Death of Jesus: Sacrifice vs. Execution

Savoldo,_crocifissioneThis year I have had the opportunity to discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty on a few different occasions. For those who are not familiar with the Church’s teaching on this matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2263-2267 provides a helpful summery.

During each discussion with different groups of people, the same comment always came up: “Without the death penalty, we would not be saved.” The implication behind this comment is that the crucifixion of Jesus, an example of the Roman death penalty, was pivotal to humanity’s salvation. I have no quarrels that death of Jesus brought about our salvation, but this remark reduces his crucifixion to a mere execution. This presents a major problem.

Although the death of Jesus took the form of a Roman crucifixion and looked like a common execution to bystanders, the New Testament goes to great lengths to explain that Jesus freely gave his life out of obedience to the Father.[1] This distinction is so important that Jesus clearly spells it out to his disciples in John 10:17-18,

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father. (RSV)

Even though it appeared that the Roman judicial system had control over the life and death of Jesus, the Gospel of John gives us a different view. When Jesus stands trial before Pilate, John 19:10-11 reminds the reader that God was in control over the situation,

Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” (RSV)

In light of this information, we can begin to see how the above remark (Without the death penalty, we would not be saved) does not accurately reflect the biblical narrative. Jesus did not need any form of capital punishment to save us – he was already committed to dying for our sins. In fact, before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus already began to institute the new covenant with his disciples at the Last Supper when he offered them his body and blood. To say that the death penalty was necessary for our salvation completely overlooks his willing sacrifice. Saint Alphonsus Liguori offers an interesting alternative to Jesus’ sacrifice had the Romans been unwilling to “execute” Jesus:

If executioners had been wanting she (the Virgin Mary) herself would have crucified Him, in order to obey the Eternal Father Who willed His death for our salvation. If Abraham had such fortitude as to be ready to sacrifice with his own hands the life of his son, with far greater fortitude would Mary…have sacrificed the life of hers.[2]

The Father already willed the death of the Son for the sake of humanity. The Son already agreed to offer himself in obedience to the Father. It is unfortunately that humanity sought to intervene in his death through the form of an execution. Who knows how Jesus would have died for us had the executioners been wanting. Regardless, it was God’s intention to bring salvation to humanity with or without the death penalty.


[1] See Jn 14:31; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8

[2] Quoted in David Supple, Virgin Wholly Marvelous: Praises of Our Lady by the Popes, Councils, St.s, and Doctors of the Church (Cambridge: Ravengate, 1981), 74.

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