Taken as a whole, this question sounds like a painful cry, springing forth from the depths of the human being in the midst of the darkness of uncertainty and doubt. This question, however, consists of multiple sub-questions. We will address these essential questions that will open our minds to the light of the teachings of Him who holds all knowledge and truth.
Was it absolutely necessary for Jesus to die?
Why Jesus, and not somebody else? Why did He have to die on a cross? Was there no other option? Could Jesus’ death be regarded as the same as the death of a regular person? What was the purpose for Jesus’ death? How can we know if the purpose of His death has been achieved? What is the role that Jesus’ death plays in the plan of salvation? One answer the Bible offers is: “For the wages of sin is death”. Do we know what sin and the wages of sin actually mean? Do we have the faintest idea what it means for somebody else to pay for our sin?
The legalistic approach is very strict when it comes to this: if you make a mistake, you need to pay for the damage you caused. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus’ gospel introduces a change in the focus: it is not the damage that matters, but the one causing it. Jesus looks at the sinner, at humans, not particularly at the sin. Jesus hates sin, but loves the sinner. It is not the payment for the damage which captures His attention, but saving the person causing the damage.
Let’s imagine the following situation in order to better understand the ideas of mistakes, damage, payment and salvation. You can offer your child a beautiful garden, filled with flowers, fruit trees and brightly coloured birds. The child’s only task is to take care of the garden and maintain or even improve it. To your disappointment, this does not happen. The garden is wrecked and instead of the beauty you offered there is only dust and weeds left. What do you do? What if you were in God’s shoes? What would He do?
We have not been redeemed from the damage we inflicted upon God, but from “the empty way of life”, from being estranged from God and His love which we do not understand. Jesus offers a simple definition of the term “sin”. Sin means disbelief in God. Disbelief not in the existence of God, because “even the demons believe that—and shudder”, but disbelief in the love He has for us. From a human point of view it’s hard for us to accept that after we’ve ruined everything he entrusted us with, after turning a beautiful garden into dry weeds, we receive, instead of punishment, an even more beautiful garden than the first one. It’s hard to accept that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. Faith in God means believing in His love. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” We must believe God loves humans!
Can God be both just and good?
The cross explains this great dilemma. The misunderstanding of the plan of salvation distorts God’s image and turns it from that of a loving Saviour into that of a vindictive torturer who uses the Devil to punish humans. The plan of salvation revealed by Jesus reveals the truth about evil. Jesus shows us that the Devil is responsible for evil and suffering and provides the solution: God’s love for fallen man.
The Devil perverted God’s image in man and managed to instil in the human mind the idea that God cannot be both good and just at the same time. Therefore the one who errs will die and there is no rescue for them. Jesus tells us that it is exactly because He is first and foremost good, but at the same time just, that He came to die on the cross. Good, because He first looks at humans, the creation of His hands, and wants to save them, to bring them to their initial state before the fall. Just, because the wages of sin is death, and He offers to die on their behalf. Both of God’s attributes being fulfilled, Satan is exposed as a deceiver and the father of lies.
Isn’t it still unjust for someone else to die in the place of the sinner?
With this dilemma we come back to the legalistic way of thinking, which views sin as material damage and the sinner as a criminal. From this point of view, God, being the one suffering the damage, must seek recompense for it. Various forms of pagan legalism place man in the position of being able to pay for his sins on his own, through various methods: doing penance, fasting, self-flagellation, and the literal payment of money or other material goods. These are simply exploitative measures capitalized upon by those promoting this ideology. The sinner can’t pay for his own sin, because the wages of sin, namely death, would mean the sinner’s extinction. If he paid the wages of sin, the sinner would cease to exist, because this is precisely what the “wages of sin” means. Since this does not align with the law of love (“I the Lord do not change”), someone from outside the human sphere had to come, someone who would present and represent God as He really is, not as He is projected by our sinful imagination. It had to be someone like God, with equal power and authority. An angel could not do this. The only one able to see this task to the very end was Jesus. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”, He said about Himself. Jesus destroyed man’s death (the unbelief in God’s love) through His own death. He took on Himself the burden of sin and nailed it to the cross. Satan was exposed and rendered speechless.
Who requires this price? Who is supposed to receive this price?
Many theories attempt to answer this question. Some say the price has to be paid to the Devil, who won the earth and the entire world with it, due to man’s rebellion in Eden. Others say that the price has to be paid to God for the damage (the destruction of the earth) caused by humans. However, too few have spoken of the one being affected: the human loved by God. Man is the object of and the reason for the sacrifice on Golgotha. Legalism regards the sacrifice as being the price paid for the damage. Jesus, through the Gospel, presents it as the price of love.
Life through Jesus is God’s free gift to humanity. We are judged through the lens of God’s love and we receive the gift of life in exchange for death. The gift of life is not a worthless, meaningless one. It was offered at the cost of the life of God’s only Son. The entire universe will be restored. The small blue planet missing from Heaven’s harmony will be reinstated among the worlds created by God and unaffected by sin.
The happy ending of the plan of salvation is found in the Revelation song: “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’”