Commentary: Really think about the meaning of Lent

Lent, a religious season that is about so much more than avoiding chocolate, is drawing near.

For many in the Christian faith, Lent is a time to reflect on the awful journey toward death that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. One question that arises often on that journey is, “Why did Jesus have to die?”

The most common answer to this persistent question was articulated by Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. He referenced God’s justice and love.

In keeping with the practices of his day, Anselm argued that it would have been an offense against God’s honor for human sin to go unpunished. Therefore, because God is just, humanity was indebted to pay for the guilt of sin. But because God is loving, God provided God’s own beloved son to be the sacrifice that paid that debt of guilt.


Anselm’s argument seems particularly well-suited to the Gospel of John, where Jesus is called “the lamb of God” and is killed on the day of the Passover, when the sacrificial lamb was ritually killed as an act of atonement (or reconciliation).

While Anselm’s “satisfaction theory of atonement” is a common explanation for why Jesus had to die, it is not the only answer that the Christian tradition has offered. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus is not killed on the day of the Passover. He celebrates the Passover with his disciples on the night of his arrest (often called “the Last Supper”) and is killed the next day.

In Mark’s story, Jesus’ death is necessary, but it is part of a larger story of necessity — Jesus must suffer, be rejected and killed, and he must rise again (see Mark 8:31). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ death is not particularly a one-time satisfaction of God’s justice. It is a way of life for Jesus’ followers, who are called to take up their cross to follow him.

For Mark, the answer to why Jesus had to die is not embedded in an 11th-century honor code, but in the 1st century clash between the reign of God and the reign of the Roman Empire.


The Roman Empire very effectively established its Pax Romana through violence. Rome would conquer others and then offer terms of peace, even offering to be a protectorate and to honor local customs and religions, as long as the conquered peoples would pledge their ultimate loyalty to Rome.

In contrast, Jesus’ proclaimed ultimate loyalty to the reign of God means that forgiveness, reconciliation and even suffering are better answers to violence than retaliation. Therefore, Jesus was a threat to Rome’s way of establishing power and in direct confrontation with those local leaders from among his people who colluded with Rome.

In the end, Jesus “had to die” because violence is how Rome dealt with those who refused the demand for ultimate loyalty.

The season of Lent offers a time to reflect on Jesus’ journey toward the cross and its meaning for followers of Christ today. Engaging the question “Why did Jesus have to die?” is one promising way of pursuing that journey.

MARK DAVIS is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church. The community of St. Mark will spend the season of Lent studying the Gospel of Mark and the book “The Last Week,” by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Find out more at https://www.stmarkpresbyterian.org