Why did God do it?

For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man. 
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried.

This confession of the church caused unbelievers to ask critical questions. Anselm of Canterbury attempted to answer one question that he said unbelievers were asking: Why did God have to become man and die for our salvation? Why could God not have accomplished this in some other means or by some other person?

Anselm assumes the incarnation and crucifixion were necessary. Anselm assumes this because he believes that God would not require the suffering and death of an innocent man if it were not necessary. And he affirms the Nicene Creed, which says that these things were done for us and for our salvation.

So, if we were in Anselm’s position, how would we answer the question posed to him: “Why did God have to become human and die for our sake?”

19 thoughts on “Why did God do it?

  1. Because and real salvation happens in solidarity with and not merely as rescue from…

    1. Is that “because” your assertion that there are mysteries that cannot be penetrated? Anselm kind of said a similar thing.He wrote that our best answers are always never fully grasping the truth. But he felt that when people asked — believers and unbelievers — that teachers in the church should try to provide answers. Do I hear you saying that he was wrong about that?

  2. Of course Jesus didn’t have to die. He knew he’d likely be killed when he got to Jerusalem, and he could have turned and walked the other direction and the world would never have heard of Jesus Christ. MLK, Jr. could have taken a cushy job as a university president somewhere but chose to pursue his vision instead, knowing (just like Jesus) what his likely end would be. Likewise, Jesus could have abandoned His cause and taken an easy route, perhaps as a respected Rabbi in the temple and lived a happy life. The fact that He didn’t and the result is explained by Paul in Phillipians 2:6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!
    9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    1. Bob, I don’t know what happened to your previous comment. Sorry about that.

      Let me make sure I’m hearing what you say and not what I think: Jesus did not have to die for our salvation? If he’d gotten up that night on the Mount of Olives and run into the night rather than get captured by the soldiers, salvation would still be found in him?

      If I’m mistaken in what you are saying, please help me out. I am trying to get a better grip on the range of answers that people have to this question.

      1. I’m saying that Jesus did not die in our place. I think that the concept of substitutionary atonement or ransom is bad theology.

  3. God is just. Justice means fairness and equity. If sinners are absolved automatically by God’s fiat, then those who are faithful, serve uselessly. Like the judge who declared the poor woman guilty, then paid the fine out of his own pocket, God must preserve the integrity of the law, but has provided restitution out of his own goodness. Jesus suffered and died to show us the way. Few of us are called to ultimate physical martyrdom, but every Christian is inspired to bare whatever cross is laid.

    1. Anselm focused in on a similar question about the “problem” of God ignoring sin and the harm it does. He used different terms, and your post makes me realize that I need to pay more attention to that if I want to understand Anselm better.

    2. God doesn’t have to do anything, including behaving in a way that we see as preserving “the integrity of the law.” If Jesus thought your parable of a judge paying a guilty party’s fine to be accurate he would have said something similar himself, wouldn’t he? Don’t you find it interesting that he didn’t? That makes me think that the theological concept of a substitutionary atonement is one made up by us, not God.

  4. How about instead of using speculative logic, we answer the question with a Biblical passage like Hebrews 2:10-18 in which it doesn’t have a thing to do with feudalistic honor:

    “It was fitting that God,[i] for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.[j] For this reason Jesus[k] is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,[l] 12 saying,

    “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,[m]
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

    13 And again,

    “I will put my trust in him.”

    And again,

    “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

    14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, ***so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.*** 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters[n] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

    1. I happy to try to answer the question any way you like. So, I find this Scripture passage deeply moving as well.

      Can you help me explain what it means to a plumber or farmer or insurance salesman?

      In verse 15, the necessary part sounds like ransom, yes? I saw you write about that somewhere else recently. Verse 17 needs some unpacking, I would think, though. The why he had to become human — incarnation — does not spring to easy articulation here. At least not for me.

      1. It says that we are held in slavery by the fear of death. By conquering death, Jesus removes that slavery. Also verse 10 says that the purpose of Jesus’ suffering is to make him a better pioneer of our salvation which suggests to me that he’s carving out a path for us to follow.

        John, I just don’t see anywhere that the Bible actually names Jesus’ blood as the satisfaction of God’s wrath. I did a post a few days ago in which I looked at the 25 references to Jesus’ blood. It establishes a covenant, purifies us, pays our ransom, justifies us, reconciles us, establishes his authority, but there is nowhere that it says God needed this to happen so that His wrath could be quenched.

        I really think it’s all confirmation bias. When we start with wrath-satisfaction as a premise, we can certainly interpret a lot of things to support it, but if we haven’t started from there, it simply isn’t in the text.

