The name of Jesus brings to mind the gift of the incarnate Godhead—their supernatural acts, astonishing wisdom, incomparable goodness, unmitigated innocence, supreme sacrifice, offered salvation, and our only certain hope.
There are few people have never heard of Jesus—although it is said that there are even Christians who cannot distinguish between the cross—the symbol of Christianity—and the plus sign. But the sacrifice of Jesus and its meaning is often associated with nothing more than a beautiful myth, an act of injustice, an abstract and mystical reality, without depth to be contemplated. While His resurrection is accepted only by conservative Christians, His death is recognised by all believers and unbelievers. But what is the significance of this death?
Immersion in Christology
For those who condemned Him, the death of Jesus was a necessity. To them, He was a possessed, blasphemous heretic, a dangerous fraud who had to be executed, after a mock trial, even if it violated both Jewish and Roman law. For some sympathisers, Jesus was just the victim of a clerical conspiracy—a martyred prophet. For others, Jesus was merely a political convict, one revolutionary among others crucified in those times. According to certain versions of Christianity, Jesus sacrificed Himself only as an inspiring example of courage and devotion. The notion of substitutionary atonement is vehemently denied in rationalist-Christian circles. If His sacrifice atoned for the sins of others, then that is an injustice, they say, and cannot be condoned.
Indeed, if Jesus had been the victim of God’s decision—as the Canaanite children were sometimes the victims of their fathers’ decisions to sacrifice them to Moloch—it would have been a great injustice. But Jesus was not a victim of God, because He is God. Both before the incarnation and during His earthly life, Jesus was, and remains, God. Deity cannot cease to exist, just as it cannot be born. As God, Christ had voluntarily assumed human nature, the mission of His atoning sacrifice, and all that flowed from it. Without incarnation, death would not have been possible. But the voluntary assumption of the sacrifice would not have been sufficient if it had been only His divine will, prior to the incarnation. Also, His choice would not have been enough if it were only the will of the divine Logos imposed on the human mind and body. If that were all, then it could be said that Jesus, the man, was a victim of the Godhead who dwelt within Him.
The orthodoxy of the faith that affirms the paradox of the two natures of Christ (“fully God and fully man”) is very important in order to understand this situation. But it also helps us to understand His unitary and indivisible hypostatic personality. Christ is both man and God at once, not demi-god and semi-human. He is a mysterious God-man union, which expresses God’s consideration in a unique way. This union was achieved in such a way that it did not result in a conjoined spiritual combination of two personalities, but in a single person, with a single consciousness. This profound thought is a conclusion that emerges from the Gospel. Jesus lived His life with a human conscience, with a human will, voluntarily given over to the power of the Holy Spirit. His incarnation did not mean a divine consciousness in a human body. He did not have two consciousnesses expressing themselves alternately or simultaneously in the same human being.
The fact that Jesus developed psychologically like any other child (Luke 2:52), that His mind was limited, in the sense that He could know no more than what God revealed to Him (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32), and that He could be tempted just like us (Hebrews 4:15; Matthew 4:1-10; James 1:13), convincingly shows that Jesus lived His life in human consciousness, not just in human nature. This means that when he was born in the stable, although he was the embodiment of God, His conscience did not think of itself: “I am God, but I am not yet allowed to speak!” When He confronted Satan in the wilderness, the temptations were real, not only for His stomach, wracked with hunger, but also for His human conscience, which did not rely on the memory of His heavenly pre-existence and had a strong desire for justice and peace on earth. The temptation would not have been real and terrible if it were addressed to a divine conscience.
If Jesus’ suffering had been only in the flesh, and if he had seen all these horrors from the height of a divine conscience, Jesus would have borne it all with serenity and strength, even with joy and hope, merely as a martyr of the faith, who knows that death would bring Him closer to God. But Jesus’ experience was completely different. At first, He had anticipated His approaching sacrifice full of courage and hope for the salvation of the world, knowing that He would rise on the third day. But as the hour approached, and He understood the real magnitude of the suffering to come, it shook His entire being.
All this shows that Jesus lived His life in human consciousness. Therefore, consenting to His sacrifice only as God would not have been enough. He took on the destiny of sacrifice as a man: first through baptism, then through prayer in the garden (Matthew 26:36-44). Thus, Christ’s sacrifice was voluntary in every sense. If He was in any sense a “victim”, it was as a victim of our sins, and much more, a victim of His own love of man and God.
There is no theologian who has made a comprehensive study of all the implications of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. He didn’t die as a victim of a corrupt system. His supernatural power could have helped Him to avoid the scandal of the cross at any time. His death was an atonement. Yet He did not atone for His own sins, but for the sins of others. He was not doing so as a result of a judicial error, but with unforced acceptance, and motivated by an incomprehensible love. Therefore, the atonement made by Jesus is a replacement or a substitutional atonement.
