WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?
Of all the events recorded in Scripture, none speak so clearly of the truth about God as the life and the death of Jesus his Son.
It is not that the Old Testament had failed to bear eloquent and convincing witness to the truth. Some of the most persuasive examples of the infinite grace and trustworthiness of God are described in the first thirty-nine books. The answers to Satan’s charges begin with the first page of the first book.
Paul spoke of the witness of the Old Testament to the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21). Jesus confirmed that the Old Testament had borne a true witness to himself (John 5:39; Luke 24:44). Hebrews 4:2 declares that the Good News was heard by God’s people in the days of Moses.
When Paul needed to cite an example of great faith in God, he chose Abraham (see Romans 4), who lived as God’s honored friend long before the first book of the Bible was written. Hebrews 11 lists many others in Old Testament times who, even under the most difficult circumstances, had seen the truth and learned to trust in God.
But there was need for still clearer demonstration of the truth. There was accusation in the great controversy that still had to be met. Even as Moses, Micah, and Isaiah joined with other prophets in speaking so well of God, they pointed forward to the day when God himself would give the ultimate answer to any lingering question about His own trustworthiness.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one through whom God created the universe, the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of God’s glory and is the exact likeness of God’s own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1–3, gnt).
The first chapter of Hebrews goes on to emphasize that the One who came to reveal God was also God himself. “When he brings his first-born into this world of men, he says: Let all the angels of God worship him…. When he speaks of the Son, he says: Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (Hebrews 1:6–8, Phillips).
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul clearly recognized that when Jesus was born among us as a human being, it was actually God who so humbled Himself: “He, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his privileges as God’s equal, but stripped himself of every advantage by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born a man” (Philippians 2:6, 7, Phillips).
To Nicodemus Jesus gave the simplest reason why he had to come. “No one has ever gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from heaven” (John 3:13, gnt). That is, none of us has ever gone up to bring back the truth about God.
John in his Gospel offers a similar explanation: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18, gnt).
Phillips translates this same passage: “It is true that no one has ever seen God at any time. Yet the divine and only Son, who lives in the closest intimacy with the Father, has made him known.” Or as the New English Bible puts it so beautifully, “God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, he has made him known.”
The most important story in all the sixty-six books is how the Son of God came to this earth, how he lived among us as the most gracious person the world has ever seen, how still in the prime of life he died a terrible death and then rose from the grave and returned to his heavenly Father.
What does this tell us about God? Why did Jesus come in human form? And why did he have to die?
Sometimes a Christian will answer these questions by repeating the best known verse in all the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (kjv). Or perhaps he has memorized this text as translated in the New English Bible. In this version the words are in quotation marks, to indicate that they were spoken by Jesus himself. “‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life.’”
This famous verse, however, does not explain why Jesus had to die. It only tells us that God loved the world enough to give his Son.
The first mention of death in the Bible is in God’s solemn warning in the Garden of Eden: “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).
Satan has denied the truthfulness of these words. “You will not die,” he asserted to Adam and Eve. “It is perfectly safe—in fact, highly beneficial—to eat the fruit of this tree. You cannot depend on God always to tell you the truth. This is why it is not wise or safe to place full trust in Him” (see Genesis 3:1–6).
But Satan has not only denied the truthfulness of God’s words of warning; he has also led to a perversion of their true meaning. The enemy of God and man, who would have us fear our heavenly Father as arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe, has led to the misunderstanding of this warning as a harsh demand for obedience under penalty of death.
What a baleful effect this distortion of the truth has had worldwide! How it has poisoned people’s attitude toward God and their practice of religion! Obey, or face execution at the hands of an angry God. How could this satanic view have met with such wide acceptance?
For thousands of years men have offered sacrifice—sometimes even their own children—to win the favor of offended gods. Even in the Christian world some teach that had it not been for Christ’s appeasement of a wrathful God, we would long ere this have been destroyed; and but for his Son’s constant pleading in our behalf the Father could not find it in his heart to forgive and heal us sinners.
But need anything be done to persuade God to love his children?
Nothing is more emphatic in Scripture than that God has always loved—even his most wayward child. The consistent testimony of all sixty-six books is that our heavenly Father loves us as he loves his Son.
When God said, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall die,” he was uttering no arbitrary threat. In love for his created beings, he was only warning of the consequences of sin.
Sin so changes the sinner that it actually results in death. Separated from the Source of life, he will surely die. Out of harmony with his Creator, he can no longer endure the life-giving glory of his presence.
