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Why Jesus suffered


At this time of the year our minds often go the question “Why did Jesus have to die? Was there no other way for God to save mankind?”

The death of Christ is often explained either as a debt being paid – that is, His death paid the price of our sin – or as one innocent person dying in the place of other guilty people who have been condemned to die (that is, as a substitute). These are two different metaphors, but they often get confused and used together in explaining the ‘atonement’, or how Christ’s death brings about our salvation. It’s one thing to speak about a ‘debt’ being forgiven, but to then mix this up with a capital punishment for a criminal offense would be to confuse the metaphors.

If we stick to the language of debts being paid then Jesus must have paid the debt to someone – if indeed He paid a debt. This is quite different from someone dying as a substitute in place of another for a crime.

Paul used a variety of metaphors from the marketplace, the slave trade, the law courts and the Temple, because no one analogy is adequate or complete in itself. No one metaphor was adequate for him, and no metaphor should be pushed too far.

However, as far as the Gospel records go, while Jesus predicted His own death He never provided an explanation as to why it was necessary.

On the other hand, Jesus spoke frequently of God’s forgiveness, His abundant generosity, and His graciousness. There is nothing in any of His parables, stories or sayings which suggests that a price of any kind had to be paid to secure God’s forgiveness. The stories which refer to debts being forgiven all emphasise the undeserved kindness shown by the one forgiving the debt. If any debt was owed by Adam or his descendants because of his sin or theirs, then the debt was owed to God. If Jesus death was to pay a debt then the debt must have been paid to God, and that would put God in the position of demanding the death of His own Son in order to satisfy a debt to Himself. The other alternative would be Anselm’s satisfaction theory which had the debt being paid to the devil, which I personally think is absurd.

If Jesus died as a substitute, taking our place for the crimes we have committed, then He suffered the punishment for our sins which was due. There is no need for forgiveness then, because the sentence has been carried out. We are free, not because we have been forgiven, but because someone else took our place.

As I see it, the only way we can understand forgiveness is to see it as a gracious act of God in NOT demanding payment or punishment for our sins. If we use the metaphor of a debt, then the debt is paid and is not forgiven. If we use the language of capital punishment then the sentence has been carried out and the guilty party has a substitute who dies in their place, but the crime is not forgiven. Neither of these analogies explain what actually happened: God chose to forgive our sins even though there was absolutely nothing we could do to merit or deserve His forgiveness, and even though it would be impossible for us to find a substitute who could suffer the punishment which our sins deserved.

As I see it, Jesus’ death was a demonstration of how far God’s love would go in order to save us, not what God demands in order to be satisfied. Several Scriptures point us in this direction:

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Galatians 2:20
The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Ephesians 5:2
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

1 John 3:16
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

1 John 4:9
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

1 John 4:10
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The death of Christ is primarily a demonstration of the love of God. It was not an act to appease an offended deity. It was not a mechanistic or legalistic sacrifice to satisfy the requirements of any religious law. It was not a demonstration of what sinful human nature deserved (an explanation which may be peculiar to Christadelphianism). It was an act of love.

William Barclay puts it very beautifully in The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles’ Creed:

“But why the death of Christ? If Jesus had stopped before the cross, it would have meant that there was some point beyond which the love of God would not go, some limit to his love. But in Jesus God says: ‘You may disobey me; you may grieve me; you may be disloyal to me; you may misunderstand me; you may batter me and bruise me and scourge me; you may treat me with savage injustice; you may kill me on a cross; I will never stop loving you.’ This means that the life and death of Jesus are the demonstration and the proof of the limitless, the undefeatable, unchangeable, unalterable, infinite love of God.” (My emphasis).

This is the most beautiful summary I have ever read of the motivation beyond the cross.

3 Responses to “Why Jesus suffered”

  1. on 22 Mar 2008 at 11:31 amRon S.


    That was a very interesting post. I like the idea of it in some respects.

    Though it seems to me that Barclay’s summary is written from a Trinitarian position. Saying “you may batter ME and bruise ME and scourge ME…..you may kill ME on a cross…” is something that directly points to the view of Jesus being God.

