Hauerwas & Jenson: “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”

“Why did Jesus have to die? Christians have developed explanations for why Jesus had to die called atonement theories. For example, some suggest that Jesus had to die as a satisfaction for our sin, to serve as a moral exemplar for us, or to defeat the devil and the powers that have revolted against their creator. There is scriptural warrant for each of these accounts of Jesus’ death, but these theories risk isolating Jesus’ crucifixion from his life.

His death cannot be isolated from his life, because his death is the result of his life. He died because he had challenged the elites of Israel who used the law to protect themselves from the demands of God; he died because he challenged the pretentious power of Rom; and he died at the hands of the democratic will of the mob. He died because he at once challenged and offered an alternative to all forms of human polity based on the violence made inevitable by the denial of God. Robert Jenson, therefore, rightly observes that the Gospels:

“tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling action and our reconciliation, as evens in his life and ours. Therefore, what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and ourselves.” (Jenson, 1997, 189.)

– Hauerwas, Commentary on Matthew, 238 [italics are mine].


3 thoughts on “Hauerwas & Jenson: “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”

  1. I might add (and maybe this was implied in the Hauerwas passage) that Jesus “had to die” in order that he might also be fully human and fully participate in the full range of human experience, including death. To me, this has always shown me how far God went to take humanity on himself: he went all the way! So we truly have a Savior who can identify with us in all aspects.


  2. Just to follow up: I put “had to die” in quotes because I’m not sure Jesus, well, “had” to die. I think he chose to face death for some (maybe all) the reasons mentioned. After all, he did say that all who would come after him must deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow him. It’s always a choice to deny ourselves, I think. Otherwise, I’m not sure it would truly be denial.


  3. Great post. I think we sometimes get caught up in trying to justify the unjust nature of Jesus’ death. When, as I think you and Hauerwas is sort of hinting at here, the unjust nature of his death revealed the true nature of sin and death and the depths of what God’s relationship with humanity looks like.


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