Most skeptics I know aren’t interested in philosophy. They have a “gut feeling” that they’re basically “good people” and that God – if there actually is one – isn’t interested in much else. He’ll look at your list of accomplishments, subtract out your misdeeds, throw in a few bonus points if you were “sincere,” and then grade on a curve. After all, they reason, God must recognize that “we’re only human,” right?
One challenger summed up the rejection of the need for a Savior this way:
Christianity teaches that we must accept a particular story about a Redeemer dying for humanity’s salvation in order to be saved. In other words, the “only son” of God takes the fall for my own sins. But that seems like the ultimate sin to me. What could be less responsible? “I will answer to God for my own mistakes!” my brain tells me. “That is what adults are supposed to do. You don’t blame God for your own vices, do you?
This challenge has considerable surface appeal. It trades on our innate sense of responsibility, but in doing so, it makes a category error. It compares (implicitly) two very dissimilar kinds of things. When we think about how man should interact with his fellow men – a horizontal type of relationship if viewed as an organizational chart – then of course scapegoating – having Jesus die in our place - would be wrong. Each person should take responsibility for his own life. But does this same dynamic apply to interactions with a superior being? A creator being, who occupies a level above our own?
One need not resort to the Bible to see the error. One need only compare the nature of God, as the creator, to the nature of man, as the creature. Even those who doubt God’s existence should recognize that implicit in the concept of God is limitless power. After all, if one is thinking of a being who, in any respect, has a power greater than God’s, that being would displace God. If the concept of God is to make any sense whatsoever, it must necessarily be the conception of that being a greater than which cannot possibly be conceived. Man, by contrast, is nothing if not limited. He lives a short while, has limited power and intelligence at his disposal, cannot will either his birth or prolong his life more than slightly, and fails, constantly, to live up to even his own limited expectations as to right behavior. In short, man enters and exits the world alone and powerless and owes his entire existence to something, or someone, other than himself.
Some examples might help make the point. There are some situations in which it is entirely proper, and to be expected, that a person should “make things right” on his own. If I make a mistake, I should correct it. If I hurt someone, I should make them whole to the extent possible. If I commit a crime, I should pay a price to the victim and to the society I have harmed.
But not every situation is one in which the person acting can solve the problem. If a bank robber is shot by police, he cannot very well perform surgery on himself to save his life. If a child falls into a deep well with slick walls, he cannot climb out, however much his descent into the well was his own fault. If a boat sinks at sea, a lone sailor may be entirely reliant upon the Coast Guard to bring him to safety, however ill-prepared for the trip he may have been. Despite having “responsibility” in some sense for their predicament, the people in these examples simply lack the power to correct their mistake; they are entirely dependent upon the mercy of another - someone with greater power - to save them.
As a general rule, it makes sense to attach accountability for one’s actions. If I sin against God, then I rightly owe Him a debt. If I embrace my sinfulness, and continue defiantly in my rebellion against my maker, then eternal separation is a consequence which is both fair and to be expected. Thus, the skeptic’s analysis is not completely off: if we stand before God and “take the blame” for our “vices,” the consequence for us will be exceedingly unpleasant. But there is another way. Like the child stuck in the well or the sailor bobbing in the sea, we are – by our fallen and corrupted nature – incapable of correcting the problem. Rather than to approach Perfection with fear and trembling, however, we defiantly stand before Him, shaking our fists and humming “My Way.” We ask for a trial that we simply cannot win.
Wisdom lies in knowing which situation is which. Yes, we can stand before God and "take it on the chin," but in interacting with a perfect being, it should take us little effort to realize that we need help to make the grade. We have nothing to offer, nothing to trade, nothing that can impress Him, for one cannot add to perfection. But Jesus has the power to provide that help. Having lived a perfect life as a man, he is the only man who can stand before God and take the consequences for our sins. That he is capable of doing so is a testament to the great power He possesses, and shares, with the Father; that He is willing to do so is a testament to love, a love far greater than anything man in his present state can begin to understand. Like the surgeon or the Coast Guard rescuer, He has the power to act in a situation in which we have no such power, in which failure - damnation - is the only possible outcome.
All He requires is our assent.