For centuries, the sacrifice of God the Son and the divine plan for man’s salvation have generated several dilemmas and raised more questions than we could imagine. And the answers that have been found have revealed more implications of the cross than we used to believe, whether we are Christians or non-Christians, believers or skeptics.
In the context of the astounding coherence of the metanarrative developed around the cross (extending over millennia), this complexity—juxtaposed with the historicity of Jesus’ life and the experience of millions of people who knew the saving power of grace —either convinces one completely, or is totally rejected. Nobody can remain indifferent.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the starting point of any biblical version of the history of the universe. “God’s unfailing love for us is an objective fact affirmed over and over in the Scriptures. It is true whether we believe it or not. Our doubts do not destroy God’s love, nor does our faith create it. It originates in the very nature of God, who is love, and it flows to us through our union with His beloved Son.” “The declaration ‘God is love’ is not a definition of God, nor a simple attestation of one of His attributes, among others. It is a fundamental characterization of God.”
This fundamental declaration about God has huge implications. Love can exist and be manifested only in a social context. There is no logical way to imagine that a unipersonal God (and implicitly, a solitary one) may be essentially characterised as being love. From this point of view, it becomes obvious why the triune understanding of the Christian God is absolutely essential.
What death is to life, what darkness is to light, is sin to the love of the Triune God.
When we follow the biblical proofs for the existence of three Persons in one God, we can understand God was not dependent on His creation to manifest His love. Manifesting His love within the plurality of the Trinity, from eternity, God did not need us (the created beings). He simply wanted us. This is why, although speculative, American theologian Woodrow Whidden’s suggestion is understandable: “I believe that it can be persuasively argued that God’s out-flowing love (which is highly expansive) is the only metaphysical explanation for what physicists have perceived as an ever-expanding universe. And what the physicists have perceived is just what Trinitarian Christians would expect”. True love is constantly expanding. Even if not immediately perceivable, it is still a given in the collective experience of humanity.
The mystery of evil
The way in which evil was born in the perfect society of angels, where God’s love manifested as a perfectly balanced revelation of justice and mercy, is indeed a mystery. The Bible recognises this mystery as such. However, the same Bible also presents the context of the appearance of sin in the universe: “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, you who once laid low the nations!” “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.” “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God;’ (…) I will make myself like the Most High.” “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
After mankind first sinned, having been deceived by Lucifer himself, the fallen angel claimed that humans had no right to God’s merciful love.
Lucifer’s inexplicable sin had its origin in the fact that he focused on himself and replaced God’s altruistic love with a selfish love (serving his own person and interests). Therefore the nature of sin will always be the opposite of the nature of God’s altruistic love and will always spread the rumour of the false promise that true freedom and true happiness would be found in selfish individualism, rather than in God’s self-sacrificing love. What death is to life, what darkness is to light, sin is for the love of the Triune God. “Sin involves everything that is antithetical to God’s love. It is self-absorbed (not expansive) and implacably opposed to anything like self-sacrifice”. Sin and love simply cannot coexist. Still, for a while, they do—which proves to be one of the most intriguing discoveries in sacred history.
The engines of evil
In Lucifer’s case, being like God meant the usurping of the Creator’s rule by one of His created beings. However, to act against God’s rule means to act against the justice of the order established by God’s law and against His love: “At the beginning of the great controversy, Satan had declared that God’s law could not be obeyed, that God’s justice was inconsistent with His mercy, that it was impossible for a sinner to be pardoned for sin”. His implicit argument was that God’s justice, which imposed a certain order he thought of as arbitrary, must be subordinated to His merciful love, which would have meant, among others, the possibility that Lucifer could become God.
For its complete and definitive eradication and in order to exclude any possibility of reappearance, sin had to be stripped of all its masks, all its false pretenses, and apparent truths.
After mankind first sinned, having been deceived by Lucifer himself, the fallen angel claimed that humans had no right to God’s merciful love, as he would later argue by initiating a conflict over Moses’ body. While God wanted Moses’ resurrection, the Devil opposed it. “But Michael, the archangel, when contending with the devil and arguing about the body of Moses…” The Devil suggested that, since he had been banned from heaven on account of his sin, no other sinner could ever receive mercy. He thus started claiming the opposite of the original argument, namely, that justice must exclude mercy. These false representations of the nature of God’s love and character imposed the need for an exhaustive divine answer, one capable of absolutely revealing the malignant nature of sin and fully condemning it, so that God’s plan to forgive sinners may come to fruition and His distorted character would be publicly rehabilitated.
The only possible answer
We have already established that sin and God’s love, being antithetical, cannot coexist except for a short period of time. Now it’s time to expand on this idea. Sin wouldn’t have existed were it not for God’s love which implies freedom of choice for the beings created in His own divine image. This does not mean that love and, implicitly, God are responsible for the appearance of sin. This just means that sin is a parasite, which took advantage of the nature of God’s love to come alive. And, because sin is a parasite which was born by taking advantage of God’s love, it is only this very love that may cut off this parasite’s life source. If sinful thinking claims God is unjust or ruthless, that His law cannot be obeyed, that freedom and happiness stem from selfish individualism, then all these claims should be simultaneously invalidated by an answer from God which is able to satisfy both justice and mercy. The implications are inevitable.
