This is an article in the series on the atonement.
Why Jesus had to die to save people – What problem was solved by His death? Did He die to pacify an angry God? HOW did His death reconcile all things to God?
The Qur’an teaches that some Israelites conspired to kill Jesus, but Allah rescued Jesus. In other words, Jesus never died. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that people are saved to eternal life only through the death of the Son of God. If Jesus was not killed, then the entire Christian faith is in vain. The purpose of this article is to explain why Jesus had to die.
God is One.
The Qur’an and the Bible agree that God is one. The Bible clearly distinguishes between God and Jesus and depicts Jesus as completely dependent on God. But the Bible also teaches that God created all things through Jesus and still upholds all things through Jesus. Jesus has all the fullness of Deity in bodily form, is the Judge, has life in Himself, and gives life to whom He wishes. This apparent contradiction is discussed in a series of articles on this website. See Who is Jesus?
Would God allow people to kill His Son?
A Muslim would disagree with the notion that God would allow His Son to be killed. However, one of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion is self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. This is a Christian principle because that is how God is. When we see Jesus, we see God, and Jesus humiliated Himself to become a human being, and even humiliate Himself to die in the hands of evil man (Phil 2).
What problem did Jesus solve?
Christians agree that Jesus had to die, but disagree on how His death saves us. His death was the solution to a problem. To understand why Jesus had to die, we need to know what the problem was. The typical Christian understanding of the problem is that our sins made God angry and that Jesus died to placate His anger. But the Bible is clear that it was God who sent Jesus, and that God did this because of His love for the world. This article, therefore, explains the problem as follows:
1 Sin originated in heaven as a rebellion against God. This rebellion later spilled over to earth.
2 God allowed sin to develop because He created His intelligent beings with the ability to choose against Him, for the only worship which He accepts is the worship of love. He, therefore, grants His creatures full freedom, which is freedom without fear of retribution.
3 Sin caused terrible conflict in heaven. To defend himself against God’s judgment, Satan argued that God’s laws are deficient; that it is not possible to comply with His laws in all circumstances, and that it is, therefore, unfair of God to forgive some (human) sinners but condemn other sinners.
4 God was not able to prove conclusively to the heavenly beings that Satan’s accusations were false. He, therefore, had to allow Satan to continue until Satan’s character and purpose were fully revealed.
5 To protect creation, God must destroy sin and sinners. God wishes to make an end to rebellion once and for all. However, since God is accused of unfair judgment, rebellion would erupt again in the future if sin and sinners are destroyed before His intelligent creatures fully understand the nature of the rebellion.
What Christ’s Death Demonstrated
The problem is therefore much larger than simply human sin. The problem affects the entire universe. Christ’s death, which is the solution to this problem, similarly has much wider consequences than merely for this earth. The Son of God became a human being to make an end to the war in heaven. Christ’s life demonstrated:
(a) That it is possible to comply with God’s law in all circumstances. In other words, there is nothing wrong with God’s law.
(b) Satan’s cruel nature; and
(c) The self-sacrificing nature of the Son of God, and therefore of God.
– END OF SUMMARY –
The Qur’an tells us that some of the Israelites rejected Jesus, and conspired to kill him, but Allah (God) rescued Jesus and raised him to Himself by swapping him. Allah says in Qur’an that they neither killed Jesus nor crucified him, but it was made to appear so unto them.
Muslims believe that Allah changed the face of the person who betrayed Jesus to a face resembling Jesus. So, they crucified that betrayer instead of Jesus.
Since this article responds to a comment by a Muslim, it does not provide full Biblical evidence for the concepts discussed, but explains certain very complex Christian concepts as briefly and as clearly as possible.
The Bible teaches that people are saved to eternal life only through the death of the Son of God. If Jesus was not killed, as claimed by the Qur’an, then the entire Christian faith is futile.
A Muslim would object to a number of aspects of the Christian perspective.
Is Jesus God?
A Muslim would not agree that Jesus is God. The Bible teaches that God is one (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19) and clearly distinguishes between God and Jesus (e.g. John 17:3; 1 Timothy 2:5). The Bible, on the other hand, also refers to Jesus as “God” (e.g. John 1:1).
