic death, such as that of an infant or of a teenager in a car wreck, than for the pastor to suggest that God willed the death. I simply do not believe that a loving God wills anyone’s death.

But in one case, I have to backtrack on that belief. The New Testament makes clear that Jesus’ death was not an accident nor an unintended consequence of political machinations gone awry nor of Jesus’ naïveté. The New Testament asserts that Jesus’ death was something God willed.

When Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for his upcoming death, he tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, there to die and rise again (see Mark 8:31 above). The Greek word translated must is the word dei. It conveys divine necessity.

This is what gives poignancy to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he struggles to pray, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Mark 14:36).

Why must Jesus die? That is one of the mysteries of our Christian faith. Theologians through the centuries have suggested a variety of theories as to why. None of them has gained universal acceptance among Christians. Christians have never agreed on one definitive statement, other than the elusive lines in the Nicene Creed that it is “for us and for our salvation.”

“For us and for our salvation.” That’s a haunting phrase. It gives no definite reason for the death. Instead it suggests the purpose of that death. It is a purpose motivated by God’s love on our behalf. “For us and for our salvation.”

The gospel writer Matthew points to this purpose at the beginning of his gospel. He recounts how an angel tells Joseph to marry Mary because she is pregnant with a child whom he is to name Jesus, which means in Hebrew “God saves” (Matthew 1:18-25).

Matthew then goes on to say that this child is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means “God with us.”

God does not save us like some grand puppeteer in heaven who selects some human beings for salvation, lifts them out of the miseries of this earth, and places them in the bliss of heaven. That is not the God of the New Testament.

Instead God saves us by coming to be with us. God saves us by being born as we are born. By living a life of faithfulness in a community like ours. By reaching out in compassion to heal the sick and to serve the poor and needy.

God ultimately saves us not by lifting us out of this world of flesh, sin, suffering, oppression and death. He saves us by walking into it, into the very depths of our tragic lives. He walks with us in the Latin phrase in extremis.

He saves us by undergoing himself the very desolation all of us feel when we believe God has abandoned us, when death closes in on us and we can’t do anything to stop it.

He walks into it so that we can join hands with him in walking out of it. And in some mysterious way God cannot do any of this unless he in the person of Jesus experiences the depths of the pit itself.

Jesus’ death is the expression of God’s immense love that will not let anything, including death, rob him of his precious creatures.

Matthew will tell us that when Jesus dies, the skies darken with storm clouds and the earth shakes in an earthquake (Matthew 27: 45, 51). This suggests that the death of Jesus is in fact a cosmic event.

All creation convulses in sorrow and pain as the Son of God enters into the depths of death itself. Likewise on Easter Sunday, the earth will once again quake as life breaks out of the tomb and all the heavens break into jubilation (Matthew 28:2).

Why must Jesus die? We can’t answer that, except to say that all of Christian tradition proclaims it a mysterious expression of divine love “for us and for our salvation.”

Image: Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Crucifixion panel, 1512.

2 thoughts on “God with Us in Extremis

  1. Robert Wallace

    Why did Christ have to die? I received that answer from my 3rd grade teacher, a nun, at St. Rita’s elementary School in Detroit. She told us that Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden Eden was such an insult to God’s divinity that only a divine sacrifice could atone for it.
    I have never thought of questioning that. I do not know why.
    I presume you are aware of such an explanation, and wonder why I missed seeing it referred to in your blog.


    1. Bob: I allude briefly in my posting that there have been three major explanations in the history of Christian theology as to why Jesus had to die. They are known as the three theories of the atonement. One of the three is a theory called the satisfaction theory. It was first formulated by St. Anselm in the 11th century. It argues that human sin offends the honor of God. And the dishonor shown God must be satisfied by a death. In God’s mercy, however, God undergoes the death for us in the crucifixion of Jesus.
      This theory (with some variations) has wide acceptance in the Christian world, both in Catholic and Protestant circles. Your third-grade teacher was speaking from this widely accepted viewpoint when she said to you what she did. Many other Catholics and Protestants would say the same.
      The satisfaction theory has not, however, received universal acceptance in Christian theological circles. Many theologians today object to it because they feel it makes God appear sadistic in inflicting punishment on his own innocent Son, even if that is punishment on our own behalf.
      What I was trying to do in my posting was not advocate any one of the three prevalent theories on HOW the death of Jesus brings about atonement. I am not sure that any of the three theories are right on target. But I was reflecting more on the WHY question in terms of God’s purpose rather than on the method of atonement. The New Testament is quite clear, I believe, on the purpose, even if it is less clear on the how. It is the purpose that I think is so important to our understanding of the Good News.


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