By Kali Freels, sermon delivered for the 2015 Claypool Preaching Award
I became a Christian at a young age, 9 or 10, about to start 4th grade. I didn’t know much about Jesus then; I knew that He was friendly, I knew that He was nice, and I knew that the sweet old lady sitting next to me in the pew told me that He wanted to be my friend. So, on a summer day in rural North Carolina, I became Jesus’ friend.
Shortly after that experience, I found my first Bible, the Bible my parents gave me on my 6th birthday. I read this book cover to cover. I loved the stories and illustrations; they made God come alive. I especially liked the stories about Jesus. He did so many great things and helped so many people; He quickly became someone who I wanted to model my life after. But then… I got to this page (picture of cartoon crucifix pg 453). They took this man, this sweet, kind man, and they nailed him to a cross. I wasn’t fair! He did nothing but nice things for people and they killed him! As a child, that was an injustice I could not understand.
As I got older, different mentors and peers elaborated on why Jesus had to die on the cross. They told me that Jesus died because He loves me. They explained to me that no one could have a relationship with God had it not been for the sacrifice on the cross. They told me that Jesus’ death freed us from the bondage of sin so that we could spend eternity in heaven. They told me Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, the atonement for our sins. They recited John 3:16 to me, saying that, “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…,” using it as evidence for the necessity of the death of Christ. These points explained a little, but not everything.
Then, I heard evangelists and pastors try to explain the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. They said that no other religions’ deities did what Jesus did, which is what makes Christianity special and true. These Christians put so much emphasis on the death of Jesus that they almost forgot that Jesus lived.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve wrestled more with my beliefs about the death of Christ. One of the first things I realized is that the death and resurrection of Christ does not make Christianity special or different from other religions. In the Ancient Near-Eastern religions in the times of the Old Testament, we see deities that are killed and resurrected every year; in a Canaanite mythology, Mot, the god of death, drags Baal to the underworld, where he remains dead until his sister, Anat, brings him back to the world of the living. We also see these kinds of stories in the Greek and Roman mythologies we know existed during the time of the New Testament; Hades holds Persephone hostage in the underworld for half of the year, only allowing her to be resurrected to the land of the living for the other half. These stories are how many people groups explained the coming and going of the seasons, both stories showing how the absence of the deities meant winter had come and the plants had died. Their resurrection meant the return of life to the people’s farmlands. Countless stories of death and resurrection existed in ancient religions and exist in other religions today. So if the physical acts of Jesus dying and being resurrected don’t set Christianity apart from other religions, what does? What makes the death of Jesus so special?
Obviously, Jesus Himself was special; He was a gift to the world, a present for humanity. Jesus came and modeled for us what a life committed to honoring God should look like: love, forgiveness, compassion. His life is one still taught today, His teachings the foundation of our faith. He radically showed the world that love is the way to God. But even when we look at verses like John 3:16, we don’t see anything foreshadowing the death of Christ; we just see more evidence that Jesus is the son of God, given to the world to show us how to live, not how to die.
As I continue to read and study the life of Jesus, there is only one conclusion I can come to: Jesus didn’t have to die.
Sure, this is an idea with which we are familiar. We know that Jesus is God, that Jesus had all of the angels at his command, that he could have called them down to save Him. Sure, we know that Jesus could have simply descended from the cross if He wanted. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is Jesus did not have to die for us to be reconciled to God.
At this point, I know I sound like a heretic. Many of you are probably reciting countless verses in your heads about Jesus’ sacrifice, that Jesus is the lamb of God, that the veil was torn when Jesus died, creating a way for us to commune with God. “Kali, how can you believe that Jesus didn’t have to die for our sins? Oh gracious, this girl went to seminary and lost her faith!” But please, let me go just a little farther. I’m not saying that the death of Jesus isn’t important. I am saying, however, that when we say that the only way for God to save us from our sins was to send Jesus to die, we are saying that sin has authority over God to dictate how God interacts in the world. We are saying that the power of sin, not God, decided that Jesus had to die. I don’t know about you, but as someone who believes that God is all-powerful, this makes me uncomfortable. Nothing, especially sin, controls my God.
If Jesus didn’t have to die, what other options did God have? Let’s explore this for a moment. Our God is the creator of the universe, the creator of everything. Just look at the sunsets, the waterfalls, the spring flowers. If our God is so creative and imaginative, don’t you think God could have done so many other things to reconcile us to Him? God could have removed our desire to sin. God could have forgiven us anyways, with no sacrifice. God could have created hundreds of different ways for us to be redeemed, but I can only think of a handful because I am nowhere nearly as creative as God is. And even with all of these options, God chose the hardest thing, the only thing God could not do from heaven: God chose to experience life as a human.
Think about that for a moment. God chose to undergo the painful process of being born. God chose to learn how to relate to biological brothers and sisters. God chose to learn how to become a carpenter; the creator chose to learn how to build. God chose to experience grief, love, anger, joy. God chose to experience life as a human in order to show deep compassion and understanding for us. God did not simply meet us where we were; God lived where we were, which is something God did not have to do and something we don’t see in any other religion. And God committed to do it holistically; God committed to experience all of human life, even unto death. Even unto the cross.
