Right around this time of year, every year, I inevitably get into it with a few of my Christian friends about why Jesus has to die in the first place. For an idea so central to Christian soteriology, I’m always surprised to find that there is not a single consistent answer to this question. Some of the most common answers are (1) So as to appease God’s wrath against sin, (2) So as to level the scales of cosmic justice, (3) So as to build a metaphysical stairway to heaven for mortal souls as the “first fruits of the general resurrection.” There are many other responses, of course. Go ask someone you know who believes in this sort of thing. Then ask another. Keep going, you’ll get a fascinating and bizarre array of responses. Probably the weirdest one that recurs is that it was necessary as a demonstration of God’s Love™ which is to say (somewhat more crudely) that it was a sort of divine public relations stunt. Who doesn’t love a compelling martyrology, right? Not sure whether that one is worth serious consideration, but I’d like to cast some doubt on the other three common replies.
Firstly, the idea of appeasing God’s wrath makes a certain sort of sense, we’ve certainly seen Earthly fathers lash out violently at their sons in moments of uncontrollable anger. (With luck, you’ve only ever read about it.) It is hard to imagine, though, how this can possibly be made to fit in with the idea that God is worthy of worship. Who would bend the knee to a violently abusive Heavenly Father out of anything other than fear? It is even harder to reconcile God’s (purportedly eternal) wrath with the notion that God is perfectly loving. Basically, the sort of people who preach God’s wrath would have us believe that God tortured his son (self) to death in order to save a small fraction of humanity from the torturous fires which God created and condemned the bulk of humanity to endure. Torture for everyone – either vicarious or personalized. Tell us again about how “God is Love.”
The next answer that I usually hear is that God had to kill someone because there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood. Think about this for a second. Either God made up this ridiculous and arbitrary rule, in which case he can repeal and replace it with “I’ll forgive whomever I damn well please,” or else God is bound by some absurd cosmic law higher than Himself, in which case, how can He be called Almighty? The usual escape route here is to say that God is bound by His own character, which requires perfect justice, but have you ever met someone who would call it justice to inflict corporal or capital punishment on anyone other than the guilty party? I would like to suggest to Christians that they try to get substitutionary death penalties put on the law books, just to see how mainstream society reacts when we try to take their ideas about “justice” seriously. Oh, we will also need a few born-again volunteers. A blissful afterlife awaits, and you can give a convicted murderer a second chance!
Probably the most bizarrely metaphysical answer I often get is that by dying and resurrecting, Jesus somehow blazed a path for mortal souls to ascend to heaven. Seriously, guys? God can do anything logically possible, but he needs a beta-tester when it comes to relocating souls off the mortal plane? And let’s not even get into the question of whether disembodied minds are a logically coherent idea, that is a whole post unto itself. (Turns out they aren’t.)
No doubt there are many other reasons that have been given by Christians to support the notion that an all-powerful and perfectly loving being somehow lacks the power to simply forgive his beloved creations without killing an innocent person first. If you know of any interesting ones, please leave them in the comments.