For Christians all across the globe – men, women and children of all races, nationalities and cultures - this is Holy Week, a week during which we remember the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior. Adorning the buildings where Christians will gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving the victim of any semblance of human dignity.
Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we sanctify– make holy – this holiday?
Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a "stumbling block" and "foolishness" for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the "power" and "wisdom" of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the "balancing of the books" that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.
Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must first see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?
Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. A master has a relationship with a servant, but what the servant feels for the master is obligation, not love. The tyrant can command his subjects to kneel before him, but he cannot compel them to love him. Payment or punishment, or any other tool of coercion, can accomplish a result, but it cannot change the mind, nor the heart. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.
Jesus' act of love on the cross - in freely laying down his life - makes no sense until we consider from what this act saved us. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him, as a very minimum. Why? For the same reason that law-abiding people don’t share their homes and lives with outlaws. Even without moving toward active punishment, the very first thing one would expect from justice is that it does not countenance injustice to be committed in one’s presence. But this “minimal” punishment of separation is also the bad news. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. Permanent separation from an infinitely perfect being – while knowing that He is there and being unable to share eternal bliss with Him and with others – is a form of torment that makes any earthly torture seem mild by comparison. It is the nature of the result – and not any sadistic purpose on God’s part – that makes Hell such a horrible place.
We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward this goodness. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.
So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in His justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.
Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”
In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. Once we accept the gift, we open ourselves up to a process which God will complete in us, making us ready to reunite with Him. This solution is the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.
This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.
But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.