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A modern look at the Gospel – Did it have to be a cross?

A modern look at the Gospel – Did it have to be a cross?

Few Christian teachings have been sanitized and marginalized like the story of the Cross. When the church first came on the scene, they told an unbelievable story to the world. God send His son to die on a Roman torture device so we can walk in newness of life. Two thousand years later, we just don’t understand what this means. Today, a cross is primarily a symbol of hope, freedom, and peace. When you tell someone that Jesus died on a cross, they don’t cringe. They just shrug. The Gospel is buried so deep in the bowels of history that it loses its offense. Or it immediately offends for the wrong reasons. In 2018, the death penalty is all but abolished. The idea that anyone would demand a human sacrifice far any reason seems absolutely morbid.

In light of this, I want to take a modern look at the cross. This doesn’t mean historical revisionism. We Christians believe that the Son of God died after He was nailed to two literal pieces of wood. If we want to understand the fundamental claims of the Christian faith, then we need to take a good long look at the fundamental moment of the Christian faith. A literal cross. A literal death. We can chose to take it or leave it, but modifying or sanitizing the Gospel was never an option.

I am going to start by addressing a very common question today: Why can’t God just forgive us? The short answer is that there are rules that define even God Himself. This is a difficult idea for most of us. Can’t God just do whatever He wants? To quote C.S. Lewis, “Nonsense is still nonsense, even when spoken about God.” For example, If God is good, then He cannot also be evil if evil is the opposite of good. Just like gravity, light, and time are foundational to our universe, love and justice are parts of the Person of God. That is what we mean when we say that God is Love. God may have invented time and gravity, but He didn’t invent love. He is (and has always been) love.

The law of forgiveness

One small part of God’s character (and therefore existence as a whole) is the law of forgiveness. This law states that every debt or wrong must be paid for, either by the offending party or by the offended party. What do I mean by this? Allow me to explain with an analogy.

Suppose a friend borrows your car and gets into an accident. The insurance won’t replace it because you were not in the driver’s seat. What do you do? If you love your possessions more than you love your friend, you won’t ever forgive. But suppose you do love your friend, and you tell him that it’s okay, it could have happened to anyone. You give forgiveness, and you never bring it up again. Was forgiveness free? Of course not! Your net worth took a hit, and forgiveness means absorbing the debt yourself. If you purchase a new car, you have less money than you did the day before. If you opt to do nothing, you will still lose your vehicle along with the value that it brought to your life.

Forgiveness must always cover the full cost of the transgression. If you steal a penny from me, I can forgive you with ease. If you burn my house down and drain my bank account, forgiveness becomes much more costly. Genesis 3 shows us what exactly was broken, and what it would cost to repair it.

The cost to forgive man

When we decided that we knew better than God Himself, we broke three things. First, we broke the universe (See Romans 8:20). When we lost our meaning and purpose, the world we lived in did as well. It was “subjected to futility,” literally cast into meaninglessness. Now, God created the universe, so it stands to reason that He could do it again. It would take time and power, but it certainly isn’t impossible for God to forgive everyone of this offense without the need for a cross.

We broke more than the world around us, though. We broke our own relationship with God. God told us to refrain from one thing without giving us an explicit reason why. Because God wanted us to love Him, He gave us a choice. When we really love God, we do what He asks of us. Selfishness wasn’t a concept until our first moment of disobedience. Since God is justice as well as love, He can’t forgive us without a payment equal to the transgression. This doesn’t make God angry or hateful. There is a third thing that we broke, and it puts the second in clear perspective.

A busted soul

Not only did we break the world we lived in and hurt the God we lived with, but we utterly destroyed ourselves in the process. In the beginning, we were created in the Imago Dei. The literal image of God. That is all we were. The default choice was an eternal coexistence with our creator. But we changed that. Humankind is the only species in the cosmos to sin itself into existence. When we invented selfishness, we embedded it so deep within ourselves that we became something else entirely. We now have a dual nature – we bear God’s image, but we also made ourselves into a slave. God never demanded our worship; He asked for it freely. But we are now required to worship ourselves. It’s not the default option, it’s the only option. Human nature is an unrelenting and cruel master, but we have no way of returning to our prior state without outside help.

So, let’s change our original metaphor a little. You buy your child a brand new car off the lot. Your child then proceeds to total the vehicle. So you forgive him. What good is it? The car didn’t belong to you when you totaled it. If your child has any hope of experiencing the freedom that comes with such a vehicle, either he will have to purchase another, or you will. This problem is beyond the reach of mere forgiveness.

