Why Would God Want Jesus to Suffer a Painful Death?

Fair Observer’s Editor-in-Chief asked me why it was that Jesus had to die in such a horrible way on the Cross. In truth, the Crucifixion is not just an episode of torture and death. It is the self-emptying sacrifice of one who took on human life in order to make it whole.

Benito Prieto Coussent, “Cristo en la Cruz,” 1951.

March 31, 2024 02:40 EDT

Atul Singh, our Editor-in-Chief, is a cultured man. He always makes sure he understands and respects the traditions of those he deals with. Atul makes no exception of Christian traditions, especially during the Paschal Triduum, the 72 hours from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday which are the holiest part of our year. So, on the morning of Good Friday, Atul asked me what to say rather than “happy” Good Friday. I told him that “blessed” always works. He chuckled.

Then, Atul asked me another question. “I never understood why there needed to be so much suffering,” he said. “Why did God want Jesus undergo all that torture?”

I was dumbstruck. All of a sudden, I had nothing to say. It was not because I had never thought of the question before; indeed, I have been pondering the meaning of Jesus’s death all of my life. But how does one even begin to express the answer to that question in a sentence or two, without it falling flat like some stolid answer from a theology textbook?

It’s a little bit like when a woman asks a man why he loves her. The obvious answers just don’t seem to do the question justice.

Yet Atul’s is a question that deserves to be answered. Is the central drama of the world’s most widespread religion simply absurd? How can the religion that preaches a message of love really teach that God demanded his own son to suffer and die on a cross to satisfy the demands of his justice?

God is not a sadist

When I finally did manage to stammer out an answer, it was something along the lines of, “Well, that would be what the Calvinists would say.” An unsatisfying answer, sure, but one that was true enough. The Calvinist tradition has proposed a theory of the Crucifixion which, I think, is the cause of a lot of the concern that underlay Atul’s question. In many ways, it is the concept that the rest of the world has perhaps now come to see as the Christian idea of redemption. The name of this theory would be penal substitution.

According to the theory of penal substitution, what Jesus did on the Cross was take all of the punishment that was really ours, the wrath of God that we had merited by our sins. God imputes the sins of humanity to Christ, and he punishes him with all of the fury that his divine holiness has for the wickedness that we commit. In a paradoxical way, God treats his own son like a sinner and unleashes his wrath on him.

There is something about this picture that does not sit right with our ideas of what Christianity should be. God is so angry that he needs to take it out on somebody, and that somebody turns out to be Jesus? Is God really pleased by the suffering of an innocent man? Sure, you can say the innocent man voluntarily accepts his suffering. But one still finds it hard to accept. In this picture, God seems to be acting more out of wrath than out of love, or even justice.

That is not the God of scripture, the God who “is love.” The Old Testament book of Wisdom tells us that “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” And God loves none of the living, human beings or angels, as much as he loves his own beloved Son. Jesus is the offspring of the very bosom of Father’s divinity, the son whom he loves more than the entire created universe. No, God is not pleased by the torturing of his son.

This theory is a distortion of the biblical truth: Jesus did the will of his Father by bravely accepting death in an act of pure love, obedience and self-sacrifice that is worth more to the Father than the sins of the whole world. Jesus paid the debt for evil men, not by taking the punishment they deserved — which would be Hell — but by showing the Father a love that was greater than all of the worship that sinners had denied him throughout the ages. This is why Jesus is our ransom and our justification and our savior — not our whipping-boy.

A sacrifice of love

It is love that God desires, more than anything; Jesus earned our salvation by his love, because love deserves a reward, and love covers a multitude of sins. But then, one might justifiably ask: Why did Jesus have to die? Was not his love enough?

In a way, this is true. One single act of Jesus’s perfect love is worth more to God than the sins of the whole world. He could have merited our salvation with a single prayer, a single day of fasting or a single act of mercy for the poor. And indeed, Jesus spent his entire life sanctifying the world with acts of unspeakable love. Yet God desired our salvation to be accomplished by the greatest act of love — and there is no greater love than this, which is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

We will never fully unpack the mystery of the supreme act of saving love that Jesus poured out on the Cross. Perhaps God desired to show his infinite love for us by saving us in a gratuitous way, something more than was strictly necessary. Perhaps God wanted to show us how Jesus was betrayed by Christians, accused by Jews and tortured by Gentiles, to teach us that we all have a part in rejecting God’s goodness. Perhaps it was fitting that God had turned death itself, which had been the weapon the Devil used to oppress humankind, into his own instrument for frustrating the evil one’s plans. Thomas Aquinas lists five reasons. He could have listed five hundred more.

I will try, in my own little way, to offer three reasons that I hope will answer Atul’s question.

Why did Jesus have to die for the salvation of mankind? Because doing so was the greatest act of sacrifice, of sincerity and of solidarity.

Sacrifice is an ancient concept. Nearly all human cultures have had sacrifice as a way of displaying devotion to the gods. Today, with the spread of Christianity and Islam worldwide, animal sacrifice has become much rarer than it was in ages past. Yet the basic idea is universal: Human beings, who owe everything to the divine, must out of gratitude give back in some way. We do this by sacrificing, because, as an ancient Sumerian proverb expressed, “What has been destroyed belongs to a god. No one is able to take it away.”

