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We know that Harry survived Voldemort's killing curse because Lily loved him so much that she sacrificed herself in an attempt to protect him. This resulted in a very powerful charm that pretty much rendered Harry immune to Voldemort (until Voldemort figured out the work-around).

Then there's this passage describing that night:

[Voldemort] was over the threshold as James came sprinting down the hall. It was easy, too easy, he had not even picked up his wand ...

"Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off -"

Hold him off, without a wand in his hand! ... He laughed before casting the curse ...

"Avada Kedavra!"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapter 17: Bathilda's Secret

So James Potter, fully aware that he was sacrificing himself (he said "I'll hold him off," not "I'll get rid of him") ran to face Voldemort because of his love for Lily and Harry. This seems to be very similar to how Lily tried to protect Harry from Voldemort even though she knew she would die. It seems to me that the same charm should have been cast upon Lily when James died, but just moments later Voldemort killed her too. Apparently James' sacrifice did not result in a charm that protected Lily, even though he did it from love for her and Harry.

Why is this? Was something different in the circumstances?

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    @Slytherincess That's fairly reasonable, but it doesn't quite make sense to me. James could have chosen to run away instead of running to the door; I'd say he chose to try and hold Voldemort off. Also (my own opinion here) I don't think the murderer's intentions should determine the validity of the victim's sacrifice. Even if Voldemort had resolved to kill Lily anyway, the fact that she would choose to stand in front of Harry instead of running away and getting killed anyway is what makes all the difference (to me). Of course, JKR is the boss here but it just doesn't seem right to me. – commando Dec 13 '12 at 3:28
  • See my answer. Yeah, that's her explanation. :) – Slytherincess Dec 13 '12 at 3:32
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    Could it be because James primarily wanted to protect his son, and Lily was only a secondary concern of his? So both parents' sacrifice together protected Harry. – b_jonas Dec 13 '12 at 9:06
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Actually, I'll make my comment an answer.

According to J.K. Rowling, the difference between James' death and Lily's is that Voldemort always intended to kill James; he gave Lily multiple chances to step aside and let Voldemort kill Harry, and she refused and died protecting Harry. That is what created the protective enchantment between Lily and Harry. Lily chose to die for Harry; James wasn't given a choice.

ES: This is one of my burning questions since the third book - why did Voldemort offer Lily so many chances to live? Would he actually have let her live?

JKR: Mhm.

ES: Why?

JKR: [silence] Can't tell you. But he did offer; you're absolutely right. Don't you want to ask me why James's death didn't protect Lily and Harry? There's your answer - you've just answered your own question - because she could have lived - and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I'm not saying James wasn't ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. He had no - he wasn't given a choice, so he rushed into it in a kind of animal way. I think there are distinctions in courage. James was immensely brave. But the caliber of Lily's bravery was, I think in this instance, higher because she could have saved herself. Now any mother, any normal mother would have done what Lily did. So in that sense, her courage too was of an animal quality but she was given time to choose. James wasn't. It's like an intruder entering your house, isn't it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, "Get out of the way," you know, what would you do? I mean, I don't think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice.

ES: And James didn't.

JKR: Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It's a subtle distinction and there's slightly more to it than that but that's most of the answer.

INTERVIEW WITH J.K. ROWLING - 07.16.08 - MUGGLENET

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    Yeah, this is definitely the "correct" answer, but as I said in my comment above I don't think it's the right answer. I can't do much about that, though. I wonder why she's holding back on why Voldemort would have let Lily live; it's not like she'll be revealing that in some later book... is it? – commando Dec 13 '12 at 3:46
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    Well, the interview was given before Deathly Hallows was released, so she hedged a bit on the final details, I think. – Slytherincess Dec 13 '12 at 4:10
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    @commando If I recall correctly, we do actually get the reason why Voldemort offered to let Lily live right near the end of Deathly Hallows... – Izkata Dec 13 '12 at 4:58
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    @AnthonyGrist I think what he meant is that does not feel right, surely because imho J.K.R did not really think of that before questions arose, so she's retconning herself. – Eregrith Dec 13 '12 at 9:25
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    @Eregrith -- Whoa, slow the boat down! :) J.K. Rowling has said she spent five years just outlining the HP series before she even began writing. It's unfair to throw the "reconning" label at an author just because the central theme of the book (love, Lily's love, how love is powerful) isn't written as tightly as it could have been. Frankly, I'm more puzzled and concerned about how Harry managed to defeat Voldemort with Expelliarmus. :) – Slytherincess Dec 13 '12 at 13:20
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I think there are some differences in James' choice to die defending his family, and Lily's choice to die protecting her son.

