How could God kill His Son for sinners? Was it just? Why could God not just forgive our sins, waive the debt, so to speak, and grant the kind of gratuitous forgiveness He requires from us? And if to procure mercy, God has to have his "bloody" sacrifice, are we to imagine Him like Shakespeare's tightfisted Shylock, a pitiless figure, always after His pound of flesh? These questions lie at the heart of the orthodox explanation of Calvary. Carelessness here will cause the whole edifice of our faith to crumble beneath our feet.
Liberal theologians love to present this quandary. They see no need and have no time for the traditional understanding of the cross -- that Christ died in our place, for our sins. Such an idea, they derisively term, "The Lamb Chop" theory of the atonement-- the one, where the Lamb gets the chop!
None of this should surprise us. You have perhaps heard of H.R. Niebuhr's famous description of theological liberalism, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." When I read these authors, I am often struck by how nice everything is. God is nice. Human beings are nice. Solutions are nice, and the ending is nice. You'd almost think evil was nice. Of course, it's not, but from the Liberal's perspective it just doesn't seem quite that bad: God should be able to, just well, get over it. Then everyone could be happy. This is, by the way, the picture of God presented in the movie the Shack-- a God who can't bring Himself to damn anyone, even the most hell-deserving.
How are we to reconcile these things? Well, we must begin by saying, evil is not nice. It is a jarring contradiction to God's order, a question that must be answered, a wrong that must be righted, a moral cancer that must be exterminated. Could a mother rest content with ebola virus growing in her baby's milk bottle? Could a headmaster turn a blind eye to a sexual predator among his staff? Could you sleep with a ticking bomb beneath your bed? Could a father happily watch his daughter swing over a cliff on a fraying rope? Could the art curator of the Louvre watch on happily as a vandal squirted black ink over the masterpieces entrusted to his care? Of course not, too much is at stake.
So it is with God. He is the Supreme justice of the Universe, the final moral authority. If He will not answer the question of evil, who will? Will sin be allowed to wreak its havoc forever? Will the oppressed cries for justice go eternally unanswered? On this subject, the Bible is clear: God has appointed a Day when the appalling catalog of human selfishness will receive His decisive answer. On that Day, He will utter a resounding, uncompromising "No!" to evil in all its forms. He will purge the world of uncleanness, and everything will be as it ought to be, forever.
This still, however, leaves the question of the cross. How can a God of such unimpeachable rectitude sanction Golgotha? How can the innocent be damned so that the guilty might be justified? Is that not the greatest injustice ever seen? Donald Macleod put it well,
The cross is (appears to be -- he means) immoral. There the innocent suffers: at God's hands. There God's Son is destroyed: at God's hands. Let's not sentimentalize it. This is not some 'green hill far away.' It is the scene of the greatest atrocity in history. Calvary is, quite literally, a shambles. God's Lamb is being slaughtered on a garbage heap, outside the city, in darkness, by a brutal soldiery. And God is responsible."
How can this be? The knee-jerk reaction from unthinking Christians (sadly, that is what many of us are) is to say: well God is God, and if He wants to save the world through the death of Christ, and if it is okay by Christ, well who is to argue? Such an answer is appallingly banal. The great Scottish divine, Hugh Martin, was right when he said, "The universe were one vast hell of suspense and horror if God's wrath could alight elsewhere than where it is deserved."
So the question remains: how could God's wrath justly touch down upon the blameless head of Christ, the One who deserved only the praise of God, not His indignation? The cross has to be just, do you see, or the whole foundation of our faith unravels, and the whole moral foundation of the universe crumbles. If the cross is wrong, nothing could justify it, not even the love of God.
The answer is found in the doctrine of union with Christ. When we believe into Jesus, we become part of Him, and He becomes part of us. This union is mysterious but real. This principle is rooted in the Triune nature of God Himself, where three persons are One, and where One is Three persons. Here One is quite literally for all and all is for One. Here is E Pluribus Unum in its most ultimate sense. This principle also works itself out in the imago dei. Instinctively, we know this "deeper magic" beneath the order of everything. Isn't this why we realize a Father can co-sign for the debt of His child's student loan, or why husband must become legally responsible for His wife's debits levied against their joint bank account. We see this same principle beautifully pictured in the Biblical notion of a kinsman redeemer -- a close relative williing and able to make our debts His very own.
I was thinking about this today as I stumbled across L. Michael Morales' excellent book: "Who Shall Ascend The Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus." In this passage, He is discussing the significance of the Old Testament ritual in which the sinner would lay his hand heavily on the head of the soon to be sacrificed animal.
"The Israelite's gesture, leaning his hand heavily upon the animal's head, is a dramatic declaration that he is this animal, that it is taking his place in the ritual. Unable to ascend God's holy mountain himself, the Israelite will ascend through this blameless substitute -- the rite establishes this necessary identification.
So it is with Jesus. He is identified with us in His death, burial, and resurrection. It is as us that He dies, and it is as us that He rises again from the dead to take His rightful place at the right hand of God on High. The cross reveals God's old assessment of us in sin. Hanging in the darkness, God looks on Jesus and sees us, and He responds accordingly. Similiarly, on Easter morning, with the debt fully satisfied, God looks again on Jesus and sees us. No more words of condemnation are uttered, they have all been spoken already. The only words God has for us now are words full of blessing and affection. And so now, this morning, when God looks at Jesus on the Throne of heaven, He sees you in Him (and He is not ashamed). And when God sees you this morning struggling to gather your thoughts in prayer, He sees Jesus in you, the hope of glory. In my mind's eye, I see Him smile. He couldn't be more satisfied.
How can we justify the cross? The price paid was scandalous. It was a price God demanded, but it was also a price God Himself provided and at great cost to Himself. There was much more than a pound of flesh offered in Golotha's darkness when God obtained us for Himself by His own blood (Acts 20:28).