The Cost of Forgiveness
Easter is at hand. I really believe Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, and the weekend that they compose, make up the most important of all Christian holidays. While the media and our society in general make a lot more fuss over Christmas (probably more to do with its position on the calendar than anything else), there is really no more pivotal an occasion for the Christian than the weekend on which, so says our doctrine, Christ died, was buried, and was raised from the dead. For the Christian, this event was the most important event in the history of mankind, because Christ’s death was the means by which we can be saved from our sins; thus the event is the foundation of the entire Christian worldview.
But unfortunately I think this event is misunderstood by non-Christians everywhere, as well as many Christians. This video, entitled “Richard Dawkins schools Howard Conder on morality”, is one of the clearest demonstrations of this lack of understanding:
I really do recommend watching the video, or at least the first few minutes to get the idea. But basically, Dawkins is drilling this Christian man about the whole thinking behind Jesus atoning death. Now I find a lot of Dawkins’ objections to Christianity to be rather childish, but what he raises here, I think, is a very legitimate concern. Christians claim that Jesus died in order that God could forgive our sins – his death ‘atoned’ for our sinfulness so that we could be made right with God, so that we could be saved from an eternity of punishment in Hell. Dawkins simply asks why this was necessary: why couldn’t God just forgive us? If he’s all powerful, he calls all the shots, why did he have to torture his son to death? Why was this the only way to allow for our forgiveness?
Dawkins doesn’t just think this is absurd, but also morally atrocious. Killing one’s own son as a scapegoat for the wrongdoings of other people. What kind of a moral framework is this? And the Christian in this video really doesn’t give much of an answer. He actually seems just as stumped as Dawkins over it. So I intend here to answer the question, and hope to make it clear to everyone that what happened on the cross was necessary in order for God to forgive us in any meaningful sense.
The first thing that has been horribly neglected by both Dawkins and his Christian opponent in this video is that the relationship between God and Jesus is not as simple as “father and son”. It is certainly not the same thing as a human man’s relationship to his son. This is because Jesus is not only God’s son, but is also God himself. The nature of this is complex, and incredibly mysterious, and I wouldn’t presume to give a definitive account of it here, but there is no denying that, according to the Bible, Jesus was both man and God, both God’s Son and God himself. The opening passage of John’s Gospel talks of “the Word” (Greek Logos), which was with God and was God; the universe was made through the Word, and then this Word became flesh. Clearly the “Word” refers to Jesus. Throughout Jesus own ministry, he frequently made claims to divinity, as well as his sonship towards God.
Again, these are profound mysteries, the mechanics and specifics of which I don’t claim to understand. But the point is that the Biblical Jesus was God at least as much as he was God’s son; that the person who was walking around forgiving people’s sins, healing the blind and the lepers, and dying on the cross, was the same being as the creator of the universe, the same entity that was governing over all existence – yet he was dwelling among us on Earth, manifested by incarnation. The consequences of this for the atonement are noteworthy. God was not merely having his son tortured to death as if he was an earthly king punishing his son for the wrongdoings of some other citizen. More than this, God was also having himself tortured to death on the cross, because the person on the cross was God. There is no sense in which God did not pay in its entirety the cost the was paid through the crucifixion. It cannot be said that God himself did not suffer and die. When Jesus cried “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), this was the sound of the Lord of the universe forsaking himself, turning his face away, departing and being separated, from himself. For Jesus to take upon him the punishment for our sins was for God to take upon him the punishment for our sins. In light of this it makes no sense for us to accuse God of being a heartless monster of a ruler who hates his son, counting his life as cheap. For the problem of sin, the solution that God came up with was one in which he bore all the pain.
But, after having understood this, I think what people have trouble comprehending is this idea that anyone had to get hurt or feel pain or die, in order that we could be forgiven. Why did God have to go through all this trouble? Why did a God so sophisticated and morally superior have such a barbarous and bloodthirsty requirement as death? Why did would he need to bring about pain? Again: why couldn’t he just forgive?
Well to answer this, I’m going to have to ask you an important question: just how bad do you think sin really is? I find that people who are asking why God couldn’t just forgive us without having anyone suffer often do much to trivialise the problem of sin. Dawkins does it in this video, saying God ‘murdered’ his son because “Adam ate an apple”. Well clearly Adam, according to any faithful reading of the poetic account of Genesis, did a lot more than eat some apple, and Richard Dawkins knows this much. And according to the Bible, when each of us have sinned, we have not committed some trivial error or broken some negligible rule; we have done something very serious indeed. I aim to convince you that any just and loving god would consider it so serious as to necessitate something as drastic as the events of Easter.
