Why Did He Have to Die?

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Dusk was approaching on the cold, snowy afternoon of January 13, 1982, in Washington, D.C., when the throttles of Air Florida's Flight 90 were pushed forward to the takeoff position and the jetliner's engines roared their response. Strapped into their seats were five crew members and 74 passengers, including a 46-year-old bank executive from Atlanta.

He could not have known that within seconds only he and five other people would still be alive. Nor could he have guessed that whether those few would live or die would be his decision.

Only 73 seconds after its takeoff roll, 103,000 pounds of aircraft slammed into the concrete and steel of the 14th Street bridge, then plowed through the frozen surface of the Potomac River. Only the tail section remained afloat in the nightmarish scene.

Six people, three men and three women, clung to their lives in the mangled remnants of the huge airliner bobbing in the freezing waters. Firefighters attempted to rescue the survivors from the shore, but were simply too far away to reach them. The cruel, sure progression of hypothermia had nearly robbed them of the ability to hold on during the 22 minutes that passed before the arrival of Eager 1, a National Park Service helicopter.

The bank executive was the first to have a rescue line dropped to him. To the astonishment of the rescuers aboard the helicopter, this man refused safety for himself and placed the line around another passenger. When that person was safely aboard the chopper, the line was again dropped to the banker. A second time he secured it around someone else, making a difference between life and death.

The third time the line fell to him, the third time he passed it to another. And the fourth. And the fifth. Five times he made a conscious decision to put the lives of the other survivors ahead of his own. He had to know that the threat to his own life increased with every passing moment. Yet, selflessly, he persisted in passing the life-saving line to others.

One of the men manning the helicopter, who had previously flown combat missions in Vietnam, later said he had never seen such courage. Another rescuer was so inspired by this raw heroism that he was willing to jump into the river himself to retrieve this man who had saved the others.

But that was not to be. Having delivered survivor No. 5 to shore, Eager 1 returned to reel in the hero, only to find he had slipped out of sight to join his fellow passengers in a watery grave.

His identity disappeared with him. For 18 months the only thing known was the ultimate sacrifice he made on that bitter winter day. Finally, in June 1983, after an intensive investigation identified him, his mother was presented with the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal by President Ronald Reagan in a ceremony at the White House.

Why did he have to die? If he had put his own life first, certainly some—if not all—of the five who survived the tragedy of January 13, 1982, would have died.

Another hero in another time

Another man in another time gave up His life so that others would live. When that happened, no swell of inspiration appeared among onlookers. Rather than cheering His heroism, they cheered His impending death. Rather than praise and encouragement, He felt the sting of jeers and insults.

The scene was not the crash of an airliner, a collapsed building or a sinking ship. It was the public execution of a man who had been sentenced to a torturous, humiliating death.

Yet He was a hero. How He gave up His life so that others could live is not as immediately obvious as the hero of Flight 90. Yet His heroism far transcended even that awe-inspiring demonstration of courage by the man who repeatedly delayed his own rescue so that others could survive.

The death of this man was no accident. His own Father was well aware of the plans and designs that went into this sacrifice of a life, but He did nothing to stop it. As a matter of fact, the Father had a hand in the planning of His own Son's death!

What kind of father would allow the execution of his son? Was this tragedy the result of some bizarre familial hatred? What father could calculate the killing of his son and stand by while the execution took place?

Once we know the background, we'll understand that this death truly was a heroic act by both Father and Son. Its heroism far surpassed any other act of giving one's life for another. You see, the hero is Jesus Christ, whose Father is God Himself.

Does this introduction to Jesus' death help us think more deeply about His sacrifice? Jesus' Father actually did plan His Son's death. The decision was not made at a moment of crisis in reaction to an emergency or sudden disaster. Looking to the Bible as our source of information, we're told that the death of Jesus Christ was planned "from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8).

Why? Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn't God come up with some other plan, considering the amount of time that passed from the first humans until the death of Christ? Wasn't there another way?

If we take such difficult questions apart and methodically analyze the information given us, we will discover the profound truth grasped by so few.

Survival is the issue

Whether we realize and admit it or not, survival is the issue facing each of us. We may not be caught in the middle of the flaming wreckage of a shattered fuselage flickering against the night sky or listening to the wailing sirens of police cars and fire trucks. Perhaps no somber news commentator is interrupting television or radio broadcasts to report disaster. But, just the same, the issue here is our survival.

Most people are understandably concerned with surviving, just staying alive. But the issue of survival that lies behind the death of Jesus Christ goes far beyond our everyday concerns of escaping death from injury, disease or old age.

In a familiar Bible passage, God summarizes the planning behind the death of His Son. A close look at these verses helps us comprehend why Jesus had to die. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:16-17).