First of all, God knew that by choosing to immediately destroy the agents of sin, this wouldn’t have been completely stopped. For its complete and definitive eradication, and in order to exclude any possibility of reappearance, sin had to be stripped of all its masks, all its false pretenses and apparent truths. In other words, it was to be stripped of all its power. It was to be completely exposed, comprehended, disavowed and condemned by all created beings. Only after this had been accomplished could God destroy the agents of sin, putting an end to evil once and for all. This is the long-term solution the Trinity chose, one that involved the coexistence of sin with God’s love, for a limited period of time.
According to His nature, God longed to save His created beings, to convince them of His love and liberate them from sin.
One more aspect should be clarified. The previous reasoning does not present a God trying to justify His leadership and defend His “heavenly throne”. It rather emphasises God’s love trying to defend His creatures from sin’s harmful effects, which they understand only partially.
The final sentence of executing the agents of sin is also an act of love, because His justice springs from His love. It is neither arbitrary nor subjective, but absolutely just, because it is absolutely loving. Lucifer was not immediately destroyed because he had to be given all opportunity to prove that God is unjust and unloving. Only when he has utterly failed in this attempt and when the whole universe sees for sure that sin is the horrible opposite of God’s love, that it is bad and destructive, then and only then will it be obvious for the entire universe why sin cannot coexist with God’s love. And then, sin and its agents will be destroyed.
Secondly, according to His nature, God longs to save His created beings, to convince them of His love and liberate them from sin. Therefore, at the cross, God’s justice, manifested through His hatred of sin and His love for us, met visibly.
God’s nature, which is love, made Him intervene, and Jesus voluntarily decided to be that Person within the Trinity who would sacrifice Himself for humankind’s sake: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
God’s supreme manifestation of His love, as His nature, is found in Christianity. The protagonist of the novel and movie The Life of Pi, says: “I have found faith because of Hinduism, and discovered God’s love through Christ.” But the Three are One. In Jesus, God’s sacrifice as a whole is authentic and complete. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ … that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
The guilt of the sins of the whole world was transferred to Jesus. None of God’s created beings could have taken our place when confronted with the condemnation of our sin. “The divine Son of God was the only sacrifice of sufficient value to fully satisfy the claims of God’s perfect law. The angels were sinless, but … were amenable to law … His life was of sufficient value to rescue man from his fallen condition.”
Sin’s condemnation couldn’t have been merely mimicked because this wouldn’t have resulted in uncovering sin’s intrinsically malign nature and its incurable, fatal character.
Furthermore, God wouldn’t have been just and loving had He allowed a third party to take over the responsibility of our sins. This would have been a questionable exchange of prisoners. Sinful reproaches, such as the fact that God’s rule is unjust, that His laws cannot be observed, the He is not loving and merciful, would certainly have been legitimate in that case. When He decided to save us, God chose to sacrifice Himself. “But Christ is equal with God, infinite and omnipotent. He could pay the ransom for man’s freedom … for he could say that which the highest angel could not say,—’I have power over my own life, power to lay it down, and … power to take it up again.'”
Sin’s condemnation couldn’t have been merely mimicked because this wouldn’t have resulted in uncovering sin’s intrinsically malignant nature and its incurable, fatal character. The only logical consequence, the only possible result of any sin, is eternal death.
Jesus took our place and received death’s blow, thus condemning sin and creating the possibility to forgive us and give us a new chance “to say ‘No’ to ungodliness”. (The way in which a sinful person can resist sin is another topic of endless debate which we will come back to at a later stage.)
As the target that was attacked by the parasite of sin, divine love was the only thing that could put an end to sin. Only the perfect revelation of God’s love, visible in Jesus’ person, could expose and judge the evil of sin in its entirety. Only He who was one with the Father, fully God, eternal and immortal—He who is love, like the Father—only He could have completely represented God’s character before men. Therefore, it was only God who could make the sacrifice by which sin would be proved to be essentially evil, and condemned, and by which sinners could be redeemed. Sin was first exposed and condemned in Jesus’ sinless life.
He thus refuted Lucifer’s claim that the law is unjust and cannot be kept. Furthermore, by living a sinless life, Christ was qualified to be the blameless sacrifice that offered sinners the chance to be saved. We are urged to repent not only by understanding sin’s destructive nature, but also by discovering the dimensions of divine grace, which makes forgiveness possible. God’s Son died our death, so that His life would become ours. Only He was able to die on behalf of us sinners, and offer us His life as an example and His grace as power to enable us to live a pure life.
Only He who is Himself eternal may offer immortality to those benefiting from the saving power of His redeeming sacrifice. This is why, if Jesus is considered to be anything but divine, the entire structure of redemption collapses. Moreover, only the One in which “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” can offer us the power to resist sin, with the active help of the Holy Spirit, which continuously acts as an intercessor or a “mediator between God and mankind”. Only He who manifested divine love throughout eternity could be able to give fallen beings the ability to begin to live in love towards one another once more. Without understanding the key role His grace plays in our salvation, we will surely fail and slip into a kind of legalistic spiritually—as has happened with many religions nowadays.
Make sure you do not miss the second part of this feature. Continue reading: The opposite of love is not hatred (part 2)
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.