Did Jesus have to die in order to forgive the sins of the world? Consider this:
First, a few ideas about sin. Consider the creation and fall narrative from Genesis. Adam is perhaps best understood not as a historical person, but as a metaphorical character based on the people of Israel. Adam was created in the dust (Egypt), brought into the garden (promised land), given regulations (Torah), and was removed from the garden for breaking them (exile). The point I make is that the story of Adam is less about how sin entered the picture, and more about the wisdom of how God works amidst the people of Israel. In fact, sin is not mentioned as a punishment for Adam’s mistake. Death is the consequence of Adam’s trespass (Genesis 2:17). God’s response to the disobedience is the curse of labor (both in childbearing and cultivation, Genesis 3:16-19). The idea that sin entered the world through a historical couple is not found in the Old Testament, but is a theological development that occurs much later. (Check out this podcast from Pete Enns, from whom I borrowed this idea: https://www.peteenns.com/5-things-jesus-wants-know-adam-story/)
Second, I think death is the real issue being addressed in Jesus’ own dying. God comes to us (the whole world) in human form to live and die that death might be defeated. Jesus goes face-to-face with death in his own dying, so that the decay, sorrow, brokenness, and all the other messed up stuff in our world can be undone. Jesus dies to defeat death and bring new life. Why are things not perfect after Jesus death then? Because of the already-but-not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom and the new creation. We see slivers and peeks now.
Third, I feel that substitutionary atonement is less favorable when trying to explain all this. The Christus Victor motif, in my feeling, helps us understand this defeat of death in Christ’s dying. It helps us understand the shift from things decaying to things being in an everlasting state. It is in Christ’s weakest state that the true power of God is displayed. I would spin this as the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ death destroys our image of a wrathful God. God, “refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism” (Forde, p. 30). Left to our own theological deplorability, we make God out to be like us: vengeful, bean-counting, and insecure. Jesus came to take that notion of God to the grave and replace it with love. Jesus takes the mantle of a wrathful God and buries it down in the grave, rising to a new life where God is love.
Fourth, I think it is significant that the gospel writers tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross. Was Jesus claiming forsakenness? Or was Jesus defaulting to the ingrained liturgical patterns of his Jewish heritage by speaking/singing David’s words? Or was Jesus starting to quote Psalm 22 with the intent of making it to the end and fulfilling the words, “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vs. 29-31)?