A Rational Faith Section 3.13 – The Nature of the Atonement
One of the greatest difficulties involved in believing in the Christian faith is the idea that Jesus Christ had to die on the cross at Calvary in order for God the Father to forgive sins. This idea does not seem to make any sense. Is God the Father so savage that the only way he can feel better about a crime is to commit a worse one against an innocent? How does the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ work?
The response to these questions that I got from my reading was that Jesus Christ had to die on the cross to meet the righteous requirements of God’s law. This is, however, only half of the story. Imagine you were going to arrange a special birthday party for your child where you wanted to make everything perfect. It was going to take a lot of time and cost a good deal of money, but you really wanted it to be a once-in-a-lifetime day. Though you put in an unbelievable amount of work, everything goes wrong. Some of your child’s friends have family members who are rude and obnoxious and the entire event goes completely haywire with verbal and physical abuse. Would all the work you had done for the party have been worthwhile? Would you do it again? Or would you just have a quiet family get together on the next birthday and forget the grandiose and lavish plans?
God does an enormous amount of work to create and sustain human beings in the world. When he looks out at the results, he is extremely angry. Countless acts of petty bickering, selfish manipulation, lies, rape, murder, unkindness and all manner of evil and rotten behavior. Is there nothing in the world that is worth his time and attention? Is there nothing of beauty to be had from all the work that he has put in? Looking at the world, God comes to a sad conclusion. There is nothing worthwhile and the world needs to be shutdown. Everyone deserves to die.
And then something amazing happens. An act of love so great, so pure, so beautiful, so perfect that it outshines all the “good” acts of this world like the sun outshines a candle. After this one act of surpassing beauty, God the Father looks upon the world in an entirely different way. All of the work that has gone into creating and sustaining countless billions of stars and people is worthwhile! He is pleased by his creation and takes great pleasure in it forevermore.
There are two equal and opposite sides to the Cross of Jesus Christ. One side is the evil side. On this side we see the tremendous evil that was heaped upon our Lord. The other side is the side of love. On that side is the love that it took for our Lord to take all the evil that was heaped upon him for our sake. The two sides are equal and opposite. Had the evil that had been heaped upon him merely been a slap, then only a slap’s amount of love is demonstrated by taking that for us. Had the evil that had been heaped upon him been a scourging, then only a scourging’s amount of love is demonstrated by his obedience. When one fully realizes all the horrible things that happened to our Lord on that great and terrible day, then one realizes the impossible love that he demonstrated by taking that evil upon himself.
Because of the blackness of the human heart, Christians have for two thousand years focused exclusively on the dark side of the cross. We thought the Father was pleased because of all the evil that was done to his Son. In fact, we could not have been more wrong. The Father was pleased by the incredibly pure act of love that his Son demonstrated in taking that evil for us. In short, the Father was pleased by what Christ did for man and not with what man did to Christ.
This, therefore, is the missing half of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross at Calvary. When God the Father looked at the world before the sacrifice of his Son, he was angry. The human race was condemned to death because God the Father took no joy in our selfish and self-centered acts and was simply not willing to continue to do the enormous amount of work required for us to live. Then his innocent and pure and spotless Son was tortured to death for the sins of the world and that singular act of beauty made it all worthwhile. God the Father gave all judgment to the Son and was reconciled to the world for the sake of this glorious act of divine love.
If you focus exclusively on the dark side of the cross, you see a gross distortion of the character of God. From that perspective, God is the ultimate Pharisee looking for even the tiniest excuse to pronounce someone worthy of death and burn them in fire for all eternity. He only relents from his terrible retribution when an innocent has been tortured to death sating the divine blood lust.
When you look at the atonement through the lens of the teachings of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, everything changes. God’s deepest desire for us is that we love him and each other. Selfish and self-centered human beings, however, constantly fail to uphold even the most minimal standard of not injuring one another and not blatantly disrespecting him. When he considers all that he has done for us, he comes to the completely reasonable conclusion that we are not worth his time and attention. Without his time and attention, of course, we would instantly cease to exist so he pronounces us worthy of death. Only looking at the world through the blood of the Son and remembering his beautiful sacrifice makes all the time and effort worthwhile. Only through association with Christ’s work on the cross can we deserve to live. How can one see a candle when it is close to the sun?
The only way to solve the difficulties of the doctrine of Atonement, then, is to keep a balanced view of the cross. On the one hand, Jesus died to meet the requirements of the law and of the covenants in order to obtain the blessings promised to the descendants of Abraham. We see this truth illustrated in Revelation chapter 5 when only the lamb is able to open the scroll that bestows our everlasting inheritance. On the other hand, Jesus had to die to meet the impossible requirements of a higher standard. Only through a perfect act of love could God be reconciled to human evil. A balanced view of the Atonement and the cross, therefore, is a key to a rational faith.