A matter of Heaven and Hell

Did you realize that God doesn’t own your soul? He owns every atom in the universe, but He gave us free will. He gave us the keys and the title to our own lives. This is why Hell exists. It isn’t a place where He angrily throws us despite our heartfelt cries of repentance. The gates of Hell might as well be locked from the inside. God cannot take everyone to Heaven unless He revokes our free will. And He will not take us in as slaves, only as free lovers. I think that this point is important to remember today. God doesn’t cast you out like a leper. He reached across the gap that we made and offers a medicine for our fatal condition. But He will respect your free will, even if you chose to love no one but yourself forever.

I’m not saying that everyone will find their way into Heaven eventually. Jesus made it clear that our time to chose Him is now. We are like clay. God shapes and remodels us over and over again. But when we see God’s face, we enter the kiln. Self-centeredness cannot exist in the presence of the Almighty. What will be left of you on that day? If you lived for yourself, you will not stand. If you tried to be a good person solely so you could prove that you are a good person, you will not stand. (Self-righteousness still begins with self) If you want to survive an encounter with a holy God, you must begin to embrace Him now. But you cannot do that on your own. We are undeniably selfish, so we can only ever come to Him if we want something besides Himself. How then can we be saved?

The beauty of the Cross

God has promised us a redeemed world. He has offered us total forgiveness and a new relationship with Him. But He gave us our own souls. Forgiveness is of little use if we are physically incapable of accepting it in our current state. This brings us to the matter of the Cross. The greatest act ever committed on our behalf and true center of every good story ever told. God may be all-powerful, but it doesn’t mean that He can do the nonsensical. If we are the owners of our totaled souls, then God must either revoke our free will in order to make the necessary repairs, or He must offer us a new heart that is capable of returning to our previous state of glory.

To the amazement of anyone who is capable of understanding it, God chose the second option. Since He is ultimately good, He wouldn’t create another good creature and then destroy it in order to repair us. In the greatest mystery known to man, God gave us Himself. To repair our damaged dual nature, God took on a dual nature of His own. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, permanently became man. He faced every temptation know to man for 33 years, but never gave in to them. He showed us how we can get to Heaven, and then He purchased new hearts for us by experiencing the total alienation from the Father that sin creates. For a few hours, the Father suffered the loss of an infinitely good relationship with the Son, and the Son suffered the loss of an infinitely good relationship with the Father. The magnitude of that loss far outweighs the cost of our individual hearts. He didn’t just forgive, He did so lavishly!

But, why a cross?

God used a cross to enact His will for a few reasons. First, the method of redemption was similar to the offense. God suffered the exact same future that we are guaranteed without His intervention. Physical misery, utter futility, utter loneliness and abandonment, death. The Cross was the worst the world had to offer. I once read a doctor’s detailed explanation of the Crucifixion; it’s terrifying. God came to suffer the fate of the vilest of criminals. There are very few humans in history who suffered worse physical pain than Jesus did. Even if someone did suffer more than Him physically, no one has ever become sin on anyone else’s behalf like Jesus did. No one will ever deserve worse than the Cross, so everyone can be redeemed by it.

Finally, the Cross was our idea. God knew what would happen and He sent prophets ahead of time with the signs to look for, but ultimately, a group of Jews and Romans got together and had a trial. If you can’t stand the idea of someone being whipped and nailed to a cross, you have humanity to blame. Humans invented selfishness and therefore Hell. Humans invented crosses. God merely stepped down and offered Himself to us. We did the rest.

Putting it all together

So we have a nearly complete story. God creates us and gives us a free will in the hopes that we will love Him and love each other. We reject Him and find ourselves in a broken world with a broken relationships and a broken soul. He reached out and provided a means of redemption for us. But we still are in control of our own souls. God will only save those who chose it for themselves. Technically speaking, your sin nature will not die until you do. God will give you a down payment now if you choose to accept it. He will come and live in your heart. You will be granted the strength to overcome every act of selfishness if only you chose to use it.

But you shouldn’t expect God to save you if you don’t desire it. God will respect your free will to the bitter end. If you ask Him to leave you alone, He will (almost impossibly) honor that request. The ever-present God will place you outside of His presence, and the all-knowing God will forget you. In short, you will get everything you ever wanted (life eternal without obligation to anyone), and you will find that it could never be enough. It is the most ironic tragedy, but it is nonetheless true.

In Conclusion

As I child, I used to believe that there were Biblical truths deeper than the Gospel. But I am discovering that this is not the case. Just as the alphabet is foundational to all language, the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the key to understand every Bible story and all theology. (Full Disclosure: This perspective that I shared today isn’t my own, I have borrowed nearly all of it from men much wiser than me.) As it turns out, there is no inconsistency in the Christian claims that God is Love and that He sent His Son to die for us. The Cross, the real story of blood and dirt, is still the most beautiful story ever told. By examining the offence of the Cross, it’s easy for me to see how it became a symbol of hope and peace. I only pray that we find the faith to embrace the story for ourselves.

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