Why did Jesus have to suffer so that we could be forgiven?

In Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus saying quite extreme-sounding things. For instance, he says that he ‘must suffer many things…and must be killed’ (Mark 8:31). Christians believe that Jesus died so that we could be forgiven, but what does that actually mean and why was such a sacrifice necessary? Couldn’t God be a bit more chilled out about things and forgive us without such a messy, barbaric charade? To understand this, we need to think a bit about what forgiveness really means.

Forgiveness is costly

The thing about forgiveness is that it always comes at a cost. We don’t notice this most of the time, because in everyday forgiveness for small wrongs the cost is small and often unnoticed.

But think about situations where money or possessions are involved – something gets lost, stolen or broken. Suppose a friend spills orange juice all over your laptop or smashes your iPhone. They’ve broken something valuable of yours – what do you do? You could demand that they pay for a replacement; or you could pay for it yourself. Either way, someone needs to pay the cost; the debt won’t just disappear. In this situation, forgiveness would mean paying the price yourself. In order to restore your relationship, you take the cost on your own shoulders (or rather your own pocket).

Many other wrongs are hard to quantify in this way. What’s the cost of a broken promise, a damaged reputation or a harsh word? But the fact we can’t put a figure on it doesn’t mean there’s no cost. It shows that the cost is much greater. When we are wronged, it creates an obstacle that doesn’t go away just because someone says sorry. A debt exists that is not financial, but relational. So we can try to make the perpetrator pay by shutting them out, denying them our friendship and removing them from our lives. As we make them suffer we feel it goes some way to paying that debt. But to forgive means we don’t do this – to forgive means that rather than making someone else pay we go through the suffering of accepting the injustice and choosing not to act as we feel we have a right to. We give up what we feel we are owed and pay the cost so that relationship can be restored.

There’s obviously more to say about how human forgiveness and reconciliation works that we don’t have space for (such as the place for confronting wrongdoers and holding them to account). But the point at hand is that forgiveness always comes at a cost. Understanding this is vital to understanding why Jesus had to die.

The greatest cost

When Jesus says he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45), he’s talking about the cost of our forgiveness. But why is the cost so high? Why did Jesus have to actually die? It all seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it?

It comes down to who we have wronged. When people wrong one another, we wrong someone who is the same as us. But God is far above and beyond us. He is eternally and infinitely good, faithful and just. If we can see and feel the violation of justice and rightness when we are wronged, how much more would clearly would this be seen by a God who is perfect in goodness and justice? If we have a right to see justice done when we are wronged, wouldn’t God have a greater right to see justice done?

If God’s forgiveness meant simply ignoring our sin and saying ‘no worries’, that would be unjust. So the cost of breaking relationship with such a being is infinitely higher than that of a broken relationship between two people. God is our creator, the one who gives and sustains all life. So to break our relationship with him and separate ourselves from the source of life means death for us. That’s the cost of humanity’s break with God. And that cost needs to be paid.

Jesus had to die because forgiveness is only possible when the one who has been wronged pays the cost themselves. Instead of leaving us to face this high cost ourselves, God himself pays the price for us. That’s who Jesus is – God become human to die the death we deserved. He gives his life so we can live.

As we read the Gospel of Mark it becomes clear that God loves us so much he is willing to pay the greatest cost so we can be forgiven. And now the door to relationship with our maker is open.