There’s a lot on my mind lately, but, though it’s not really a great pressing concern to me, I keep coming back to one particular issue. Perhaps that means it will be illuminating to somebody, so here it is.
“Why did Jesus have to die? If God was so eager to forgive us, why go through the whole shtick of executing an innocent person? Why is that even necessary—why couldn’t God just, well, forgive us?”
This is a perfectly valid question, and it makes a lot of sense to ask it. After all, there is something that seems just plain wrong about saying, “God decided to punish an innocent person instead of a guilty one… because He is so concerned about justice.”
But one thing I’ve found about many people’s objections to Christian beliefs is that they object to something that it is absolutely right to object to, except that it doesn’t happen to be a Christian belief. For instance, I once saw a blog post wherein the author was railing against the Apostle Paul because (he said) Paul taught the false doctrine that Christians were obliged to keep the whole Old Testament Law to be saved. That doctrine is certainly worth objecting to, which might be one reason the Apostle Paul objected so strongly to it in his epistles. And then of course there’s my 20 Reasons to Abandon a Bugaboo.
Be that as it may, I think we have a similar case here. The idea that God punished an innocent person instead of just forgiving us does seem objectionable. But is it really the Gospel message? Maybe not. Hang onto your hats; let’s take a look.
Part of the confusion here comes from what I call the “Person C” Fallacy. Too often, you hear the Gospel message presented like this: God (Person A) takes the crimes of a human being (Person B) and places them on an innocent third party, Jesus (Person C), whom He then proceeds to torture and kill so Person B doesn’t have to suffer the consequences. Doesn’t Person B think Person A is a great guy?
A typical skeptic would say to that, “But that’s so unfair, unjust, and cruel!”
The typical skeptic would be absolutely right.
The answer, like the answer to so many objections to the Bible, is 1) That idea really is a moral dilemma, and 2) That idea is not what’s taught in the Bible. At all. Even if you’ve heard some Christians say it is.
If your eyebrows are raised at this point, just work with me here. Look at what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Jesus is said to be “God… manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). In other words, He was not Person C; He was Person A. God doesn’t punish some random innocent third party; He takes the penalty for our sins on Himself. Punishing someone else may be cruel, but voluntarily suffering for someone else is heroic, heartbreaking, and amazingly gracious.
That’s only part of it—even if Jesus is God, why did He have to die at all? Again, if God is so anxious to forgive, why doesn’t he just wipe the slate clean, say “I forgive you,” and start all over again?
The answer: That’s exactly what God did do. And that’s exactly why Jesus had to die.
Confused? Stay with me. The confusion this time comes from our English word “forgive.” We can use the word “forgive” in two different ways:
1) You offend me or otherwise hurt me, but I say, “I forgive you.” That means, “You hurt me, but I’ll overlook it because I don’t want it to wreck our relationship. No hard feelings.”
2) You borrow a thousand dollars from me, fall on hard times, and can’t pay it back. I say, “That’s OK; I’ll forgive you your debt.” That means, “You now no longer owe me a thousand dollars. On your records, it’s as though you’d never defaulted on the loan.”
On my records… well, I’m out a thousand dollars. That’s the price I’d have to pay to forgive the debt.
The Greek language, in which the New Testament was originally written, simplifies matters a bit by having a different word for each of these meanings. (Charizomai is the first and aphiemi the second, for those interested.)
Now clearly, when people ask “Why couldn’t God just forgive us,” they’re thinking about meaning #1. And it’s true that that first word does pop up in the Greek New Testament a few times in reference to forgiving people who have offended you. But by far the more common word is the second—the one that’s used in reference to forgiving debts. Here is just a quick sampling of some of the more notable uses:
When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” –Mark 2:7
“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” –Luke 5:21
“…the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins…” –Luke 5:24
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:9
And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. –James 5:15
It even occurs in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
Now remember this is aphiemi, the kind of forgiveness that has to do not with overlooking the feelings but with clearing the accounts. As an interesting word-study aside, aphiemi in other contexts can be translated “leave behind,” “let alone,” “send away,” or even “divorce”—it’s talking about making a clean and total break with something.
So God doesn’t just overlook our sins and say “no hard feelings” (though He does that too of course). He does something even greater: The sin that was in your account book gets crossed out. That debt you couldn’t pay back gets canceled. Your sins are sent away—left behind—divorced.
That’s great news for us, but what does it mean for God? Remember, when a debt is forgiven, the creditor becomes the one who suffers the loss. And sin carries a big loss with it: “The wages of sin is death,” according to the Bible (Romans 6:23). Sin carries a consequence, just like work carries a wage. You work an hour; you get a set amount of money. You commit a sin, and something inevitably happens to your soul. You die.
By the way, I don’t think that God decided to set an arbitrary punishment for certain actions: “If they covet, let’s see… I know, I’ll give them the death penalty, bwa ha ha ha.” I see God’s moral laws as an attempt to keep us from doing something that would destroy us whether He made the rule or not: “DANGER! KEEP OUT! HIGH VOLTAGE! If you touch the wire, you’ll die!” The sign is there to keep you from being killed, not to kill you.
So there’s the dilemma: God wants to forgive us our sins as a creditor would forgive his debtor. But if He does that, He’s left with the debt, and in that case, that means He has to suffer death.
God can’t die. But a human can.
If God became a human, then He could die and the debt would be absorbed. The books would be balanced all around. There would be both justice (because the books would be fairly balanced) and mercy (because we didn’t have to die).
So Jesus is not Person C, nor even just Person A: He’s person AB. If Jesus is not fully God and fully Man, this whole arrangement is impossible: If Jesus is only A, B, or C, there’s an insuperable moral dilemma. But if Jesus is who the Bible says He is, there’s Amazing Grace.
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them”
(2 Corinthians 5:19).