The Bible also describes Jesus as completely dependent on God. On the other hand, Jesus existed before He became a human being, has all the fullness of Deity in bodily form, has authority over all flesh, has life in Himself, gives life to whom He wishes, and must be worshiped as we worship God. God created and still upholds all things through Jesus. How do we understand these things?
Unable to understand God
Firstly, we have to say that humans are unable to understand God. He exists outside time, space and matter. He is simultaneously in all places and in all times; past, present, and future. He exists without cause. In fact, He is that which exists. Things exist because God exists. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts. It is our privilege to study about Him, but we must do it with humility, for “the secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut 29:29).
The universe, consisting of time, space, and matter, was brought into being by the Father’s will (Rev 4:11). God the Father is, therefore, not limited or defined by time, space, and matter. He is everywhere in the universe, but also everywhere outside the universe. Humans are not able to conceive of something that exists outside the universe, but the Intelligence and Power that created the universe exists outside the universe.
Created and Maintains Through Jesus
God created and still maintains all things THROUGH Jesus. We do not have the faintest idea of what this may mean. Therefore, please forgive me for speculating. Jesus is “the Beginning“ of time, space, and matter. He is the immense explosion of Energy of the “big bang” that brought this universe into being and still maintains it.
This speculation may be completely wrong. It is simply the best sense I am able to make out of the data in the Bible. During the millions of years ahead of us, we will continually learn more about God. But since He is infinite, we will never be able to understand Him fully.
God allowed people
to kill His Son.
A Muslim would also disagree that God would allow His Son to be killed. However, that is one of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion, for it is consistent with God’s character that He would humiliate Himself to become a human being, and even humiliate Himself to die in the hands of evil man. Paul wrote to the Philippians that Christ Jesus “existed in the form of God”, but “emptied Himself … being made in the likeness of men” and further “humbled Himself … to … death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8).
The Bible does not reveal God as an authoritarian. He does set laws and He does execute judgment, but His motive is always love. He so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Jesus was genuinely humble. On one occasion, He washed the feet of His disciples, a service usually performed by a lowly servant.
Why Jesus had to die
Christians generally agree that the Son of God had to die to save people to eternal life, but they do not agree on HOW the death of the Son of God saves people. His death is the solution to a problem. To understand why Jesus had to die, one needs to know what the problem was.
Many Christians define the problem as that our sin made God angry, and that He needed a sacrifice to placate His anger. This principle is often softened as that the righteousness of God required death as a penalty for sin, and that Jesus became a human being so that He Himself would die in our stead so that our sins can be forgiven.
This website objects to this teaching. God does not demand a penalty for sin. Rather, the purpose of His laws is to protect His creatures. God does punish people for their sins, but the purpose of such punishment is to teach them. His punishment is forward-looking; to ensure a better future.
This website also objects to the idea that God is angry. That seems to be a horrible distortion of the Bible message. Throughout the Bible, we find evidence that it was the Father who loved the world and sent His Son to die for us, that we may live (John 3:16).
The following is a different explanation for why Jesus had to die for people to be saved to eternal life, based on a different definition of the problem.
1. Sin originated in heaven.
Sin originated in heaven in a large rebellion against God, with Satan as the leader of the rebellion. This rebellion did not originate on earth but later expanded to earth when our first parents were tempted into sin (Gen 3). The Bible is essentially a history book of events on earth, written by many different authors over thousands of years. The Bible, therefore, gives very little information about events in heaven. But sprinkled throughout the Bible one finds evidence of the heavenly source of evil, for instance:
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,
but against … the spiritual forces of wickedness
in the heavenly places“ (Eph 6:12).
“God made peace with things in heaven,
by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).
Please refer to the article Origin of Evil for a discussion of the evidence from the Bible.
Sin is defined here as anything that harms the well-being of God’s creation. Since God’s laws are designed to ensure the happiness of His creation, one can also define sin as disobedience to God’s law.
