The most important question of the twenty-first century is: Why did Jesus Christ come and die? To see this importance we must look beyond human causes. The ultimate answer to the question, Who killed Jesus? is: God did. It is a staggering thought. Jesus was his Son! But the whole message of the Bible leads to this conclusion.
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah, centuries before Christ, said, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). The Christian New Testament says, “[God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). “God put [Christ] forward . . . by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25).
But how does this divine act relate to the horribly sinful actions of the men who killed Jesus? The answer given in the Bible is expressed in an early prayer: “There were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus . . . both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28). The scope of this divine sovereignty takes our breath away. But it is also the key to our salvation. God planned it, and by the means of wicked men, he accomplished it. To paraphrase a word from the Jewish Torah: They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20).
And since God meant it for good, we must look beyond human causes to the divine purpose. The central issue of Jesus’ death is not the cause, but the purpose—the meaning. Human beings may have their reasons for wanting Jesus out of the way. But only God can design it for the good of the world. In fact, God’s purposes for the world in the death of Jesus are unfathomable. I will try to describe fifty of them, but there will always be more to say. My aim is to let the Bible speak. This is where we hear the word of God. I hope that these pointers will set you on a quest to know more and more of God’s great design in the death of his Son.
Why was the death of Jesus so powerful? He was convicted and condemned as a pretender to the throne of Rome. But in the next three centuries his death unleashed a power to suffer and to love that transformed the Roman Empire, and to this day is shaping the world. The answer is that the death of Jesus was absolutely unique. And his resurrection from the dead three days later was an act of God to vindicate what his death achieved.
His death was unique because he was more than a mere human. Not less. He was, as the ancient Nicene Creed says, “very God of very God.” This is the testimony of those who knew him and were inspired by him to explain who he is. The apostle John referred to Christ as “the Word” and wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).
Moreover he was utterly innocent in his suffering. Not just innocent of the charge of blasphemy, but of all sin. One of his closest disciples said, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). Add to this the fact that he embraced his own death with absolute authority. One of the most stunning statements Jesus ever made was about his own death and resurrection: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). The controversy about which humans killed Jesus is marginal. He chose to die. His heavenly Father ordained it. He embraced it.
God raised Jesus from the dead to show that he was in the right and to vindicate all his claims. It happened three days later. Early Sunday morning he rose from the dead. He appeared numerous times to his disciples for forty days before his ascension to heaven (Acts 1:3).
The disciples were slow to believe that it really happened. They were not gullible. They were down-to-earth tradesmen. They knew people did not rise from the dead. At one point Jesus insisted on eating fish to prove to them that he was not a ghost (Luke 24:39-43). This was not the resuscitation of a corpse. It was the resurrection of the God-man into an indestructible new life. The early church acclaimed him Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus had finished the work God gave him to do, and the resurrection was the proof that God was satisfied. This book is about what Jesus’ death accomplished for the world.
It is a tragedy that the story of Christ’s death has produced anti-Semitism against Jews and crusading violence against Muslims. We Christians are ashamed of many of our ancestors who did not act in the spirit of Christ. No doubt there are traces of this plague in our own souls. But true Christianity—which is radically different from Western culture, and may not be found in many Christian churches—renounces the advance of religion by means of violence. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). The way of the cross is the way of suffering. Christians are called to die, not kill, in order to show the world how they are loved by Christ.
True Christian love humbly and boldly commends Christ, no matter what it costs, to all peoples as the only saving way to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But let it be crystal-clear: To humiliate or scorn or despise or persecute with prideful putdowns or pogroms or crusades or concentration camps is not Christian. These were and are, very simply and horribly, disobedience to Jesus Christ. Unlike many of his so-called followers after him, he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The death of Jesus Christ is the most important event in history, and the most explosive political and personal issue of the twenty-first century. The denial that Christ was crucified is like the denial of the Holocaust. For some it’s simply too horrific to affirm. For others it’s an elaborate conspiracy to coerce religious sympathy. But the deniers live in a historical dreamworld. Jesus Christ suffered unspeakably and died. So did Jews.
I am not the first to link Calvary and the concentration camps—the suffering of Jesus Christ and the suffering of Jewish people. In his heart-wrenching, innocence-shattering, mouth-shutting book Night, Elie Wiesel tells of his experience as a teenager with his father in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald. There was always the threat of “the selection”—the taking away of the weak to be killed and burned in the ovens.
At one point—and only one—Wiesel links Calvary and the camps. He tells of an old rabbi, Akiba Dumer.
Akiba Dumer left us, a victim of the selection. Lately, he had wandered among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone of his weakness: “I can’t go on. . . . It’s all over. . . .” It was impossible to raise his morale. He didn’t listen to what we told him. He could only repeat that all was over for him, that he could no longer keep up the struggle, that he had no strength left, nor faith. Suddenly his eyes would become blank, nothing but two open wounds, two pits of terror.1
Then Wiesel makes this provocative comment: “Poor Akiba Dumer, if he could have gone on believing in God, if he could have seen a proof of God in this Calvary, he would not have been taken by the selection.”2 I will not presume to put any words in Elie Wiesel’s mouth. I am not sure what he meant. But it presses the question: Why the link between Calvary—the place where Jesus died—and the concentration camp?
When I ask this question, I am not thinking of cause or blame. I am thinking of meaning and hope. Is there a way that Jewish suffering may find, not its cause, but its final meaning in the suffering of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to think, not of Christ’s death leading to Auschwitz, but of Auschwitz leading to an understanding of Christ’s death? Is the link between Calvary and the camps a link of unfathomable empathy? Perhaps only Jesus, in the end, can know what happened during the “one long night”3 of Jewish suffering. And perhaps a generation of Jewish people, whose grandparents endured their own noxious crucifixion, will be able, as no others, to grasp what happened to the Son of God at Calvary. I leave it as a question. I do not know.
But this I know: Those alleged “Christians” who built the camps never knew the love that moved Jesus Christ toward Calvary. They never knew the Christ who, instead of killing to save a culture, died to save the world. But there are some Christians—the true Christians—who have seen the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ and have been broken and humbled by his suffering. Could it be that these, perhaps better than many, might be able to see and at least begin to fathom the suffering of Jewish people?
What an irony that Christians have been anti-Semitic! Jesus and all his early followers were Jews. People from every group in Palestine were involved in his crucifixion (not just Jews), and people from every group attempted to stop it (including Jews). God himself was the chief Actor in the death of his Son, so that the main question is not, “Which humans brought about the death of Jesus?” but “What did the death of Jesus bring about for humans—including Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and nonreligious secularists—and all people everywhere?”
When all is said and done, the most crucial question is: Why? Why did Jesus come to die? Not why in the sense of cause, but why in the sense of purpose. What did Christ achieve by his death? Why did he have to suffer so much? What great thing was happening on Calvary for the world? That’s what the rest of this book is about. I have gathered from the New Testament fifty reasons why Jesus came to die. Not fifty causes, but fifty purposes. Infinitely more important than who killed Jesus is the question: What did God achieve for sinners like us in sending his Son to die?