        In any case, I’ve been working on a more extensive piece that would answer the Cur Deus Homo question generally in terms of incarnation, cross, and resurrection with Biblical support for each. My thesis right now is that Jesus had to become human to show God’s solidarity with humanity; He had to die on the cross for the sake of our deliverance from sin; He had to come back from the dead for the sake of giving us a hopeful future.

        I think articulating it this way is more faithful to what the text actually says. We really don’t hear the Bible speculating on God’s motives in abstraction from human interests. In all fairness, this is because the context in which we read explanations about Jesus’ purpose is always pastoral exhortation; there’s no real place for abstract metaphysical discourse. Paul had no reason to be a Paul Tillich or an Anselm for that matter.

        1. I’m not clear what you mean by “God’s motives in abstraction from human interests.”

          I’ll try to keep an eye out for your post.

        2. The Bible pretty exclusively focuses on describing the benefits of Jesus’ existence *for us.* It just doesn’t talk about it as the fulfillment of an abstract need to maintain honor, justice, holiness, etc. Ironically, the latter is where the focus is for people who are supposedly being Biblical.

        3. How is justice abstract?

          And isn’t a just cosmos good for us? So how is Jesus acting to maintain justice not good for us?

          At least in Anselm, the whole honor thing is just a way of getting at justice. Dishonoring God takes from God something that is due him — spiritual theft as it were. It is not about honor per se as much as failure to do what is owed another and how to rectify that.

          Holiness probably moves us to a new framework, although the unjust cannot be holy. But again, I don’t see how holiness is abstract.

          As if often the case, I am probably misunderstanding your point.

        4. If justice isn’t abstract, then I don’t have a problem with it. In the reformed tradition, “God’s glory” is often talked about as the purpose of God’s existence in a way that is aloof to human flourishing. The aloofness is actually essential to the affirmation of God’s sovereignty, because the alternative is seen to be anthropocentrism. Either God is indifferent to us except insofar as we glorify Him or God is our butler.

          I feel like to be Wesleyan is to make the opposite affirmation: that everything God does and commands us to do is perfectly benevolent. God’s goodness is not just correctness in a sense that is indifferent to our well-being; it’s perfectly benevolent and loving. I don’t see any reason not to say that God hates sin because of His love for the people who are hurt by sin, period. All idolatry is harmful; the best way to be loving to ourselves is to worship God perfectly; so even when we’re talking about sins that don’t have an obvious victim, God’s opposition to them is out of benevolence rather than an abstract need for glory.

          When we make the speculative claim that God would damn a person eternally for looking left when He says to look right, because that would be spiritual theft from God, then we’re talking about God in a way that looks nothing like Jesus. Would you want to worship a God who damns people for looking left instead of right? I don’t think we’re really worshiping God if we’re doing so out of a sense of duty. Worship is only worship if we genuinely delight in God. The goal of worship is to delight in God. The God that I have come to know through my scripture-illuminated experience is a God who I truly delight in, not a misanthropic perfectionist to whom I fearfully pay my dues since He damns people for looking left instead of right.

          It’s ironically out of zeal for the honor of the God I know that I get so freaking crazed over this stuff. I absolutely want Him to be honored by all not because I think He’s a big mean jerk who will hurt me if I don’t honor Him, but because He’s beautiful and the insults of those who insult Him fall on my head. I just think that playing speculative logic games that result in an unnecessarily repugnant looking God is irresponsible blasphemy that dishonors God even if a saint who has made positive contributions to our tradition is the one who did it.

  5. “Anselm of Canterbury attempted to answer one question that he said unbelievers were asking: Why did God have to become man and die for our salvation?”

    Was Anselm setting up a straw man here? It seems much more likely that unbelievers would ask “Why do you believe that this God story is actually true?” The unbeliever Anselm claims to be quoting has already accepted most of the story, and is only quibbling over details.

    1. Well, you will have to ask Anselm. He describes unbelievers as poking fun at Christians because their ideas are absurd and demeaning to God. I don’t think he was dealing with atheists. Some of what he writes sounds like Gnostics or similar types of beliefs might have been behind some of the questions.

      For my part, I don’t have any reason to believe Anselm was making stuff up — although he certainly may have been characterizing people who disagreed with him in ways that made it easier for him to make his argument. We all do that.

      What little I’ve read of him does not lead me to believe he was intentionally dishonest in his thinking, though.

  6. Morgan wrote:

    I don’t think we’re really worshiping God if we’re doing so out of a sense of duty. Worship is only worship if we genuinely delight in God.

    So worship is only worship if I am delighting in it? What if I am in mourning or depressed?

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