Did Jesus have to die on the cross? Was it necessary for him to suffer and die a death by crucifixion in order to save us? Could God have worked out salvation in some other way?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 September 2017
Before asking if Jesus had to die on the cross, we might ask if it’s at all important. What meaning does his crucifixion have in our lives, in my life and yours? The crucifixion doesn’t mean much to a person who rejects Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God. It means little to someone who doesn’t believe that the Son became man and endured death on a cross in order to restore humankind from the bondage of sin. If one doesn’t believe these things, then Jesus will often be viewed as nothing but a mere man who, although perhaps a well known and wise teacher, long ago suffered an unfortunate and perhaps meaningless end.
On the other hand, if one believes that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who assumed an individual human nature to himself and became man, willingly enduring his passion and death by crucifixion in order to redeem humankind and open the path to salvation, then things are very different. Instead of a distant and pointless past event, the crucifixion becomes astonishingly meaningful and relevant. It becomes a historical instant in time of cosmic proportions that touches all moments in time.
Further, when a person accepts and believes the fact that Christ died on the cross for him, for each individual, for me and you, it pierces one to the core. Christ died for all, yes, but he willingly died for me. And I played a significant part in causing it all: the agony in the Garden, the scourging, bearing the heavy cross beam in exhaustion through the streets of Jerusalem, the driving of the spikes into his hands and feet, the hours of labored breathing for survival.
The concept of “I” takes on an entirely new dimension in the realization that my personal sin was part of the reason for Christ’s passion and death. Each time I choose to sin, I reject the love of God and the image of Christ in whom I am created. I use the good things God has given me for my own selfish ends, taking even that life-sustaining energy with which he supplies me and using it as a weapon against his perfect goodness. What was the Son of God’s response to such dark deeds, such prideful disrespect? He mounted the cross.
In this light, the crucifixion becomes an event of personal and indescribable proportions. Again and again, throughout the day, it resurfaces in one’s mind. The cross and the humiliating, terrifying agony. A most heinous and shameful death—all accomplished for the sake of love. The God of infinite perfection, love, and goodness, who is in need of nothing whatsoever outside of himself, became man and shared his life with me in order that I might one day share my life with him and experience his love, happiness, security, and fullness of life forever. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
Did Jesus Have To Die on The Cross? Was The Crucifixion of Jesus Necessary?
People often ask, did Christ have to die on the cross? Could not God have chosen to save us in some other way, perhaps without all the brutal violence and terrifying anguish? Yes, of course, God could have worked out salvation in some other way. It was not absolutely necessary for Christ to die on the cross. Because God is omnipotent, he could have done things differently.
Let’s begin by asking the question, did God have to become man? It’s important to start with the incarnation event because that is the first moment of redemption. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, although it was not absolutely necessary, it was fitting for God to become man for a number of reasons. Thomas points out that it “would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known” (ST III, Q. 1, A. 1). In other words, the invisible God becomes visible in the incarnation of the Son.
When we see the Word made flesh, we see God. Additionally, Thomas notes that because God is perfect goodness, he is the very highest possible good. “Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature,” something brought about primarily by the incarnation, by Christ’s joining an individual, created human nature to himself (Ibid). Through the incarnation, the Son of God communicated himself in the highest possible way to humankind. In doing so, he united human nature to God in a marvelous exchange.
Not Absolutely Necessary But Fitting and Best
Now, let’s ask the next question: was it necessary for Christ to die on the cross to save us? Again, although it was not strictly and absolutely necessary for Christ to be crucified because God could have chosen another way, it can be said to be fitting and necessary in the following sense, according to St. Thomas: it was “necessary from the necessity of the end proposed” (ST III, Q. 46, A. 1). This means that, when we consider things like prophecy and the words of Christ, the crucifixion was necessary to bring to completion what God had preordained and foretold. For example, if I say I’m going to trade in my car tomorrow, then it would be necessary for me to actually do that in order to bring it about. St. Thomas gives the following reasons for necessity (ST III, Q. 46, A. 1):
First, the crucifixion was necessary in order for men to be delivered from the bondage of sin by Christ’s Passion, as St. John writes: “The Son of man must be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (3:14).
Second, through his passion and crucifixion, Christ merited glory and was exalted into the heavens, as we read in Luke: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?” (24:26).
Third, it was necessary on God’s part to fulfill the passion of Christ foretold in the scriptures. Thomas gives the following passages from the authority of scripture to confirm his teaching: “The Son of man indeed goeth, according to that which is determined” (Lk 22:22); and “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms concerning Me: for it is thus written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead” (Lk 24:44-46).
Further, there are other reasons why it was fitting for the incarnate Son of God to redeem us through his death on the cross. Roch Kereszty points out that, through sin, we have distorted the divine reality of God in our hearts and minds. We have turned God into “either a cruel tyrant or a permissive, non-demanding force of love or simply into the non-existent sanction of an oppressive morality,” among other things (Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 340).
In sinning, we mistrust and reject God, and even display aggression towards him who has done nothing but love us and offer us every good thing. By sinning, we attempt to take control of reality, own it for ourselves in a way that is impossible as creatures, and abuse the limits of freedom. We pridefully assert ourselves over and above God, as if to conquer, subdue, and cast him aside. The more we sin, the more alienated from God and even from ourselves and others we become. The result is an inward turning, a closing in on oneself and a shutting out of God and others.
A Radical “Wake-up” Call
In light of this situation, God had to do something radical; otherwise, we would hardly have noticed. Yet his action had to be in harmony with his infinite goodness and love. Kereszty writes that “we needed more than just a moral exhortation and a divine offer of grace to convert us.” God had to “provide us with convincing and tangible evidence” of his holiness and love of such power as to “shake our fiercely defended idols and dislodge our chained will from slavery and move it toward the right relationship with the living God” (Ibid).
It was the incarnate Son who accomplished such a feat in becoming man and voluntarily dying on the cross in perfect obedience to the will of God the Father. Christ offered to God the Father, in reparation for sin, the infinite and perfect love and obedience of will that no mere man could. Divine justice brought love and mercy to bear on the firm chains of sin, shattering them through a saving death given for the sake of life in abundance (Jn 10:10). That is the Love who conquered sin and evil and death. And it is that Love who converts the hardened hearts of men. Not by conquest or tyranny or compulsion, but rather by an astonishing sacrifice of himself voluntarily undergone on the cross—all for mercy, all for forgiveness, all for love. It is the gift that exceeds every hope.
Praise be to Christ!
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.