christ-on-the-crossJesus' Death

Christians believe the death of Jesus was part of a divine plan to save humanity. But exactly how could this work? The events leading up to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus are well-told by the Gospel writers, as are stories of the Resurrection. But why did Jesus die?

In the end the Roman authorities and the Jewish council wanted Jesus dead. He was a political and social trouble-maker. But what made the death of Jesus more significant than the countless other crucifixions carried out by the Romans and witnessed outside the city walls by the people of Jerusalem?

Christians believe that Jesus was far more than a political radical. For them the death of Jesus was part of a divine plan to save humanity. It is through Jesus's death that people's broken relationship with God is restored. This is known as the Atonement.

The word atonement is used in Christian theology to describe what is achieved by the death of Jesus. Atonement (at-one-ment) is the reconciliation of men and women to God through the death of Jesus. But why was reconciliation needed? The Christian faith believes that God created humanity to live in perfect and wholesome relationship with himself. However, humanity, through pride, has chosen to live independently of God. So, the basic understanding in Christian theology is that God and mankind need to be reconciled. However, what is more hotly debated is how the death of Jesus achieved this reconciliation.

There is no single doctrine of the atonement in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament uses a range of images to describe how God achieved reconciliation to the world through the death of Jesus. The most common is the image of sacrifice. For example, John the Baptist describes Jesus as "the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world". (John 1:29)

Here are some other images used to describe the atonement:

      a judge and prisoner in a law court
      a payment of ransom for a slave's freedom
      a king establishing his power
      a military victory

And here are some examples of how the New Testament explains the death of Jesus:

'For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'. (Mark 10:45)

'Drink all of you from this', he said. 'For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.' (Matthew 26:28)

Well then, in the first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures... (1 Corinthians 15:3)

Theologians have grouped together theories of the atonement into different types. In his book Christian Theology: An Introduction Alister E. McGrath groups his discussion into four central themes but stresses that these themes are not mutually exclusive. His four themes are:

The cross as sacrifice
The cross as a victory
The cross and forgiveness
The cross as a moral example

The cross as sacrifice

The image of Jesus' death as a sacrifice is the most popular in the New Testament. The New Testament uses the Old Testament image of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:5) and applies it to Christ. The theme of Jesus's death as a sacrifice is most drawn out in the Letter to the Hebrews. The sacrifice of Christ is seen as the perfect sacrifice. In the biblical tradition sacrifice was a common practice or ritual. In making an offering to God, the person making the sacrifice hopes to make or mend a relationship with God. By Jesus's death, which is indeed the one and most true sacrifice offered for us, Jesus purged, abolished and extinguished whatever guilt there was by which the principalities and powers lawfully detained us to pay the penalty.

The cross as a victory

The New Testament frequently describes Jesus's death and resurrection as a victory over evil and sin. How was the victory achieved? Gustaf Aulén writes, 'Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ - Christus Victor - fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself.

The cross and forgiveness

In this theory Jesus pays the penalty for each individual's sin in order to right the relationship between God and humanity, a relationship damaged by sin. Jesus's death is the penalty or "satisfaction" for sin. Satisfaction was an idea used in the early church to describe the public actions - pilgrimage, charity - that a christian would undertake to show that he was grateful for forgiveness. Only Jesus can make satisfaction because he is without sin. He is sinless because in the Incarnation God became man.

The cross as a moral example

Moral influence theories or exemplary theories comprise a fourth category used to explain the atonement. They emphasise God's love expressed through the life and death of Jesus. Christ accepted a difficult and undeserved death. This demonstration of love in turn moves us to repent and re-unites us with God.

Ultimately, Christians believe that Jesus's death was not the end of the story, but that he was resurrected three days after dying on the cross. To find out more about Jesus's resurrection, please click here.