To state that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is central to Christianity is to state the obvious. The Bible abounds with testimony concerning the importance of the cross. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In Matthew 16:21 we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter wrote that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus, pointing to his forthcoming crucifixion, said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Likewise, the apostle Paul taught that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
The question, however, is often asked: Could there have been another way for God to save sinners? Did Jesus have to die?
A lot of people have a real issue with the cross. While they see Jesus’ death as a sacrifice or an act of love, they wonder not only why he himself had to die but also why anyone has to be punished for sin.
One popular blogger has stated unequivocally that Jesus did not have to die for humans to be reconciled to God. God could have done things a different way.
The logic goes something like this: God is capable of doing whatever he wants. After all, he is God. Consequently, God did not have to require the crucifixion. As a matter of fact, God did not have to allow the Fall, Adam and Eve’s sin that got humanity into its sin predicament.
Such thinking goes on to say that there is no “must” or “requirement” with God. Saying that God “must” or “is required” to do something violates the concept of God. God is totally free from any requirements. To say that his justice requires the punishment of the sinner is nonsensical. In fact, God could have simply waved off sin, pronouncing that it is forgiven and all is well.
Orthodox Christianity has said that God’s justice requires that sinners be punished for their sin, but some professing Christians return to the idea that God can do what he wants because he is sovereign. Such an idea, though, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of God.
The fundamental mistake with such a notion is understanding what it means to say that “God can do whatever he wants.” That is a true statement, but it must be rightly understood. God’s sovereignty never conflicts with his nature. While God can do anything he wants, he cannot violate his very nature. In other words, God would never want to do that which is contrary to who he is. God can do whatever he wants to do, and he always wants to do that which is according to who he is.
God is in essence holy. Isaiah saw the seraphim announcing the absolute holiness of God (Isaiah 6:1-3). That which is unholy, that which is sinful, violates the very nature of God. Sin is rebellion against God because it violates who he is. Consequently, the sovereign of the universe must punish sin because allowing it to go unpunished would be for God to contradict his very being.
Therefore, Christ had to die or else all of humanity would face the judgment of God. God cannot allow sin in his presence. To do so would violate his very nature. He cannot simply wave off sin. Again, justice would not be served. Holiness would be contradicted. Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem to die upon the cross (Matthew 16:21).
Could there have been another way? Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Were there any other way, the inexpressible spiritual agony of the cross could have been averted. There was no other way.