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Why are Jesus’ death and resurrection important for Christians?
Easter is the most important Christian holiday in the calendar year. Unfortunately, like Christmas, it has become largely commercialised with the main focus on Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, chickens and daffodils.
While some of these are meant to symbolise new life, many don’t know the true meaning of Easter at all. In some cases, Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t given any thought whatsoever.
At this time of Easter, these are two questions to think about:
1. Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?
2. Why did Jesus rise from the dead?
Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?
The highest grossing film franchise at the moment is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Hollywood, superhero movies are box office giants. Audiences seem to love stories of brave heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor or Spider-Man who put their life on the line to save others.
However, none of these heroes come close to the saving work that Jesus did on the cross. Unlike these comic book heroes, Jesus didn’t only save us physically, but spiritually as well. He laid down his own life on the cross for all of humanity.
If you’re exploring the Christian faith, or you’re a new believer, you may wonder why Jesus had to die for us? Was there no other way for God to reconcile us with him?
Romans 3:20-26 says
“No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Let’s think about that for a minute. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
We may think we’ve led a good life and haven’t done anything particularly evil. If we were to measure our own moral standard against someone like Hitler, we may think that in comparison to him, we’ve led a pretty good life and none of our acts would compare to anything as atrocious as what he did.
However, God’s standard is perfection. The only one who has led a perfect and sinless life is Jesus Christ. This is the standard to which we must measure up. When we compare our own acts to Jesus, even our best acts of righteousness fall short.
It is like if you were standing at the edge of the Isle of Wight in the English channel and decided to jump to France. How far do you think you could get? If you are particularly tall, you might get further than someone shorter than you. Maybe an Olympic long jumper might have a better reach and could jump a further distance. However, no matter how far you jumped, you’d still never be able to reach France from where you were. You would always fall short of the mark.
Trying to reach God’s perfect standard is the same. Your righteous acts might be better than some but worse than others. However, no-one could ever measure up. They would always fall short of the mark.
This is why simply observing the law, loving your neighbour and trying to do good is not enough in itself. Our own works cannot save us because they can never measure up.
Our own righteousness is like filthy rags
Romans 3:20 says that no-one is righteous in God’s sight.
Isaiah 64:6 tells us that our righteousness is like filthy rags. This means even our best efforts at righteousness can never measure up. They are like the soiled and dishevelled clothing you might find on a homeless person. Consequently, our repentance is also like filthy rags. Even if we were to try to repent, on our own strength we are only capable of something that is imperfect and driven out of self interest.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, the younger son comes to a realisation when he is sitting amongst the pigs that even his father’s hired servants are better fed than he is. He decides that he will go to his father, tell him has sinned against him, say that he is no longer fit to be called his son and will ask him to take him back as a hired help. However, while this might appear on first reading to be the moment where the son repents, if you examine the passage more closely, his change of heart arises mostly out of necessity because he is starving. It’s not because he realises how much he has hurt his father that he chooses to return. Even his “repentance” is like filthy rags.
It is only when he is in the arms of the father, after the father has run out to meet him and welcomes him back that the son experiences true repentance. This time, the younger son doesn’t ask the father to take him on as his hired help. He simply confesses his sin and says he is no longer worthy to be his son.
Likewise, even our own repentance is like filthy rags.
God as Judge, Jesus as our substitution
The classic theological formulation of explaining Jesus’ death and sacrifice is that we rightly deserved to be punished for our sins. God is a just God. If a judge failed to punish the guilty, then we would not view him as a just judge.
However, the question that always comes up is how God can fulfil both roles as a just judge and a loving father. The two would seem to be in direct contradiction to one another. Maintaining both justice and love would appear to be a delicate balancing act. How can he possibly be both things at once?
Various theologians over the centuries have attempted to explain this in different ways. Some such as Anselm of Canterbury over-stressed the justice of God as a figure who requires a ransom in order to satisfy his wrath. This is in fact a common criticism of Stuart Townsend’s classic hymn, “In Christ Alone.” The lyrics of the second verse read
“Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Others theologians have placed more emphasis on God’s love and compassion to the exclusion of his justice.
The problem is that if we don’t hold both of these in equal tension, then we come away with either a God who is overly harsh and judgmental, or a God who overlooks all sin and evil for the sake of love.
Neither of these two options are acceptable.
Both ultimately lead to a God who is not intrinsically good. While the second option might initially seem like a better choice, a truly good and loving God cannot allow evil to go unpunished and for evil to triumph in the face of goodness.