2. Sin results from freedom.
God, who has all power and all knowledge, allowed sin to develop in heaven and allowed the rebellion to spread to earth because He grants His intelligent creatures full freedom, which is freedom without the fear that God will punish sinners. He created them with the ability to choose against Him, for the only worship that He accepts is the worship of love. That is why He did not destroy sinners immediately and why He even allowed Satan access to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Many Christians would object to this idea. They believe that God decides who will be saved and who will be lost. In their view, God controls the minds of people, and that people (and angels) have no real freedom. But if God controls intelligent beings in that manner, then it also follows that God created evil; that sin was God’s invention. This we cannot accept.
Lucifer understood that full freedom means freedom without fear of punishment. He had a very high position in God’s kingdom. He was God’s main spokesperson to His creatures, and he knew that God will not punish His creatures for their sin.
Why the Warnings of Punishment?
If that is so, why do we find the warnings of punishment in the Bible? Why did God say to Adam and Eve that, if they eat of the tree, they would die? It is proposed here that that was not a threat, limiting their freedom, but a warning intended to protect their freedom. As already stated, God’s laws are not arbitrary but designed to ensure the happiness of His creatures. Created beings have the freedom to act contrary to His laws, but there are natural consequences. The cruelty, sickness, and death that we see around us today are not God’s punishment for disobedience, but the natural consequence of acting contrary to His commands. God, therefore, warned Adam and Eve against the natural consequences of sin.
3. War in Heaven
The rebellion caused war in heaven, represented in Revelation as Michael and his angels at war against Satan and his angels (Rev 12:7 ff.). This was a terrible war, not fought with physical weapons, but with much more terrible weapons than we can imagine.
But what was the war about? I do not think human beings are fully able to understand what the angels disagreed about. It was a being of wonderful power and glory that had set himself against God. The Lord says of Lucifer, “You had the seal of perfection, Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezek 28:12). He was “the anointed cherub who covers” (Ezek 28:14), which means that he stood in the light of God’s immediate presence. He was the highest of all created beings. He was the one who taught the universe about God. How could we hope to understand the arguments which Satan presented to the angels?
God judges unfairly.
However, we have some indications in the Bible of what the war was about. In Revelation 12, Satan is called the accuser of the brethren. In Zechariah 3, he stands next to the high priest to accuse him. It is therefore implied that there was disagreement about God’s judgments. God judged Satan and his angels as guilty but forgave certain sinners, such as Moses. Thus, the once-mighty angel Lucifer, now Satan, accused God of inconsistent and unrighteous judgment. He seems to argue that the sins of God’s people cannot be forgiven; that mercy was inconsistent with justice; and if God should cancel the punishment of sin, He would not be a God of truth and justice. Please see the article Disarmed the rulers and authorities for more information.
Impossible to Comply
There are also indications in the Bible that Satan argued that it is impossible for created beings to always and fully comply with God’s laws:
The oldest book in the Bible tells the story of a man named Job. He was a “blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil”, but Satan said to God “touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face”. God then allowed Satan to destroy everything that Job owned, even his children, but Job remained faithful.
Then Satan went back to God and said: “put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” Satan obtained permission from God and “smote Job with sore boils.” Satan also incited Job’s wife to say to Job, “Curse God and die.” This is what Satan hoped Job would do. Satan also sent Job’s friends to him to tell him that God has rejected him (Job). The purpose of this message was to sever the link of faith and trust that joined Job to his Creator.
But “in all this Job did not sin with his lips”. Satan’s purpose with this test was to show that, given the right circumstances, everybody will lose his hold on God and sin against God.
That was also the purpose of the test which Adam failed. When Adam defied the will of God, Satan exulted. It was proved, he declared, that the law cannot be obeyed, and since man cannot be forgiven, the human race must be forever shut out from God’s favor.
Satan’s arguments were, therefore:
● That God’s laws are deficient;
● For that reason that it is impossible for created beings to always and fully comply with God’s laws.
● That it is therefore unfair of God to forgive some sinners but condemn others.
In summary, the War in Heaven is about God’s judgments.
4. Satan was allowed to continue.
As already stated, God does not force His beings to accept His judgment. But neither was He able to conclusively prove to the loyal angels that the accusations of the super-brilliant accuser are false. Satan claimed that his principles are superior to God’s principles. Since God’s purpose is to secure the eternal safety of the universe, He had to allow Satan time to continue until the principles of Satan’s system of government have been fully developed, so that they might be seen by all the universe.
