Why Didn't Jesus Just Die Right Away?

By John Drury

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

If Jesus came to die for our sins, why didn't he just die right away? Why did God not ordain that his son would die under Herod's slaying of the infants? If he was the true incarnation of God in human flesh, why not die as our substitute right off the bat? Certainly he would have already been the spotless sacrifice, for who is more sinless than an innocent child?

Well, we know this is not what happened. It happened that Jesus grew up, called disciples, taught, healed. In other words, he lived before he died. So the biblical history being what it is, I have no interest in challenging its sensibility. But, in order to dive into the sense of the story, we may and even must ask why it happened the way it did. Because there must be some reason why Jesus didn't die for our sins right away.

I would guess that the initial answer to this question is that the time between his birth and death was the time of his teaching. In terms of one classic distinction, Jesus first fulfilled his prophetic office before proceeding to fulfill his priestly office. Certainly there is merit in this retort, especially as it brings to light that Christ came to do more than simply die. However, is this answer really adequate? Can Jesus' teaching and atonement be so separated? Does his life have so little to do with his death? Are his teachings just a "meantime" activity? Such an answer does not do justice to either his life or his death.

A more adequate answer to the question may be found by challenging the assumption beneath the question itself. Could Jesus really have died right away? Is the requisite substitute for our sin only God enfleshed in a sinless human being? Isn't there more to our reconciliation with God than this? Yes! The perfection of Jesus cannot be understood as a static freedom from sin. Rather, the perfection of Jesus is accomplished as a perfecting of our human life extended over history. His whole perfected history stands as a substitute for our failed histories - or, better yet, for the failed history of humanity as a whole. Check out the temptation stories (Mt 4 = Lk 4) in contrast to the Deuteronomy stories which Jesus quotes to catch a glimpse of how Jesus succeeded where we failed.

Thinking about the atonement this way not only answers the question, but avoids splitting Jesus' life and death. For Jesus in his entire history - both life and death - is our substitute. He has re-lived (or "recapitulated") the life that we did not live so that we may live again in him. And Jesus as this perfected one (with his "acquired righteousness" so to speak) has died the death we deserved so that we do not have to die.

Any thoughts?
Does this answer address the concern of the question?
Is the initial answer really as bad as I portrayed it?
How does the resurrection fit in here ... it certainly does - but how?


At 9:35 PM, November 23, 2005, Anonymous said...

I really do agree with what you said, John. But just for fun, since I am a little bored waiting for my axis and allies turn, I am going to play somebody else's advocate. :)

What if all that really needed to happen was for a perfect God/man to die for our sins and for us to believe it was true and give our lives to this God/man as our Lord? Then, maybe the only reason for Herod not being alllowed to kill Christ was that fewer of us would have believed. No miracles (besides the birth itself.) No incredible moral teaching. No boundaries breaking outreach. No stick-it-to-the-religious-stuck-ups.

Maybe what was at stake wasn't atonement in an abstract "hey it's available" kind of sense. Maybe what was at stake was MY atonement. Would I or anybody I know believe it?!!!

So...is the life, teaching, and suffering of Christ an apologetic? How sickeningly evangelical. ;) But if we took it this way perhaps it would simply be an even greater expression of divine love. As if God said "I want you to get this so badly...I am going to do to take pains and do this the REALLY hard way and take my time doing it. Watch carefully."

Dave Ward


At 9:09 PM, November 24, 2005, Keith.Drury said...

Facinating question, and one I've really never considered. Dave Ward cited several thoughts that immeditely came to mind but I'm sitting here trying to even imagine the unfolding story of redemption had the sacrifice been at 2 years old...and I cannot do it... maybe it is the turkey. I'll see if I can do better tomorrow.


At 8:29 AM, November 25, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

This post has been removed by the author.


At 12:31 PM, November 25, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

The issue at hand is not so much whether the story makes sense without the extended life, but what is it with our atonement theories that incline us to even consider this possibility? Maybe some of us have never considered it because we think differently about the atonement. If that is the case, how do we think our redemption operates? What understanding of the atonement best accounts for the plot of the story (which is always primary over doctrine)?


At 12:34 PM, November 25, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

PS to Dave Ward - I think that your desire for line connnecting Christ to us is spot on. Could it be that the need for revelation to us is the place that the resurrection holds in the story? Could it be that his life and death accomplished our redemption, but is no use to us unless he is raised and therefore present to us? This is at least how I would approach the issue. Any thoughts?


At 2:45 PM, November 28, 2005, Nathan Hart said...

how 'bout this question: Why did Jesus ascend back to heaven? Why didn't he just stay on earth in his arisen state and stick around, healing people and answering questions and whatnot?


At 4:43 PM, November 30, 2005, The AJ Thomas said...

This is a super interesting question and one that I have not spent a ton of time thinking about. Iím not sure I have a complete answer but here is some more fuel on the fire.
I believe the life of Christ answers the ďso now whatĒ question of redemption. Without the example of a sinless life we would have nothing to aspire to. We would have no idea what to do once we were redeemed. Jesus presented a holy life and then opened the door to it for us.
I believe that the willingness of Christ is also a key issue. The Bible says he learned obedience through what he suffered. The I believe that the suffering spoken of here was not primarily the physical suffering on the cross but the emotional and spiritual suffering on in the garden. None of this is really possible for a 2 year old. Jesus has to live and learn the cost of his obedience and choose to do it anyway. If he was 2 his life would have been taken from him but no one took his life he laid it down willingly as a rational adult. Iím not saying he had to be in his thirties but I donít think he could have fully understood what he was agreeing to do as a child. I know that line of reasoning focuses more on his humanity that his divinity but since time is irrelevant to God I guess itís got to be his human nature that is the issue in this discussion


At 5:28 PM, November 30, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

If you are still digging this discussion, it will move on in a different but related direction in this week's new blog. The new post serves as an answer/response to some (but certainly not all) of your questions/comments. You can catch a glimpse of why I do not make the predominatly revelatory moves regarding the life of Christ which many of you made, for I prefer to assign that function to the resurrection. I'd love to enjoy your continued discussion!


At 12:54 PM, December 01, 2005, Just . Jay said...

one obvious reason is to fulfill prophecy. God isn't a liar, so that is part of it.

another reason is to set an example of "doing it right." not abolishing the law but fulfilling it (living it correctly)

also, forgive me, i just watched Constantine recently... but maybe to demonstrate to Satan how utterly NOT in control he is. Jesus was no stranger to "the bad guys" and I can't help but think they were just hoping Jesus would screw up. 33 years and no screw ups shows who is boss. (as if that were in question)

maybe it was also to redirect the course of the church for the rest of time on earth?