Other Christians have misunderstood the dilemma that God faces. At first glance, it could seem as if God is only giving us two alternatives: either we die for our own sins, or someone else dies in our place. This can lead people to mistakenly draw the conclusion that God is unfair. It could seem as if God is an angry judge who simply demands payment, and that anyone will do, so long as they satisfy this debt. Some may get the impression that God is simply punishing Jesus in our place as a third party.
However, this is an incorrect way of understanding Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and God himself. Therefore, Jesus is both our judge and saviour. God does not simply punish an innocent or uninvolved third party in our place. It is God himself who takes our punishment.
On the Alpha course, or in his book Questions of Life, Nicky Gumbel gives the analogy of two friends who went to school and university together. One went on to become a judge while the other became a criminal. One day the criminal ended up in court in front of his friend the judge. He had committed a crime to which he could only plead guilty. Although the judge was his friend, he had a dilemma on his hands. As a judge, he couldn’t simply let the man off the hook, otherwise he wouldn’t be a just judge. On the other hand, because the man was his friend and he loved him, he didn’t want to punish him. Therefore, in order to solve this dilemma, he fined his friend the correct penalty, thereby maintaining justice. However, he then came down from his position as a judge and paid the fine on behalf of his friend, thereby showing his love.
In the analogy, God is the judge who must uphold the law, but also the compassionate friend who loves the criminal. In the same way, because we are guilty of sin, God has to judge us. However, in his love, God came to earth as Jesus, the Son of God and took the punishment that was meant for us. He himself chooses to pay the penalty on behalf of his friend. An independent third party does not simply bear the debt of punishment.
Now while this is a useful analogy, it tends to phrase things in legal or transactional terms. Part of the difficulty we have is the limitation of human language. When we use metaphors or analogies to describe what has happened on the cross, these are inevitably imperfect and ultimately break down if we take them too far.
One of the problems is that we still tend to think of our sin purely in terms of doing good or bad acts.
This can lead people to question whether all acts are equally bad, or whether some things we do is a sin at all. It is easy to start reasoning that we can live a morally upright life, do everything right and avoid being a sinner.
Nicky Gumbel does give three further analogies. He draws an image from the market place, where he phrases the problem in terms of paying a debt; an image from the temple, where Jesus is our perfect sacrifice who removes the pollution of sin; and an image from the home, where God is restoring a broken relationship between two estranged family members.
However, while these are all useful, a more helpful analogy might be to think of it in medical terms with a doctor treating a patient with a fatal disease.
We are sinners not because we sin. We sin because we are sinners
In the popular animal fable, “The Scorpion and the Frog”, a scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog is reluctant, because it fears the scorpion will sting it. However, the scorpion tries to assure the frog that if he did that, they would both drown. With this “assurance”, the frog hesitantly carries the scorpion across. Midway through the journey however, the scorpion does indeed sting the frog. As the frog is dying, he asks the scorpion why he did this, knowing that they would both drown. The scorpion can only reply that it was in his nature to do so.
Our predisposition to sin is similar to this. Like the scorpion, we can’t help ourselves. We do so, even if we know that it would endanger us and would be to our detriment. As human beings, it is in our nature to sin.
Sin isn’t simply a matter of whether you’ve done a certain amount of right or wrong. It’s not dependent on your moral choices, as if certain things you do make you a sinner, while other things don’t.
We are sinners not because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.
Read that again and think about those words carefully.
It’s not your actions or moral choices that make you a sinner. The term “sinner” isn’t a term of judgment on one’s character. While it might appear to make sense, because we tend to think this way in life, this is actually back to front. We aren’t sinners because we have sinned. It’s not the equivalent of how, if a person has committed crimes, it makes them a criminal.
Rather, sin is a symptom of the fact that we are sinners in the first place.
Proverbs 26:11 says “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
We have a tendency, on the strength of our own efforts, to be like a dog who constantly returns to its vomit. It is in our sinful nature to return to our sin, because like the scorpion, we cannot help ourselves.
In Romans 7:14-25, the apostle Paul tells us how our sinful nature makes us do the things we don’t even want to do. Even when we know something is bad for us, and we want to do good, we still have a predisposition to doing what is wrong.
Sin as a disease that God needs to cure
Romans 5:12 tells us that sin and death entered the world through one man. This man was Adam. This is what we mean when we say that we are “born with original sin”.
One way of thinking of sin is in terms of a genetic disease or condition which you have from birth. As a result of being infected by this disease you exhibit certain symptoms which predispose you to act in a certain way because it is in your nature to do so.
In keeping with the medical analogy I’m using, Adam was like the person who infected the entire human race with a disease we call sin. Because everyone is born with this condition, it makes people a sinner by nature where they can’t help but sin.
