"Did Jesus have to die?" A conversation with a Friend

Hi David, hope you are doing well...

Just listened to your latest podcast on the meaning behind Jesus dying for our sins. Very good stuff... I appreciated the historical explanations and context behind the various similes used in the NT.

Question for you, and this is something I've asked myself that I don't think was addressed in the podcast but, why was his death the means of atonement and not something else? Could something different have been done, like have Jesus stick a white flag in the ground and say "it is finished and it's cool now between you and God"? Why not $50 or some specific amount of money? I'm being silly here but I think you see my point.

Just wondering if there is an explanation in the Bible about why THE God-man’s death WAS the price? Thinking about it I could possibly say:

1) Since humans are "special" in that we have dominion over the Earth just like God has dominion over the universe nothing could possibly be more sacred in material form on this Earth, than God, as a man, giving up his life for everyone. IT is an ultimate sign of selfless love as far as we can currently grasp.

2) God was used to Jews sacrificing animals/first fruits of the season/etc. as a means of atonement. He knew they could relate and understand what that meant but also realized that it got out of hand so He decided to put an end to it by having one final sacrifice. The sacrifice of all sacrifices which would be part of Himself, the part that manifested Himself physically in this world.

If it sounds like I'm ignorantly riffing on this, I am. My OT knowledge lacks, (like most Christians) so any resource you could point me to would be great that talks about this. 

BTW, I've about finished your book and love it. I've been trying to get through it for a few months now but my reading time is pretty limited and let's face it, apologetics isn't always "lite reading" so thinking about it all at 9pm at night after getting 3 kids to bed... well the energy level isn't always there for deep thoughts :)

One more thought...

In my ridiculous examples and the fact that Jesus did die for our sins implies that some sort of transaction between God and man HAD to occur for the atonement. Why? As humans we have the ability to forgive debts without transactions. Couldn't have God done the same? Did He need to have a symbol to point to? It would seem He could have just said "you know guys, we are good" like when you buy your buddy lunch and never ask him to pay you back or treat you. If God had done that I'm guessing the gravity of the atonement would not have had an impact on us so perhaps He did it this way to get through to us.

Again... thinking out loud

Hey Cody,

These are great questions and points.

Like I said in my podcast, I see no reason to suggest, assume, or argue that Jesus had to die in order for forgiveness to be offered. So, as you ask, could something else have been done? I see no reason not to say, “Yes.” (And the typical response here— “If there were another way, God would have done it”—is completely unconvincing.)

The problem with using the expression “Jesus had to die” (the past tense of the modal verb, "must") as it is always stated, implies some type of obligation or limitation upon God. Now, one might use that expression in various ways concerning God’s behavior. For example, “God had to tell the truth because His character is perfectly good.” In this sentence one might say that God’s behavior is “limited” to the perfection of His character. Yet, surely one can see that such an aspect of His character is not an ontological limitation; it is a limitation necessary to use that particular vocabulary term. The same is true when atheists say things like: God “can’t make mistakes,” or “God can’t invent information He didn’t know beforehand,” so God must not be omnipotent—limited in some way. But, as one can see quickly, this is nonsense. It’s just a logical absurdity thrust into a declarative English statement. They are confusing an ontological "limitation" (a limitation of someone's being or essence) with a semantic "limitation." (In case you didn't know, when you change the meaning of a term in an argument, it is called "equivocation." Equivocation is a paralogism.)

Let me unpack that more: Not making mistakes is precisely the definition of perfection. “Not able to make mistakes” is tantamount to saying “God is perfect.” “Not able to invent information not previously known” is tantamount to saying “God is omniscient.” "Not being single" is tantamount to saying, "Being married." Something is an ontological limitation when it is not complete or perfect. Thus, these so-called defeaters or paradoxes are really just equivocations on the term, "limitation." They use the term in a negative, ontological sense of "not complete or perfect," while, in reality, these "limitations" are just boundaries needed to define terms (like "not able to be single" = "married").

So, is it the same case here? Was God “limited” in some way by His character, attributes, or something else such that Jesus had to die in order for us to receive forgiveness? I see no reason to think so.

Christians typically get God’s character confused with God’s behavior. For example, God’s character is such that He is perfectly loving. Yet, this doesn’t mean that God extends grace and forgiveness at all times. God’s character is such that He is perfectly fair. Yet, this doesn’t mean that God extends punishment at all times. “Perfection” in an attribute of character does not mean “always extended” or “always actualized.” It just means that when it is actualized, it is perfect, unadulterated, untainted.

So, God is just. God is loving. It seems to me that God could have just written His message on the moon for all to see (e.g., “I hate all this sin; and you all deserve to be punished, but because of my love, I choose not to punish you and forgive you.”), or shaped mountains in Hebrew language to express His forgiveness, or sent Jesus to appear to all people at some age and tell them what salvation is, etc. There must be an infinite amount of ways for God to express His perfect character and His response to sin. I see no reason for Jesus’s death and resurrection to be the necessary way that had to happen.

(And the typical verse cited in response, Heb. 9:22, is within the context of a sacrificial system at a Temple that no longer exists; and it is concerning the imagery of Jesus’s death acting as a sacrifice for us [which is just one of several images in the NT!].)

Therefore, I don’t think God was limited in any way. He had the freedom to extend forgiveness in any way that He wanted.

This is why it seems much more fruitful to change the discussion from, “Did Jesus have to die?” to “Why did Jesus die?” That is, as I explore in my podcast, “What is the significance of the death of Jesus? What does it tell us? Why do we think God chose that form of expression of justice and love?”

A short comment I would add (in addition to my podcast) is that it seems to me that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an incredible, culturally-relevant event. Like you suggest, concerning how they could have related to sacrifices and whatnot, God chose to use Jesus’s death to suggest how heinous the crime was (that it would involve the death of the Messiah) and how deep His love was for us (that it would involve the sending of the Messiah). And as you said, I think the death of Jesus, among other things, demonstrates the enormous “gravity” of our situation. A simple, “we’re cool,” surely would have not done for humans what His death and resurrection have done.

And as I say in the podcast, His death actually did something for us. It was not just a symbol. And He chose Jesus’s death to speak volumes, especially to the immediate social and cultural contexts in which it occurred. The metaphors I explore in my podcast would have been immediately accessible to the first century audience.

For the King who gave Himself for us,