A few months ago, a challenging question and theological stance was presented in class. “Why should I accept that somebody else, and be it God himself, dies for me? I would rather choose to pay my own guilt with my own life than have somebody else do so for me.” Notice the question is not whether the substitutionary death of Christ is sufficient or makes theological sense but whether it can make sense for a guilt-aware person who pursues justice, authenticity, and responsibility. It’s not an easy question.
I recently posed the same question to a close friend who has no religious affiliation. She was born in a postmodern, secular society where the very idea of church and religion is considered archaic. Although the question grabbed her attention and caused her to think deeply, her response was parallel to the fundamental values that shaped her upbringing. She believes life is the most beautiful gift a person can have, a gift every human being should cherish and protect. So the idea of someone causing another person to surrender that gift for their sake is unacceptable. To give up one’s life for another would leave behind an unbearable feeling of guilt and shame. Responsibility must be taken for one’s actions. Thus, for her and many others, this concept is illogical and antiquated.
While I’ll admit there is no easy way to answer these challenging questions, I wholeheartedly believe anyone who earnestly pursues justice, authenticity, and responsibility with an open mind will find its culmination at the cross of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus displays all these elements in the most beautiful portrait. But how?
Jesus’ death is justice
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The last couple of years have displayed the ugly face of injustice. From racist acts and religious travel bans to questionable police shootings, justice has been scarce in the lives of many. This lack of ‘living right’ has caused many to thirst for something fundamentally different. What if cops didn’t get away with murder? What if Trump was held accountable for banning refugees? What if perpetuators of systemic racism were exposed and held accountable? These questions are stirring in the minds of many today, not merely because these are the results people would like to see, but these are the very results people know to be right. While we live in a world filled with wrong, there is still a clear sense of right and wrong. The question of whether Jesus’ death for us is justice has a simple answer. Yes! And here is why.
Jesus’ death is not merely about us, but it’s also about Him. Is God truly a loving being? If so, how would we know? First, Jesus’ death comes during the huge cosmic conflict in which Satan is accusing God of not being who He says He is. The accusations are aimed at God’s character. Satan wants to prove to the universe that God is not love. In this conflict, God is on trial. Satan convinces a number of angels to follow his line of thinking. War breaks out in heaven, and he, along with the angels who sided with him, are expelled from heaven and sent to Earth (Revelation 12:7-10). This is where humanity comes into play.
Humans are caught in the crossfire between good and evil. While humans are exercising freewill each time they sin, Satan is using his cunning ways to initiate humanity’s downfall. This adds fuel to Satan’s case. However, Jesus’ death is justice in that it provides an escape route for the victims of Satan’s treachery, but first and foremost, His death vindicates God’s character throughout all of the universe. God is truly a loving being, who puts His life before others. His sacrificial love justifies His claims all along: He is love.
But how is His death justice? I’m so glad you asked! Growing up, I always heard the saying “there are consequences to your actions.” This is especially true when it comes to wrong actions. In God’s world, no evil deed is done without someone paying the price. God is not fond of injustice. In fact, the Bible says in Romans 1:18 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” God despises evil so much that He is angry with it and seeks to correct it. How does He do this? By sacrificing Himself as a means to turn His anger away from sinners, those caught in the crossfire of this cosmic conflict. Jesus’ death is justice because it empties God’s wrath where it should be: on Satan and his followers. This is intimately linked with the concept of responsibility.
Jesus’ death is responsibility
My friend’s belief in responsibility is core to her perspective of Jesus’s substitutionary death. How could I let someone die in my place when I am the one at fault? She believes people should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. While this is a noble value to have, Jesus’ death is not just good news, it’s logical news. Jesus’ death on the cross accommodates responsibility in its rightful place. Only a responsible God would offer a substitutionary death in our place in light of us being victims of evil.
You see, my friend believes someone taking her guilt is inauthentic or irresponsible. But what if it’s not really her guilt to bear? Yes, she experiences guilt and may have indeed done something wrong, but there’s a third party who is truly responsible for every terrible thing that has ever happened, and it isn’t God. As I stated earlier, humanity was literally caught in the crossfire between good and evil. Satan attacks where it will hurt God the most: His beloved creation – humanity. And now, God is on trial.
We must include Satan in our theology because while we are guilty of our sins, we are not completely responsible. He has a major role in our downfall. He is the antagonist of our story. The bible describes him as a “murderer from the beginning” and the “father of all lies” (John 8:44). We don’t have to carry the shame and guilt of our sins and shortcomings because it does not belong to us. Jesus’ death rightly distributes responsibility, correcting the balance by transferring the blame to the original agitator: Satan. This concept is so creatively expressed by Leonard Cohen’s song “Come Healing,” with the lyrics: “Behold the gates of mercy/ In arbitrary space/ And none of us deserving/ The cruelty or the grace.” We are not deserving of the beautiful gift of grace, nor are we deserving of the full punishment of sin.
Humanity has to decide whether God is good or not, so as a response, He sends Jesus, not primarily for the substitutionary death but also to show the Father’s character is indeed good (vindication). Ultimately, Jesus’ death is not to just take away your punishment but to make a way for your redemption. While it is totally possible for you to assume responsibility for your actions and die for them, only God can reverse the consequences of your sin and transfer them to the rightful owner: the Devil. God’s substitutionary death is not solely to justify you; it’s to redeem you. To sum this idea up, I’ve modified a popular Reinhold Niebuhr quote: Man’s capacity for justice makes atonement possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes atonement necessary.
Jesus’ death is authenticity
Jesus’ death provides for us an escape from our reality, which would otherwise be condemnation and death for the sins we’ve committed. As we learned earlier, of course this is not entirely our fault. Like many other things in the world, we don’t have complete control over the narrative. We can’t undo the faults and shortcomings of generations before us nor can we undo the evil we ourselves have already done. Jesus’ death is a lifeline He extends to us. Only those who are aware of their weaknesses and comfortable with their dependency will look to Him for help. In other words, recognizing it’s impossible for you to change your circumstances is authentic. If transparency is valued today, then admitting I cannot make it through life without Jesus is an authentic statement and decision.
However, our recognition is merely the human response to Jesus’ death. How is His sacrifice authentic? Today, many seem to define authenticity as expressiveness, speaking one’s mind, or being one’s true self. However, I’d like to challenge that thought. Authenticity used to be correlated with integrity and having a correspondence between one’s beliefs and one’s actions. Jesus’ death not only fulfills His own standards of life: dying for His friends (John 15:13), but He in fact transcends them by dying for His enemies too (Romans 5:10). Authenticity at its finest.
These answers regarding Jesus’ death as justice, responsibility, and authenticity aren’t the final solutions to the challenging questions you may have about God and His sacrifice for you. But I do believe understanding these core concepts will help you think about Him differently. Ultimately, God is pursuing the same things you are: justice, responsibility, and authenticity. He longs to see those characteristics in all of humanity. And I believe if you are seeking those things, you are truly in good company, “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously— take God seriously” (Micah 6:8).