Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?

April 1, 2009 | 37 comments

Speaking of Steve G., I am delighted to share this guest post that he wrote. Click here to see all of his posts.

Early in my Christian journey, I often struggled with understanding why Christ had to die for our sins. This was something that believers would say to me that I had a very difficult time grasping, and when pressed, they often had a difficult time answering.

“What does that mean exactly?” I would ask. “Why did He need to die for my sins? I mean it sounds great that He loves me so much that He’d be willing to give His life, but why exactly was that necessary?”

Over the years, as I began to come to terms with the damage my own sin caused in the world, in my relationships, and in myself, I slowly came to an intuitive understanding of why some way of repairing the damage of my misdeeds needed to exist. But to be honest, I still didn’t understand very well why Christ needed to die to do this. His death and resurrection certainly seemed the ultimate example of total self-donation, but I still did not grasp at more than surface level “how” it repaired, or began to repair, the damage done.

Recently, I think I’ve begun to understand this a bit better. It started with a homily I heard in which the priest was discussing the story of the fall. What he focused on in particular was the intimacy of the relationship between God and Adam & Eve in the garden. He pointed out how they walked and talked together in the garden in friendship with one another.

This got me thinking. When we rightly see this relationship as it is, rather than terms of the master/slave mentality we all fall into sometimes, maybe we can begin to understand their sin for what it really was. It was a betrayal. Adam and Eve betrayed God and were unfaithful to the relationship they had with Him.

When one is betrayed, only the betrayed person can actually forgive, and reconcile with the other. The betrayer may be heartily sorry, may be committed to never betraying again, but unless forgiveness is extended from the betrayed, a reconciliation cannot happen. Only the offended party can truly repair the breach.

The closest analogy I can think of is marital infidelity. Indeed the Old Testament is rife with the language of Israel’s sin as being infidelity to God, so it seems a fitting analogy.

In this case, the offended spouse must give up something in order for reconciliation to be possible. That something is a bit of themselves. They must give up their justified hurt and anger. They must die a bit to themselves by once again exposing themselves to the other in a way that might just end up with them being hurt again. They must make themselves vulnerable and put their heart in their betrayer’s hands.

This is, I imagine, exceedingly difficult, and requires a level of selflessness that is astounding. To give one’s self again to the one who has betrayed you. That is real selflessness. That is a sacrifice of a part of one’s self.

And the worse the betrayal, the larger the rupture in the relationship, the larger the sacrifice must consequently be.

So, in the fall we have the ultimate rupture, the ultimate betrayal. It is the betrayal of the creator, by the created. It is the betrayal of the very source of life and love. It is the betrayal of the most fundamental relationship in the life of man.

How can such a betrayal be reconciled? I can imagine only one way which makes sense. The betrayed in this case must be willing to make the ultimate act of self denial. The ultimate act is to give our entire selves, our very life, in service of repairing the breach that has been made by the betrayer.

And so maybe we can begin to see the need for the crucifixion.

This is the act of God putting Himself entirely in the hands of those who betrayed (and continue to betray) Him. It is God utterly dying to Himself in order to forgive, to reconcile and to heal the breach made by that betrayal. It is God putting Himself in our hands again knowing full well that we may (will) betray Him again.

This is probably kid’s stuff to those who’ve been at the spiritual life for a while, but it was helpful to me in gaining a deeper understanding of His sacrifice, and so I share it in hopes it might be helpful to someone else.


  1. tinkerbell the bipolar faery

    A great post. This was never explained to me as a child, except through the regurgitation of what seemed like very mystical and esoteric scripture quotes.

    Forgiveness = surrender. Becoming human and then suffering persecution and death was God’s surrender, to facilitate our forgiveness.

    I had to read some C.S. Lewis to really get that. And now mt heart undersands it.

    Thank you.

  2. Heather of the EO

    No, not kid stuff. Even if it’s something I’ve understood on some level many times in my life, this was said in a way that reached more corners of my heart. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous

    I needed to read this. I chose to reunite after betrayal (both of us are to blame to greater and lesser degrees), and I need some prayers that I will, indeed, forgive and not be afraid to open up, to give without reservation or suspicion or be on the defensive, be vulnerable, and possibly be hurt again. Right now, it seems impossible to do, at least 100%, or be the way it was before the major hurt. Thank you, Steve. A wife who has been through it.

    PS Thank you also for your clear explanation/analogy of why Jesus had to die for our sins.

  4. Rachel Gray

    That’s not kid’s stuff to me! I’ve never heard that idea before, and it is amazing and makes sense. Thank you.

    It’s so good to read your perspective on Christianity. I never thought to ask exactly why Jesus had to die for our sins.

  5. Jaime (ChaseNKids)

    This is NOT kid stuff. Your perspective is always so refreshing and touching. I always come away from your site blessed and encouraged.

  6. Judith

    Well put.
    I hope folks who read thiswill bookmark it or share it with others.
    The image of infidelity is so powerful in the OT and NT …. and helps us understand why the image of the Coming Kingdom is a marriage feast.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Have a blessed Holy Week and Easter, all.

