“Can God really be so cruel? Did He get some kind of sadistic pleasure out of Jesus dying on the cross?” These are some of the comments I’ve heard people use to dispute the necessity of Christ’s death. The question of why our Savior had to die is a valid one. It’s foundational to the Christian faith. We shall see that the answer has all to do with God’s love for us, and nothing to do with some twisted desire to inflict pain. God’s ultimate purpose was to spare us from experiencing unending suffering.
When God created Adam and Eve He set before them a test of obedience: they were not to eat from a certain tree. As we all know, they failed miserably. God had warned them that if they disobeyed they would surely die (Gen 2:15-17). My guess is that our first ancestors had no idea what God was talking about – death was still nonexistent. But the moment they ate of the forbidden fruit they died spiritually, and the clock started ticking on their physical death.
Why did God chose death as the punishment for disobedience? It’s important to understand that the Biblical notion of death is separation, as opposed to termination. It also takes two forms. In the spiritual sense, it means that mankind’s relationship with God has been completely severed. His holiness made it impossible for Him to have a bond with sinful beings. In the physical sense, it refers to the separation of the soul from the body.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed, God immediately acted to prevent them from eating from the tree of life. By doing so He kept them from becoming immortal, ensuring their physical death (Gen 3:22-24). Why would He do such a thing? This may sound strange, but I believe it was out of mercy. He knew that the beautiful world He had created had become cursed. Evil, sin, suffering, and everything bad was now free to wreak havoc. By ensuring our mortality, He provided us with an exit. Otherwise, there would have been no way out of our sinful and fallen world. There would have been no possibility for redemption. Spending an eternity on this earth full of suffering is not something that I would have looked forward to!
God could have done nothing, but He didn’t. He had a plan of rescue, which included death because we were subject to it. This plan was to pay the punishment in our place. Since the sentence was death, there was no other possibility than for God to give His life. Only by dying could Jesus take our death upon Himself, so that we wouldn’t have to die. Only by dying could Jesus conquer the grave. Only by dying could Jesus open the way so that we could be reconciled to God (1 Pe 3:18, Rom 5:10, Heb 2:14-18).
One last comment about Jesus’ motivation. We read in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” The word “for” in the Greek indicates purpose or cause. It tells us that Jesus was motivated by joy, which in turn gave Him the strength to go through such terrible suffering. No one forced Him to do it, He wanted to. So what exactly was this joy that was promised to Him? You and me! The redemption of mankind. The fact that His death would enable us to have a relationship with our Creator. That is what Jesus was looking forward to while hanging on the cross, and that is why He died.