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Many responses to why Jesus died

Yesterday, April 1, was Easter.

OK, I know the calendar says Easter will be on April 24 this year. But I like to connect Easter with April Fool’s Day – the day when God played a trick on death.

I also think God plays some tricks on us when it comes to the reasons Jesus died.

I shared this little story with readers four years ago. I think it bears repeating:

When our son was 3 years old, he startled me with a question one night: “Why did Jesus die?”

I chose not to give the standard “He died for your sins” answer. First, I didn’t want to scare him. Secondly, this clichéd answer is one I’ve resisted intuitively since I was a teenager.

So I briefly gave Brian a historical, political answer – that Jesus upset the Roman and Jewish authorities so much that his death was all they wanted.

That satisfied him then. Now, 36 years later, I would share a fuller answer with him, one that identifies multiple reasons for Jesus’ death.

In “The Heart of Christianity,” Marcus Borg offers five hindsight reasons. They reflect both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ:

• The Jewish and Roman authorities rejected Jesus and killed him. They said “no” to Jesus, but God said “yes.”

• Jesus said “no” to the religious and political domination systems of his day (Rome and Jewish authoritarianism). He paid the consequence.

Of this, St. Paul says: “God disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”

• Jesus’ death and resurrection was the incarnation of an internal spiritual transformation. This metaphorical “way” is at the heart of the Christian life: Die to the old way, be raised to a new way of living.

• Jesus’ death reveals the depth of God’s love for us. I don’t believe Jesus’ original mission was to die in this way, nor do I believe God’s ultimate will pointed Jesus only to the cross. But under the circumstances, God expressed ultimate love for humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

• Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. Hence the popular phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.” But this now-glib phrase can easily dismiss these other reasons. It also disregards the original meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The experience of “sacrifice” had its center in the Jerusalem Temple’s system of sacrifices. The Temple had a kind of institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus’ death was seen as a sacrifice to his followers. So they realized God had done away with the Temple as the “middle man” between the people and God. Jesus’ death abolished Temple sacrifice as a way to get to God.

So “Jesus died for our sins” was originally a subversive metaphor of God’s radical grace and hospitality. It is therefore ironic, says Borg, “to realize that the religion that formed around Jesus would – within 400 years – begin to claim for itself an institutional monopoly on grace and access to God.”

The Church’s “monopoly on grace and access to God” too easily happens when we (the church) demand a single way of believing about Jesus, and discount those who cannot, will not, believe as we do.

Additionally, when others don’t believe as we do, our judgment of them may become an obstacle of God’s grace for them, but it definitely challenges our receptivity of God’s grace.

Then it’s appropriate for us to ask: Who is the real target of God’s April Fool grace-filled trick? Us?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via email at


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