What did Christ accomplish at the cross that required and was satisfied by the cross? I believe we do well to celebrate what Christ accomplished on the cross, and I have previously written about the incredible breadth of accomplishments of the cross. However, I think it is worthwhile to consider more precisely what Christ accomplished that could not have been accomplished by other means. If I go to the store, I might say that the reason was to buy milk and eggs, but this wouldn’t necessarily explain why I chose to go to Trader Joe’s instead of Walmart. And if I traveled further and paid more, you might be quite interested in my selection of stores, and no amount of passionate explanation of my great need for milk and eggs would explain my store choice, if there was an easier way to purchase these products. Likewise, if the death of the Christ is central to Christianity, it should be of great interest for us to consider what it means that our atonement was bought by Christ crucifixion, rather than another path. I would like to explore this question in this post.
Why Suffering On the Cross?
Perhaps we have simply lacked the imagination to consider other possible means of atonement, but assuredly, alternate possibilities were on Christ’s mind in the garden of Gethsemane, when He begged that He would not have to endure the cross (Luke 22:42)! Throughout the Gospel, the Father never turned down any of His Son’s requests, and surely any loving Father would do anything to avoid the needless torture of His Son. How much more so an omnipotent Father that can choose to accomplish His purposes in any way that is consistent with His nature. For the Father and Son to proceed with the crucifixion surely declares that this would accomplish something distinct that no other means could accomplish. And in fact, scriptures clearly state the necessity of His suffering (Luke 24:26), and Paul even spends time reasoning about the necessity of Christ’s suffering (Acts 17:3). So why was it necessary?
First, what are other possible solutions to our need for atonement? I believe a typical explanation of the cross, is that Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. However, to forgive does not always require a demonstration of suffering to accomplish. We all have experience with the process of forgiveness, and when we forgive someone, we can simply to do so, and resolve to no longer demand reparation for past wrongs. This does not require a nail through the hands or any other new act of suffering.
For example, if someone punches us in the face, we may be tempted to punch back. But to forgive is to restrain from punching back. It is restraint from reparation or creating new injury, not adding new injury. One does not need to punch himself in the face again, in order to forgive the injury, the injury has already occurred. No new injury is necessary for forgiveness.
Not only does personal experience demonstrate that forgiveness can be freely given, but the Bible itself demonstrates the same thing. On various occasions in scriptures, including in the gospels (Luke 5:23, 7:48), God or Jesus offers forgiveness to individuals for their sins against God. In these incidents there is no cross mentioned, no suffering, nothing but freely offered forgiveness. It seems quite clear that God (including Jesus), can and does freely offer forgiveness, without any need for suffering. Forgiveness alone seems insufficient to explain the need for the cross.
Now, the intent of this post is not to try to debunk orthodox atonement theology, but to show how the necessity of the cross gives us a clearer and more nuanced picture of this atonement and theology. With this in mind, let’s look more closely at forgiveness.
The simplest form of forgiveness is bilateral forgiveness, where the injured person forgives the perpetrator. And it is this type of forgiveness that could be freely offered by God, without any sacrifice; God clearly can, has, and does offer this type of forgiveness freely, as demonstrated by our own ability to freely forgive, as well as scriptural examples of freely offered forgiveness. And again, it seems bizarre and inconsistent that God could provide such forgiveness freely, and instead chose to inflict such suffering on His beloved Son. However, there is another type of forgiveness to consider: when a third person steps in to forgive.
This can be exemplified in the forgiveness of debt. If Ann owes Bill $1000, Bill could forgive that debt without any further loss to himself (he just won’t get back the money that he already paid out). However, what if another person, Chris, steps in to forgive this debt (multilateral forgiveness) on behalf of Ann? In this case, Chris would not be the debt holder, so he could not simply forget the debt, as Bill would still be demanding repayment. But, he could indeed provide the forgiveness or payment of Ann’s debt by paying off the $1000 himself. In this case, when the debt is paid off by a third party, the forgiveness of debt is achieved, but it is indeed costly. As you can see in this example, the one who is owed a debt can forgive without incurring new cost, but for the one who steps into forgive another’s claim of payment due, forgiveness is indeed quite costly, and Chris, who is providing the forgiveness, does incur new costs (also, it is worth noting that payment must be paid voluntarily, which Christ did, Luke 22:42).
Consequently, I believe that the necessity of the cross indicates that Christ was achieving not just forgiveness of an offense to God, but forgiveness of our indebtedness to each other. This logic does not dictate that God didn’t forgive sins against himself (although there may be some other problems with that), but the cross does indicate that the atonement extended beyond just offense to God, and was Jesus stepping in to mediate offense between others.
