But Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify Him!” Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:14-15 NASB)
There are those dear to me who, in their inquiry into the claims of Christianity, stumble over the idea of a God who would slay his own Son—especially by the agony of crucifixion. And because they are so very dear to me I will do my best to give an answer. Whether or not it proves satisfactory remains questionable for I have sometimes found that objections to Christianity are not always what they seem on the surface but reflect something more deeply rooted. I am also keenly aware how limited our (and my own in particular) insight is into the fathomless wonder of God. As a close friend of mine so succinctly puts it, “All I know from personal experience and investigation is that God is incredibly good, does things with incredible kindness, and intends things only incredibly loving – the rest, to me, is a mystery.” What follows, therefore, is simply my own sense of the question at hand as best I grasp it.
The first thing I would like to point out is that it was not God who crucified his Son. It was, as we can see from the above passage from the Gospel of Mark, “the crowd” via the hand of Pilate, the official representative of the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem at the time. That God allowed it and that he even knew in advance it would take place does nothing to change the facts. Jesus was killed at the hands of men who took upon themselves the deed without a scrap of coercion or encouragement on the part of God. If outside influence is to have any share of the blame one would have to point a finger at Satan who, for example, put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray his Lord and Master. God himself had nothing to do with the act of crucifying his Son. If the fuller truth of the matter be told the “crowd” clamoring for Christ’s crucifixion stretches past the boundaries of time to include the voices of every one of us. If not through words, through our sinful deeds and unbelief. Even so, those who insist on claiming that God had a part to play, insomuch as he sent his Son into creation knowing what would happen to him and availing himself of this knowledge to further his own plans, are spot on. That Jesus came to die is a great and awful truth, a key component of his Father’s master plan. But there are many forms of death if a dying there must be. Why, we may well ask, a death by the horror of crucifixion?
Our first step along the path of inquiry is to wonder why a death of any kind is necessary. My answer is a highly simplified one: because it made it possible for a humanity that had gone wrong from its earliest days to get back on the right track. For those looking for a more expanded (yet still understandable) version of why Jesus had to die I encourage you to read Mere Christianity, a book by C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame. Lewis does a marvelous job of explaining what Christians call The Atonement in a straightforward manner in the section of the book titled The Perfect Penitent.
Still, we are faced with the particular nature of his death: crucifixion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is yet another more primary question to deal with, that of why Jesus came to Earth. Fundamental to all of the good things that Jesus lavished upon us with his coming is that it was his Father’s will. Jesus came because his Father sent him. This may seem a trivial point but I believe it is essential to grasp. Jesus and his Father were of the same mind and united in purpose.
The second point I want to make is important too: Jesus came to reveal his Father, to show us what God is like.
You might think that people—especially Israel—had gotten a good handle on what God was like. After all, the Jews were chosen by God to be entrusted with the revelation of himself through the written word, what we now call the Old Testament. But it wasn’t so. Even John the Baptist needed a confirming sign of Jesus’ authenticity. (John 1:33) God reveals himself to us at a pace we can endure and digest, both as a race and as individuals. Jesus was nothing if not a major shock to the religious nervous system of the day! If you tried to line the Messiah up against the image in your mind after being steeped in the Old Testament scriptures you likely would never have come up with what confronted you in Christ. Yet in Jesus, here was the fullness of God in human form! (Colossians 2:9)
So Jesus came because his Father sent him to help get lost humanity back on the right track and show us what God was really like. Jesus was a divine show-and-tell. He not only told us what his Father was like he showed us by what he did. It was authoritative, first-hand stuff that astonished everyone who met him. With this in mind we can now turn our attention to the way Jesus died: by crucifixion.
In Christianity God is not an abstract concept, a faceless set of moral values. As we have seen, in Jesus, God is the God whose “word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
In any relationship the depth of intimacy between those involved is based on shared experience. The more sharing there is the closer the two are bonded together. For example, let’s take a relationship between a man and a woman. Let’s imagine them beginning their relationship solely on the basis of written communications. To be sure, they can find themselves becoming quite close based on what they have shared in their writings. Even so, one can only get so close to a person through writing alone.
Let’s now turn it up a notch and allow our imaginary couple the privilege of meeting face-to-face. Have we not given them a gigantic boost in the potential of developing a much deeper relationship? For the opportunities for shared experience have become much greater than that found within the narrow boundary of writing.
If we go one step more and imagine our couple marrying we find that we have released them to go yet higher up the scale of intimacy as their shared experience finds even greater range of expression. For, as I said, the greater the sharing the greater the intimacy, the bonding connection between two beings.
So how does this tie in with crucifixion?
As part of the human race we have all experienced pain in forms physical, mental, and emotional. Absolutely no one is immune to the multiplied avenues pain finds its way into our lives. A God who has not suffered, who has no personal, no shared experience of our human suffering is hard to relate to, hard to bond with. Harder yet to fall in love with! The crucifixion is pain on steroids, a sharing in all the woes of humanity pressed into a single, universe-altering event.
And then there’s the blood.
The Bible tells us some key facts about blood. That “life” is in blood and that blood has some mystical role to play in forgiveness (aka atonement). That “…without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22) Crucifixion takes care of that one as well.
But I’ve saved one of the most compelling aspects of “why crucifixion?” for last: that it is the grandest, truest expression of love the world has ever known!
Although it is true that one can obey by compulsion, under threats of one sort or another, the highest form of sacrificial obedience is that done from love. Jesus was under no other obligation to obey his Father’s will than that of a loving Son. As made clear from his struggle in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ personal preference was to forego his crucifixion and all the agony it held in store for him. Yet his love for his Father and the race of men God had created held him fast to his chosen course. For without his willing sacrifice no restoration of fallen creation could be expected. Only his blood, the blood of the God-Man, would do. And that freely given. Jesus became the living expression of his own words, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
It is in the shared experience of suffering, coupled with the compelling attraction of the fierce love of the Christ who could have avoided the agony of crucifixion—or stopped it at any point he chose—that we find ourselves drawn to Jesus of Nazareth. Far from crucifying his own Son, we see God the Father weaving his redemptive love in the face of evil, sounding a clarion call to all with ears to hear and eyes to see, heedless of the terrible price it cost Father, Son, and Spirit.
When I think of Jesus my heart melts, much the same as it did thirty-some years ago when his unfathomable love conquered my own rebellious and broken heart. The God who did not stay in heaven but came taking on human form, allowing himself to be crucified that I might be free of sin’s grip and join him in the most intimate and joyful fellowship sharing his overflowing, vibrant life is a God I can love with abandon. Imperfectly, I admit. But Jesus is perfecting even the feeblest love in all those who, through their obedience, are following him home, Father bound…
© Michael Kimball 2017 (This writing may be freely copied in its entirety without prior permission from the author.) Listen to the audio version at FatherBound.com.