This means that it doesn’t matter whether we think we haven’t done anything which others may not consider particularly bad. You could have led a very moral life, treated others well and may have never committed any crimes. The fact that you’ve lived like this wouldn’t make you any less of a sinner.
Why is this? Because the term “sinner” refers to your “medical” condition, not your “moral” condition.
Let’s say you were the most moral person in the world but had an incurable terminal blood disease. Now imagine you tried to live your life in the best way possible in the hope that your good works would cure your health problems.
Would that have any effect whatsoever?
No. You would still be dying.
Your good acts wouldn’t have any bearing on your health at all. One is a health problem while the other is a moral issue.
But unfortunately, when it comes to good acts in relation to sin, many people think only in terms of right or wrong and believe that it is a moral issue.
But sin is like the incurable terminal disease.
What we need is a change of heart and a renewing of the mind. This can only come from an external source acting upon us, and not something we can strive towards by our own merits.
The only cure for this blood disease is by a doctor treating you and giving you the antidote manufactured from someone with healthy blood cells.
This is what has happened when Jesus died for us on the cross. He had to be perfect and sinless. He was the equivalent of someone whose blood was not contaminated with the same disease, otherwise the cure for our sinful condition would not be effective. We could not truly receive a spiritual blood transfusion unless he were free from sin himself.
Jesus’ death on the cross is the external thing which breaks the cycle of our sinful nature. It allows us to have a transformation whereby God gives us a new spiritual nature – one that has a natural tendency or predisposition for doing what God wants.
This is what Jesus is talking about when he explains to Nicodemus in John 3:3 that we need to be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God. We were born with original sin – the condition or disease affecting us.
Through Jesus’ death on the cross, his righteousness is “imputed” to us. This is a theological term meaning that God treats his righteousness as if it is our own. It is as if we have had that spiritual blood transfusion – his blood for ours.
This means that when God looks at us, it is not our righteousness that he sees, for our own righteousness always falls short of his glory. Rather, it is Jesus’ righteousness that he sees instead.
The cross was not the end of the story. It was the moment when Jesus defeated death and broke the curse of sin.
In John 19:30,when Jesus cried “It is finished” from the cross, this was not a cry of defeat but a cry of victory. He was effectively saying “It is accomplished.”
On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead to bring his victory over sin and death to full completion.
Why did Jesus rise from the dead?
In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the apostle Paul talks about the importance of the resurrection for Christians.
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
The resurrection was a necessary event. It was not enough simply for Jesus to die on the cross. God the Father had to raise Jesus from the dead so that we too might share in his resurrection.
The resurrection is not something that Christians can deny as a historical event. I’m not going to go into the historical proof for it here. Frank Morrison’s “Who Moved the Stone” or Michael Green’s “The Day Death Died“ delve into this subject in more detail which you can read for yourself.
1 Corinthians 15:20 tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was the firstfruits for all those who had died. His resurrection set the precedent. It was a guarantee that God would raise to life all those who had died.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17 that if God did not raise Jesus to life, then the dead are not raised either. And if the dead are not raised, then our faith is futile. We are still lost in our sins. In other words, there is no point to the Christian faith without the resurrection. As verse 19 tells us, if our hope is only something for this life only, and for nothing more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in the world. We might as well give up now and stop believing if it is all a delusion.
This is why Jesus’ death and resurrection are the most important and essential part of the Christian faith. It’s also why simply following Jesus’ teaching or trying to live a good life without the saving power of the cross and resurrection is ultimately futile.
Many other world religions are based around simply following teachings and trying to observe good works. This is what is different about the Christian faith. Jesus is not simply a prophet who gives us a set of rules to follow or a few words of wisdom to live by. In the first place, we are incapable of adhering to these properly as our own sinful nature prevents us from doing so.
Secondly, it is Jesus’ death and resurrection which that delivers us from the penalty of sin and the power of sin and allows us to have that new nature. We are no longer subject to the old pattern of sin and death, but are able to break free of that cycle and begin anew.
It is only when we have a new nature that are able to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh, as Romans 8:5 tells us.
All those who believe in him no longer have to pay for their own sins, because Jesus has paid for it in full on the cross. Everyone who believes also no longer have to worry about sin’s power over us or death, because we have the hope of new life.
In John 11:25-26, Jesus explains to Martha
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
You can read more about this here.
1 Corinthians 15: 21-22 assures us that
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
Jesus’ death and resurrection is the message that Christians hold to, particularly at Easter. It is these truths that bring the promise of new life and hope for a future beyond this life.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.