Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In what sense did Jesus "have to" die? (Bible Brain Busters)

During this Lenten season I have been struck once again by the repeated refrain throughout the New Testament that Jesus "had to" die. I am thinking specifically of the Gospels' ample use of the term "dei," which is usually translated by the phrase "it was necessary" but sometimes simply "must" or "had to." Whatever we say about Jesus' death, the language of the New Testament seems to preclude any thought that it "just happened." Jesus didn't just have a bad weekend in Jerusalem; Jesus had to die.

This Biblical habit of speech is not only a Brain Buster for those who object to any kind of necessity imposed on seemingly contingent historical events. It is a brain buster for all Christians, inasmuch as Christians proclaim the deity of Jesus Christ. For if (a) Jesus had to do something, and (b) Jesus is God, then (c) God had to do something. No matter what kind of metaphysical baggage you associate with God, the statement that God must do something requires clarification and/or qualification. In other words, if we aim to be coherent in our speaking of the gospel, we must specify to the best of our ability in what sense Jesus had to die?

So, in what sense was Jesus death necessary?

The following alternative answers immediately come to mind:

(1) Dramatic Necessity. The first and most qualified sense in which we could understand the biblical language of necessity is in purely dramatic terms. Jesus had to die just like any other character in a good story had to do the things they do. Good stories have a sort of internal logic to them, where a character is driven in a certain direction so that what happens is exactly what has to happen. Perhaps this is all the Evangelists mean when they say that Jesus had to die. This option has the advantage of avoiding more knotty issues of necessity imposed on God. On the other hand, this may make the language of necessity meaningless, killing it by the death of a thousand qualifications. There certainly is dramatic necessity in the gospels; but is the death of Jesus a mere dramatic necessity?

(2) Absolute Necessity. At the other extreme, we might say that the death of Jesus is an absolute necessity. Just because of who God is and/or how reality is structured, God will end up becoming human and dying for us. God knows that his creation will rebel but creates anyway, thus making himself culpable for its rebellion unless he resolves it, which can only be done by the death of Jesus. Some of our presentations of the gospel give the impression that God is under an absolute necessity to undergo death for our sakes. Now this approach has the advantage of taking the biblical language of necessity in its strongest sense. It also locates God's history for us as a consequence of his very being. But it runs into serious objections. The first is that it seems to impose some kind of external necessity on God: God must do this or that to be God. This is a weak objection because this absolute necessity could flow from the absoluteness of God's very being rather than from without. But it is dangerous water nonetheless. There is another, much stronger objection: that the absolute necessity of the cross undermines its gracious character. If God had to do it, then why should it be perceived and celebrated as a gift? The language of grace risks the death of a thousand qualifications if the language of necessity is taken in an absolute sense.

(3) Conditional Necessity. A common resolution of this problem is to employ the category of conditional necessity. Jesus had to die in the sense that once God had freely decided to create the world and establish a covenant with his people, the fulfillment of God's covenant in the death of Jesus is necessity. If certain conditions are met, this event must happen. This is a nice mediating option and one worth seriously considering. However, one concern needs to be raised: is God really the Lord of his covenant if he is "backed into a corner" in this way? Is there any indication in the New Testament God's covenant requires this sort of solution? It seems just as likely that the covenant was set up precisely as the context in which God would do what he does in Jesus Christ. The logic of conditional necessity is illuminating and I don't want to rule it out. But if adopted, it must be employed delicately so as to avoid the impression that Jesus is an afterthought.

(4) Willed Necessity. An alternative resolution is to see the death of Jesus as a willed necessity: God chooses that this will happen, it does so happen, and so in retrospect we can say it must have happened. One need not argue that God so determines everything that happens in history in order to take this view with regard to Jesus' death. One need only say that in this special case God willed certain events to take place (cf. Acts 4:28). On the basis of God's self-revelation we can infer that God has chosen to become this man Jesus in order to die for us. The question of whether God could have done something else is either left open as unanswerable or banned as an inappropriate question. The advantage here is that the language of necessity is taken in its full weight without imposing anything on God or undermining the gracious character of his actions. Also, the death of Jesus is taken as definitive for our understanding of God, rather than an afterthought of God's character or actions. The problem, however, is that it does not fully satisfy one's curiosity about the nature of this necessity. Could it have been otherwise? Why this way and not some other? These seem to be fair questions, and thoroughgoing answers to them often illuminate the significance of the cross. Perhaps this approach is wise in closing these speculative doors; but I'll have to admit my own desire for a more clear and comprehensive answer.

Any thoughts?
In what sense do you think Jesus "had to" die?
Do these alternatives cover the field of logical options? What's missing?
Are you inclined towards one of these options? Why?


Ken Schenck said...

I'm not in a position to look up things right now, but the first thought that came into my mind was "in was necessary..." to fulfill the Scriptures.

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks. That answer specifies and re-raises all the same problems: is God in some way obligated by prophecy? Are prophetic oracles predictive of foreknown future or determinations of future events? I am not asking of all prophetic speech, but specifically the NT talk of Christ fulfilling the Scriptures. In what sense "must" these fillings occur?

Great point! Thanks!

daniel ml said...

I always thought that God was compelled by His very nature as both perfectly Just and perfectly Gracious to sacrifice Himself on the cross. His perfect justice demands punishment for our sins. His perfect Grace must allow a shot at forgiveness. For those who choose forgiveness, Christ covered the demands of perfect justice on the cross.

To me the cross is the perfect solution to the dynamic tension between justice and grace.

David Drury said...

Another great Lenten post. I'm especially thankful that you're doing Christological posts as we approach easter. It makes your blog more "devotional" in it's nature for me.

I'm taking time now in worshipping the Lord in light of #4 and the mystery of the will of God.


graciousenthusiasm said...

Jesus had to die? Am I a fringe theologist to read into Jesus's comment from the garden where he said, not my will..., and think in an Arminian fashion that he had free will and CHOSE to die? Jesus died out of choice to remain wholly God and wholly man. Jesus chose to die, so that his bride would be eternal and fascinatingly complex. For that choice, he has a name above all names. Remember his statement about greater love hath no man...? The death was a sacrifice, prompted by the wholly God in him, and chosen by the wholly man in him. He said that he gave this sacrifice freely.

prasant said...

Inorder to fulfill His Father's will Jesus Died on the cross.