Many critics of Christianity, when they hear about the brutal crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, question why His death was necessary? Why Did Jesus have to die the way He did? Why did Jesus have to come and die at all? If God is all-loving why couldn’t He simply forgive us? Why did He send His son to suffer a gruesome death on a cross? Critics often accuse God of divine child-abuse, or paint Him as a petty, easily-offended, tyrant who demanded a disproportionate punishment for human sin. As Christians how should we respond to these questions and accusations?
The Problem of Sin
To better understand the necessity and significance of Jesus’s death on the cross, we need to examine the problem of sin. Firstly, what is sin and where did it come from? Sin is so much more than just the individual mistakes we make or bad actions we commit from time to time. The Bible teaches that humanity is fallen and sinful. Romans 3:23 states that, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But this wasn’t always the case. The Bible teaches that God created this world ‘good’. God created humanity because he loves us and wants a relationship with us. However, the first humans Adam and Eve introduced sin, death, and evil into this world when they made a free choice to not trust God and disobey Him. They rebelled against God and chose for themselves what they believed was right and wrong. They decided to follow their own self-serving desires and refused to delight in the perfectly holy and just ways of God. Because of this, creation fell and was separated from God. Creation is now stained/affected/conditioned by sin. There’s now death, decay, disease, etc. Human nature is now broken. Sin is like a disease or addiction that we all suffer from. For example, we all struggle with pride, greed, anger, jealousy, betrayal, lust, rage, selfishness, conflict, and the list goes on and on.
No matter how hard we try as individuals or societies we can never save ourselves from sin. In Romans 6:23 it says that, “…for the wages of sin is death.” We’re all in desperate need of a saviour/cure. We can’t save ourselves. In our own strength we cannot atone for our sins or work our way back to God. In our own strength we can’t put an ultimate end to death, or decay, or disease. In our own strength we can’t put an ultimate end to pride, or jealousy, or lust, etc. We need a saviour to come and defeat these things, to rescue us from them, to take our punishment, to atone for our sins, redeem us unto a new life free from sin, and bring us back into right relationship with God. Without Jesus we’re all destined to spend eternity separated from God because of our sin.
Now that we’ve got a better understand of sin and the profound problem it presents, we must now examine God’s nature and the necessity of Jesus Christ
God’s Nature and the Necessity of Jesus
God by His very nature is perfectly holy and just. Deuteronomy 32:4 states that, “He is the Rock; His deeds are perfect. Everything He does is just and fair.” Due to His perfectly holy nature, God can neither sin nor be in relationship or connection with sin. Habakkuk 1:13 says of God that, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” God is also perfectly just. “The Lord is just!” The Bible says. Psalm 92:15 states that, “He is my rock; there is no evil in Him.” Daniel 4:37 says that, “All His acts are just and true.” Christian apologists Josh and Sean McDowell note that, “It is this just and holy God who recognises evil for what it is and demands that sin be either eternally separated from God or paid for in a manner that absolves the guilt of it.”
In the face of human rebellion and sin, what was God to do? He couldn’t abide sin. This would violate his perfect holiness. He couldn’t overlook sin. This would violate his perfect justice. Yet his perfect love couldn’t stand by and do nothing. So God devised a masterful and merciful redemptive plan for humanity and all of creation.
At this point, many skeptics may still question why Jesus’s death was necessary. Why couldn’t God simply require us to perform some form of penance to earn our forgiveness and salvation? However, as we touched on earlier no matter how hard we try we cannot save ourselves from sin. Even if we had a million lifetimes, we could never reach perfect holiness and justice and thereby earn our own way back into right relationship with God, the very source and standard of holiness and justice. That was the dilemma humanity faced.
However, as Romans 5:6 explains, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.” Jesus Christ is the sinless Son of God, the spotless lamb of God. Only by His death and resurrection are our sins atoned for. Only by His death and resurrection is sin, death, and all evil dealt with and defeated. 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it this way, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ."
We return now to the main objection which must be addressed - due to its popularity and influence - why couldn’t God just forgive us? Why did Jesus need to die? If God is all-loving couldn’t he just forgive and forget about sin? When thinking about these questions it’s important to not limit or reduce our view of God and his nature. It’s also important not to downplay or ignore our rebellion against God and how we’ve all abused the freedom that God has blessed us with.
While God is all-loving he is also infinitely holy, righteous, and just. Our sin and rebellion against God must be addressed and dealt with. But God is all-loving, therefore he has not forsaken us to hopelessly suffer the punishment for our sins. He sent the saviour, Jesus, to rescue and make a way for us, to make our salvation and redemption possible. However, in order to achieve this, there’s a work which needs to be performed.
Like an addiction that needs to be broken over us. Or a stain which must be removed from us. Or a disease that needs to be cured within us. There’s a work which needs to be performed. Jesus came and died not only to atone for our sins but also to perform the work of defeating sin and death, in order to free us from the curse of sin, to make a way for us to be reconciled unto God, for us to begin to truly love and obey God, and for us to turn away from sin and walk into the everlasting righteous life that God has and wants for us. Whoever repents, puts their faith in Jesus, and lives according to his ways, will not be separated from God but will be brought back into right relationship with the infinitely holy, just and loving creator God of the universe.
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Further reading recommendations
'Why did Jesus have to die?' by Marcus Nodder.
'Why did Jesus have to die?' by Jane Williams.
'The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ' by Fleming Rutledge.
'Atonement and the Death of Jesus Christ' by William Lane Craig.
'Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement' by Matthew Levering, Michael S. Horton, Fred Sanders, Andrew Louth, and Tom Greggs.