Ontology of Sin
This leads to questions about the nature of sin itself (or more technically and precisely, the ontology of sin). What makes something a sin? Sin is sometimes described as an offense to God. But is that the root reason that it is sin? Is something wrong because it offends God? Or is it more accurate to say that God is offended *because* sin is wrong, destructive, injurious, ugly and derogatory towards others? I believe that the scriptures point us to understanding sin as the latter, as the direction of loving God to protect people. I have previously discussed how Christ taught that we are to read and interpret scriptures to understand the purpose behind the laws and ordinances. Christ condemned the Pharisees for the interpretation of the Sabbath because they treated it as an arbitrary offense to God rather than a commandment for our benefit.
Likewise, I believe that any forgiveness that requires a cross (suffering), is a forgiveness based on the latter definition of sin. Sin, at the root, is describing actions of intrinsic destructive nature, and this causes the offense to God, not vice versa. If we are to see God as good, than we must see the sin He opposes as a vindication of His goodness, wisdom and reasoning, rather than seeing God as an arbitrary deity who has capriciously created a random set of rules that upset him.
Furthermore, it is worth questioning how we might go about directly sinning against God, at least in the same sense that we talk about sinning against others. Generally, to sin against another is made possible due to the vulnerability of the victim, and the fact that they are prone to be injured, exploited or otherwise hurt. Theft is possible due to lack of fortification of resources. Injury is possible due to the fragility of the human body. Emotional pain is possible due to the vulnerability of the human soul. But do these weakness and vulnerabilities actually apply to an omnipotent God? Of course it would seem that God does not have any direct weakness or fragility, but God did indeed take on the fragility of humanity as Christ. And this isn’t just temporary, scriptures make it clear that God vicariously identifies (Matt 25) with the least of these (those most vulnerable). Consequently, it would seem that to God isn’t directly vulnerable to injury or offense, but indirectly through his vicarious identification with the pain of others.
An additional clue to the nature of the forgiveness of the cross is the use of the term “ransom” (Hos 13:14, 1 Tim 2:6, Matt 20:28, Mar 10:45) to describe Christ’s payment. The word “ransom” has much more specific meaning than simply generic repayment of debt. A ransom is specifically a payment to a captor to gain freedom. It seems quite odd to say that God is working to buy our freedom and then turn around and say that God is the captor that needed to be paid off. Not only that, but Psalms 49:15, and Hos 13:14 actually name this captor, from whom we need to be ransomed, the “Power of Sheol”. Again, this seems very difficult to attribute to God.
The idea of describing atonement based on the terminology of “ransom” is not new, the ransom theory of atonement has long been held as a legitimate theory of atonement within orthodox Christianity. This idea seems to be less popular today than it was in the early church, but many still believe it is important part of understanding the cross. This idea was also a core theme of CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
The ransom idea often runs into push back when we consider scriptures that teach Christ was satisfying “God’s wrath” on the cross. If God’s wrath is what Christ was dealing with, than does that mean that it must be God’s offense that He was forgiving?
The nature of God’s wrath, in question, can be considered in much the same way as forgiveness. And if anger (or “wrath”) is the obstacle to forgiveness, than we should certainly find parallels between the forgiveness and the anger.
And again, I think we can find insight in our own experience with anger. We certainly have experienced anger to our own injury, but just as forgiveness does not need to only be offered the victim, anger can arise from someone other than the victim. We all have experienced anger and indignation at seeing innocent people hurt or exploited. We don’t have to personally be hurt to experience anger, and this anger in response to the hurt of others is certainly a more virtuous form of anger. Consequently, is it not reasonable to consider that this might be the form of God’s wrath? God’s anger might not be a backlash to personal offense, but rather the anger at seeing the pain and suffering of people at the hands of those that would exploit them.
So if God’s wrath is about anger of other’s injury, and sin is about the destructive behavior between ourselves, it makes perfect sense to say that cross achieved an atonement of forgiving the indebted-ness between ourselves.
Why was the Cross Sufficient?
The converse to the question of why the cross was necessary is why the cross was sufficient. This might sound like an odd question, but there are indeed theological issues to consider with why more suffering wasn’t necessary. While the former question helps illuminate the nature of forgiveness and sin, this latter question speaks to the nature of reparation and justice. The frequent claim that the cross was necessary for a just God must align with what type of justice could actually be properly satisfied with the cross.
Let us consider possible debts that Christ could have been paying with his death. First, the Bible teaches that the payment of sin is death. Furthermore, this “deserved” punishment isn’t just physical death, but may equal the eternal pain and torture of eternal death in hell. But if we consider the billions (or even 100’s of billions depending on whether or not you believe in Calvanistic limited atonement) of souls who were saved from eternal pain, the cumulative tally of suffering is billions times infinite years. Not to minimize the cross, but it would seem mathematically absurd to believe that this debt could really be paid off with a mere three days of suffering, regardless of how intense.
