“Can God really be so cruel? Did he get some 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 eternal suffering.
When God created Adam and Eve, he set a test of obedience before them: they were not to eat from a specific tree. As we all know, they failed miserably. God had warned them that if they disobeyed, they would surely die. (1) My guess is that our first ancestors had no idea what God was talking about – death was still nonexistent. But the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, they died spiritually, and the clock started ticking on their physical death.
Why did God choose death as the punishment for disobedience? It’s important to understand that the Biblical notion of death is “separation” instead of “termination.” It also takes two forms. In the spiritual sense, humanity’s relationship with God has been completely severed. His holiness makes 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. (2) Why would he do such a thing? What I’m about to say 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, and suffering were 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. I, for one, would not have looked forward to eternity on this earth full of suffering!
God could have done nothing, but he didn’t. He had a rescue plan, which included death because we were subject to it. This plan was to pay the punishment in our place. Since the sentence against us was death, there was no other possibility than for God to give his life. Only by dying could Jesus take our penalty 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 we could be reconciled to God. (3)
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 Greek indicates purpose or cause. It tells us that Jesus was motivated by joy, which gave him the strength to endure 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 humanity and 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, which is why he died.
(1) Gen 2:15-17
(2) Gen 3:22-24
(3) 1 Pe 3:18, Rom 5:10, Heb 2:14-18