Why Did Jesus Die? Introduction
Updated: Jun 26
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For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
1 Cor. 2:2 NRSVA
The central claim of Christianity is that God achieved salvation for the world through the gruesome execution of a single person 2,000 years ago. The Scriptures regularly make this very claim. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24). "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). If we do not understand this singular event, we cannot understand the Christian story. We cannot grasp God's love for us. And we cannot share with others how they can have a relationship with God. If we do not understand this central event, we have lost the plot of the Christian story.
But understanding how Jesus' death saves us is not so simple. The Scriptures do not provide one treatise that fleshes out all the details of Jesus' saving death. Instead, the Old Testament hints towards Jesus' crucifixion with sacrificial rituals and prophetic visions. The Old Testament gives a series of symbols, poetry, and rituals that provide imagery and themes of what will occur. The Gospels provide four narrative accounts of Jesus' death that highlight the Old Testament themes at play in His crucifixion. The rest of the New Testament draws out these themes but does not do so systematically. The rest of the New Testament is a series of letters, addressing particular issues in early church communities. Writers highlight specific aspects of Jesus' death that pertain to the specific situations they are addressing. They do not put all of these themes together for us.
In the centuries since, Christians have wrestled with what the Scriptures say about Jesus' death to explain how His crucifixion saves us in a way that does justice to all these diverse Scripture passages. They do so in their contexts, with their assumptions and cultural values, as we all do. At times, this has enlightened aspects of the atonement (theological shorthand for explaining how Jesus' death saves) and has obscured other aspects. The result is four primary models of atonement:
Recapitulation: "Some look to the Scriptures and to the early church in order to speak of Christ as a kind of ‘second Adam,’ who recapitulates (or relives) the entire human story on our behalf. While the concept of recapitulation may sound foreign to the average person, the notion focuses upon the biblical idea that Jesus stands in a position similar to Adam as the representative of the entire human race" .
Penal substitution: "The penal substitution model views Christ as having borne the penalty for human sin upon the cross. He was therefore our substitute because divine judgment was poured out on him instead of us" .
Christus Victor: "Christ’s work is seen as a triumph over Satan and evil powers", usually through paying some kind of ransom or through tricking the devil .
Moral influence: "Christ’s work is seen as exerting a powerful and loving moral influence upon humanity. Here, Jesus’ traction and self-sacrificing ministry reveals to us the true nature of God: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). And when we look to the cross, we see how far love was willing to go in order to redeem us. According to the moral influence model of atonement, the incarnate demonstration of God’s love serves to enkindle our thankful and obedient response. Jesus is therefore the exemplar for how we should live. Like Jesus, we are called to love our enemies and sacrifice for the good of others" .
In evangelical and Reformed circles, the penal substitution model is the most prominent. I grew up with it during my evangelical childhood, but I learned it in more detail during my "Young, Restless, and Reformed" years as a teenager and college student. The version of it that I most often heard sounded most like, "God hates sin and you are a sinner full of sin. He hates your sinfulness and wants to crush and destroy you as a sinner. But He also created you and chooses to love you as His creation. So the Father unleashed His wrath on His Son, Jesus. He crushed Jesus in your place so that He could accept you." For someone that has spent a lifetime struggling to understand if God loves me, this harsh and sharp version of penal substitution enlarged those doubts and struggles. It feels a lot like a God flying off the handle, blowing off steam on His Son to get it out of His system so He can love us. I eventually turned away from it because I found it increasingly difficult to believe that God loved me. (In Part 2 of this series we will look more closely at penal substitution. This particular form of penal substitution is not faithful to Scripture, but this misrepresentation does not entirely rule out penal substitution as a whole. Church history has shown more biblically faithful versions of penal substitution).
Later in college into seminary, I began to read more of the church fathers and N. T. Wright, who emphasized Christus Victor. I found the emphasis on Jesus' victory over evil compelling and far easier to see it as an act of love. Yet while dating my wife and the challenges she faced as a nurse during a pandemic that constantly claimed the lives of many patients, I found myself at a loss for words. It felt impossible to say Jesus had conquered evil, suffering, and death when it faced my wife every day.
After leaving Reformed churches, I also spent time in mainline Episcopal churches. We regularly heard the Scriptures about Jesus' death and declared it in the liturgy: "In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world" . Yet there was rarely, if ever, an explanation of how Jesus' death saves. There was a shying away from strong language regarding sin and penalty. At times, moral influence was hinted at, but I've always found moral influence dissatisfying on its own. How does Jesus' death show us God's love to imitate on its own without specifically accomplishing something? How does someone dying show love? We will look at these questions in Part 4. In many ways, my recent faith challenges come from many years of wrestling with the atonement and remaining unsure exactly how Jesus' death saves me. I have lost the plot myself.
In recognizing this, I picked up a recent book, The Mosaic of Atonement by Joshua McNall. He proposes integrating the four atonement models in a way that shows how they relate without setting one over the others. He uses the image of a mosaic. In mosaics, the viewer can see the individual pieces, but the goal is to see the whole picture. Through seeing the pieces of each atonement model, we have a full image of Jesus' body, given for us .
Throughout this Lent/Easter series, we are going to look at each of these atonement models in fuller detail and see them reveal how Jesus' death saves us. McNall's book will serve as our primary guide to Scripture and church tradition. My hope and prayer as you join me on this journey is that we will together understand Jesus' love for us and respond together in worship.
If you want to get a head start on some of McNall's arguments, I recommend his interview with Onscript, which is where I first heard of his work.
In the comments below, what are your current understandings of the atonement? What elements do you struggle with? What elements most encourage your faith?
 McNall, Joshua M. The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019, p. 18.
 Ibid, p. 15.
 Ibid, pp. 15-17.
 Ibid, p. 17.
 Book of Common Prayer, p. 360.
 McNall, pp. 20-25 fleshes out this image in more detail.