If God destroyed Satan and his host of angels at that point in time, before Satan’s character and purpose were fully revealed, it would not have been apparent to heavenly beings that the destruction of Satan and his host was the inevitable result of sin. Doubt of God’s goodness would have remained as an evil seed, and rebellion would arise again in the future. God wishes to make an end to rebellion once and for all.
This was a terrible time in heaven. It seemed as if evil would exist forever. The last book of the Bible symbolizes this inability to understand as a closed book (sealed scroll) that nobody was able to open (Rev. 5). See the discussion of the Introduction to the Seven Seals for more information.
5. God will destroy sin when all agree.
To protect creation, God must eventually destroy sin and every creature that is permanently corrupted by sin. He will not destroy sin as retribution or as a penalty for sin. He will destroy sin to prevent further pain. As stated in Revelation, He will make all things new.
However, even though sin destroys, and even though God can very easily destroy Satan and his followers, God cannot destroy sin and sinners unilaterally because God never forces anybody to agree with Him. To compel opposition is found only under Satan’s government. The Lord’s authority rests upon principles such as truth, goodness, mercy, and love. These are the means by which the Lord overcomes evil. The Lord can only destroy sin if His intelligent creatures, in full freedom, agree with Him and ask Him to do it.
Why Jesus had to die
The five points above are the proposed definition of the problem which Christ’s death had to solve. The problem is therefore much bigger than simply human sin. The problem affects the entire universe; not only this microscopic planet. Christ’s death, which is the solution to the problem, similarly has a much wider impact than only this earth:
The Son of God became a human being to make an end to the war in heaven. Christ’s life demonstrated that it is possible to comply with God’s law in all circumstances. In other words, there is nothing wrong with God’s law. His death also revealed Satan’s cruel nature and the self-sacrificing nature of the Son of God, which is the nature of God.
With the war of accusations in heaven still raging heavily, God sent His Son as a human being to this planet, which Satan claimed as his own; as a vulnerable baby in a world controlled by Satan.
At first, Satan did everything in his power to physically destroy the little One, but God protected His Son.
Satan tempted Christ.
Then Satan changed His tactics; he tried, in every possible way, to lead Jesus into sin, to discourage Him, to get Jesus to act selfishly; to get Jesus to use His power or position to benefit Himself. The Bible records such an incident:
After fasting for forty days Jesus was very hungry, and Satan tempted Him to use His power to turn stones into bread, but Jesus refused.
Then Satan tempted Him to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple to prove that He is the Son of God, but Jesus refused.
Lastly, Satan offered Him all the kingdoms of the world if He would fall down and worship Satan, but again Jesus refused.
This was simply one example of Satan’s strategy throughout the earthly life of the Son of God. The cross was the ultimate test.
God allowed Satan full access to Christ.
The story of Job helps us to understand why Jesus had to die to end the war in heaven. (See – A study of the book of Job.)
Perhaps Satan similarly went to God and said that, if you allow me full access to Jesus, including to His life, I will show you that Your Son will “curse You to Your face”. We know from the Bible that God did give Satan full and unlimited access to Christ; including killing Him. God’s Holy Spirit always remained close to Jesus, but on the Cross, Jesus cried out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? During His last days, God withdrew His protection and support from Jesus. The “rulers and authorities” (Col 2:15), elsewhere called the powers of darkness, assembled around the cross, bombarding Christ with thoughts of unbelief, resulting in cruel depression and despair. Just like God, on the basis of His principle of freedom, allowed Satan access to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as a test, God allowed Satan full access to the Son of God.
Jesus never sinned.
This was a test. Could one sin be found in Christ, had He in one particular yielded to Satan to escape the terrible torture, the enemy of God and man would have triumphed. But despite the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony, Jesus did not use His power to relieve His agony. Satan was allowed to use every means at his disposal, but Jesus did not sin in a word or a deed or a thought. The more mercilessly Satan’s wrath fell upon Him, the more firmly the Son of God clung to the hand of His Father, and press on in His bloodstained path. All heaven was filled with wonder when Christ prayed in the midst of His terrible suffering,–“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Christ revealed God to the universe.
The whole universe watched.
