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Why Did Jesus Have to Die?The Theory of Atonement Briefly Explained

Eric V. Snow

Letís explain the theory of atonement some in this context.After all, one theoretically could ask:  "Why couldn't have God the Father looked down from heaven, and say these are the conditions for atonement,  ĎIf you confess your sins and repent, you are all forgiveníĒ?  Why did God Himself, meaning, the Son, have to die for humanity's sins?  Now here we have a truly deep mystery.  The mystery here concerns God's motives for wanting a blood sacrifice as a condition for forgiveness of violations of His law.  And Scripture by no means fully reveals God's mind on this subject.  Theologians have long argued about the theory of atonement, which concerns the reasons why God (meaning, Jesus) sacrificed Himself on the cross for the sins of humanity (see Rev. 13:8).  Why was God so insistent on the principle of a blood sacrifice as a condition for forgiveness for violations of His law that He was even willing to sacrifice Himself (meaning Jesus, not the Father) on the cross?  

Letís explain why the human race is in spiritual debt to God to begin with and the reasons why this is the case.  For example, in Romans 5:1, Paul notes the consequences of Jesus' sacrifice after Christians have accepted it by faith:  "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  Verse 10 sounds a similar note:  "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life."  So Jesus' sacrifice served to reconcile humanity to God the Father.  Because of sin, humans are in debt to God, since violating God's law causes an automatic death penalty to be assessed against us (Romans 3:23):  "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."  So Jesus' sacrifice paid the penalty of the human race's sins to God the Father.  Since God is the Creator, He owns us intrinsically and has the right to tell us what to God based on His law, which expresses His law. 


The theological school of Calvinism proposes one theory of atonement to answer these kinds of questions.  But here letís explain one version of the Arminian solution, a rival theological school to Calvinism, because its explanation is better.  Now because Godís government over the whole universe is subject to His law, the atonement was necessary.  This law is for the good of all.  But since humans have an evil nature, they naturally wish to sin and violate the laws of God's government, God's kingdom. God has to punish sin for two basic reasons, instead of arbitrarily letting men and women off.  First, in order to deter the future violations of God's own law for later acts of sin, God's government has to inflict a formal penalty upon all who violate His law.  By punishing sin, God discourages others in the future from sinning.  To this extent, the theory of morality thatís at the basis of the atonement is a consequentialist or utilitarian one.  That is, it believes punishment is good at least to the extent it deters future violations of God's law.  But thatís only half the picture.   

Second, God also has to inflict a penalty to uphold justice.  Consequently, under God's law, to punish a murderer by the death penalty is perfectly just, even when it doesn't deter a single future murder or criminal act.  Here a deontological, or duty-oriented, theory of morality also undergirds the atonement.  Fortunately, God's sense of justice doesnít require the inflicting of an exact punishment for each act of sin by every individual human.  Otherwise, Jesus would have to have suffered and had transferred upon Him exactly the penalties for sin as mankind should have (or did) suffer because of its sins (cf. I Pet. 2:24; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). (This is part of the basis for the Calvinistic doctrine of the limited atonement, which says Jesus died only for saved Christians, not the whole world).   

Instead, what's required is a sufficiently great, perfect, and high sacrifice that shows that God's law (which is an expression of His moral character and nature) is so important to Him that it can't be casually ignored.  A penalty for its violation must be inflicted.  By having the Creator and the Lawgiver die for all men and women, this bears witness to all the intelligences in the universe (human and angelic) that God's moral government over all the universe isn't a mere paper tiger, but has full substance behind it.  As the theologian John Miley comments, while defending the Arminian governmental theory of the atonement against the Calvinistic theory of satisfaction:  


 "Nothing could be more fallacious than the objection that the governmental theory is in any sense acceptilational, or implicitly indifferent to the character of the substitute [i.e., Jesus, in this case-EVS] in atonement.  In the inevitable logic of its deepest and most determining principles it excludes all inferior substitution and requires a divine sacrifice as the only sufficient atonement.  Only such a substitution can give adequate expression to the great truths which may fulfill the rectoral office of penalty."  

So although the Arminian theory of atonement maintains that God requires a high sacrifice as the ground of atonement, He doesnít require an exact act of retribution that would have to be inflicted against each individual for his or her sins to be charged against the One providing the basis for atonement.  

The story of Zaleucus, a lawgiver and ruler over an ancient colony of Greeks in southern Italy, helps illustrate how God's law could require a high but not necessarily fully exact penalty for its violation.  Zaleucus's own son had violated the law, which required as a penalty the son being made blind.  As this case came before Zaleucus himself, he suffered terrible inner torment since his roles as father and lawgiver collided.  Although even the citizens of the colony were willing to ask for his son's pardon, he knew as a statesman that eventually the reaction against letting his son arbitrarily off was that they would accuse him of partiality and injustice; consequently, in the future his laws would be broken more.  Yet, as a father, he yearned to lessen or eliminate the punishment for his son.  His solution?  He gave up one of his own eyes so that his son would only lose one of his own!  Notice that had he paid a sum of money, or had found someone else to take the penalty for this punishment, his authority as a statesman and lawgiver would have still been subverted, since the law and the penalties for its violation weren't then being taken seriously enough.  By giving up one of his own eyes, a crucial piece of his own body, Zaleucus showed his own high regard for the law and the moral sense standing behind it.  

A theory of atonement that imposes no death penalty for violations of God's law, such as by imposing only repentance and acts of charity as the exclusive basis for the forgiveness of sins, undermines our desire to obey God's law.  Such a theory of atonement subverts the moral justice of God's government by making an arbitrary, non-costly act of God's will be the basis for forgiving the sins of humanity.  Consequently, the penalty for violating God's law ultimately becomes trivial. Only by making a great sacrifice, such as Zaleucusís for his son, did God demonstrate to all the universe's intelligences that any violations of His moral governmentís law, which expresses His intrinsic moral character, would not be taken lightly or arbitrarily ignored as He expresses His great love for humanity.  

The theory of atonement relates closely to another deeply mysterious issue:Why does a good, almighty God allow evil to exist in His creation?I believe that a major reason for Godís sacrifice of Himself was God's desire to impress upon all created intelligences, human and angelic, His love for His creation.  Therefore, by dying for created beings, He shows His love for us, which means we shouldn't doubt his love despite all the pain and misery that occurs to so many in the world.  God didn't want us to doubt His love while giving us free will that would result in pain and misery for many as we exercised it.  For God is in the process of making beings like Himself who have 100% free will yet also will choose to be righteous and obedient to His law 100% of the time. The latter takes time to develop, for its a matter of settled character that God wants to develop in us and see over time if we'll manifest it.  Jesus' sacrifice also rescued us all from the death grip of Satan (Heb. 2:14-15):  "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."  Much more could be said on this issue, but it is very important and relates to the question about why Jesus' blood was worth more than that of animals.

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