Did Jesus Have to Die?

Good Friday is the Christian remembrance of the day Jesus was crucified and died. A question I have wrestled with over time is whether Jesus had to die. If Christians say he had to die then does that mean the redemptive act of his dying was born of violence? And if it is through violence that we are “saved” how does that mesh with Jesus’ message of love? Another way of saying this, from a Christian perspective, is why would God send his son to proclaim a message of love and then use violence as the means to forgive human sinfulness? Does that mean violence is redemptive? Many seem to think so. In fact, there is what theologian Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence” and it has been around a long time. So long, in fact, that we think of it as “normal.” For example, take something as seemingly benign as a Popeye cartoon. 


Every Popeye cartoon is the same. Bluto (or Brutus) who represents the “bad guy” tries to harm Olive Oyl, the feminine victim and Popeye, the hero, tries to stop him, but is beaten to a pulp. It looks bad until Popeye remembers his secret amulet, the spinach, and after eating the spinach turns the tide, sending Bluto into oblivion with a mighty punch. The thing is, Popeye NEVER thinks to eat the spinach BEFORE he takes on Bluto in the first place. And Bluto is never fully defeated. The format never changes.


But we feel better for a moment because the bad guy has been defeated. Through violence. Every western ever made, every super hero movie ever made has the same pattern. It is called the myth of redemptive violence. “When all else fails get a gun and shoot the bad guy.” Not convinced? Name a war that has put an end to war for good.


Returning to the original question of whether Jesus had to die I have two answers, and they are interconnected. 


The Biblical story of the fall to violence in Genesis chapter 3 tells us that because of human disobedience death entered into the human experience. Death is the curse God names as a result of human disobedience. The power to wield death, to control the use of death has, over time, come to be thought of as the ultimate power in the universe. And those in power use the power of death to maintain their power. Which is why both the religious and state leaders in Jesus story use the power of death to rid themselves of the threat to their respective seats of power. Crucifixion, after all, was reserved for those so-called criminals who were considered a threat to the security of the Roman Empire.


So for God this “fall to violence” had to be reckoned with and, according to Christian scriptures Jesus was the one who would accomplish that. According to that story, what Christians call the “Good News” or Gospel, Jesus chose to confront the earthly powers of both church and state knowing that their response would ultimately be a death sentence. Jesus did everything in his power to demonstrate otherwise and his enemies did everything in their power to thwart his message. Left alone to die on a cross, abandoned by his friends, Jesus waited for the one power left who had not yet spoken. 


Three days later God spoke, passing judgment on the power of death, revealing the true power that governs the universe: Life! 


So, here is my answer to the question. Jesus had to die, but it was his choice and it is his choice that becomes the redemptive act. By facing death, even violent death, Jesus revealed the true power of life. Life that is celebrated through forgiveness and reconciliation. 


Christians call it love.