Let me take you back to Moses’ day. God had just rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, and through Moses he was giving them the laws they were to follow as a nation. Here are some of them from the book of Exodus:
“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” (21:12)
“Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death.” (21:15)
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (21:16)
It seems harsh doesn’t it, that people would be punished so immediately and so finally after just one (not so small) mistake. No second chances. Now, after the depoliticisation of God’s people since Jesus’ inauguration of his Heavenly Kingdom, we no longer need to punish people in this way on Earth. But the reason I raise these verses is to show you the cost of sin. Here, God considers it right that a person who kills another person, or kidnaps someone, or even merely strikes his mother, would be put to death. Why is this? Because God is furious, absolutely and unapologetically furious, that people commit these acts. Why? Because God actually loves the victims of these crimes with a passionate and fervent love. To each of his people, God bestows immeasurable value and the utmost dignity. And so when we abuse his children in this way, when we treat them without dignity and value, when we cause them even the smallest pain, God is deeply offended, and burning with a righteous anger.
In the Old Testament, God had kidnappers and murderers, among others, killed, because he wanted it to be clear that there were things that he is not okay with. What is crazy, is that in the New Testament, it becomes clear that God considers these OT punishments to be light, because Jesus extends the meaning of murder and adultery:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.” (Matt 5:21-2)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matt 5:27)
In broadening his definitions of these sins, Jesus makes sin totally ubiquitous, because we don’t just sin with our actions, but also with our thoughts and desires. It is not just those who physically murder who deserve death. When we hate someone we have murdered them in our hearts. God considers our thoughts towards people to be dishonouring their inherent dignity and value. And in light of this, it is apparent that no one can claim innocence. Everyone has done things that God considers heinous. Everyone has thought, said and done things that hurt his precious children, and thus we have all disobeyed, and dishonoured God, treating both him and his creation as cheap, worthless, less important than ourselves. Because of this God sees us as deserving of death, deserving of pain, deserving of his wrath.
What does this mean? Why can’t God just forgive us? Because if God just forgives me, if God doesn’t punish anybody for the wrongs that I have done, then he says to me “that’s alright”. He says that what I have done was not that serious. He would rather I didn’t do these things, but he is going to let me get away with it entirely; he’s going to let it pass. I will hurt people in my lifetime, and they will suffer the pain that I cause them, but I will not suffer for it – and neither will God. I will also be abused and harmed by other people throughout my life, and the culprits will go free. God will let me be hurt and mistreated, but he will not impose any consequences for this. The only person who ever pays for any given crime will be the victim! And the only person in the universe who will come through the end without having suffered, without knowing pain, will be God.
There will be wrongs done in the world that are never set right. There will be no ultimate justice. A god who lets people into Heaven cheaply is a god who considers people’s lives cheap. This is a god who counts righteousness as irrelevant, and morality as optional. This is a weak god, a flippant god, a god without self respect. He commands people to live right, and then does nothing to rectify their disobedience. He says one thing, and then does another. He doesn’t care about our pain; he doesn’t even have experiential knowledge of pain. He doesn’t fight against injustice. How can this god truly love us without paying for the sins that have been committed against us? How can he truly relate to us without understanding our pain? This is not the God who exists. This is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible decided to fight injustice. He decided to punish all evil. He decided to come down.
He became flesh, he became weak, he became abusable and fragile. An infinite God became a finite man, subject to all the pains the human body experiences. And when he finally died on the Roman cross, the Father poured out all of his furious wrath on the Son. Rather than punishing each one of us for all the horrible things we’ve done, he chose to spare us, and therefore the Son experienced the suffering and death that we deserved. Upon him were all of our lies, our theft, our murder, our hatred, our abuse, our viciousness and our shame. He became guilty; he became sin. He was forsaken by and separated from the Father; his body was broken and destroyed. He was the Lord of the universe, and he chose to pay the entire cost of our sin, dying a sinner’s death in a tangible, physical way, and being witnessed by human eyes. In doing this he was saying “This is what I think of your sin. This is how much I hate the evil and injustice you commit. This is how much it costs me to be with you. And this is the price I am willing to pay, because this is how much I love you.”
It is on the Cross of Jesus Christ that God’s love and holiness converge in perfect harmony and mutual satisfaction. His justice was poured out on Jesus – his own very being – so that his Grace could be poured out on us. God didn’t ignore injustice; he defeated it, and thus he made a way for us to be truly and powerfully forgiven – because true forgiveness actually costs something. God bore all the pain that sin deserves, so that we could receive eternal joy, liberation, and life.
And so when we depart this life, and enter eternity, if we have accepted the forgiveness found in Christ, then when God allows us into his throne room, we will not have been let off, but redeemed.