    And while it “sounds” good that God would show His unswayable love for humanity by coming down and going through all of that, we know too well that is impossible from Scripture. God can not be literally beaten and killed. So all of that was something that was done to his agent, his representative, – The Messiah. Sure using the Hebrew custom of agency and that the “agent” is thought of as the one he represents, it could be seen that what was done to His agent, was being done to God. But it just doesn’t carry the same weight in the literal sense. Not to mention that all of us as God’s children would hope that our creator would feel the same sense of loss and pain over the loss of any of us.

    I would also like to ask you since you said: “The death of Christ is primarily a demonstration of the love of God”, if you think that either or both of the debt or substitute explanations still apply in any way. It seems to me that Paul was saying more concerning one of those with his comparisons of Adam and Jesus (as the Second Adam). And how does God’s “demonstration” of how far he would go for us match up to Paul’s language of “Christ died for our sins” (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3). The question of “WHY did Christ have to die for our sins?” would still be there in the form of “Why did God require that his Messiah suffer and die in a demonstration of God’s love for us?”

  2. on 22 Mar 2008 at 11:45 amJohnO

    I too think Anslem’s medieval ideas of mathematical/legal substitution and satisfaction of God’s holy anger are not to be found in the cross primarily. Yes, God does have holy anger towards sin. But that didn’t kill Jesus. Yes, a substitution did take place as well, but that isn’t the whole story. And it seems to be more of a real substitution and a legal/relationship metaphor. It seems that Jesus really died, and that on the other side of that – a lot more people (the early church) looked like Jesus, instead of dead and dying men.

    There is also another very Jewish way to look at this. It involves the suffering of a prophet. Jeremiah and Isaiah often made metaphors out of themselves (walking naked, lying on his side for 300 days) to communicate a truth. There was a common prophetic idea that for a prophet to suffer was in a sense pleading with God for forgiveness on behalf of all the people. Hence Jesus’ “forgive them, for they know not what they do” comment on the cross. The prophet will suffer to save the people from God’s destruction. So yes, Jesus blood does cover us, as he is the “new passover”. But not in a legal way, in a very Jewish way. That Jesus’ pleading with God in his suffering caused God’s forgiveness for those who would repent and turn. And in a turnabout way, Jesus made a metaphor out of himself about all those who would not repent – they would be judged and killed.

  3. on 23 Mar 2008 at 2:35 amSteve


    Barclay was a Trinitarian. However, as you rightly point out, Jesus was God’s “sheliach” or agent and God’s love was demonstrated through the faithfulness of His agent.

    Paul makes an interesting allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac in Rom 8:32 where he says “He who did not spare his own Son …”, using terminology almost identical to Gen 22:16 “because you did not spare your son …”. If we take a hint from this that the binding of Isaac was in some way allegorical of the crucifixion of Jesus then we might also note that in Gen 22 we twice come across the words “the two of them went on together” (vv. 7, 8 ). This suggests a bond between Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham took the lead and Isaac trusted him implicitly. Paul elsewhere suggests that the ‘sacrifice’ of Jesus was God’s initiative (e.g. Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4-5) while Jesus trusted God absolutely, and implied in this is that “the two of them went on together”.

    In response to your question about whether “the debt or substitute explanations still apply” I tend to agree with James Dunn that “‘substitution’ tells only half the story” but that “representation” and “participation” are also inadequate single-word descriptions (Theology of Paul the Apostle, page 223).

    Paul says we have been brought with a price. That’s not quite the same as saying a debt has been paid, and it is one of the many metaphors he uses to uses to describe how our salvation has been affected. It seems that no one metaphor or single-word description is adequate. What passages would you be thinking of when you refer to a ‘debt’?


    I agree that Jesus’ death should be understood in “a very Jewish way”. We need to rid ourselves as much as possible of the later legalistic explanations of theologians such as Augustine and Anselm and read Paul through Jewish lenses. By doing so we will get a very fresh perspective that does justice to God’s mercy, graciousness and righteousness.


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