One thing I used to wonder before I came around to the faith was “if this Christianity thing is real, why would God have to die for us?” I thought it might be a little easier if God just decided to be super merciful and forgive everyone. I remember reading things like “Our sin caused so great a debt that we could not pay it back. God had to come die for us in order to pay the debt that we couldn’t afford”. While that is true, it still didn’t really answer the question for me at the time. I figured that if the debt is owed to God then why does he have to pay himself back? Why not just forgive the loan?
Much More Than a Legal Matter
As I came to understand more about Christianity from the perspective of JP II’s Theology of the Body I began to understand Christ’s death as much more than a legal matter. I came to find out that the answer is… he didn’t have to die for us. He chose to die for us. This is why it is much more than a legal matter. It is a matter of romance. That is why we often refer to the crucifixion as “The Passion of Christ”. Death was not the goal. I don’t believe Jesus came to Earth to die. I believe he came to Earth to court us, to evangelize, to heal, to comfort, to challenge and encourage. However, he knew that coming to Earth and taking human flesh would make him vulnerable to human death. He chose to take on flesh to be with us despite being vulnerable to death.
Why It’s Significant
We still haven’t answered the question, though. Did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t he have just used his powers to destroy his enemies, take himself down from the Cross, and avoid any sort of suffering and death? Yes. He certainly could have but the reason he didn’t is the answer to our main question.
Evil can only be defeated by authentic love and authentic love requires sacrifice. God certainly could have forgiven us our debt and we would have simply racked up more debt. If your credit card company kept forgiving your debt every time you were in over your head, how financially responsible would you be? We needed to learn that sacrifice is the only way to get out of debt. The only way to change habits in irresponsible spending is to grow a habit of sacrifice. Making commitments like “I will bring my lunch to work every day. I will no longer eat out” or “I want that TV now but I’ll wait till I pay down my debt before I purchase it” are the only ways that you can rid yourself of debt. Of course, simply making the promise won’t rid you of debt. You have to faithfully hold to your commitments every time a co-worker says “hey, you wanna go out to lunch at that favorite restaurant of yours?”. You have to feel the burn of wanting to go badly, but then exercise your will to do what you know you should do and not what you are tempted to do. Someone who showed you an example of this kind of self control might in a certain way be “saving” you. We usually feel as though Jesus’s death was him pulling us all out of the hole we dug for ourselves. Instead, he showed us that there was a way out and all we had to do was follow him.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Jesus also didn’t come to Earth and rule with an iron fist or pull himself down from the cross was because he also wanted to teach us that authentic love requires us to be vulnerable and vulnerability often leads to suffering. Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable because that was the only way he could truly show that he was willing to totally sacrifice his self. He demonstrated that he wasn’t just making empty promises. He stayed faithful to his promise and he demonstrated his faithfulness by remaining committed despite great suffering and eventually death. That display of self sacrificial love spoke to us in a way that words could not. The length a person is willing, or unwilling, to suffer for another, is the only true measurement of their commitment. This is why marriage vows are “until death do us part”. His death opened a portal to Heaven by showing us the path we could not have seen without his help. His life showed us that true, faithful, total, commitment was possible and that death was nothing to be afraid of. He taught us that the key to Heaven, and true love, is a willingness to sacrifice and give yourself for the good of others.
So, no, he did not have to die for us… and that’s what makes it so awesome.