“We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings” (1 Cor 4:9 NIV). All heaven witnessed the controversy with intense interest. They watched the Son of God enter the garden of Gethsemane, His soul bowed down with great darkness. They heard His bitter cry, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matt 26:39). As the Father’s presence withdrew from Him, they saw Him filled with a sorrow that is worse than the last great struggle with death, causing bloody sweat to fell in drops to the ground. Heaven saw Satan’s frenzied work, and his power over the hearts of men, causing them to deride, torment, condemn, and crucify the Son of God, while the daughters of Jerusalem wept and the mob jeered.
End of the War in Heaven
Satan was defeated. The evidence which Jesus gave through His life and death brought an end to the war in heaven (See War in Heaven). Thereafter, the consensus of the loyal angels was that Satan is wrong and God is right, and they requested God to banish Satan from heaven.
Lessons from Christ’s life
The Cross was the highest test that Jesus had to go through, but it still was only one of a continuum of tests during His life. His life revealed at least three things:
It showed that this human being (Jesus) would remain faithful to God’s principles in all circumstances, showing thereby that it is possible for human beings (and angels) to comply fully with God’s law under the most agonizing circumstances. In other words, there is nothing wrong with God’s laws.
Christ’s death revealed the cruel nature of Satan. Not until the death of Christ was Satan’s character fully revealed to the heavenly beings. The exalted position that he occupied gave him the power to deceive. Satan had so clothed himself with deception that even holy beings could not understand the nature of his rebellion. The Cross tore away his disguise. His administration was laid open. He had revealed himself as a murderer. By shedding the blood of the Son of God, he lost any remaining sympathy he still received from the heavenly beings.
Lastly, His life and death revealed the character of the Son of God. When nothing else was able to end the war in heaven, He was willing to humiliate Himself to become a human being and to run the risk of eternal loss and suffer a torturous death. Throughout His life, His concern always was with the people around Him. These things revealed His true character.
It was for this purpose that He became a human being and this is why Jesus had to die; not only a normal death but a voluntary and torturous death. His death was voluntary, for if He gave the command, legions of angels would have come to His aid.
Christ did not answer all accusations.
But Satan also had another argument, namely that God is unfair when He forgives one sinner but condemns another. Jesus’ death did not fully answer all of Satan’s accusations. For that reason, God has not yet made an end to sin. There is more to be revealed. For the sake of the future happiness of the universe, Satan was allowed to continue his work, but only on earth (Revelation 12). Man, as well as angels, must see the contrast between the Prince of light and the prince of darkness.
Sin caused terrible conflict in heaven. Satan, the highest of all created beings, used the sins of people—their inability to keep God’s law—as evidence to prove that God’s intelligent creatures are unable to fully keep God’s law, arguing that God is therefore inconsistent and unfair when some of His sinning creatures, such as Adam and Moses, are forgiven while other people and sinful angels are condemned. Even the loyal heavenly beings could not conclusively answer Satan’s accusations against God. The problem is therefore much bigger than simply human sin. The problem affects the entire universe; not only this microscopic planet.
Christ came to the earth to validate God’s judgments. Jesus, as fully human, showed that human beings (and angels) are able to comply with the Law of God under all circumstances. If Jesus did not really die, as the Qur’an maintains, then we have no hope.
So, who are God’s children? To call yourself a Christian does not make you His child:
The Christian that views God as an authoritarian tyrant, and is pleased with that view of God, will himself be an authoritarian tyrant and is therefore not a child of God.
God’s people are those that admire God’s willingness to suffer for His creatures. They find joy in the thought that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to become a human being to suffer for our benefit. God’s people are those that want to be as humble as God, and those that want to serve other people, particularly lesser people. They find joy in the concept of freedom, and they grant other people the freedom to differ from them. They do not act selfishly but are willing to suffer for the benefit of others.
God will judge each person according to his circumstances. To be saved by the blood (death) of Christ does not require one to know His name. Even a person that rejects Christ, but accepts His principles, is one of His people. God does not belong to Christianity. There is only one true God, and He loves and talks to all peoples, through His written word, through nature, through other people, and through His supernatural communication with each human being. Each of us will be judged relative to what we have received. From the one that has received much, much will be expected.