This tells us that God the Father sent Jesus Christ so that mankind would "not perish" but would "be saved." Addressing why Jesus had to die, this scripture clearly says it truly was a matter of survival.

What is death?

The Bible shows that eventually death comes to all (1 Corinthians 15:22). Contrary to what many believe, death is not an altered state of life in heaven, hell, purgatory or some other place or condition. "The dead know nothing," says the Bible, "and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

The Bible reveals death as the cessation of life, thought, consciousness. Eventually, even the memory of those who are deceased fades from existence. One who perishes ceases to live, with no power or ability to exist again.

It is good to take some time to consider that. The uncomplicated, sobering message is that all humans will perish—those who have died after peaceful and productive lives, those who have died after sad and troubled lives. Everyone would cease to exist permanently were it not for the heroic self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He came that we "should not perish," that we should not experience the black nothingness of death forever.

Death and the afterlife are monumental concepts; they aren't dealt with fully here because each deserves a long discussion beyond the reach of this article. But they must be mentioned to help us understand why Jesus had to die.

Sin is another topic that cannot be fully addressed in a few paragraphs. Yet we must understand it, for sin is also part of why Jesus Christ had to die.

". . . Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned . . ." (Romans 5:12)

Sin is often joked about, dismissed from our thoughts as too religious to concern us in our daily routines. But sin is a deadly serious subject. We certainly would pay attention to the discovery of a sure cure for cancer, because cancer is widely acknowledged to be a killer. So why not pay attention to the cause of and cure for death itself? Here, in fact, is a description of sin, the specific and actual cause of death.

Sin is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Sin is so powerful that it can eliminate any chance for survival. Unless an antidote can be found for its effects, sin's presence spells the total destruction of life and the hope of life. Sin's consequences are enormous. The stakes could not be greater. Sin kills and kills forever.

What is the value of one life?

What can counteract sin? As stated above from Romans 5, "death spread to all men, because all sinned" (verse 12). Every man or woman who has drawn breath has been corrupted by sin. With everyone polluted, tainted and infected by sin, who or what can nullify its poisonous effect?

Jesus Christ can. He, uniquely, was "without sin" (Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5). Therefore, God could offer His Son's life as the single hope to destroy death.

What value did the life of Jesus hold in comparison to the value of all other human life? Mere words make it difficult to contrast that which sin has not touched with that which sin has corrupted. The one untouched by sin lives forever. The other dies forever. The difference in value is infinite.

Christ's life is worth so much that it outweighs the value of all humans who ever lived before Him, who have lived since and who will yet live. That is the clear truth of the Bible, the awesomely incomparable value of Christ's life.

Perhaps one simple word can help us begin to understand the worth of Christ's life: enough. Jesus' life was worth enough—actually, infinitely more than enough—to pay for and nullify the ruin caused by all sin: the sin of all people of all nations throughout all history and into all of the future.

Could Jesus have effected this result without dying? No. The fact is, sin causes death (Romans 6:23). No one has ever existed who could find a way around that ultimate penalty. It can't be minimized, plea-bargained or dismissed. Because of the monstrous reality of sin, Jesus had to die to block its destructive end.

We've already acknowledged that death comes to all. What Christ's death successfully challenges is the permanence of death (2 Timothy 1:10). Having paid the debt for the sins of all, Jesus possesses the authority and capacity to reclaim people from death. To Martha, shortly before bringing her brother back to life as a demonstration of His broader plan, Jesus spoke these telling words: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" (John 11:25).

Jesus' statement amplifies a few more of the words of John 3:16, which state that "whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Sin is so toxic that only divine countermeasures can make possible any hope of a renewal of life. Life can be renewed, but only because Jesus Christ died to counteract the penalty of sin.

Willing sacrifice for mankind

Jesus Christ's life could pay the penalty for all sin for all time because His divine life is worth more than the lives of all humanity before or since. Only by the sacrifice of a life of enormous worth could the enormous penalty for all sin be paid.

John 3:17 tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, was sent not to condemn the world, but to save it from death. Christ was sent by the Father to the world, from His position in the Godhead, to live as a mortal man.

Jesus Christ, the Word, existed in the beginning "with God" and "was God" (John 1:1). His life was divine. "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made" (John 1:3). Jesus was the One who created this earth, the marvelous universe and humanity (Hebrews 1:2; Colossians 1:16). As mankind's Creator, Jesus is worth more than the total of all the lives He has created.

His divine state before He was sent to earth as a man is evident from John 17:5, His last recorded prayer before His execution: "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:5, New International Version).

Before He became a mortal human, no evil force could have swept Jesus to His death. He was divine, immortal, beyond the frailty and vagaries of human life.

By simple analogy, He was like one of the bystanders at the tragic downing of Flight 90, rather than one of those on board. As such, He would not be threatened by the life-crushing impact of the doomed airliner on steel and concrete, nor by the freezing waters of the Potomac. His life was not in any danger.

