Christian LivingDoctrineEvangelism

The game-changing question for every evangelistic conversation

“Who killed Jesus?”

At some point in every single evangelistic conversation I have, I make a point of asking this question. 

In fact, over the years, I’ve realised that nearly every part of every evangelistic conversation I have is in fact leading to the point where I can ask this question. 

It’s an interesting question for a non-Christian to hear. It sounds historical, but the answer is actually far more theological

It’s a wonderful evangelistic question to ask, for three reasons. Firstly, you (the evangelist) are asking them (the non-Christian) a spiritual question—and the more questions you ask, the better. Secondly, it serves as a helpful ‘diagnostic’ tool that allows you to work out the spiritual understanding of the person in front of you. Thirdly, it gives you the opportunity to share the gospel as you answer the question you’ve asked.

Generally speaking, the question will almost always bring a pause. Regardless of their religious background, the recipient will generally spend a bit of time in thought. 

Common answers

What will then occur (9.7 times out of 10) is one of the following three answers:

  1. The Romans
  2. The Jews
  3. My sin (This is the most common answer amongst nominal, non-believing church-goers.) 

Of course, none of those answers are wrong. The Jews did arrest Jesus, conduct a kangaroo court, and hand him over to the Romans (John 18:1-27). The Romans did condemn him, mock and beat him, nail him to a wooden cross until his heart stopped beating and he died (John 18:28-19:37). The nominal church-attenders are also correct: Jesus willingly died as a direct result of the grievous sin of humanity (1 Pet 3:18, 1 Cor 15:3). 

And yet. 

None of these answers fully convey what truly happened on that day. In fact, on their own, none of these answers are correct. 

So who killed Jesus?

The correct answer: God did. 

God killed Jesus

How does that statement make you feel? 

Do you feel like it’s too strong? Too decisive? Too polarising? Too extreme? Doesn’t adequately express the nuance of what actually occurred on that cross on Calvary? 

If so, I understand. It makes us shudder when we hear it put so… crudely. 

But make no mistake; this is exactly what Scripture tells us. Look at Isaiah 53: 

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief…
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
(Isaiah 53:5-6, 10)

God laid the sins of all Christians everywhere onto his Son. He laid on his Son our iniquity. He made his Son our substitute. 

And then he crushed him. 

Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about the crucifixion of Jesus. More pointedly, verse 10 gives us very, very little room to come to any understanding about the crucifixion of Jesus except that it was God’s will for it to happen. He would crush him; he would put him to grief. 

The New Testament also makes it clear for us. Take a look at these verses:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:32)

This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. (Acts 2:23)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood. (Rom 3:23-25)

God’s will

The picture painted for us is clear. 

The death of Jesus was:

  • by God’s will
  • by God’s intentional giving over
  • by God’s definite plan
  • by God’s foreknowledge, and
  • by God’s putting forward. 

The life and death of the Son of God was not at the mercy and will of the creation: after all, he creates and sustains all things. It was not merely sin that killed Jesus: God did. 

God had been in constant loving relationship with his Son for eternity, and yet God killed his own Son. 

What Abraham and Isaac foreshadowed in Genesis 22 is fulfilled on the cross of Calvary. 

As John Macarthur writes: “The suffering servant’s death was nothing less than a punishment administered by God for sins others had committed.”[1]

This is offensive

This sounds deeply offensive. Even among evangelicals, there’s a hesitation to use this language—it feels as if you’re suggesting God was angry at Jesus, as if God was punishing Jesus for something he’d done, as if this somehow takes away from the responsibility of the cowards and corrupt officials of all stripes involved. 

It should sound offensive. Indeed, it is offensive. The gospel is deeply troubling. It is the death of the perfect Son according to God’s will for the sake of the very ones whose rebellion and enmity made the death necessary in the first place. 

It’s no wonder that Paul writes that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”(1 Cor 1:18).

