The Church has a bunch of creeds. Nicene. Apostles. Athanasian. They’re great for telling you what we believe about Jesus and his divinity, but none of them really explain what actually happened when he died.
Christians throughout the years have answered this question differently, some more successfully than others. Here’s four of those theories:
Ransom Theory- Satan threw on a snakeskin, fooled Adam and took the human race hostage. The ransom he demanded was the death of God’s Son. Therefore, according to Origen (d.254) God paid off the devil to purchase our freedom.
Satisfaction Theory- God is the Lord of a kingdom, and we are his disobedient subjects. Our disobedience has ‘wounded’ his honour, and he demands compensation. Since plebs like us can’t afford this, Anselm (d. 1109) suggested that Jesus died to accrue merit for humanity and paid back our debt to the King.
Example Theory- humanity is basically good; we just needed a kick in the right direction. Since there’s no sin to overcome or anger to remove, Jesus’ death was just an example for us to follow. According to Abelard (d. 1142), humans are overwhelmed by God’s love and persuaded to repent and follow him.
Governmental Theory- God’s a shifty judge who wants to let sinners go unpunished, but he also needs to remind them not to do it again. Therefore, Jesus died as an example of what will happen to sinners who don’t repent. According to Grotius (d. 1645), his death upholds the moral governance of the universe and deters further sin.
So who’s right?
Well each of them have elements of the truth, but they also have serious flaws. God didn’t ‘pay off’ the devil, it’s not just God’s honour that needs satisfying, humanity needs more than a good example, and God’s not a shifty judge.
So why did Jesus die?
Penal Substitutionary Atonement– Demarest and Feinberg put it well in their book The Cross and Salvation, “According to this view sin, which is primarily a violation of God’s law, not his honor, results in the just penalty of death. But in love Jesus Christ our substitute, in his life perfectly fulfilled the law and in death bore the just penalty for our sins.” In other words, Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death that we should have died. By faith in him, we escape God’s anger and receive eternal life.
Question: do you know any good illustrations or stories to help explain the death of Jesus? You can leave a comment by clicking here.