If you ask five people, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” you’ll likely get a dozen different answers.
For some, it’s about a sacrifice related to human sin and God’s wrath, mercy, and forgiveness. For others, the focus might be on a cosmic victory, where Jesus’ death in some way defeats death itself. And others might say Jesus had to die, or was sent by God to die, or that Jesus’ death provides the ultimate example of selflessness—a tangible picture of his deep love for us.
Jesus’ crucifixion does not easily explain itself. And each of these answers raises even more questions, with each requiring unpacking (and then even more unpacking).
Our aim in this blog post is not to address every good question regarding Jesus’ death or to argue for one perspective on the meaning of the cross. Instead, we want to examine a few important and often overlooked parts of the Bible’s backstory that can help us understand the death of Jesus.
The Complexity of Saying Jesus Died “for” Us
Jesus’ early followers describe his death with different emphases and nuances. If you gather a list, you’ll notice a diversity of summary statements (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Rom. 5:6-8; 1 John 2:1-2; Heb. 2:9), and you will also notice the use of a common phrase in all of these biblical passages, “Jesus died for us.”
That seems simple enough, but it can still leave us to wonder, “For us, how?”
In the New Testament, the phrase “for us” employs one of two Greek words. The first, huper (ὑπὲρ), is generally translated with the English word “for.” But huper can convey several nuances of meaning, including “for the benefit of,” “in place of/instead of,” “as a representative of,” or “because of, for the reason of.”
The New Testament authors also use the Greek word peri (περὶ) to say “for.” And peri also conveys multiple meanings, such as “for, around, about,” “the reason of,” “on account of,” “concerning,” and “in regard to.”
When these writers say that Jesus died for us by using one of these two Greek words, do they mean that Jesus died for the benefit of human beings? Or that he died in the place of humans, which suggests that he died as a substitute? Or are they saying that he died because of human beings—because of what we have done or what we did to him? Or is it because of his love for humans? Is it possibly all of the above? Perhaps he died for us in all of these ways and a whole lot more.
The Apostle Paul helps to narrow our focus when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that Christ died for our sins, “according to the Scriptures.” He’s referring to a biblical backstory. And because the collected New Testament didn’t exist in Paul’s day (it was in the process of being written), we know he’s talking about the Hebrew Scriptures.
Let’s look at a few key moments in the biblical story that help us see how Jesus died “according to the Scriptures,” starting with the Eden story and its foundational description of human death. We will have a hard time understanding Jesus’ death if we don’t think about why we ourselves die.
Why Do We Die?
Why does our hair turn gray and our skin get wrinkly? Why do we all eventually die and “return to dust,” as Genesis 3:19 says?
In Genesis 1, God speaks his good creation into existence. And in Genesis 2, we see a difference between two key spaces within creation—the world at large and the world inside of a unique garden that God plants in Eden (Gen. 2:8).
The garden is like a home to God, an image of Heaven on Earth where God walks with humans and shares his endless, flourishing life with them as his partners. And because God is the infinite source of life, the garden is a death-free zone. Outside the garden, the world still has beauty, goodness, and life, but it also has expiration dates. Unlike in the garden, living things come out of the dust and return back to it—they die. Interestingly, God first forms the human outside the garden, in the realm of dust.
Genesis 2:7 shows God forming the adam, which is Hebrew for “human,” from the adamah, which means “soil, clay, or dust,” the substance of the ground. After forming the adam and breathing his Spirit of life into him, God then plants a garden and places the human inside it (Gen. 2:8, 2:15). Once the human is inside the garden, God offers a choice. Humans can keep living with him in the garden forever, or stop living with him in the garden and return to the dust—the adamah. The right choice seems obvious. Why would anyone want to leave?
The story in Genesis 2:15-17 shows God planting two trees that represent these life-or-death options, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. Eating from the tree of life means trusting God’s wisdom, thereby living forever with him and according to his instruction. However, eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad means trusting in human wisdom, thereby rejecting God’s instruction and life. If you eat from that tree, God says, you will “surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
The humans probably never intended to leave the garden, but they didn’t take God’s words seriously and trusted the wisdom of a snakey deceiver instead of God. After making the wrong choice, the human (adam) is sent out of the garden, back to the place he was originally formed—“the ground (adamah) from which he had been taken” (Gen. 3:19). The human must now live outside the garden where people wrinkle and turn gray and eventually die on their way back to dust.
