Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
If asked why Jesus had to die on the cross, most Christians today would immediately answer, “To pay for my sins.” Jesus certainly paid the price for our sins, but it might surprise some reader to learn that this wasn’t the way Christians would answer this question for the first thousand years of Church history. The main reason Jesus died on the cross, according to this earlier view, was to defeat Satan and set us free from his oppressive rule. Everything else that Jesus accomplished, including paying for our sins, was to be understood as an aspect and consequence of this victory.
This earlier understanding of why Jesus had to die is called the Christus Victor (Latin for “Christ is Victorious”) view of the atonement. In my estimation it captures the profound beauty of the New Testament account better than the view that focuses exclusively on what Jesus did for us.
The Christus Victor motif is strongly emphasized throughout the New Testament. Scripture declares that Jesus came into this world to “drive out the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31), to “destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8), to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14-15) and to ultimately “put all his enemies under his feet” (I Cor 15:25). Jesus came to overpower the “strong man” (Satan) who holds the world in bondage and to work with his children to “plunder his house” (Lk 11:21-22). He came to end the reign of the cosmic “thief” who seized the world to “steal and kill and destroy” the life God intended for us (Jn 10:10). Jesus came to earth and died on the cross to disarm “the rulers and authorities” and make a “public spectacle of them” by “triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15).
Beyond these explicit statements, there are many other passages that express the Christus Victor motif as well. For example, the first prophecy in the Bible foretells that a descendent of Eve (Jesus) would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). The first Christian sermon ever preached proclaims that Jesus in principle conquered all God’s enemies (Ac 2:32-36). And the single most frequently quoted Old Testament passage by New Testament authors is Psalm 110:1 which predicts that Christ would conquer all God’s opponents. (Pslams.110 is quoted or alluded to Mt 22:41-45; 26:64; Mk 12:35-37; 14:62; Lk 20:41-44; 22:69; Ac 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; I Cor 15:22-25; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3; 1:13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 15,17,21; 8:1; 10:12-13; I Pet 3:22; and Rev. 3:21) According to the great New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman, the frequency with which New Testament authors cite this Psalm is the greatest proof that Christ’s “victory over the angel powers stands at the very center of early Christian thought.”
The Incarnation of the Son of God fulfilled God’s original dream of uniting himself to humanity to acquire a bride and co-ruler. But it’s clear from the Christus Victor motif we’ve just examined that, because of our rebellion, the Incarnation also involved a rescue mission that included a strategy for vanquishing the powers of darkness.