Yet He chose to give it up.

The motivation behind the plan

Why did Jesus have to die? Why did He involve Himself with the survival of others when His own life was not at risk?

He died because of love. His death was an act of love.

From the initiation of the plan to counteract sin's evil, both God the Father and Jesus Christ were motivated by Their love for all mankind. Recall the premise of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world . . ." It says that the Father planned this infinitely meaningful, eternally powerful sacrifice of His Son out of love for all who have lived.

Why do the Father and Son care what happens to people?

It may be difficult to fathom Their profound interest in and deep concern for all men and women. From earth's beginning, God has loved earth's inhabitants as potential members of the divine family. Our Father says to those who have, through Christ, left behind the curse of sin, "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters" (2 Corinthians 6:18). Jesus viewed His decision to become human as a decision to become like His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:17, New Revised Standard Version).

A deadly consequence of sin is that it cuts us off from God, severing us from the relationship God desires to have with us (Isaiah 59:2). Through Christ's sacrifice that broken relationship is restored, our sins are forgiven, and we are reconciled to God (Colossians 1:21-22).

The family relationship God desires to have with us is restored: "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:1-2).

The literal fulfillment of this statement—that we will become children of God—will come to pass in the resurrection at Jesus Christ's return (Hebrews 2:10-13; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:21-23).

Making the supreme sacrifice

What could be more convincing evidence of love than the act of the Father of offering His only Son to die for us? God and Jesus were willing to pay the supreme sacrifice to seek and secure the possibility of a loving, personal relationship with us.

Few passages capture the essence of Christ's act of love as does the one that says that Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV).

Until Jesus became a man, He could not have died. With His Father, He made a conscious choice, in the context of calm reason rather than in a condition of crisis. That makes the depth of Their love and the sincerity of Their commitment all the more evident and profound.

After He became a man, Jesus still would not have suffered the agony of execution by crucifixion had He not chosen to offer Himself. His biographies in the Gospels make plain that, as His terrible fate approached, He felt the natural pulls of any man to assure His own survival. Death was not an easy choice. He confirmed His heroic decision to set aside His desires and His life right up to the excruciating end (Matthew 26:39).

Jesus described His decision to step into the human realm, to pay the exacting price for sin, as the supreme act of love: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Can we possibly comprehend why Jesus had to die?

Jesus died because He chose to die. His death was not just a matter of giving up a life, as noble as that act can be. He chose to step aside from being God, alive forever, to die so we humans could live forever.

How should we remember this?

Appropriately, the hero of Flight 90 was remembered with a medal, presented by none other than the president of the United States. What way is appropriate to commemorate the heroic act of Jesus Christ?

Jesus inaugurated His own memorial. Christians assemble every spring on the Passover to commemorate Christ's courageous, loving sacrifice. According to His instructions, this annual memorial begins with a ceremony of Christians washing each other's feet. This humble demonstration of a servant's duty is a powerful reminder of the kind of humble service Christ performed in His life and especially in His death and a reminder of His expectations for His followers. Initiating this symbolic yet profound act, Jesus told us to do likewise: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:14)

He used two other symbols by which we are to remember His sacrifice: unleavened bread and wine. Of the bread, Jesus said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me" (1 Corinthians 11:24). Concerning the wine, He instructed, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:27-28).

Both are dramatic representations of the most meaningful, most powerful self-sacrifice in all history. (To better understand the significance of this event, be sure to request our free booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.)

Medals tarnish with time, and memorial ceremonies can grow routine. The greatest tribute to the deed of the hero of Flight 90 is the inspiration stirred among the witnesses to emulate his selfless heroism. Isn't the highest tribute to Jesus' infinitely greater act of heroism that we imitate His action?

We cannot give our lives to pay for sin, because nothing we could do can buy back our lives corrupted by sin. But we can love as He does. We are urged in one of Paul's epistles to "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2, NIV).

Paul described Christ setting aside His divinity, willingly surrendering it and sacrificing His life for our sakes. He wrote this stirring appeal to live our memorial to Christ: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5).

Paul encourages us to assume the attitude of humble, selfless service typified by Christ: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (verses 3-4).

Looking out for the interests of others is a living memorial of the love of God, a fitting way to perpetually remember Jesus' invaluable sacrifice. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).

Why the Son of God had to die

Why did Jesus have to die? He had to die because of the sins of humanity and the death they demand—to make possible a relationship between the Father and all men and women, who are invited to become children of God; to make possible the resurrection to eternal life; to defeat the awful penalty of eternal death.

Why did Jesus have to die? Jesus had to die because He chose to die for each of us in a decision of pure love made with His Father. If They are willing to pay such a price to gain a relationship with us, what are we willing to do to have a relationship with Them? GN