Jesus gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. But it was not the mere cessation of the Saviour’s life that atoned for the sins of the world. If death itself was sufficient payment, He could have given up the tortures of the soul that He ended up enduring.
If His atonement is a substitutionary atonement, it means that He had to pay the debt of sin for everyone. Jesus did not suffer only for the most innocent. He suffered for all the sinners He invites to repentance. If Jesus is willing to forgive a murderer on condition of repentance, it means that He also had to suffer the punishment that murderers deserve. He could not have forgiven the terrorist hanging on the cross to his right had He not been willing to take on his punishment according to the divine law, regardless of the fact that he was already condemned by both Mosaic and Roman law. And this divine punishment involved not only the cessation of life—it was not just a lethal injection—but it included the physical suffering deserved by the sinner who had made others suffer physically.
Not only was Jesus’ death atoning, but His life was rich in adversity and suffering—the life of carrying the cross. The afflictions, the fasts, the temptations, the insults, the assaults suffered from His fellow humans and from evil spirits—all these, which He endured with faith and love, are atoning. The cross was only the culmination of His life of atoning suffering.
The greatest suffering
However, the Lord’s greatest suffering was neither the life of suffering, nor the passions of the cross, from which death (cessation of life) would have been a rescue. The prospect of death did not bring Jesus a sense of liberation. He was accustomed to suffering, and it did not frighten Him. However, even the most guilty convicts, who have no hope beyond the grave, looked upon their death with less fear than Jesus.
This is not theological speculation, but the conclusion that can be drawn from statements in the gospels. Christ gladly assumed the cross, bearing it all His life. Unlike the martyrs of all other times in history, who did not know when the day of resurrection would come, Jesus knew that He would rise on the third day, so there was nothing to fear. As the Son of God and the saint of saints, Jesus was expected to give us the brightest lesson of triumphant exaltation and defiance of death. Instead, He shrank three times from the atoning sacrifice in Gethsemane before accepting it. And on the cross He died far too early for a crucified man.
Jesus died of a broken heart, crying, as in the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, 44; Psalm 22:1). This frightening and heartbreaking feeling of absolute loneliness and abandonment, which, when they saw it written on Jesus’ face, seemed to confirm to all the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus was indeed guilty and fit to be punished by God, cannot be really understood by anyone, because none of us has yet suffered the feeling of absolute separation of God—the source of life. The sinner is separated from God in this life through his thoughts and deeds. Sometimes we do it casually or even defiantly, but we do not know what it really means to see hell with our own eyes. Jesus was the only one who felt the bitterness of hell, tasted it instead of others. That indescribable sorrow is what all those who refuse to be reconciled to God will feel, condemned to die on judgement day.
Some rush to take their own lives, disregarding God’s gift. Others lose their lives much more slowly, through a life of sin, with the feeling that the final separation from God will not mean much anyway. But Jesus’ horror of this kind of death, which represents eternal separation from God, came from a conscience different from a sinner’s. He knew God. He had experienced the joy of a relationship with God, and had anticipated the final triumph, the day when He would bask in the fruits of His suffering. However, in the face of hell’s horror of the unseen, true cross, in a completely mysterious way, He could no longer anticipate any joy for Himself.
The only reason Jesus decided to move forward into hell and suffering was to save others. In the midst of this darkness of eternal separation from God, the repentance and prayer of the thief on the cross were a preliminary answer from God, which refreshed His heart. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” is a proof that in spite of the evidence of His condemnation by the divine law, Jesus held on because of His faith in the knowledge of God’s love, for the atonement of the sins of others. However, the cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” came after this assurance, which shows the dominant note of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. When He exclaimed “It is finished!” just before dying, it was not a call of the triumph of power, nor the triumph of mystical knowledge. It was the triumph of love that had nailed Him to the cross. Faith and hope would not have been enough to give Him victory.
What was the hell Jesus feared?
The image of hell, borrowed from biblical poetry and Greek mythology, is used in the Bible only as a metaphor for complete destruction. It is a symbol for the second death, that terrible and eternal death that the unrepentant will suffer after rising at the end of the apocalyptic millennium. Jesus’ sacrifice also reveals this meaning of hell, a meaning that some consider strange and rationalistic, because it does not coincide with traditional Christian teaching.
With that final destruction, hell will destroy itself (Revelation 20:14a). Hell was not invented by God to create jobs for demons. Hell cannot be a place of eternal torture of sinners, because creatures are mortal: God destroys both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). Only God has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). And sin, no matter how great, cannot be punished more severely than human life and death allow. That is why Jesus, suffering in the place of those who deserve hell, did not remain in torment forever.