The basic message of the Eden story is this: Humans die because we have, from the beginning, rejected God’s offer of ultimate life. God’s offer requires a surrender of what we might think is life, so that we can receive the true life that God wants to give us. Tragically, we often decide to choose life as defined by our own wisdom, embracing our own self-ruin. Often these choices seem as innocent as eating tasty, good-looking fruit (cf. Gen. 3:6), but when those choices oppose God’s wise instruction, they corrupt life and bring death.
Is Death Our End?
God not only exiles humans from Eden, but he also stations two cherubim and a deadly flaming sword at the garden’s gate to keep them from reentering (Gen. 3:24). God describes this as a severe mercy that will prevent the humans from living forever in a corrupt state (Gen. 3:22). But this creates a paradox in the story. We know from Genesis 1 that God’s plan is to oversee creation in intimate partnership with humans who are made in God’s image. But how can that happen if the only way to restore humans to eternal life is by passing those fiery angels with a sword—by dying?
If this were the end of the story, it would be the ultimate tragedy, as it seems like God is cutting ties with humanity altogether. But we’re only in chapter 3; the story has just begun, and it quickly becomes clear that God is not going to abandon his human partners to the grave.
Since humans can’t return to Eden on their own without dying, God establishes another way that points forward to an ultimate resolution. When God leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, he gives instructions for a mobile tent of meeting, or tabernacle, where God brings his Eden home to his people. Later, there will be a temple in Jerusalem, where God graciously does the same thing. And finally, God will bring his endless life as close as possible, by becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth.
Each of these moves says God is not interested in throwing out his partnership with humanity. Rather, God joins us in the dust, showing us that true life is about unity with God and that our death is a temporary tragedy, not our ultimate end.
Let’s now turn to see how rituals of the tabernacle and temple helps us better understand the death of Jesus.
Preserving Life Through Death
As the biblical story unfolds, people learn to survive outside the garden, fighting enemies, toiling to make the earth produce fruit, and suffering. God joins them in this space by first helping them create a mobile tent, the tabernacle, which he directs the people to fill with symbols of Eden. It’s God’s way of saying, “You’re outside the garden where I live, but I love you, so now I’m coming to where you live, so you can experience small tastes of Eden life and eventually come back to the place I made you for.”
Like the garden, the tabernacle is a death-free zone. When you read through the laws related to tabernacle’s construction, maintenance, and ritual worship (see Exod. 25-28; Lev. 1-27), it becomes clear that anything related to death is prohibited from entering the tent. Replete with images of pomegranates, olive trees, almonds, and all sorts of nutritious and beautiful orchard plants, the tabernacle also has embroidered images of cherubim on curtains that block entry into its most holy space. If you were standing in the entrance of the tabernacle’s courtyard, you would see the cherubim on either side and the fire of the altar in between them. This recalls the cherubim and flaming sword at the gate of Eden. It’s all designed to communicate that entering this space where God dwells is like re-entering Eden.
But remember the paradox. The Eden story made it clear that anyone who would reenter the life of Eden would die by that fiery angel-sword. So how can people rejoin God’s presence if they’re dead? And if they are dead, how can they do anything at all?
Here, we get a glimpse of a merciful mystery that is explored in detail in Leviticus chapters 16-17. God will accept the life of a blameless representative that will surrender its life “for” another. In the sacrificial ritual, a spotless (that is, “blameless”) animal offers its life as a representative for the life of a less-than-blameless human, who cannot return to God without dying. The animal dies right outside the holy tent space, allowing the human priest to carry its life-blood and “pass through” that dangerous boundary of cherubim and flaming sword into the symbolic Eden. There, the life of the blameless animal can appeal to God’s mercy on behalf of another, and God will respond accordingly. The animal dies for the human, on behalf of the human, and in place of the human, allowing the person to live “through” death and reunite with God.
It’s crucial to understand that people don’t come to God just hoping that God might show mercy because of the sacrifice. Rather, God establishes this entire process. In Leviticus 17:11, God says, “I have given the life-blood to you on the altar.” When people give these animals’ lives to God, they are watching God giving the animal to God, who then accepts it.
Through all these instructions about animal offerings, God is showing people how real death happens as a result of their choices that oppose God’s will. They experience the tangible and bloody consequences. But they also see how God wants to preserve human life through death. A representative goes through the flames on behalf of another, surrendering and preserving life. It’s like God has engineered a kind of death that does not ultimately destroy the human. It’s a death that overcomes death.
