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Why did Jesus have to die?

Published: 14 June 2014 (GMT+10)

CMI often receives hostile messages from non-Christians who do not understand key points of Christian theology. Even though this particular individual disregarded our rule that those who write in provide us with a real name and contact information, we thought the answer to this question was too critical not to answer.

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‘Yohan Z.’ wrote:

Why did Jesus die?
Eze 18:20 “The being who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the crookedness of the father, nor the father bear the crookedness of the son. The righteousness of the righteous is upon himself, and the wrongness of the wrong is upon himself.”

Lita Cosner, CMI-US responds:

Yohan’s implication is that since we claim Jesus was sinless, He should not have died. Of course, this goes back to one of the foundational truths of the gospel.

Ezekiel 18:20 is actually talking about temporal reward and punishment, not Heaven and Hell. It is a reference back to Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Deuteronomy says that judicially, everyone is to be punished for his own transgression of the Law. Ezekiel reaffirms that principle, and says that even God operates like that.

But on an eternal level, the principle of these passages actually condemns everyone to death, because every one of us has sinned. The point is that no one is condemned for his father’s sin, each of us has quite enough of our own sin to do that.

The problem is that even in the Old Testament, God saved sinners. Even when He wiped out all the people and land animals on earth, He didn’t ‘finish the job’—He preserved Noah, his family, and the animals on the Ark. He forgave David’s adultery and murder. Again and again, we see that God is a God who forgives sin. But the Old Testament also proclaims God’s righteousness and holiness. How can a righteous, holy God overlook sin that must be punished? If God justifies the guilty, He is doing precisely what he condemns in human judges.

That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus, in the Incarnation, became human. He lived a perfectly sinless human life—He obeyed God perfectly, both doing everything the Law commanded, and not breaking one prohibition. This is why the first 30 years of Jesus’ life are just as crucial as His death and resurrection. When Jesus died, He was a perfect sacrifice. He was a sinless human willingly standing in for the sinners. But He also had to be God, because He had to bear an infinite weight of God’s wrath, which no mere created being could do.

When a sinner trusts in Jesus, the Bible says that two related things happen. First, Jesus’ sacrifice pays for our sin, so that we are no longer subject to eternal punishment for our rebellion against God. That is, our sins are imputed (credited to the account of) Jesus (Isaiah 53:6, 10). But if that were all, we would only have a ‘neutral’ standing in God’s eyes, so salvation doesn’t stop there. We’re also credited with Jesus’ righteous acts, so when God looks at us, it’s as if we were the ones who obeyed God. Jesus also is at work today in Heaven interceding for us—our advocate (defense lawyer) with the Father (1 John 2).

So Jesus died because we deserved to, but God in His mercy wanted to give us a way out. Jesus’ death was the only way that God could save sinners.

Readers’ comments

Philip H.

While your answer to Jon P. is technically correct, it addresses more how the world became cursed rather than why we have to continue to live under cursed conditions. The question has another facet addressing the question of God's purpose for setting up these conditions. Some people have the answer that humans have a responsibility to respond appropriately to these conditions but that is unsatisfying. What do you say?
Lita Cosner
We continue to live under cursed conditions because the effects of Adam's disobedience are still operative (and all his descendants are still sinful and rebellious against their Creator). While Christ defeated sin and death with His death and resurrection, that victory has not yet been fully manifested.
Andrew W.
With regards to whether the rewards/punishment are temporal or eternal (Mick), it may be a false distinction. Clearly, it does not promise exemption from physical death, but there is at least an expectation of a coming judgment beyond death, though not so clear as in the NT. And I agree with Lita that this promise condemns all eternally because of their own personal guilt (rather than their parents'). Yet, as Mick pointed out, the wicked (who clearly deserve punishment), can be 'saved' from the punishment through repentance - repentance which implies faith, which is the message of the NT. Ezekiel looked forward to a promised saviour, whereas he is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. (the wicked is not saved by keeping the commands, since the wickedness he has already done condemns him: therefore it is the repentance and hope in God for grace). Don't let's forget that we will live forever in the flesh on a new physical Earth, not merely as disembodied spirits floating about in heaven. I suppose that assumes that I take the view that 'not die' means to pass God's eternal judgment rather than to live out his days... but my impression is that even in the OT, living out one's days is a picture of eternal life, a picture which did not exclude the righteous who died young. I think it is assumed that these righteous dead participate in the 'not dying' in some way, and that way is made clear to us in Christ; particularly his resurrection, for though he truly died, yet he lives.
Nathan T.
Regarding the comment by Marc K. that salvation came from outside the Law rather than through the Law....