Sacrifice and immortality of the soul: the lesson in theology that Jesus’ sacrifice gives us is emphasised by Oscar Cullman in his 1958 book, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?. Cullman astonished and disturbed Christian thinkers by comparatively observing the attitude towards death in the cases of Socrates and Christ. Socrates accepted his fate and drank the poisonous glass bravely, because he believed in the immortality of the soul. Jesus trembled with all His being before His symbolic glass, asking three times for the cup to be taken from Him, if possible, and on the cross He died with the heart-wrenching feeling of being forsaken by God.
Starting from this reality, Cullman argues that Jesus did not believe in the theory of the immortality of the soul, that for Him, death meant death, not another kind of existence, superior or larval. The example of Jesus’ sacrifice, with or without Cullman, helps us understand that we do not have immortality in ourselves. Even Adam, when he was perfect in paradise, did not have immortality in himself, because it was conditional on obedience (Genesis 3:22). Not even the resurrected saints will have immortality in themselves, but in dependence on God (Revelation 2:2; 22:2, 14, 19). Until then, between death and resurrection there is no time of consciousness for those who are sleeping. That is why it can be said that, in a subjective sense, they go either to eternal life or to eternal loss, although in an objective sense they go into the ground, where for months, years or millennia they await the great day of the Lord.
Sacrifice and divine law: if the sacrifice is understood as a substitutionary atonement, not just as an example, then the cross of Jesus is the pulpit from which God in Christ preaches the true gospel—that is, the reality of the inseparability of the divine law from divine grace. Mosaic law (from prophetic inspiration) and Roman law (from human tradition and reason) had the role of defending Christ, not condemning Him. They did not succeed in defending Him because there were people who believed themselves to be above the law. But there is another reason that is much more important. Behind the two laws violated by the judges of those times was the divine law that brought Jesus to death, the unchanging principle of God’s sovereignty, will, and word.
God is love. Could He not forgive without this dreadful sacrifice, based on the millions of animal sacrifices throughout history? Why doesn’t God simply forgive the sinner, without the need for personal or substitutionary atonement? He did not say, “Let’s get over it with, kids! It’s okay, you were wrong. You have an eternity to practice obedience. I forgive you seventy times seven! Today, grace comes into action, and I suspend the law—I’ll keep it only for angels!” The will of God, His word that commands something, is law. It is the expression of the Creator’s authority, the Sovereign of the universe and of all consciences. For all intelligent creatures, obedience to His law is also an act of worship, not just an exercise in wisdom which is beneficial to one’s soul.
When God said, “For when you eat from it you will certainly die!” He could not remain credible and respected unless He took His word seriously. If Adam did not perish that day, it was only because, on the same day, the punishment was transferred to Christ, Who was to come (“The seed of the woman” Genesis 3:15). God made clothing for Adam and his wife from the skins of animals, suggesting the introduction of the sacrificial ritual that dominated the Old Testament era. Millions of small and large horns, rivers of blood, clouds of smoke and incense have been brought over time, only to engrave in the heart this truth: that the payment for sin, the transgression of the divine law, is death, and that the sinner can have forgiveness and life only by transferring guilt symbolically and didactically, not by ignoring it.
If the Godhead did not find a better way to solve the problem of sin than the sacrifice of the Son of God, it means that the reality of divine law could not be ignored in any way. Thus, God showed that the law could not be changed or ignored even for His innocent Son. The law of sacrifices was nailed to the cross with all the ceremonies pointing to Christ. The law of sin and death was also nailed to the cross, to which Jesus brought the real end. But the divine law, which is expressed in universal principles—in incomplete form, in various human laws, and in complete form, in the two testaments of Scripture—was not nailed to the cross. On the contrary, the divine law increased in authority forever (Romans 3:31).
Sacrifice and divine love: the good news is that, through the merits of this incomprehensible sacrifice of Jesus, even the most abject sinner can be forgiven, reconciled to God, and brought into harmony with His law. They can be sanctified and ennobled, to bear again the image of God they lost through sin. The gospel is not good news for the sin that dwells in human nature, but for the conscience of the sinner, who is sensitised by the law through the Spirit of God and released from guilt and from the power of sin. God has chosen a way to ensure the supremacy of His law, while offering forgiveness and reconciliation.
The law could have asserted its rightful authority without the sacrifice of Jesus. The destruction of the guilty is a sufficient atonement. But such a solution does not please God. He did not want a universal legalist-theocratic empire. Just as God was not content to create the “perfect” human being without free will, He also could not be content to secure the loyalty of His subjects only by relating to holy justice and the fear of consequences. Only false religion reigns on the principle of intimidation, and only dictators and despots are happy when everything is “in order” because they are above the law.
The only gesture that could express, at once, perfect justice and perfect love for the created being, was the example of God’s incomparable consideration. God descended, under the law, in the person of Christ, clothed with all the infirmities of mankind, and brought a living sacrifice, which culminated at the cross. Through His atoning sacrifice, Christ opened a direct path to God for the salvation of all who believe the true story of the cross and resurrection, obeying the law of Christ out of love and gratitude.
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.