Life, the Universe and Everything – don’t you just love solving these little matters over a cappuccino or a pint?
A little while ago I was having one of those conversations, when my friend, who’s previously been turned off religion after growing up with a certain strict sect, asked me:
“So tell me: in your opinion, why did Jesus die?”
Well, us Christians, you know, we live for moments like that. Perfect opportunity to explain to my friend exactly why Jesus died for him and what he needs to do about it.
So did I do that? Did I, heck. I stumbled over my words, not sure where to start. I mean, I’ve read so much about Jesus’ death over the years, heard hundreds of sermons on the subject, meditated on it, thanked God day after day for its impact on me, and heard the modern and not-so-modern controversies and debates. So to be put on the spot like that was tricky. Which theological aspects of atonement and propitiation do I unpack? Or do I simply give a personal response – what Jesus’ death means to me personally?
To be fair to myself, it didn’t help that my friend, influenced by a glass or two of vino, was putting me under a lot of pressure to give a robust reply. I can’t articulate clearly under those conditions. And I’m far better at writing than speaking, anyway. So here’s my response.
If I were to put it into just a few words, I’d say:
Jesus died to bring us back to God and into all the forgiveness, love, healing and wholeness that is to be found with him: starting now and made complete after death.
Which leads to (at least) one more question:
Who is ‘us’?
Or: Who did Jesus die for?
I ask this because certain religions and denominations purporting to be Christian may appear to be exclusivist. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, might tell you that only a chosen few will get to live on the new earth.
Amongst mainstream Christians, only the most rigid fundamentalists would say that Christians alone go to heaven as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion, or that only Christians can know God. As if God were narrow-minded like us and judges us on what religion we follow. Ha ha!
Thankfully, the good news that most of us Christians believe is the timeless truth that God is love.
And that Christianity is not the only way to God, but that Jesus is.
I think that’s worth repeating….
We believe that Jesus, not Christianity, is the only way to God.
And there’s a world of difference between the two.
Christianity is the religion that has built up around the person of Jesus, and has morphed and shape-shifted over two millennia, not always for the better.
But Jesus, as the Bible says, “is the same, yesterday, today and forever”.
At this point, I’ll point you to Rob Bell, who expresses this idea far better than I can in his book Love Wins. Feel free to go away and read his book or stay and finish reading this post. Or both. I don’t mind.
But if you’re still reading this, what better place to go for answers than where it all started: the events surrounding Jesus’ death…
Hanging there on the cross, the Man of Compassion looks around at those who crucified him: the Jewish leaders, the priests, the Roman soldiers, the Roman leaders, the baying crowd who demanded his death. He looks around and he cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”!
Was he simply praying a well-meaning, caring prayer, that the Father may or may not have answered affirmatively, depending on whether or not Jesus had been praying “according to God’s will”? Were some of those responsible for his death forgiven and some not?
Or was Jesus so at one with his heavenly Father, so in tune with his Father’s will, and did he carry so much divine authority himself (see Matthew 28:18), that when he prays “Father, forgive…”, it will definitely come to pass?
Could it be that they were all forgiven? All of those responsible for his death?
What does that mean for others who don’t know what they’re doing – who don’t understand the possible consequences of their actions against God and against others? Or those who can’t seem to help themselves doing wrong though they (we) know the right thing to do? (See Romans 7).
Then we see the thief on the cross, admitted into paradise on the strength of a moment of pleading.
We see the Roman soldier with that flash of inspiration: “Surely this man really was the son of (a) God!” Whatever he meant by that, the gospel writers seemed to think it was pretty significant.
We see the women who had been following Jesus – most of whom seemed to be called Mary for some reason… Those devoted, caring ladies, whose lives had been enriched and transformed by this Saviour. Real Christians, staying with him till the end – and beyond.
So that’s Jews, Christians, Romans, Pagans…… all carrying at least glimmers of hope and in some cases huge cause for celebration – hope for reconciliation with God right there and in the future, signs of revelation of God, evidence of forgiveness for seemingly insurmountable sins.
Why? Because of their own faith? Because of their allegiance to the ‘correct’ religion? Because of their manifest effort to turn around towards God? Not all these people displayed these characteristics.
Or simply because of Jesus? The name which means “He saves”.
Simply because Jesus cannot help but forgive and save – because it’s in his nature?
Why did Jesus die? Because heaven can’t contain the reckless compassion, the relentless mercy of God. Because God’s love overflowed into this world in the person of Jesus.
Because God so loved this world – a world made up of atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Christians, Pagans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Buddhists and all those people put off the idea of God because of all the obscene and cruel things done in the name of religion – and wanted to restore our humanity, made complete by being in relationship with him.
How many people, I wonder, have found God in his transcendence, grace and love, not even realising that Jesus has made that connection possible by his sacrifice? People who wouldn’t touch Christianity with a bargepole?
What does Jesus’ death mean for me? Since I first said to Jesus, “I believe in you” at the tender age of 22, his death and resurrection have meant an overwhelming sense of being forgiven, the incredible reality of a relationship with God, and real new life on both the inside and the outside.
“And the healing has begun”, as Van Morrison put it. Healing from the damage and dysfunctionality of my past has, in fact, more than just begun, but it’s also a way off being complete.
For me, his love displayed at the cross means that hope and healing are wide open.
Who did Jesus die for? Who is forgiven and reconciled to God because of Jesus’ death? Just those who understand who he is and recognise him as Saviour?
Or is Jesus so much more generous than that? Do the events and words spoken around his crucifixion hint at to so many more being gathered up into his arms of forgiveness?
If Jesus is that inclusive, that generous-hearted (as I believe he is), then perhaps he’s more appealing than many people (you, maybe?) realise.
I’ll leave these questions for God ultimately to answer and for you to make up your own mind about.
And, my friend, I hope this response has done justice to your question. Either way, we’ll speak again soon…