Galatians 4:4-5
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

As the Last Adam, Jesus had to be born under the Law to redeem us, since we were condemned because of our inability to keep the Law. The Law is perfect and if we could keep it perfectly we could be declared righteous apart from faith in Jesus' sacrifice, but, of course, we can't because of the weakness of our sinful flesh.

Romans 8:3-4
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin:He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Although salvation is received by grace through faith (and in this sense salvation came from outside the Law), Jesus earned our salvation and made it available to us through perfectly keeping the Law Himself. If He had failed to keep the Law He would not have been a perfect and spotless lamb and could not have taken away the sins of the world. If Jesus had failed to keep the requirements of the Law He would not have been righteous and so He could not have made us the righteousness of God through faith in His death and resurrection. Our salvation is only possible because Jesus kept the Law. The gift of righteousness and salvation can only be received by grace through faith. Therefore, we could say salvation comes both through the Law (through Jesus' obedience to it) and apart from the Law (by grace through faith).
Ian N.
Yohan's objection is biblically correct. The reason why all mankind is condemned is because he was "in adam" and therefore he is regarded by God as having sinned when Adam did. (Romans 5:12). God cannot put to death an innocent being on behalf of the guilty ones. This is forbidden by God under the law. The only way in which God can put Christ to death, is to make him become the sinner. How does God do that? Romans 5-8 and Eph 1-2 and Galatians 3 show how God places people "in Christ" who are buried with him in death, and raised with him to eternal life. Christ became sin for us, by the act of God placing people into him. Sin is not a nebulus thing that is separate from a person. Sin is the person and cannot be separated from him. Only by placing people into Christ, can Christ become a sinful being and bear their sin, and become the atoning sacrifice for their sin. God is therefore not punishing the innocent but the guilty by uniting people "in Christ". Consequently, just as "in Adam" all died, even so "in Christ" will all be made alive. This is as literal as Adam is literal.
Allan F.
In reply with S. H., United Kingdom, 14 June 2014: I note that in general conversation, it is appropriate to discuss any leader of a religion such as Gandhi, Teresa, Confuses, Pope, & many more, yet the moment the name of Jesus is brought up people become aggravated, and the discussion most often goes down hill in social decency.
Surely this points a clear message that there is a spiritual battle of real proportions going on!
Marc K.
One of the least mentioned biblical verses which directly refers to Christ's death on the cross is John 3:14. Christ here directly compares his death to the incident in Numbers 21 where the people sinned against God and Moses. Moses made a bronze serpent and those who turned toward it were saved from death. This salvation came from outside the law, not through it.
Now, as is quite certain, it's not the serpent qua serpent that saved the people but their faith that God would save them.
The question is, Why did Jesus compare (not contrast) his death and the salvation obtained through belief in his death on the cross with this Old Testament incident?
Lita Cosner
I think the comparison is a fairly straightforward one. The Israelites were dying from the snakes in the wilderness--the only way to be saved was to look upon the bronze serpent that was lifted up. In the same way, we are commanded to look upon the Son who was lifted up in faith, to be saved from the eternal death we deserve because of our sins.
Gerda P.
Lita: Your articles are worthwhile reading. But you should stick to your policy of requiring legitimate names and contact numbers, otherwise how does anyone know whether or not these are just contrived questions. And why bother giving print space to someone who lacks the courage of their convictions?
Lita Cosner
If I did not think that the answer would have use for others who would read it, I would not have responded. However, in this case it was an important question which every Christian should be able to answer. So we published a response as a service not to this correspondent, but to all the people who would read the article.
S. H.
Without knowing the motivation of 'Yohan Z', it does remind me of a debate I had on Facebook recently. The debate was about the existence of God and the debaters (who became increasingly sarcastic and condescending, to their own detriment) threw about Bible verses completely out of context. They asked certain questions and then provided 'evidence' to answer other questions!