The Jewish religion was full of animal sacrifices, especially bloody sacrifices of cattle, sheep and goats. The essential act was not merely the killing of the animal, which could be done by laymen, but the offering of its blood upon the altar by an ordained priest. In this way, the animal was dedicated to God. Christians believe that Jesus is our priest, and that, while he was slain by the hands of other men, it was by offering his own blood on the altar of the Cross that he gave God an act of pure, saving worship.

What has been destroyed belongs to a god. No one is able to take it away. Jesus gave up everything to God on the cross, accepting the abandonment of his friends, the stripping of his possessions, the defamation of his good name and the loss of his very life. In doing so, he showed us that he held nothing back in order to save us. At the same time, he taught us to hold nothing back from God, but to offer ourselves wholly. And, in time, God was to restore to Jesus everything that he had offered a hundredfold, precisely because he had given it up so freely.

Why do I bring up sacrifice? It seems an archaic concept, and perhaps an excessively technical one. But it’s important to remember because sacrifice is the biblical concept that was distorted and made unrecognizable by the theory of penal substitution. Jesus is not so much the scapegoat of Yom Kippur as he is the lamb of Passover. And that is why this day, Easter, is called the Pasch — pascha, פֶּסַח, the Passover, when the blood of the Lamb rescued God’s people from destruction.

An act of honesty

Even beyond this perhaps esoteric conception of sacrifice, I believe that something far simpler is too at the heart of the Crucifixion. That is the plain fact that to die is hard.

This world is full of false prophets, would-be messiahs and cult leaders. It is easy and profitable to make yourself look holy and sound profound. With it come fame, wealth and even, a lot of the time, sex. (One sure way to tell that you have a cult leader is to see that he has a lot of girlfriends.)

We are much more willing when we believe preachers who are capable of denying themselves. The Buddha and St. Francis made themselves credible by casting away their wealth, not by amassing it like televangelists do. Yet perhaps even for selfish reasons one might cast away one’s wealth. After all, a good reputation is worth more than gold. Someone might prefer to be revered rather than be rich. What someone will not do, unless they are insane, even for the sake of fame is die.

Jesus is a preacher who tells me that he came down from heaven, that he comes bearing God’s message for human beings, that I must call upon him to be saved, love him more than my own kin and deny myself and be willing to die for him. This is not just a purveyor of good advice, to whom I might listen and gather some pearls of wisdom and go on my merry way, even if the rest of his sayings are not trustworthy. I can glean pearls of wisdom from a Christian televangelist or a Hindu self-named guru. But I cannot trust them. With the demands that Jesus makes of me, unless I can trust that this man means what he is saying, I cannot listen to him.

I daresay that if Jesus had not died on the Cross, he would not have had many followers. But this is a man who is willing to go the whole nine yards. This is someone who is willing to give it all up — everything — suffer the betrayal of his followers, the condemnation of his own people and the most humiliating and cruel form of torture-execution designed by the Romans, who were masters of cruelty. And he tells me that he is doing it all for me.

Because Jesus died on the Cross, because he withstood horrible tortures and refused to recant or make excuses, I know that he meant everything that he said. His suffering proves his sincerity. And his wisdom proves his sanity. This was no lunatic with a death wish, but a wise, compassionate, strong and capable man who gave it all up for the truth.

Only such a man will I trust with my immortal soul.

A savior who was not ashamed to be like me

The sacrifice of the crucifixion tells us something about God. The sincerity of it tells us something about Jesus. But what does it tell us about ourselves, and about our own suffering?

On the Cross, God the Son embraced suffering. He took it into himself. He bore what all human beings bear — pain, humiliation, death. Jesus did not consider these things to be beneath himself.

Jesus lived an entire human life, complete with all of the things that a human life includes, except for sin. We can miss the profoundness of this truth for how obvious it is: Everyone suffers.

God created this entire world, with suffering in it. He did not create evil, but he did not disdain from making even those creatures which he knew would experience evil. He creates human lives, fully knowing all of their joys and their sorrows, their successes, failures, deprivations, long lonely nights, heartbreaks. God looks at the entirety of a human life and, in his all-knowing decree, he says yes.

Jesus did not select some parts of our humanity, the pretty ones and the pleasant ones, to take to himself. He did not disdain any part of it, consider it unworthy of his dignity. He took it all. Thus, he testifies to the truth that human life is worth living, human life is fundamentally good, despite and even within suffering.

Even more: Jesus chose suffering. Even suffering itself then is not without value, without meaning. When I suffer, I am not experiencing the absurd uncaringness of a cold universe. Nor am I experiencing simply something unfortunate, a mere flaw in the universe that God simply did not feel like fixing, something not meant to be.

No, even suffering has meaning, because Jesus embraced suffering. So I will embrace suffering, too. I will take on all that my human life has to offer me, not shrink from pain out of fear, not fly from humiliation because I have an inflated sense of how dignified I should be. I want to live it all. I want the world that God created. Wrinkles and all.

And Jesus shows me that suffering is part of the story, but not the end. He gave everything to God in an act of utter self-emptying. And yet God gave still more back to him, because of his love. God raised Jesus, today, not reversing his sacrifice but completing it: A man, fully alive, fully devoted, full of truth and of love, having given up his life for others, now becomes the fountain of life for all of them.

Evil does not have the last word. Suffering is more than evil: It is what the soul does when it confronts evil, wrestles with it in order to defeat it. And in the end, life wins. After all the suffering of Good Friday, the morning of Easter comes.

Why did Jesus need to undergo so much suffering? Because he is the way of self-sacrificing love. He is the truth of honest teaching. And he is the life that embraces suffering, and even overcomes it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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