Why did Christ have to die to redeem our sins? This is one of those questions that cuts to the core of Christianity, is super difficult to answer, and represents one of the mysteries of the faith. An all-powerful Creator could, hypothetically, simply forgive sins. So why send his incarnate son to suffer crucifixion? Here’s some context from the Gospel last Monday that reminded me of this recently:
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. —John 3:13-17
I talked this question through with Ben Novak a few years ago, and his explanation is incredibly sane and playful. It’s just one Christian attorney’s personal approach to answering a mystery of the faith, so take it in that light. But I wanted to share it, at minimum, because it’s helped me think about God in a less distant way. I transcribed the following from a casual conversation, so errors/poor grammatical formations are mine.
A Theory of Christ’s Sacrifice
There’s nothing in Scripture that tells us why God had to send his son to earth to become a man to die for us. In other words, there’s no answer. There are a bunch of theories; the early Fathers of the Church had theories, one of which was the “fishhook theory” involving the Garden of Eden, where mankind fell under the dominion of Satan. However when Christ was tempted in the desert, Satan overstepped his bounds and God re-asserted dominion over man. But that still doesn’t explain why he had to die on the cross. St. Anselm’s “Satisfaction Theory,” and Peter Abelard’s theory, and we probably 15 other theories as to why the Son of God had to become a man and die. I thought about this, and this is a theory I came up with.
Let’s assume that the story of Genesis about Original Sin is true. We sinned in the Garden and God expelled mankind. He says, “Alright, they’ve put themselves outside the Garden. They’re no longer my companions. They’re cut off from me.” If this was all there was to it, that would’ve been the end of our relationship with God.
But fortunately God had a son. And like any teenager, he walked around the universe, stopping in at different places, visiting and observing them. When he came to Earth, he saw these human beings. Of course, he knew their story from his father—that they were created in the Garden, rebelled and were tossed out. Their connection was lost. Nevertheless, the son noticed something about them that impressed him. He saw that they were damned, and cut off from God. Yet they were still willing to do things (particularly willing to give their lives) without any possibility of a reward. He saw that they gave their lives for their children, their country, their friends, their gods.
The son was so impressed by this that he went back to his father God, saying “Hey father, you know, I’ve been looking at these humans that you created and noticed something really special about them—that they do this thing, they give their lives without any thought of reward.” And the father responded, “Hey, that was a failed experiment. I threw them out, and they’re lost. I don’t want to hear about it any more.”
And so the son goes back out, and like any good kid goes back to earth and studies man some more before coming back to his father. “You know,” he said to father God, “I’ve been watching them some more, and they’re doing something that isn’t even done in Heaven. In Heaven you reward the good and punish the bad. On Earth, women give their lives caring for their children and dying for their children. Men give their lives for their families. All without any possibility of collecting a reward. They’re cut off from you. They have no eternal life. Yet they do these things anyway. And that doesn’t even happen in Heaven.”
“I told you before,” God scolded his son. “It was a failed experiment, and I don’t want you to have anything to do with them. You keep away from them.”
And so like any kid he goes right back to erase any doubt, before returning to his father. “You know, father,” he says, “they have created something—a virtue, if you will—that is greater than anything we’ve done here. This willingness to act without the reward of eternal life.”
Father fumes: “Enough.” But the son presses further: “I think that to be a man could be even greater than to be God, because to act without promise or reward of eternal life would be even higher than what we have in Heaven.”
“Oh!,” says father God. “If you think it’s so great, why don’t you go down there and be one of them. Don’t be born in a palace. Don’t have power or servants. No—you go be born at the bottom and you go through the worst of it, and you come back here and tell me that it’s better to be a man than to be God.”
And so the son goes to the Angel Gabriel and gets himself born, and lives his whole life exactly as we know it. He’s finally in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now he’s sweating blood, because now he knows he has to go through the final part of it. He has to die as a man, under the worst possible circumstances, with all that pain and suffering. But he also has to die without any thought of reward or eternal life. Sweating blood, he calls out to his father, “Please, take this cup away. Don’t make me do this.” And the father says, “Hey, you don’t have to do it. I’ll bring you right back to Heaven; you can get out of it any way you want. But, of course then you lose the bet. You lose what you said was so great about these people.”
So the son decides to go through with it, thinking, “I said it, and I meant it.” He goes through the whole thing, and on the cross it’s finally achieved when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s at that point where he can die like a man, with almost despair in his heart. He’s proved his point to his father, though he won’t collect on it, because he’s dying like a man without any thought of the future.
He dies and descends into Hell, which is oblivion, and finally on the third day he rises. The father calls him back and says, “OK son. Is it better to be man than to be God?” And the son says, “Yes, father, it is.” Father God says, “Well son, you went and did it. You lived it. If you say it’s better to be a man than to be God, then I have to accept your statement: to die in the human condition, and give yourself without any thought of reward is truly great. Therefore every human being who gives up his life and dedicates his life without any thought of reward is also a son of mine.” And that’s how we were saved.