Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven humanity?
I think the answer has something to do with the fact that sin costs, and that love costs even more. Early on in Genesis Adam and Eve are told that to eat from the forbidden tree means that ‘on that day you will surely die‘. From Romans, every good evangelical knows what the wages of sin are; death. But rather than some transactional model, where God is keeping a cosmic count of all our wrongdoing – I’ve started to see that sin carries its own punishment. God doesn’t need to add any retribution to the mix, because the destructive patterns of living that we call ‘sin’ bring with them more than enough pain and suffering. Is this why God wanted to save us from them? Is this why God wanted us to avoid them in the first place? Not because he was arbitrarily opposed to all the ‘fun stuff’, but because he was in love with us, and so opposed to things that hurt us and broke us. Maybe Jesus didn’t die on the cross because God had this big unanswered debt of righteous anger and punishment stored up that needed to be paid, and he just happened to be the poor sod who had to cough up.
So what do I mean that sin costs and that love costs more?
Sin’s cost is the easy part to grasp. We all live with the reality of sin’s cost. It is in the insecurity we feel amongst people, because we are secretly convinced we are not good enough and we’re scared we’ll be ‘found out’. It is in the smugness we feel when we hear about other people’s pain and we congratulate ourselves on our lives being tidier and holier than theirs. It is in the inhibitions that keep us from being generous with others because we’re worried about not having enough for ourselves. It is in the hate we are taught that is baseless, the fear that we absorb that is without foundation. Sin is everywhere and it costs us fullness of life, so much so that the Biblical authors didn’t hesitate to call it ‘death’.
But what do I mean that love costs more? I mean that forgiveness is not forgetting. At the heart of my protest, and those of many others like me, is why did Jesus have to die in order for God to forgive? If God wanted to forgive us why didn’t he just forgive us? Yet what we’re asking is for God to pretend like it never happened. We’re asking God to act as if we are not who we are, as if we have not done the things that we have done and continue to do. And that is to ask God to deny his love for us, which is why he wants to rescue us from these destructive patterns of life in the first place. For forgiveness to be real, it must face up to the offense, to the habits that caused the relational fracture in the first place. Restorative Justice is built on a similar principle, where offenders are brought into contact with their victims and hear and see firsthand the damage they have caused. Because God loves us, he had to show us the damage we had caused. He had to show us the pain we had created. Otherwise the forgiveness would have no value, and would simply be an act of forgetfulness that allowed us to continue in our destructive ways. His love is such that he would not leave us where we are, as we are. So he showed us the real cost of our sin. It was a cost that we had been blinded to, or perhaps grown used to by constantly living in its midst. So he shows us the horror of sin in one concentrated moment, as Jesus dies on the cross. He was the spotless offering that sin ravaged, making the damage all the more shocking. Jesus was not an offering made to God, but an offering made to us, a gift to humanity.
Only at the cross could we know what we were being forgiven for, and saved from.
For Jesus simply submitted to the ‘justice’ of our world, and Golgotha was its sentence for him, sinless as he was. God entered our pain that had become his pain – that’s what happens when we are in relationship with one another, and that is why love costs even more than sin does. Despite our faithlessness towards God, his faithfulness towards us meant he followed us, like a good shepherd seeking a lost sheep. In response to our brokenness, if God was determined to continue to love us (if God was to continue to be himself), he had to confront our sin, to follow us into it, and do something that would enable us to face it too. He had to let sin have its way with him in a way we could grasp.
In the crucified body of Jesus, are we simply seeing what we have done to the heart of God with all our defiance?
Tune in tomorrow for the final part.