Who killed Jesus? Who is responsible for Christ’s death? Is it the Jews who condemned Jesus for blasphemy and had Him arrested? Or was it the Romans who physically tortured and crucified Him? What about God the Father or all of sinful humanity? The answer to this question is multi-faceted and involves more than just one particular group bearing the responsibility for Christ's death.
Undoubtedly, the Jews, especially the scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, greatly opposed Jesus (Matthew 21:15; Luke 11:53; John 5:18; 7:45–52; 12:37). They accused Him of blasphemy on multiple occasions and sought to stone Him for it (Matthew 9:3; Mark 2:6–7; John 8:52–58; 10:31–33). The chief priests and elders accused Jesus (Matthew 27:12), mocked Him (Matthew 27:41), and held council to have Him arrested and to condemn Him to death (Mark 15:1). Judas, a Jew, betrayed Him (John 18:2). The Jews shouted, “‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’” as He stood trial before Pilate (Luke 23:21), and they asked for Barabbas, a thief, to be released instead of Jesus (Matthew 27:21). The Jews wanted to kill Jesus (Matthew 12:14).
Paul writes that the Jews bear part of the blame in killing Jesus: “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 2:14–15, emphasis added). Who killed Jesus? Part of the blame falls on the Jews who plotted against Him.
However, the blame does not just fall on the Jews. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter indicates that the Jews alone did not kill Jesus: “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:22–23, emphasis added). The Romans were the “wicked men” by whom Jesus was killed. The Romans also share the blame in killing Jesus.
Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it and the torture that came along with it. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to be flogged and crucified (Matthew 27:26; John 19:1). Roman soldiers “stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said” (Matthew 27:28–29). The Roman soldiers drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet on the cross (John 19:23) and pierced His side with a spear to make sure He was dead (John 19:34). The Romans killed Jesus.
What was God the Father’s role in Jesus’ death? Romans 3:25 says that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood,” and Romans 8:32 says that God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.” Isaiah 53:10 also reveals that it was God’s will for Christ to die: “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and . . . the Lord makes his life an offering for sin.” It’s not that God actually put Jesus on the cross or pounded the nails, but the cross was God’s plan to redeem humanity. Peter preached that Jesus’ betrayal and death was according to “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Jesus’ death was God’s will (see Luke 22:42).
God willed to save His people, and salvation required a payment for sin. Jesus had to die. God could not spare Him. In Genesis 22, Abraham, in obedience to God’s command, was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram as a replacement sacrifice. In the death of Jesus on the cross, God the Father did not spare Him because Jesus was the substitute. Jesus dying in our place as our substitute was the only way God could spare us (Romans 3:25–26). Jesus’ death satisfied God’s holy wrath against sin and allowed God to bring sinners to heaven without violating His justice.
Jesus willingly laid down His life to save us from our sins (John 10:17–19), took the punishment we deserved for our sin, and reconciled us to God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The atonement of Christ was prophesied in Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Because of God’s great love, He provided the only way to redeem all who would believe in Him. Yet God did not allow death to have the final say, but He raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24; Psalm 16:10). Ultimately, all of humanity is guilty of killing Jesus. It was our sin that put Him on the cross. Because of our sin, God sent Jesus to save us. Humanity is both the cause and beneficiary of Jesus’ death. God can use even the wickedest of actions to bring about His perfect plan (see Genesis 50:20). Sinful people killed Jesus, but God used that unlawful killing as the means of our salvation. God’s response to evil is redemptive and shows His great love for us: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8).