  7. SuburbanCorrespondent

    But why did God wait so long to do so? That makes it sound as if he struggled to forgive us, which seems a little too anthropomorphic to me.

    I have pondered this often, also. I grew up Jewish and could never quite understand this point.

  8. Gregaria

    Wow, this is a new way of looking at the crucifixion for me! I’ve been Catholic all my life and thought I understood this pretty well, but this makes a ton of sense and its something I never considered before.

  9. Gregaria

    Wow, this is awesome! I’ve never heard this before even though I’m a cradle Catholic and thought I understood why Jesus had to die on the cross for us. Your explanation makes a ton of sense. Thanks. 🙂

  10. GrandmaK

    You have given a truly inspirational lesson on forgiveness. During this season of reflection on who we are as Christians and how our lives should be transformed this is a wonderful blessing. Thank you! Cathy

  11. Hannah

    A few years ago, a Christian friend gave me a similar explanation – it came as quite a surprise, since at that point I was very into the whole “why would God have to die to change his own rules” angsty atheist thing.

  12. Jodi

    Very helpful and hardly kid stuff. I’ve never heard such a succinct explanation and one that makes so much sense. it will be my answer from now on! 🙂

  13. Jodi

    Also, regarding SuburbanCorrespondent’s comment. It might sound anthropomorphic, which is something that always bothers me, but then again isn’t the whole concept of time also anthropomorphic? Maybe it was the next day in God-years??

  14. Ginkgo100

    For once — perhaps for the first time — I think you are wrong here.

    In Scripture and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the idea is reiterated that God did not have to suffer or be sacrificed as a moral necessity. Rather, the idea is that humanity’s sin is so great that the principle of justice (and remember God is All-Just) demands the death of the sinners. There is sort of an economy here: the wrongdoing of man can only be “corrected” with a sacrifice on the part of man.

    Christ had to die for our sins not because God had to “give something up” himself in order to repair the relationship, but rather because someone had to be sacrificed on the part of humanity (not on the part of God). Because God is also All-Merciful in addition to being All-Just, he came up with a perfect (indeed, a divinely Perfect) solution: make himself human, declare “solidarity” (CCC 603) with the human race, and sacrifice himself on behalf of the human racenot on behalf of God.

    Christ’s sacrifice is often described as a ransom (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Peter 1:18). In other words, a debt or ransom was due to God because of sin, and Christ paid it.

  15. Ginkgo100

    Okay, I just saw that this is a guest post… so Steve G., I think you’re wrong. =)

  16. Kaycee

    This is a powerful post. I’ve been questioning this exact thing lately so this helped put it into perspective.

  17. Eliz

    Don’t hurt me, but you’ve been tagged. http://tinyurl.com/c6pp5o
    What about a Lenten six things? Or a six things about Easter? I have to say that once I understood why Jesus had to die for our sins, Easter became my favorite time of year. For a very long time, Easter felt irrelevant. I suppose it would be to a non-practicing Catholic. Of course, atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers of all sorts celebrate Christmas. And I did, too. I just could never imagine a time where I would find Easter more meaningful and joyful than Christmas.

  18. jrbaab

    Actually, when you wrote at the end that this was child’s play to serious catholics, I found myself realizing that although I understood this concept in an abstract internal sense, to have it written out simply helped me a lot to conceptualize why God, in Christ, had to die for our sins. That was a long sentence, but as someone who is overconfident in their knowledge of these matters, I found it quite good. Thanks.

  19. T & T Livesay

    Brand new reader here … thanks for writing!

    from Haiti-

  20. SteveG

    In Scripture and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the idea is reiterated that God did not have to suffer or be sacrificed as a moral necessity. Rather, the idea is that humanity’s sin is so great that the principle of justice (and remember God is All-Just) demands the death of the sinners. There is sort of an economy here: the wrongdoing of man can only be “corrected” with a sacrifice on the part of man.

    Upon rereading this, I have to stand by my comment that I can’t see these as mutually exclusive. This is not an either or, but a both/and.

    Your description is unquestionably right. The CCC certainly does speak in terms of ransom and a sacrifice in payment for our debt.

    608…Christ’s whole life expresses his mission: “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    But it also speaks about the act of giving on the part of God…

    614…First it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.

    I think that this passage neatly brings together the two parts we are discussing. My main point in the post was that I think that the second part is usually the answer given without the first part being included. I am trying to use an analogy to give the whole picture.

    I think the whole picture makes the ‘Why Jesus died for us?’ make more sense. Admittedly, it is not a perfect analogy because no analogy is perfect.

    No man, unless he is God, can make a sacrifice which is sufficient to correct things. The Son of God indeed did become man, and the sacrifice was that of a man, but it was only sufficient because he was also God. Thus, I think I am on very firm ground in saying that indeed God (in the Person of Jesus, as a gift of the Father, and through the Holy Spirit) did indeed make the ultimate sacrifice in order to achieve our reconciliation and repair the relationship between Himself and mankind (and every man and woman).