This glory that surrounds God is often described in the Bible as having the appearance of fire. When God came down to Mount Sinai, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (Exodus 24:17).
When Daniel recorded his vision of heaven, he described God’s throne as “fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him” (Daniel 7:9, 10).
When Ezekiel described his vision of God in chapter 1, verses 4 to 28, he spoke repeatedly of the appearance of brightness and fire: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (verse 28). When he described the position of Lucifer before his fall, he pictured him standing in the very presence of God, in “the midst of the stones of fire” (Ezekiel 28:14, 16).
Even when so trusted a friend as Moses asked to see God in his glory, the Lord replied, “My face you cannot see, for no mortal man may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20, neb). Yet when Moses came down from talking with God in the mountain, his own face reflected so much of the divine glory that he had to wear a veil out of consideration for the people (see Exodus 34:29–35).
When God said that no man could see his face and live, he was not threatening that he would kill anyone he caught looking. To man, in his present sinful state, the unveiled glory of God would be a consuming fire.
How, then, could God save sinners? How could he come close enough to win them back to faith?
A distant offer of forgiveness would not restore the damage done. How could God make clear the truth about himself, that man might come to trust him once again and so be healed?
God’s answer was to send his Son in human form. Though he is himself the very “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3, Phillips), Jesus “emptied himself,… being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). He veiled the dazzling splendor of his divinity that men might come to know God without being consumed.
The universe was watching when God forgave Adam and Eve. Angels had heard God’s warning of death. They had heard Satan’s bold denial. Again the same question had been raised that started the war up in heaven. Who was right? Who was telling the truth—God or the former Light Bearer?
Had God permitted our first parents to reap the natural consequence of their rebellion and sin, the truthfulness of his warning would have been clearly seen and Satan’s falsehood would have been exposed.
But “the Lord is… not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, kjv). Instead of death he offered forgiveness and healing. In mercy he veiled the glory of his presence. Graciously he preserved the life of the sinner that he might have more time to consider the truth.
What a risk God ran of being misunderstood! Satan would not hesitate to take advantage of God’s willingness to forgive as evidence supporting his evil charges. “I told you God has lied!” the devil could claim. “Sin does not result in death. You will not die.”
Why did not God allow Satan and his followers to reap the full result of their sin? Would not their death have been the most effective way to halt the spread of rebellion and wipe out temptation and sin?
But the universe had never seen death. It was not yet apparent that death was the inevitable consequence of sin. There was danger that the universe would assume that God had executed his enemies, that onlooking beings would thus be led to obey him out of fear.
In spite of Satan’s charges to the contrary, God does not desire the service of fear. It grieves him to see his children afraid. If we should be moved to keep God’s commandments merely by fear of his power to destroy, our obedience would not speak well of our loving heavenly Father.
To remain free and unafraid of God, the universe must learn the truth about the results of sin. They must be helped to understand that the sinner’s death is not execution at the hands of a vengeful God.
But does not the Bible make frequent mention of the awesome wrath of God? The third angel of Revelation 14 warns that in the end the wrath of God, unmixed with mercy, will be poured out on the heads of unrepentant sinners, and they will be consumed with unquenchable fire (Revelation 14:9–11).
What is this wrath of God? Is it like our human anger?
In the first chapter of Romans Paul describes how the wrath of God is poured out on those who reject and suppress the truth. Three times he explains that God gives up such people and turns them over to the results of their rebelliousness.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator….
“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions….
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Romans 1:18—28, emphasis supplied).
How consistent this is with what we know about God! Since faith and love cannot be forced, what else can God do but sadly give up those who reject him?
God’s wrath, as Paul seems to describe it, is revealed by his turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want him anyway, thus leaving them to the inevitable consequences of their own rebellious choice.
Surely no more awful sentence could be pronounced upon a sinner than for God to say, “Leave him alone.”
Such a picture of God’s wrath was not new with Paul. The Old Testament had taught it long before. In the sad but wonderful Book of Hosea the prophet depicts how God had so long and patiently sought to win back rebellious Israel. But the people mocked his love and spurned his every advance. What was there left for him to do but sadly give them up?
When Israel was young I came to love him,
And I called him out of Egypt to be my son.
But the more I called them
The further they went from me.
They made sacrifices to the Baals
And burnt incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
Picking them up in my arms.
Yet they never knew that it was I who healed their bruises.
I led them with gentle encouragement,
Their harness was a harness of love.
I treated them like the man
Who eases the yoke to free the jaws—
Yes, I bent down to them and gave them food.