One is Voldemort's intent. Voldemort planned to kill James and to allow Lily to live. So while James did choose to stay and fight, he was already in the line of fire. On the other hand, Lily threw herself into the line of fire hoping to trade her life for her son's.

Another difference is James' and Lily's intents. The success of powerful bits of magic often depends on intent, as seen with the Cruciatus Curse (You have to mean it or it won't work). James was trying to buy as much time for Lily and Harry to escape and (this is conjecture) his mind was likely occupied with what he could do to gain that extra second for his family. So his thoughts were not specifically focused on saving either Lily or Harry, but on what actions he could take towards saving his family. On the other hand, Lily likely knew James was dead and that she was wandless and defenseless, so (again, it is conjecture) her thoughts were not on not on James or fighting, but only on Harry and how much she wished he could live. At that moment she says:

Lily: "Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!" V: "Stand aside you silly girl … stand aside now."L: "Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead--"

There must also be a difference between Lily's sacrifice and other sacrifices. I dont think it's just throwing yourself in front of a Killing Curse intended for someone else, with the intent to save that person. So there must be something more. Perhaps it was that Voldemort, in a way, complied with Lily's request "please no, take me, kill me instead" by choosing to kill her when he originally intended to let her live. Or maybe it was the strength of Lily's intent to save Harry made possible by the amount of time given to decide, or as suggested by another post a mother-child bond, or blood, or love, or something.

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I think that perhaps the key to this could be that it was the mother-child bond - said to be the strongest bond in life. Lily also consciously chose to sacrifice herself for Harry. James did sacrifice himself but he ran out to meet Voldemort thinking he had a chance at defending them, at surviving to fight another day. Lily did not fight, she protected her child, she shielded him and eventually sacrificed herself. Also Lily was excellent at Charms and the spell that saved Harry was a charm based on ancient magic.

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Honestly, I think that James running out to buy time was kind of a sacrifice- but Tom (I refuse to call him Voldemort) had already challenged him to a duel. Tom was heading for James to fight when he ran out and Tom instantly Avada Kedavra'd him. Lily on the other hand had the option to let Tom kill Harry or kill her. James was already going to be killed. However I think there may be more to the deaths than what we are shown. Many people online are saying that Lily and James died after Harry rebounded. In the Priori Incatatem in Goblet Of Fire it shows the last 9 spells, however the Avada Kedavra that rebounded was not on there. Is it not on there because Harry didn't die or could there actually be more?

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i think it did. Lily Potter was never killed by Voldemort directly. you see, James found out that Voldemort was there to kill harry, and he purposefully went to fight him. . .without a wand. he did this so that he could buy lily time to get away with harry, so he must have known he would die. . . which means he died for lily and harry. this means that when Voldemort tried to kill lily to get to harry, it was her the curse rebounded off of, hitting Voldemort. this exploded the house, which is what really killed lily, something harry would never have seen. and Harry's scar is there from Voldemort soul entering it, since he would have been the only living thing in the room. remember, Dumbledore said that only powerful dark magic could have caused him to get that scar, but he never says that it was definitely avada kedavra that caused it.

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    Except the avada kedavra spell did kill Lily, and it was only when Voldemort then cast the spell at Harry that it rebounded, killing Voldemort and destroying the house. Lily was already dead – childcat15 Jun 28 '15 at 18:49
  • that was all conjecture. no one was there. how do we know that lily survived, then the curse rebounded on Voldemort, blowing up the house, and the explosion killed her? (just another possible option) – albusseverus potter Aug 21 '15 at 15:57
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    Priori Incatatem in Goblet of Fire, Harry sees the ghosts of his parents as the echo of the spells Voldemort cast. Also I'm sure they have wizard investigators who could accurately piece together what happened. Harry didn't remember any of it, he was told Lily was killed protecting him. (Also in the movies we see Voldemort kill Lily and then use another spell to attack Harry) – childcat15 Aug 21 '15 at 23:10
  • we don't use moves here, unless the question is about the movie. the books were the most detailed, and created first, so don't bring in the movies. also, it would technically have been voldemorts wand that killed lily, if it was the explosion that killed her. – albusseverus potter Aug 24 '15 at 15:52
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    @albusseveruspotter In the book Harry sees inside Voldemort's head and sees Voldemort kill Lilly. It specifically says that Lilly falls to the floor and that Harry wrongly expects her to stand back up. This shows Lilly did die from a direct attack. – Bellerophon Mar 3 '16 at 21:12

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