We know Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father’s will, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Because of this verse and many similar ones we are correct to say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die. But I believe it is also very easy to misunderstand what we mean about the will of God in this matter. We are speaking about God’s will regarding a response and not the situation itself. Let me illustrate the distinction using an example from the teaching of Jesus.
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Luke 6:28-29
Does Jesus want his disciples to be cursed? Does he want us to be slapped on the cheek, or someone to take our coat? Surely not! The will of Jesus is not that his followers are in a situation where they are mistreated or that would make Jesus a sadistic master indeed. The will of Jesus is that we turn the other cheek in response, but it is not his will that we are slapped on the cheek in the first place. Jesus is not willing the situation but telling us what he wills for us to do in response to such situations.
In the same way, when we say that it was God’s will that Jesus die, or affirm that he was sent for this very purpose, we are not saying that God desired for people to torture and kill Jesus. God’s will was that when faced with a cruel and unjust death, Jesus would suffer rather than fight back, which is exactly what the Father would do. When faced with wickedness he would forgive. When cursed he would bless. So we correctly say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die on the cross. The will of God for Jesus, and for Christians always, is that we respond to evil and mistreatment with grace and the willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering. We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
However, one might think if it was God’s will that Jesus die did not God have to plan and orchestrate that death to “make sure” it would happen? Could God really count on us to kill Jesus if he wasn’t himself causing it? If you think that apart from God’s prompting we might not have killed Jesus you have a naive hope in human goodness. Even Plato, nearly 400 years before Jesus, knew enough to make the following statement about the fate of a truly righteous man.
The just man, then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that in the world as it is we should want not to be, but to seem, just. – Plato’s Republic
The death of Jesus is only pleasing to God as the righteous response to evil. The killing itself was an evil act against a righteous man. We should not imagine that God in any fashion wills the death of anyone, much less his Son. Death is what God is defeating on the cross, not wanting to occur.
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11).
Since God is not pleased with the death of a wicked person, to say God willed the death of Jesus is not to speak of death itself, but the willingness to die selflessly. When we say the cross was the will of God we must remember that we are speaking of it as the response to evil that God desires, and we are not saying that God ever actually desires any death that evil causes, spiritual or physical. The torture and murder of Jesus shows the extent of abuse God is willing to endure at human hands so that he might defeat death and sin, while loving and saving us.