Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?
You have heard the same explanations I have heard. Before Jesus, sinful humanity was so deep in debt to God that no human could pay it all. So God sent Jesus to die for our sins, erasing the debt once and for all. This is the one we are most familiar with, especially in the West, but it does not answer the question of suffering. What kind of father demands the death of a son in order to pay off a debt to himself?
Another view called Christus Victor states that Christ's death was the means by which the powers of evil, which held humankind under its dominion, were defeated; our job is to live knowing this is true.
The view that resonates the most with me is that it was God who died on the on the cross, putting an end to divine bookkeeping through the voluntary sacrifice of divine power and becoming a God who suffers with us. But if Jesus was God, then whom was he talking to in the garden and from the cross?
All of these views are found in the Bible, but sometimes I think that the suffering of Jesus was not God's will at all. It was instead the will of those who were arrayed against him – those whose values he had offended, whose sense of God he had betrayed. It was the will of ordinary people like you and me, who prefer dead messiahs to living ones, since living ones are so much harder to tame.
It could be that God's will for Jesus was a long and fruitful life, brimming over with the divine justice and love he was born to embody. When the world opposed that justice, however – when the world hated that love – God's will did not give Jesus license to stop being Jesus. (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain)
At the end of the day, I don't pretend to understand the answer to why Jesus suffered and died. What I do know however is that at the center of our faith is the cross and the amazing assertion that God was there – that in that innocent, good man’s suffering and death, God’s love for the world is completely revealed.
At the center is the cross and the amazing affirmation that as Jesus suffered and died, God experienced it all. All of it.
At the center is the cross and the assurance that God has experienced the worst that can happen to any of us.
At the center is the cross as God comes close to your life and mine at its most human and precarious and vulnerable.
In his book, Thank God It’s Friday, William Willimon tells of a woman who came to him to complain that her church was a happy church. “Everything is so happy and upbeat. The preacher jumps up on the stage at the beginning of the service, just grinning and giggling… He’s so insufferably happy. Every other word is ‘awesome.’ All the music is upbeat and giddy.”
You know,” she said, “it’s hell to be going through a tough time in your life and have to worship at a happy church.”
I have friends in South Africa who go to church on Good Friday and who don't come back on Easter. Easter is too pretty, they say. Easter is too cleaned-up. It is where they hope to live one day, in the land of milk and honey, but right now Good Friday is a better match for their souls with its suffering, it’s ruthless truth about suffering and the high price of love.
It isn't that they don't care about what happens on Sunday. They do. They just don't believe that God is saving all the good news until then. What gives them hope is a God who suffers with them.
Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one.