Why did Jesus need to die?

Christians know why Jesus died: He died for our sins. That’s what we’re taught from the earliest days of Sunday … Continued

Christians know why Jesus died: He died for our sins. That’s what we’re taught from the earliest days of Sunday school.

Bullit Marquez


A penitent carries a wooden cross around a street of San Fernando city, Pampanga province in northern Philippines, to reenact the sufferings of Jesus Christ and to atone for their sins in observance of Holy Week which culminates in his death Wednesday, April 20, 2011.

And we all know how he died: A particularly gruesome form of public execution known as crucifixion.

But there comes a time in every Christian’s life when the Sunday School answer, “Jesus died for my sins,” falls short. We want to know how it works.

Much ink has been spilled trying to work out this doctrine, called the “atonement” by theologians. But it’s also worth noting that never in the 2,000-year history of the church has one’s take on the atonement been a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy. Never was it the subject of an ecumenical council, nor was it ever enshrined in an early church creed.

That historical reality affords us some latitude to consider the major ways that Christians have understood the atonement over the years, and to ponder some minority opinions as well. In each, the crucifixion is the solution. Where they differ is articulating the problem that crucifixion solves.

View Photo Gallery: Christians around the world raised palm branches in traditional observances launching Holy Week, which for believers marks the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The First Majority Opinion

For the first millennium of the church, a particular view of the atonement held sway. In this take-alternatively called “ransom captive” and
Christus victor
-the problem is Satan. When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, this theory goes, humanity was given over to the Devil, and he held us hostage. Eventually, God struck a deal with the Devil, giving his own Son over in our stead. We were released when Jesus was killed.

If this take on the crucifixion sounds familiar, that’s because it was enshrined by C.S. Lewis in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”Substitute Edmund for humanity, Turkish Delight for the fruit of the Garden, the White Witch for Satan, and Aslan for God/Jesus, and you’ve got the cast. Aslan offers himself as a ransom for Edmund and is slaughtered on the Stone Table (read, cross).

But this explanation of the atonement is rife with problems, not least of which is that, in the Narnia version, Aslan is bound by a “deep magic from the dawn of time.” It’s a pretty weak God who has to obey arbitrary rules like that. And it seems highly unlikely that God would have to negotiate with the Devil for anything.

The Second Majority Opinion

For these reasons, a new version of the atonement rose to prominence about 1,000 years ago. This theory-called “substitution” or “satisfaction”-posits that the problem isn’t Satan, it’s sin.

In this account, when Eve and Adam ate the fruit, they committed a mortal crime. Their rebellion against God was punishable by death, and they lost their immortality. Every subsequent human being has been guilty of the same crime, and each of us has been sentenced to death.

But it’s not just physical death. God’s sense of justice is perfect, this theory postulates, so God cannot possibly allow a sinful being into his eternal presence in heaven. Thus, we’re not only sentenced to die, we’re also sentenced to an eternity in hell.

In fact, the offense to God is so great that the debt can only be paid by a perfect, sinless being, and there’s only one being in all of creation who fits the bill. So God’s Son descends to Earth and pays the price for all of us by dying on the cross. Jesus acts as a substitute for humanity, standing between us and God and absorbing the wrath and punishment that should rightfully be ours.

The substitutionary interpretation of the atonement has problems, too. For one, it binds God to a sense of law and justice; if God is subservient to a legal code of crime and punishment, then the legal code itself becomes God. And for another, the Son is demoted to a junior partner of the Trinity, merely doing the Father’s bidding. This has led some theologians to characterize this theory as “divine child abuse.”

Minority Opinions

Recently, alternative understandings of the atonement have been proposed. French anthropologist René Girard sees the sacrificial systems of primitive religions as a release valve in human society. In ancient religions, humans regularly laid their sins on an innocent victim and slaughtered it, hoping the blood would appease the angry gods.

Jesus’ crucifixion-the ultimate innocent victim-shows once and for all that the sacrificial system is bankrupt, proving that violence does not atone for violence.

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggests that Jesus’ life and death is an act of solidarity between God and humanity. After trying to reunite with us through laws and sacrifice, through prophets and kings, God takes the ultimate step of reunification, becoming human. Jesus’ cry from the cross-“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”-shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us.

Coming to Conclusions

One benefit of the atonement not being a matter of orthodoxy is that Christians are free to hold more than one theory of how it works. For that matter, there’s no requirement that a follower of Christ affirm any of these notions at all.

As with all theology, talk of the atonement is conjecture. God’s truth is ultimately a mystery to which no human being is privy. However, as we approach Good Friday, Christians rightly consider the crucifixion and its implications. Let us do so with grace and good humor.

Tony Jones is the theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. He blogs at Patheos.com, and his most recent book is “A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.”

Tony Jones
Written by


    Can you imagine the kind of trouble he would have caused for his followers, particularly Saul of Tarsus, if he had lived? They would have had to kill him.

    Messiahs are more useful when they are conveniently dead.

  • denim39

    The challenge and reward to the reader to do His will:
    Jhn 7:14 Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.
    John 7:15 And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?
    John 7:16 Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
    John 7:17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
    John 7:18 He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.”
    “…he shall know..”

  • brainiacs

    Hell for that matter so are the people who follow them.

  • bondn

    The death and ressurection of Jesus Christ as the propitiation for human sin is THE central theology of Christianity! Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1John 4:10, and to underscore the importance of this 1 Corinthians 15:3-19. It is also very important to note that Jesus is as stated in Colosians, “the one in whom the fullness of diety dwells.” He is not a lesser person of the Trinity, but God Himself who willingly allowed Himself to be sacrificed for MY sins and even the sins of all who would believe.

  • Harlon57

    There is no mystery here. The original stories are seen as ridiculous as we become more knowledgable, hence, over time new excuses for the abomination are trotted out.

    The idea that anyone would accept the torture and death of another for a crime/sin they did, or worse, did not commit, is immoral.

  • PhilyJimi

    The great thing about god is you can make up what ever story you want and if you’re a good enough con man you’ll find suckers who will buy it and give you money.

    Religions are the greatest scams ever designed, they only ever promise an IOU that can only be cashed out after you die. It makes a ponzi scheme look like a sound investment.

    Jesus needed to die in order for the church to scam billions out of the suckers who actually think they have a soul and it will be saved because some rebel got staked to a few planks of wood 2000 years ago.

  • raindancer7

    You know, you cannot blur the lines like that. God is Divine and a sacrifice was requred–so he rconciled Himself to us with Himself. What you are doing is blurring an already difficult concept for us so that you can sound intelligent. (all God’s concepts are difficult for us–just look at the apostles. He was right there in front of them and they still didn’t get it), Please don’t intellectualize your way right to hell and bring others with you. Don’t believe me? Okay, just ask God. Or are you too busy doing commentaries about Him, instead of asking Him?

  • raindancer7

    Dig deeper–its God’s concepts, not mans. But then again, God doesn’t need me to defend what He’s doing . . .my bad.