What was the meaning of Jesus' death?
In the New Testament and in the Christian tradition, Jesus' cruel death is not seen as senseless and tragic. It is expressed in various terms that he died for other people.
Statements about the death of Jesus
The Gospel of Mark mentions twice that Jesus died “for many” (10:45; 14:24). It also says that Jesus came to give his life as a "ransom", with which he redeems those many. Matthew 26:28 adds that Jesus would shed his blood for many "for the forgiveness of sins." In another image, Jesus is referred to in the Gospel of John (1:29) as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus also says that as the good shepherd he will lay down his life for his sheep. That means that by giving his life he wants to deliver people from bad shepherds and bring them into a relationship with God again, or for the first time (John 10:11-18). It is remarkable that the Gospels keep to such short statements; they are barely or not explained at all.
The apostle Paul wrote his letters before there were any gospels. He casually uses the metaphor that believers are “bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). He assumes the readers understand they have been redeemed by Jesus from the power of evil. He does not explain who received the ransom. Using another term, he says that God gave Jesus Christ as an atonement through his blood, or death (Romans 3:25). A little later he writes that Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). In this regard he also uses the expression "many", which we encountered earlier. It is striking that Paul alternates that term with "all". He means that Jesus gave his life for sinful people, in order to acquit them and make them all righteous (Romans 5:15-19).
Many more New Testament texts could be quoted that testify Jesus' death was good for something. The conviction that his death brought deliverance from the power of sin and reconciliation with God is also evident from 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, for example. In such texts the writers point it out, and they assume the readers understand what it is about.
The only New Testament writing that explicates this belief in its own unique way is the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews. Here, Jesus is described as the perfect high priest who entered the sanctuary in heaven to offer himself. According to the writer, Jesus' sacrifice of his own life made obsolete all the animal sacrifices the Israelites were required to offer to God according to the books of Moses. After all, Jesus' death had made possible forgiveness of sins and a new covenant with God all at once (see especially Hebrews 9-10).
Many people in our time find it difficult to follow this line of thought. Even those who grew up with it. Anyone who thinks critically about it over time does not understand the reasoning and starts asking all kinds of questions. For example:
- Did this belief come from Jesus himself, or did his disciples invent it because they could not accept that their master had died a senseless death?
- What is behind the image of the ransom and the deliverance?
- Was it really the case—as has been claimed—that God was so angry with men for not keeping his good laws that only Jesus' sacrificial death could assuage God's anger and reconcile them to God?
- Why would God need the death of Jesus, “his Son,” to forgive people their sins? Surely God can also forgive sins, only on the basis of his love?
Did Jesus himself believe in his sacrificial death?
The answer to this question cannot be given with complete certainty. According to the Gospels, Jesus himself speaks of his death with the term “ransom for many” and says that he will lay down his life for his “sheep.” Anyone who reads the Gospels must critically take into account that Jesus did not make such statements himself and that they were later attributed to him. On the other hand, those who give more authority to the Gospel writers and assume that they broadly give a reliable picture of Jesus' words, will think otherwise. They will be convinced Jesus himself spoke this way about his own death for others. Everyone has to make their own choice in the matter. Personally, I do assume that Jesus indeed believed it was God's intention that he should die as a substitute for others. That idea was not unknown at the time. Just read the famous chapter of Isaiah 53.
Ransom and deliverance - what does that mean?
Very different answers have been given to the second question on the meaning of the "ransom", too many to list now. In ancient Greek Christianity, Jesus was believed to have redeemed mankind from the power of the devil by dying. The devil would then have received Jesus' soul, but would have choked on it, so that he would lose his power over the realm of the dead. That way—and through Jesus' resurrection from the dead—the path to God's kingdom was opened for all people. This representation has become common in Eastern Orthodox churches, but not in Western Christianity. In the West, it was believed that Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice to God, thereby liberating people from the power of evil, or "purchasing" people. It was sometimes reasoned that Jesus' death made amends for God's wounded honor and his anger against sin. This, however, can not be found in the New Testament in those terms; which answers the question of assuaging God's anger. Yet we can say that the view that Jesus sacrificed his life to God (and not to the devil) is indeed intended that way in the New Testament texts.
Did God need Jesus' death to forgive sins?
In answer to the fourth question, whether God needs the death of Jesus to forgive people their sins, we can say that, according to the Bible, God is indeed merciful and compassionate in himself. The Old Testament makes that absolutely clear, even though it often talks about God's anger against people because they don't obey his commandments. But after that, again and again, the message of God's love and grace follows. However, other texts also point to the necessity of shedding blood in order to receive forgiveness of sins. That is referenced in Hebrews 9-10 and applied to Jesus.
Jesus' death in modern Western culture
One more important text: in 2 Corinthians 5:14-19 Paul writes that the atonement through Christ comes from God. It is not said that God demanded the death of his Son; it is that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ. But again: for critical people of our culture, such thoughts are difficult to follow. There are at least two reasons for this.
- Western culture is no longer familiar with sacrifices to God or gods, as Israel and the surrounding nations used to be. Ransoms are now sometimes paid to liberate hostages, but that is something exceptional. During the Second World War, the Carmelite father Titus Brandsma volunteered in a concentration camp to be beaten on behalf of another. That is impressive, but it is also very exceptional. Because our culture is no longer familiar with substitutionary sacrifices, the representation of Jesus' vicarious sacrificial death has also become something strange. Its liberating power is usually no longer felt.
- Our culture is characterised by rationalism. Many people want to understand everything, and in faith they encounter limits. Moreover, there is a merchant hidden in many: we like to calculate everything. But the reasoning of Jesus' sacrificial death as a ransom cannot be followed or calculated by a rational person.
Impressed by the great story
So is there nothing more we can do with these old convictions? We see around us that some are touched by these beliefs despite their strangeness. On those people, a light dawns; they experience its liberating power, and they repent. Those who do not experience it that way can be touched by other aspects of Jesus and his message. Rationalism alone will not get you there. You cannot calculate everything, but you can be impressed by that great story that includes Jesus' death for others. When celebrating his meal (the Lord's Supper or Eucharist) it is often sung: "Christ, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us." Whoever participates in that, is asked not to test it out, but to join in prayer and entrust oneself to the mystery. There is no shame in joining the tradition with which the Church has been familiar since its inception.