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Piel: ‘Did Jesus Have to Die?’ | RELIGION COMMENTARY

During Holy Week, our neighbor George was part of a discussion group concerning Good Friday asking the question “why did Jesus have to die?”

The group felt that the dominant reason, as least in Western Christianity, was that he died to save us from our sins. It was agreed that this was the orthodox position.


At the same time, a member of the group who is Roman Catholic raised the issue of St. Francis and his understanding of the doctrine of atonement.

Christian author Mike Slaughter shares this account of St. Francis and the meaning of Jesus’ death: “Francis challenged the church’s doctrine on substitutionary atonement. Broadly speaking, this doctrine teaches Jesus’ death saves us because he dies in our place – as our substitute – on the cross paying the price for sin we never could. Francis didn’t believe that blood atonement was required for God to love or forgive us. Jesus didn’t have to die to change God’s mind about humanity but to change humanity’s mind about God. This position marked a radical departure from the orthodox position on the atonement at the time, as well as for the majority of the Western Church today. You can understand why folks screamed charges of heresy against Francis! Pope Innocent III made the judgement that Francis’ position on the atonement wasn’t heresy but deemed it a minority view within the context of the Christian community. Francis, along with his theology remained in the Roman Catholic fold.”


In divinity school we were taught various theories of Jesus’ atonement and why he was sent to die for our sins. I understood them and even at the time bought into some. At the same time I kept wondering (which would not go away) why a God of love would need a blood sacrifice in order to forgive.

For generations sacrifice of some form was necessary to appease the anger and wrath of their god. Many cultures have practiced human sacrifice in order to heal that broken relationship. An article in a magazine about biblical archeology tells of finding bones of young children in deep wells in Palestine. They were offered as a pure sacrifice to appease the gods.

The Hebrew scriptures tell the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. He believed the desire of Yahweh was to offer his proudest possession, his son Isaac as a human sacrifice (Genesis 22.1ff). An angel of the Lord stopped him so Abraham then took a ram and sacrificed it. The sacrifice of “clean” animals then became a “substitute victim” in Hebrew worship. The animals then became a “scapegoat” for humans.

I like the popular hymn “How Great Thou Art” but I have real problems with the verse “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.”

God did not send his Son to die. God sent Jesus to be “obedient unto death.” For me that is a major difference. It means more to me to believe Jesus had free will and after struggling with life and death issues he chose the way he felt God wanted him to go. The words “sent to die” implies a lamb being led to its death.

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Slaughter adds “God is Lord of life, not a god of wrath who wills vengeful death and destruction. Jesus is the living Word of God revealing the infinite love and patience of an eternal Father.”

Theologian Brian Zahnd wrote “God did not kill Jesus, but Jesus’ death ‘was’ a sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed his life to show the love of the Father. Jesus sacrificed his life to shame the ways and means of death. Jesus sacrificed his life to remain true to everything he taught in the Sermon on the Mount about love for our enemies. Jesus sacrificed his life to confirm a new covenant of love and mercy. Jesus sacrificed his life to Death in order to be swallowed by Death and destroy Death from the inside. The crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice in many ways. But it was not a ritual sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to justice.”

Jesus had free will and made the decision to be obedient to the will of God. He was called to be obedient to the belief that love was stronger than hate. I believe Jesus had the freedom of choice when he said “For this reason the father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father (John 10.17ff).


Jesus exercised his personal freedom in his Mount of Olives prayer “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42). Jesus could have simply left the garden. He was not suicidal. He wanted to live. But he chose to obey the will of God as he understood it. He was obedient even unto his own death.

I firmly believe that God calls all of the followers of Jesus to be obedient unto God’s will. Discerning God’s will for my life and your life is critical. Even if it means putting my life – your life – on the line. It is our choice. We can play the religious game and stay connected when things are going good and take off when things go bad. We can play church or be the church. It is our choice. My hope is that we will use our freedom to say “here am I Lord, send me” (Isaiah 6.8) or “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3.9)

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at