Why did Jesus die?
The sacrificial system and Creation
In my article “An Evangelical ‘Litmus Test’” I talked about the watering down of the term “evangelical”. The “litmus test” I suggested as a mark of a true evangelical was an acceptance of a straight reading of Genesis 1–11 since an attack on Genesis 1–11 is basically an attack on the authority of the Bible, and hence God.1
Now many people calling themselves evangelical would dispute such a statement, claiming that the creation-versus-evolution issue is “not relevant” to their faith or that the creation account can be interpreted in different ways. However, I contend that both positions create major theological problems that undermine the Gospel at its foundations.
Here, I will not delve into the science of creation versus evolution as this is well covered elsewhere, but rather expand the theological issues surrounding a question left open in my previous article, namely, “Why did Jesus die?”
No genuine evangelical can suggest that Christology (the study of Christ) is “not relevant” and Millard Erickson states our “understanding of Christ must be central and determinative of the very character of the Christian faith. All else is secondary to the question of what one thinks of Christ.”2 However, a lot of theology has been affected by “science” and Christology, in particular, has ignored issues such as Luke tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam and Paul stating that death only came into the world with Adam’s sin.
Christology is a massive subject in its own right, and space precludes too much detail. Suffice to say there are two main approaches to how we look at Jesus, i.e. from man’s perspective (Christology “from below”) or from God’s perspective (Christology “from above”). The former approach, although technically valid theologically, tends to be the domain of liberal scholars who question the accuracy, and even authority of the Bible. Christology from above is more aligned to the evangelical position with its implied acceptance of the Bible as the inspired Word of God and so I will here focus on that approach, and its implications.
If we take a “verse count” in the Gospels to suggest what God sees as important, then the primary emphasis is clearly the cross. There is no direct information as to Jesus’ appearance, His likes, dislikes, etc. Two of the Gospels even omit direct details of His birth. Conversely, well over half the chapters of the Gospels are dedicated to the last week of His life, the events immediately leading up to it, or the events following His crucifixion.
The creation-versus-evolution debate is often fought on scientific grounds, but what about the impact of the creation account on the topic of Christology and, especially, Jesus’ death? There are three issues in particular that need careful examination:
- What is death?
- Why did Jesus have to die?
- What “CV” did He need to fulfil the requirements needed to die for us?
All three topics are major and so the following arguments are, by necessity, very brief but hopefully sufficient to show both their importance and relevance to the creation account.
According to both theistic and humanistic evolutionists, death and suffering occurred for millions, or even billions of years before man either evolved or was created by some process omitted from the Bible. However, what is death and how did it originate?
Both Genesis and the New Testament (Romans 5:12) state that death entered the world through the sin of one man, with the clear implication there was no death before Adam. So why do we ignore what both Testaments say and take for granted the evolutionary assumption that death is “natural”?
Interestingly, evolutionists seem quite happy to accept death as an integral part of the natural selection process, and yet often accuse the so-called “God of the Old Testament” of being cruel for requiring animals’, and then Jesus’ blood to be spilled on our behalf. The reality is, though, that the author and creator of all life—according to the Bible—has the “right” (using modern terminology) to remove that life. When someone finally does what God has done and creates life from nothing, only then can they moralise over who is entitled to dictate the rules as to what happens to that new life form!
In fact, the first recorded (or implied) death in the Bible was when God killed an animal (a lamb?) to provide skins for Adam and Eve to cover themselves. By this act, God initiated the sacrificial system that required the spilling of blood to cover sin, a system that is then explicitly mentioned in the Cain and Abel narrative in Genesis 4. Furthermore, the first allusion to Christ crushing Satan is in Genesis 3:15. So, by Genesis 4, there is a linking of sin, death and the sacrificial system plus a reference to Christ coming and, linked with the sacrificial system, the need for Him to die.
Now most evangelicals would agree that Jesus Christ had to die and also had to be: a) human; b) divine; c) male; d) first-born; and e) perfect without blemish. But why? Where do we establish these criteria? Standard evangelical theological works will readily provide verses to show Jesus’ humanity and deity, but the latter three requirements are all part of the sacrificial system.
Although the sacrificial system was present from “the beginning”, it is not until Moses that we find any codification and, with that, the “CV” that Jesus had to fulfil to be able to die for us, which provided a unique list of requirements. However, if the straight reading of Genesis 1–4 is removed, then not only is there no explanation, or justification for the sacrificial system (which, like many biblical topics up to and including the Flood is virtually universal), but there is also no valid, biblical explanation for why Jesus had to die.
So, just how does Jesus fit the requisites of the “CV” set some 1,500 years before He came? In the New Testament, we find that Jesus was male and first-born (e.g. Luke 2:2), He was born of a virgin with the Holy Spirit being the ‘father’ (Luke 1:26–38) to break the line of inherited sin, and that He was without blemish (Colossians 1:22; 1 Peter 1:19). He was also human and divine so we have a complete match!
However, this is where the creation-versus-evolution issue, and the associated issue of long ages, ceases to be “irrelevant” but is inexorably interlinked with the authority of the Bible, Christology and, ultimately, our own redemption.
Quite simply, to suggest the account of Adam and Eve (and the associated issue of sin and death) is myth, or needs “reinterpretation”, is both a direct attack on God and the authority of Scripture, and also brings into question the whole purpose of Jesus’ death. It is an attack on both the Old and New Testaments since Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam (Luke 3:23–38), Paul refers to Jesus as the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) and there are other New Testament references to Adam (1 Timothy 2:13-14; Jude 1:14). Sin, and with it the introduction of death, is also linked with Adam in the New Testament (Romans 5:12). So, if Adam is not a literal, historic figure, then effectively nothing of the Bible can be taken at face value, a fact that atheists seem to appreciate more than many evangelicals! Even worse, the whole justification for Jesus coming to die for us is destroyed and, with it, our redemption.
But can God still have used evolution and what about long ages?
If Adam and Eve are historic figures, then clearly there is no need for evolution from that point on as evidenced by Jesus’ genealogy in Luke. Furthermore, if there was no death prior to Adam (Romans 5:12), there is no room for evolution at all—it is completely ruled out.
That only leaves long ages prior to Genesis 1:2—but for what purpose? If we are to accept the Bible from the creation of Adam onwards, why would we even question God with the remaining few verses? Why would anyone want to concoct a “gap” between Genesis 1:1 and 2, or want to see the days in Genesis as being “God’s days, not man’s days” or some other “explanation”, denying the straight reading of Genesis? The only reason is purely to adopt a non-biblical, non-supernatural, humanistic worldview into one’s theology, which requires long ages for evolution to work!
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) who came to die for our sins and, by dying on the cross, has provided us with the means of being reconciled to God and to be able to spend eternity with Him. As Paul says in Galatians 1:6-7 any other “gospel” is not really a Gospel!