The Freedom of Necessity (Mark 8:31)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 3, 1982, p. 230. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Jesus proves that perfect obedience to God is perfect freedom. Sin is not freedom; it is a malignant pollution of freedom. Sin is death. Sin thereby brings the very possibility of freedom to an end.

And he began to teach them 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]

In what sense “must” the Son of man suffer and rise again? There are many things a person “must” do. I must get my hair cut before the weekend . . I must be more considerate of others . . I must die. “Must” can further imply a state wherein I am required by the brute necessities of existence, where quite apart from my choices one way or another, I “must” because I am compelled. Again, I must die.

The suffering and death and resurrection constitute an absolute necessity which faces the Son of man. He must suffer and rise again.

Must? But is he not free? And, if he, is the Son of God, a perfect expression of the love of God, is the love of God not free? Can there be love without freedom? And what of God’s power? Can God be God if God is not free from any and all necessity?

Considerations such as these invite us to offer an innocuous reading of our text, but to state such an interpretation indicates that we are on the wrong course. For example, what if we were to suppose that the necessity (the “must”) implies merely some determination of Jesus to be a martyr, and that his death is not irreversibly God’s will? Perhaps the cross was merely a heroic human choice on Jesus’ part. Are we then to conclude that the necessity of his rising again is also a heroic human choice? Does the promise of his rising again reflect anything less than the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23)? Is the resurrection, however “mythological” or demythologized our view of it, even remotely an exercise in human heroism? Clearly, Jesus was not a superhero, impervious to death.

The Gospels never suggest that Jesus acted independently of the Father. From Mark we hear nothing of the great man Jesus, only “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Thus, if Jesus Christ speaks of his destiny out of his sense of God’s will, and if the resurrection is a vindication of Jesus Christ’s sense of God’s will, then the language of necessity that dominates our text cannot be explained away. Jesus Christ suffers, dies and rises again because there is no other way. It is inconceivable that the Father would require, and the Son embrace, so terrible a destiny, were it not a matter of necessity.

Too often when we Americans speak of freedom, we sound as if freedom meant having access to the hedonism of the consumer market, or as if freedom were synonymous with license. If this were the case, logically, perfect freedom would open into a limitless, unpredictable, sensualistic liberty. However, by such a definition of freedom God would not be free, for God is never capricious or arbitrary. It is true that God always surprises us, but this is because we are not prepared for the daring with which he keeps his word. Nevertheless, his freedom is demonstrated in the absolute reliability of his word. Nothing can possibly deter God from keeping his commitments; precisely because God is absolutely free, God cannot default. Nothing could cause God to fail to be what God is. God is love. It is no failure in freedom that God cannot fail to be God. It is to the liberating glory of God that the love of God  -- that is, the being of God -- cannot fail.

Our freedom is not the mere capacity to act on every impulse, to scratch every itch. That is not freedom; it is slavery to each whim, to every fad, to all the urges that beset us. Freedom is the capacity to stand fast in one’s commitments, the capacity to act consistently with one’s true nature as God’s creature.

It is not true that we, at least in theory, need to be able to sin in order to be free. The faithful spouse is free when she or he resists temptation, but spouses are even more free when, because they love, faithlessness is not even an option. The capacity for betrayal has nothing to do with the freedom God exhibits.

Jesus proves that perfect obedience to God is perfect freedom. Sin is not freedom; it is a malignant pollution of freedom. Sin is death. Sin thereby brings the very possibility of freedom to an end.

It is Jesus who teaches us about freedom. In freedom he chose the terrible necessity of the cross because the love of God required it. He who is one with God freely accepted as his own the burden the Father must bear. God’s very being demands that the sin of the guilty as well as the suffering of the innocent be borne by God himself; for God is love.

God would not be God if he presided, as he does, over the death of every human being ever to walk the earth while he himself refused to bear the burden that his creatures must bear, for God would not be love. Love necessitates suffering when the object of that love must suffer.

But the nature of God’s loving sovereignty requires resurrection as well. The Son of Man must rise again. For at the core of all reality is the loving heart of God. God cannot abandon his Christ to oblivion and be the God he is. To say that God is love and to say the Son of man must suffer and be killed, and after three days rise again, is to say one and the same thing.