Beyond Holy Spaces and Sacrifices
Later in the story, when Israel finally settles in their own land, the same basic operation continues in the temple. There, the holy of holies is still guarded by a veil that bears embroidered images of the two cherubim from Eden’s gate, and the altar (flaming sword) still occupies a central location.
First in the garden, then in the tabernacle, and here in the temple, no one can pass through the cherubim’s blockade and into the place of God’s presence because, like the first humans, we have all been corrupted by death, by choosing to trust our own wisdom more than God’s. The dual cherubim symbol reminds us that we’re all outside of the garden, disconnected from God, and returning to the adamah—the dust. But the symbol of animal sacrifice for entry into his garden-like dwelling suggests that even death cannot thwart God’s will to reconnect with humanity and restore endless life for humanity. He loves us too much to abandon us.
Centuries filled with ritual sacrifices pass by, and while the offerings and religious observances teach people and provide guidance, they also fall short of changing the reality or solving the problem. People keep experiencing wars, diseases, and graveyards. The reality of life outside the garden weighs heavy and creates a deep longing—a hopeful expectation—that at some point, God will bring a total end to corruption and death.
That brings us back to Jesus dying on the cross.
Why Did Jesus Die?
The opening lines of John’s gospel deliver a cosmic plot twist. The infinite Creator God of the cosmos—unchangeable, unfathomable, undefeatable—humbly joins us in our corrupted and dying state outside the garden.
We’re told that God “tabernacles,” or sets up his residence among us, by becoming human and joining us outside of Eden (John 1:14). By choosing to be with us, God is also choosing to experience death. In that sense, Jesus dies because we die.
The Hebrew Bible’s early backstory in the first chapters of Genesis shows us that reuniting with God and returning to the endless garden life requires real death (recall the symbols of cherubim and flaming sword). And remember that deadly reentry into the garden is all about surrendering our own definitions of good and bad that lead us to death. Through the animal offerings of the tabernacle and temple rituals, God tells his people that he intends to reunite with them and to preserve their lives through death.
Now, God becomes a true human and experiences that same death. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus was “made to be sin for us” even though he “knew no sin.” Jesus takes on the pain and death of corrupted flesh shared by all humanity, even though he never knows or chooses sin. We learn about the meaning of the cross here. This is God laying down his own human life with love for us—on our behalf and for our good.
In Christ, God meets us outside the garden, and through death, he passes the lethal cherubim-sword boundary that guards the way back in. During Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem, right when he dies, the temple’s cherubim-embroidered veil guarding the way into the holy of holies gets ripped in half, top to bottom. Access to God’s presence is restored! In that sense, Jesus dies to open the way for humanity to return to God (cf. John 10:9-10, 17:20-23).
And when Jesus is raised back to life as the same human, he exposes a well-hidden secret about death. We have (reasonably) assumed that death marks the ultimate end of human life, but Jesus’ resurrection says otherwise. The resurrection of Jesus means that we are his real brothers and sisters and will join him in resurrection life one day. His death and resurrection together shout: “The lifeless end you fear is not real! Let love for God’s ongoing way of life replace your fear of death!”
Fear of death is yet another snakey lie that tricks us into hoarding resources instead of living generously. Fear of death deceives us into fighting with our neighbors and making swords for killing enemies. We’re all living outside the garden, and the fear-filled instinct to protect ourselves at any cost is woven into our DNA. It’s inescapable. Unless a true human could show us that death is temporary and not ultimate. Another reason Jesus dies is to show exactly that. And if we’re paying attention to him, his way of love will slowly but surely drive out all fear of death.
We can start forgiving and loving instead of hating and judging. We start to bless and not curse—to hammer our violent swords into fruitful garden tools (see Isaiah 2:1-4). Jesus shows us that death is brutally tragic, but it’s not the end. Our lives strengthen and illuminate when we spend them freely learning his ongoing, loving, garden-style ways of living together with others.
So many thoughts and questions about Jesus dying on the cross still linger. But whatever answers or theories we explore, we can remember that Jesus dies for us in more ways than one. Many interwoven, nuanced, and beautiful explanations develop throughout the biblical story, and we can remember from the Hebrew Bible’s backstory and Jesus’ story in the New Testament that Jesus is compelled to die for us because of his undying love.
“God demonstrates his own love for us,” the Apostle Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love is revealed most fully in the death of Jesus, when God himself enters our world of death and dust so that, in him, we can continue living through death and return to endless, good life with God.
All of this, and more, is what Paul means when he says, “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.” Jesus died for us because he loves us.