This made me assess my debating with other people and taught me 3 lessons. Firstly, in debating anyone the question has to be asked of them publicly whether the individual wants to debate or to try and show how 'clever' they are, or (fail) to humiliate the Christian debating. If they have no intention of listening, just clearly state Bible truth and stick to it, or don't even debate. Secondly it showed me how people (intentionally and accidentally) abuse the Bible by throwing around especially Old testament verses totally out of context. Funnily enough they do an excellent job at disproving their own arguments! Finally it showed how the name of Jesus causes such hostility, arrogance and even abuse. As I've said many times, the very fact that people become so heated, aggressive and even obnoxious shows the very truth about Jesus, the Bible (and the 6 actual days of creation).
Chandrasekaran M.
I am remained of Eze 14:20 “As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, they wouldn't be able to save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved by their righteousness.” and Eze 14:14 also. Even though the context of these verses is different, Jesus is not going to punish my children for my sins on the judgment day and me for my children’s sins. My own righteousness is not going to save my children on the judgement day and my children’s own righteousness me. If Jesus the Lord did not die and resurrect again then there is no hope because nobody, right from the first Adam, could work out a way by themselves to come out the spiritual death even in billions of years (BTW nobody has ever lived beyond a thousand years in this fallen world). But Jesus righteousness is able to save even the chief of sinners right from the first Adam because Jesus said in John 6:35 "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
Mick A.
Hello Lita,
I'm a Christian and understand why Jesus died for us and agree with you. However, you say, "Ezekiel 18:20 is actually talking about temporal reward and punishment, not Heaven and Hell." I can't see that because the next verse says, "But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die." By your understanding of what "die" means, this verse means that a man who keeps the Lord's decrees will never die ... he will live eternally in the flesh.
To me, Ezek. 18 only makes sense when live and die mean heaven and hell. As we all know, the righteous don't live forever but eventually die and go to heaven while the wicked live alongside the righteous (like the wheat and tares) but eventually die and end up in hell.
God bless,
Lita Cosner
Different people have various ways of understanding the passage, but the Bible teaches in several places that one way God judges sin is to shorten the life of the sinner. In the context of this passage, it would mean that God would not cause the sinner to die when he repents, but rather that he would live out a full span of years.
Jon P.
Although I have written before in argument to much of your material, I genuinely wish to know the answer to this question; if god does not punish the son for the fathers crimes, why do we live on a cursed world? I was under the belief you taught that due to Adams crime, as the father of humanity, we were punished?
Lita Cosner
Adam was the federal head of humanity. When a king (another type of federal head) or president declares war on another country, the entire country, even the pacifists in that country, is at war with the other country. It's no good saying, "I didn't declare war" when your country has.

Adam, as our federal head, rebelled against God. And all of us individually have rebelled against God--so we in a sense have agreed with Adam's rebellion and carried it on it our own lives.

The Curse is due to the rebellion of mankind, starting with Adam. But God does not intend for the world to always be cursed. He will make an end to this present reality, and will inaugurate a restored creation with no Curse, death, or suffering. See The New Earth.
Terry P.
In the beginning God created man, male and female, and told him: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and care for it. He told the man, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for on the day that you eat from it, you will certainly die.’ — Gn 2:15-17  The man disobeyed God, and the rest is history. All men have sinned and must die, so the death of one sinner cannot cancel the penalty of death resting on another sinner. But God personally accepted responsibility for all mankind’s sin, whom he had created and then condemned to death for sinning. So God became a sinless man himself: “So the Word [LORD God] became flesh [Jesus Christ]; he came to dwell among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s [Holy Spirit’s] only Son, full of grace and truth.” It is a matter balancing the ledger; God personally took it upon himself to become a sinless man and die, and thus pay the debt of sin/death accrued by all mankind. “From first to last this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ, and he has enlisted us in this service of reconciliation. What I mean is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding men’s misdeeds against them, and that he has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation. We come therefore as Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us: in Christ’s name, we implore you, be reconciled to God! Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of men, so that in him we might be made one with the goodness of God himself. — 2Co 5:18-21”

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