Jesus knew that He didn’t have to do this act. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus in the garden praying, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” We see Jesus experience fear and anxiety, asking if there is another way. But Jesus knew why He committed to this way: God knows why God put on human flesh and descended from heaven’s throne, so He said, “Not my will, but your will.” Not my fleshly fear, but my divine understanding.
Then, it starts. Jesus, our God, is mocked, scorned, betrayed, experiences pain beyond our comprehension. They break Him, mutilate His skin, and nail Him to a cross, watching as He dies a slow, painful death. But there’s still time. God can get off the cross if He wants; all He has to do is will it into being; all He has to do is step down from the cross. But God chooses to stay, to hang there, to let life slowly ebb from His limbs.
Then, we see two of the most beautiful, profound words in the Gospel: I thirst. Here we see Jesus accept, with open arms, the cup he so desperately wanted to be rid of in the garden. Jesus, God in the flesh, accepts the task of dying as a human. God willingly chooses to die like one of us in order to experience the entire spectrum of human life. When Jesus says, “It is finished,” He is saying that His task is done, that He died a human in order to understand humanity.
Now, the barrier is gone. Now, we serve a God who gives us the example of how to live and understands the challenges we face. Now, we serve a God who corrects us in our missteps and empathizes with our struggles. We serve a God who can keep us accountable because He’s been through the same things, too. Our God is a counselor we can look to for help and He replies, “I understand.” This is an act of love we see nowhere else in the history of humanity. And it is beautiful.
The cross was an act of love, not because Jesus had to do it, but because Jesus chose to do it. If Jesus had had no choice in the matter, then He would have died in submission to obligation and fear. Because He chose to die, it was an act of genuine love, an intimate act to bring us back to Him. This is what makes the death of Jesus special: He chose to do it, even though He had infinitely easier options available to Him, and He did it out of love, not in submission to any kind of obligation.
So… how do we respond to a concept such as this? How do we respond to the idea that Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross in order for us to have communion with God? Better yet, how do we respond to the fact that God chose to do it this way regardless? Initially, my mind goes back to something Jesus said earlier in the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Greater love has no one than to commit to each other fully. Greater love has no one than to commit to God wholly.
But that sounds so lofty and unattainable. How can we apply this concept, this intimate love, to our everyday lives? If we set the bar that high, to fully commit our lives to each and every person we hold dear, to lay down our lives for each and every person who needs love in this world, we will fall miserably short every single time. How do we model this love that Christ modeled for us?
God chose to be present on this very earth when He came as the Christ child. Christ chose to be present with each disciple He called and each tax collector with whom He broke bread. He chose to be present with those he healed. He chose to be present on the cross, present to the suffering He did not have to endure. Even when it would have been easier to stay in heaven, even when it would have been easier to stay distant from the sinners, even when it would have been easier to ascend to heaven without experiencing the pain of death, God chose to be present among us, at our best and at our worst. That is the love Christ modeled for us through the cross: to be present during the times it would be easier to run, easier to ignore, or easier to say a half-hearted “It will be okay.”
We all know the desire to be on the receiving end of that kind of love, a love that sits with us during the good times and the hard times. My junior year of college was a time I needed that love desperately. I was in the middle of a depression that was overwhelming; it took the most mammoth of efforts to get out of bed, to eat, or to go to class. I had relapsed into some self-destructive habits, habits that made several of my friends uncomfortable and worried. But, even in the midst of my debilitating sadness, a handful of close friends, including my roommate and some of my hall mates, committed to be present with me. They checked on me; they did homework with me; they sat with me in silence as I struggled for words to express what I was feeling. They did life with me in a season when it was hard for me to be around people, a season when it would have been easier for them to leave me be. That sacrificial, present love got me through that season. In those friends, I saw the love of Christ, the same love Christ demonstrated on the cross.
As we remember the cross, let us remember that it not simply as a graphic sacrifice done to satisfy a wrathful God’s appetite or even to wash us whiter than snow, but an invitation from an empathetic God to join in relationship and to drink together the cup of our salvation. Let us remember that with all the choices God had, Jesus chose the option that literally brought us closer and present to Him. Let us remember that God became like us: vulnerable, mortal. Let us remember that Jesus committed to see this act of love through to the very end; He drank the cup to show His love. Will you drink yours?
Beasley-Murray, George R. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
Culpepper, R. Alan. The Gospel and Letters of John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Reading Johannine Irony.” In Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Haenchen, Ernst. John 2 Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.
Migliore, David L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Cambridge: Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.
Niditch, Susan. Ancient Israelite Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 All atonement theories researched in David L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology Third Ed. (Cambridge: Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 168-98.
 Susan Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 63.
 George R. Beasley-Murray, John Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 352; Ernst Haenchen, John 2 Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 193-4; Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, 234-5.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 168-98.