There’s a whole lot of theology wrapped up in such a simple question, but rather than delving into all the varying views of the atonement or tediously exegeting Scripture I’m just going to share some thoughts that come to mind when I think about the crucifixion.
Why a crucifixion? So there could be a resurrection! The crucifixion is all about the resurrection. When we stop at Christ’s death on the cross, we’ve cut the story short — we’ve turned the TV off at the final commercial break, we’ve left the movie theater mid-film to go get more popcorn, we’ve dozed off in bed a few chapters shy of the novel’s end. Asking “why the crucifixion?” is a glass half-empty sort of question, it’s a total downer when we already know that the story isn’t a tragedy, it’s a victory. The crucifixion is about looking forward, about knowing that the best is yet to come, that Good Friday is always followed by Easter and that despair will ultimately succumb to hope.
Jesus had to die because we have to die. We’re sickly, frail, petty, self-obsessed, greedy, screwed-up people who will all die. And God became one of us and saw that experience through to its inevitable end. But for Jesus death wasn’t the end of the story. It wasn’t why he came here. He didn’t just show us how to die bravely, how to go out with a dignity and honor. He didn’t merely go to the cross crying “Freedom!”, he didn’t simply die trying teach humanity the truth about ourselves, nor did he stoically endure the violence of the world in order to show us a better way. Of course in some respects he did do all those things — but what he truly accomplished was to turn our expectations completely upside down. By allowing himself to be put to death in a violent, humiliating and public way and then by overcoming that death, he decisively rejected and refuted all the hate and sin and despair and anger and frustration that plagues our lives and haunts our deaths.
Why a crucifixion? So that God, incarnate in Jesus, could once and for all say “Look, here I am! I’m one of you! I endured with you and for you and died as one of you. The same power that sustained me and guided me will now sustain you and guide you. And just as I conquered death — so, some day, will you too!”
The crucifixion is but a stopping point on the way to the resurrection, a moment in time that, while deeply significant, pails in comparison to God’s larger plan for humanity. The crucifixion is God’s love, embodied in Jesus, put through pain and suffering and finally death and risen victorious so that we may know without a doubt that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”