Who is responsible for Jesus’ death?

On the surface, one might assume that a sole person or group was responsible for Jesus’ death. Yet, digging a little deeper in Scripture brings to light a more complicated and layered picture of those who were instrumental in bringing about the Son’s humiliating execution at Calvary.


Before going any further, it’s important to clarify that Jesus was not caught off guard by the eventuality of Him sacrificing Himself on the cross. For example, in John 10:14–18, Jesus stated that His death was not forced upon Him. Instead, He laid down His life voluntarily. Indeed, the Son of God had the authority—that is, the supreme power and absolute right—not only to sacrifice His life, but also to take it back again in resurrection. 


Moreover, Jesus foretold the manner in which His life would end. Noteworthy is 12:31–33, in which He declared that the hour had come, not only for Him to be glorified, but also for Satan and the pagan world system he controlled to be judged. 


The Son stated that when He was raised up in glory, the Father’s enemies would be driven out in disgrace. In turn, Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection would draw people from all over the world to Him in saving faith. 


Jesus described His death in the preceding way to indicate not only how He was about to die, but more importantly, what it would theologically mean. Later, in 18:32, John the apostle (and writer of the Fourth Gospel) noted that the Crucifixion fulfilled the prophetic oracle Jesus made about His upcoming, public execution.


On a human level, there were a cast of characters who conspired to bring about Jesus’ death. Take the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Even though he did not wish to have Jesus executed, Pilate caved into the demands of his constituents. So, at least in part, the Roman governor was responsible for Jesus’ death.


Then there’s the religious leaders. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth to be a troublemaker who challenged their authority, called into question their legitimacy, and threatened to upset the fragile status quo they tried to preserve with their Roman overlords.


According to 11:50, Caiaphas, the high priest, reasoned that it was politically advantageous to eliminate the irksome Galilean (from their perspective) in order to prevent the entire nation from perishing. Verses 51 and 52 explain that in God’s providence, Caiaphas unwittingly foretold Jesus’ death. In fact, the religious leaders’ plot to execute Jesus would make redemption possible for unsaved Jews and Gentiles (v. 53).


Even some of Jesus’ closest followers bore some responsibility for His death. On the one hand, there is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the civil and religious authorities. On the other hand, there is Peter, who three times denied that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. Mark 14:27 and 50 disclose that even the rest of Jesus’ followers abandoned Him at the time of His arrest.


On a divine level, the Son bears responsibility for His death. For instance, as noted above, He stated that He voluntarily and willingly chose to go to the cross. 


The Father, as well, bears responsibility for the decision to send Jesus to His death. By way of example, on the day of Pentecost, Peter declared to his Jewish peers that it was by “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:22–23) that Pilate and the religious elitists crucified Jesus of Nazareth. 


Sometime later, Peter (along with John) made a similar announcement to a crowd of onlookers at the Jerusalem temple. Specifically, as far back as the time of Isaiah, the Father revealed through His spokespersons, the prophets, that it was necessary for the Messiah to be crucified (Acts 3:18; see Isa 53:10). 


Likewise, after the Sanhedrin released Peter and John from custody, the believers affirmed in their prayer to God that He permitted the civil and religious authorities to execute Jesus on the cross. Indeed, it was from eternity past that the Triune Godhead sovereignly predetermined that the Son had to offer Himself as an atoning sacrifice at Calvary (4:27–28).


Paul echoed the above perspective when he wrote 1 Corinthians 2:8. The central truth of the apostle’s preaching was that the Father had determined to save sinners and bring many into His sacred presence through the Son’s crucifixion. 


For a time, though, God had kept this truth a mystery. Indeed, if the rulers of this age—such as the chief priests, Pilate, and Herod Antipas—had understood the divine plan of salvation, they would not have sentenced the Redeemer to die ignominiously on a cross. Paul’s reference to Jesus as the “Lord of glory” emphasizes His status as the divine Messiah. 


The apostle was possibly thinking about Isaiah 64:4 and 65:17 when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that no one had seen or heard of such a marvelous plan of salvation. Indeed, no one had conceived of the good things God had prepared from eternity past for those who love Him. 


So, then, who is responsible for Jesus’ death? Scripture discloses that the Father and the Son permitted Jesus’ crucifixion, along with Pilate, the religious elitists, Judas Iscariot, Peter, and the rest of Jesus’ disciples. 


More generally, the plight of all humanity necessitated Jesus’ death on the cross. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 5:21, at Calvary, Jesus took the place of the lost as their substitute and bore the punishment they deserved. The Son chose to do this not only so that repentant, believing sinners could have their transgressions forgiven, but also so that they might be made right with the Father.


Such a glorious truth calls for us to examine our lives and open our hearts to the Lord during the season of Lent. In short, it is only through faith in the Son that we can be at peace with the Father and receive His righteousness as a gift (see Eph 2:8–9).

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.