    616…No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons and constitutes himself the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all

    I think to try to separate that and say it was the sacrifice of the man who did it is to miss that it was both…it was the man, but it was also an ultimate act of giving on the part of God. We know that this is true from one simple scriptural passage that…

    John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son…

  21. SteveG

    But why did God wait so long to do so? That makes it sound as if he struggled to forgive us, which seems a little too anthropomorphic to me.

    I think Jennifer actually posed a question to me cvery like this a while back. I have to dig around and see if I can find my response. Maybe it might be helpful. Hopefully by tomorrow.

  22. Anonymous

    Why did it take God so long? I think, to use a biblical expression, God does things in the fullness of time and His ways are not our ways as He has reminded us. There’s not always a Shazaam! moment when these things are puzzled out, but sometimes there is that moment and it all makes sense to the point in which there can’t be any other way. BTW, great discussion.

  23. Jim

    Helpful for me, thank you

  24. Lana

    I like this.
    I think it is a helpful angle when we consider the tension between the “necessity” of redemption, the confusion caused by substitution theories of atonement and the fact that God is Love. I came to the Catholic Church from a Protestant background and have recently discovered just how different the idea of redemption is in Catholic thought. The truth is, we don’t know why God sent Jesus, we just know that it was out of merciful love, it has to do with relationship, and that it is mysterious.
    As to the demands of justice, I love this part of BXVI’s “Deus Caritas Est”:
    10. We have seen that God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God’s love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. IT IS SO GREAT THAT IT TURNS GOD AGAINST HIMSELF, HIS LOVE AGAINST HIS JUSTICE. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.” (emphasis not in original)
    Sorry for the long quote, and thanks, SteveG!

  25. SteveG

    A wife who has been through it.

    Rest assured, you will be in my prayers daily for a long time to come.

    And…Thank You.

    Thank you for having the courage to try at a reconciliation. It might sound strange to some, but I think it’s an astounding witness.

  26. SteveK

    Excellent post, SteveG. Once again, your words speak truth not only to my heart but to my mind.

  27. slipperyelm

    This doesnt even make any sense. Doenst explain anything.
    Also saying the Jesus in GOD is blasphemy. There is no equal for GOD.

    • chris

      they’re brain washed

  28. M Payne

    Your breakdown was clear and finally wonderful to understand. Thank you.

  29. mike

    There was once a tribe where the chief was a wise and powerful man. He was respected for his physical strength as well as his tough and fair laws which everyone respected and obeyed. However, one day, it was discovered that someone was sneaking into the tents and stealing. The chief ordered that this person be found and that the punishment for this crime would be 40 lashes with the whip. “No one is exempt!” he declared. “This punishment must be served.” The tribe agreed that it was a fair punishment. However, the chief was devastated when he discovered that it was his frail old mother who was the thief. “Surely in her old age, she will never survive 40 lashes,” he thought, “but I cannot change the punishment, for it is fair and just and has already been announced.” At the thought of losing his mother whom he loved, he was heart-broken. When the time came for the punishment to be administered, the chief gave the order to begin and at once, his mother cried out, “Save me my son!” Immediately, the chief ran and embraced his mother, shielding her entire body from the whips. As the whips came down upon his back again and again and the pain filled him, he quietly whispered to his mother that he loved her.

  30. CynE

    I googled “Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?” not expecting to actually find answers. Google continues to amaze me. 🙂 Anyway, thank you SteveG for your insights and have found the comments and discussion helpful, especially with Ginkgo100. You’ve provided me with much to think and pray about. Blessed Easter to all.

  31. Ariane J Simpson

    Hi, I am one that is having the hardest time Understanding why and so much more. I don’t understand really why he had to pay for our sins, why couldn’t everyone be accounted for their own sins? Why would God let his own son go through that much suffering? I don’t understand, there is so much more sin going on today then back then, even with the ARK, there is so much more sin now. I try to understand and even pray for help to help me understand.

  32. Erika

    This is beautiful. I always struggle with thinking if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t he just forgive our sins without sending Jesus to die? In that thought, I forget that God feels our transgressions deeply. We betrayed him. I suppose He could have chosen to just forgive our sins, but that would be like choosing to not give us free will and make us obedient to Him all the time. It would lack depth and meaning. He had to make it right, to pour out His hurt and to walk among us. If He simply forgave us with no need for sacrifice, how would we understand the weight of our transgressions against Him? I think I will always grapple with the question of why Jesus had to die, but the image of marriage betrayal and giving up a part of oneself to enable reconciliation will really stick with me.

  33. Kurt

    I am a georgist, and I believe that Jesus had to die because he was treatening the ruling class and the authorities.
    I think he talkt to the people abaut ther has bnot been any juilee for mani years, and that the rent belonged to the community, and no to the landlords, because God have said that “you mai not sell the land, because it belongs to me”

  34. Jim

    Of course, God was forgiving the sins of his people (and we can all be his people, Christian or not) long before Jesus died and continues to do so regardless of the death of Jesus or belief in him.


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