They must return to the land of Egypt
Or Assyria must be their king,
Because they have refused to turn to me.
The sword shall whirl around in their cities,
Break the defence of their gates,
And destroy them within their fortresses.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
The yoke is all they are fit for—
I can love them no more.
How, oh how, can I give you up, Ephraim!
How, oh how, can I hand you over, Israel!
How can I turn you into a Sodom!
How can I treat you like a Gomorrah!
My heart recoils within me,
All my compassion is kindled.”
—Hosea 11:1–8, Phillips, emphasis supplied
Nineteen hundred years ago the Son of man came to this earth in human form to give us the clearest revelation of the truth about God that the universe will ever see. By the way that he lived and the way that he died he answered the questions, he met the accusations, he confirmed the truth—all with evidence that will stand for eternity.
He came to show how infinitely loving the Father is. He loved everyone, including little children. The disciples assumed that the Saviour was too busy to have time for boys and girls. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14). He came to show how infinitely patient the Father is. He treated everyone with utmost courtesy and understanding, even though he was often rebuffed and insulted in return. One day the disciples asked if Jesus wanted them to call down fire from heaven to consume the rejecters of his love. The Lord rebuked them for their heartless impatience. He had not come to destroy but to heal (see Luke 9:55; 19:10).
Jesus came to show how every detail of our lives is of concern to the Father. In all the excitement following the raising of Jairus’ daughter, it was he who directed that they be sure to give her something to eat (see Luke 8:49–56).
Then at the end of his matchless life there came the supreme demonstration of what God is like. On Thursday evening Jesus was arrested. He was illegally tried. He was falsely accused. He was grossly insulted. But not once did he become angry; for God is like that!
Twice he was horribly beaten. All night long he was allowed no sleep, no food. But did he become irritated? Not for a moment; for God is like that!
Men made a game of hitting his wounded head. They jeered at his mysterious birth as illegitimate. They even spat in his face. But did his patience run out? Did he become angry with his tormentors? Never! For God is like that.
Even as he hung on the cross, enduring the pain of crucifixion and the mocking of those he came to save—even as he passed through the unspeakable agony of separation from his Father—he kept on praying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
This is the kind of person we know our God to be. For the Father is just as loving and forgiving as the Son. As Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Finally there came the moment upon which the security of the whole universe depended—the Son of God was about to die.
And as he died he did not ask, “God, why are you killing me? Why are you executing me?” He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you given me up? Why have you let me go?” (see Matthew 27:46).
Though he had never been rebellious for a moment, Jesus was experiencing the consequence of sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God was pouring out his wrath upon his Son. Because of our sins Jesus was “given up” and “handed over” (Romans 4:25), the same Greek word Paul used in Romans 1 to describe God’s wrath.
There is no clearer picture of God than may be seen at the foot of the cross.
God had told the truth when he warned that the wages of sin is death. In his Son he was dying that death. But God was not executing his Son. He only “gave him up,” as he will give up the wicked at the end. And though by rights we should have died, God did not ask us to prove the truthfulness of his word. He sacrificed himself in his Son.
What more could God do to warn us of our sin and win us back to faith? Surely he had shown himself infinitely worthy of our trust.
God’s own character had been called in question before the universe. His warning that the wages of sin is death had been ridiculed in Eden. But not so anymore. Christ’s death had clearly demonstrated the righteousness of God (see Romans 3:25, 26). God was shown to be right in what he had said (see Romans 3:4).
Christ died primarily to prove the righteousness of God in the great controversy.
As Paul explains, “God showed him publicly dying as a sacrifice of reconciliation to be taken advantage of through faith. This was to vindicate his own justice (for in his forbearance, God passed over men’s former sins)—to vindicate his justice at the present time, and show that he is upright himself, and that he makes those who have faith in Jesus upright also” (Romans 3:25, 26, Goodspeed).
With this supreme demonstration of God’s righteousness all questions about his character and government were settled throughout the universe. God had won his case. The issues in the great controversy had been clearly seen.
Only here on this planet were there any remaining doubts about God. Only here did anyone still believe that Satan might be right.
The day is coming soon when all will have made up their minds about God. Then our Lord will return “in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7), and the glory of God will flash forth again throughout all creation. Those of us who trust in God will not be afraid to see him come. But all that is out of harmony with God will be consumed by the glory of his presence (see 2 Peter 3:7–12).
Even as the wicked die, God will not be angry with his unsavable children. As he watches them perish, we shall hear his cry, “How can I give you up! How can I let you go!”