To the outside world it seems beyond comprehension: brutal, heartless, insane. But to those of us who are saved it is beauty and love personified because it is an astonishing act of self-sacrifice by God—not the death of an innocent third party. 

So why did God do it?

God didn’t have to save sinful people, yet his love compelled him to set his affections on those who didn’t deserve it. But it’s vital for the Christian and the non-Christian alike to understand that for this to happen, the death of Jesus at the will and plan of God was not one of many options available. 

Jesus explained to his disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

The suffering of Jesus had to happen. It was the only way. Sin is so serious and so grievous, the plight of humanity so dire and so grave, that Christ Jesus had to himself become the ransom if humanity was to be saved. It was the only way God could be both perfect in his justice (because he did not leave sin unpunished) and perfect in his love (because he bore the cost of the punishment himself). The God of judgement willed (Isaiah 53) and planned (Acts 2) for his own dear Son to face the judgement that Christians deserve so that we can be forgiven. This is the only way sinful people could be brought back to God.

But hold on…

In all of this we need to remember the willingness of Christ to submit to God’s plan for salvation. Let’s observe Jesus himself in the hours before his death on the Mount of Olives:

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)

What is in the cup that Jesus asks to be taken away? 

Is Jesus fearful of his betrayal by Judas? Of his trial? Of his physical beating? Indeed, of his physical death? Jesus has stared death in the face before and not been shaken (John 8:59). 

Is the cup here a cup of human punishment? 

The cup is full of the wrath of God. This is how the term is understood in the Old Testament (see Isa 51:17, Jer 25:15, 33, Zech 12:2, 14:10). 

Not only is this a cup of God’s wrath, it’s a cup that God gives Christ to drink. It is God’s will, and God’s plan that the Son drink from this cup. And Christ, in perfect submission to God, willingly does so:  “Not my will, but yours, be done” he says. 

The heart of the gospel 

So why did Jesus die? 

As we’ve seen, the question takes us straight to the heart of the gospel. What a game-changer this can be in an evangelistic conversation! It explains in a profound way the sovereignty of God, the devastating consequence of sin, and the overwhelming love of God for a rebellious and wicked people. It displays in high definition the hopelessness of man to save himself. 

The psalmist writes: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12).You cannot preach the gospel without explaining this. God is the author of salvation—from woe, to whoa, to go. 

In all of my evangelistic conversations, only one non-Christian has answered the question by talking about the role of God, and he had gained a theological degree from an evangelical institution prior to sliding into apostasy. The vast majority of people know that Jesus died and many of them have heard that he died “for people’s sins”. Yet they are completely unaware of the devastating reality of what took place—that it was God who killed his own Son. 

Of course, it’s crucial that the statement “God killed Jesus” is explained, nuanced, and most importantly, justified through Scripture. The evangelist must be at pains to simultaneously explain God’s hand in the death of Christ, while making clear that God was not acting in a sinful or unjust way in killing the only perfect man. The culpability of humanity, both ancient and modern, remains. 

Yet there is no escaping it: penal substitutionary atonement is, for many, the missing link between their sin and Jesus’ death. It explains the majestic truth about God, the horrifying and desperate truth about humanity, and the unspeakable beauty of the cross. It’s the ‘penny drop’ moment that God has used to bring many of his children to salvation. 

So who killed Jesus? In a very real sense, God did. It wasn’t that God himself did the ‘killing’. But in his sovereign plan, God ordained the killing of his Son by wicked and evil men. God put him forward to the slaughter. Of course, we must remember that the Son willingly laid down his life. So we see that from all eternity, this amazing act of self-sacrifice had been the plan of God. 

Consider the love of God that he would kill his own Son for you, his enemy! Let’s rejoice in God’s goodness and tell others what has been done for those who put their trust in the death (and resurrection) of God’s precious Son. 

[1] John MacArthur, ‘Sin Didn’t Kill Jesus—God Did’