There are other ways of computing debt that also seem terribly disproportionate. We could say that the proper punishment we are due is equal to the pain we have caused others (“an eye for an eye”). However, again, the billions of pain-inducing acts at the hands of those who have been saved by Christ, would easily accumulate millions or billions of years of tortuous pain.
It is also quite obvious the cross wasn’t satisfying economic debt between ourselves. While economic analogies can provide helpful explanations of forgiveness, when Christ died, money didn’t rain down from the sky to all of those in financial debt. I can’t send a note to the credit card company saying that Christ’s cross should cover my latest credit card bill. The cross wasn’t sufficient to satisfy these debts (to be clear, I believe that the cross does have profound economic impacts, just not in this way).
One of the frequently offers solutions is that the Christ’s suffering was worth more because it was offered by one who never sinned. This may well be crucial, and certainly is an important part of the divine act of atonement, but it seems very unclear and magical how this can simply multiply the magnitude of His repayment. Again, I can not send a $10 bill to a creditor on behalf of a friend saying that this comes from someone who has never held debt before, and think that will somehow suffice to pay off a $10,000 debt.
I believe all of these discrepancies of the penal nature of the cross indicate that Christ’s suffering can not be viewed as payment tied to an unbounded accumulation of divine debt that is being paid in total. The cross is often viewed as necessary for a just God, but if God has an account of justice, a compound of debt that we have built up, that must be fully paid off, it is not clear how the cross could do that. What form of justice could be paid off with this act?
Furthermore, this finite and completed nature of the suffering of the cross is not something Christ tried to hide, hoping that maybe He could get off the hook without more prolonged punishment. Instead Christ actually loudly declares, “It is finished!” This is quite a profound statement in response to the plethora of sins that he was atoning for. The finite, bounded, and conclusive nature of the cross is not minimized, but is actually a point of emphasis. Why would He declare the reparation finished, if we would continue to sin and seemingly accumulate the debt of our transgressions?
I believe this can only be possible if the justice that demanded the death of Christ, was a justice that no longer held legitimacy of demanding penalty. “It it finished”, was not a declaration that some accumulated sentences of penalty had all been fully endured, but that the justice that demanded that penalty had reached it’s expiration. It had been concluded. What type of justice could this be?
Again, I believe the fact that the cross is a satisfaction of the “wrath” of God provides insight into how this is possible. The most natural aim of anger is retribution. Anger desires to give a perpetrator their just desserts, to experience the same pain they have caused others.
But the problem here is that retribution is a terribly ugly form of justice, and flatly condemned by Jesus. While we often end up desiring retribution, as we view tit-for-tat behavior in others, we can quickly recognize how pointless and destructive this really is. Watching small children, we often see this immaturity of retribution as an injury can quickly turn into an continuous series of attempts at hurting each other back. Retribution is destructive and painful, and is only solved by forgiveness, the very thing that the cross aimed to provide. So how could the cross be about retribution?
While we may rightly condemn the acts of retribution, we must also be careful to not be too harsh in regards to the feelings that desire retribution. It is a natural desire to respond to exploitation of the innocent, with anger, an anger that desires retribution. The Psalms are filled with expressions of these desires. And these desires have real substance. When one injures another, he lowers the other below himself. He makes himself greater than his victim. The desire of retribution comes not just from a desire to settle economic losses, but to re-equalize our inherent worth and status towards each other.
And again, we see that this anger in God is not a direct response of His to His own injury, but rather is rooted in identification with the suffering of others. If this is the nature of the wrath of God, than any retributive response does not originate with God, but is empathetic identification with retributive response. A divine empathy in retribution is vicarious, a sympathy for the desire for retribution, and a participation in sorrow of the exploitation that desires recourse.
So if this vicarious anger is what is satisfied at the cross, than retribution is satiated in a very interesting and profound way. God’s anger is the empathetic response to the pain and suffering of those who are exploited and mistreated. For God to declare this penalty as needed to be paid, is to uphold the legitimacy of this pain and suffering. And if retribution is not about precise repayment of losses, but about restoration of our position before each other, than penalty is not about duration, but the lowering and humiliation into the depths of suffering experienced by the victim. And this is precisely the nature of the cross. Where we might question the cross if it was about a duration of satisfying a sentence of repayment, no one can question the extreme humiliation of the cross, the intensity of the suffering.
Satisfying retribution by the cross was about taking on the ultimate depth point of the human experience. Jesus took on the aim of retribution, to experience in kind, that pain. And Christ, at the cross, fully and totally experienced the ultimate in human pain and descended into the greatest of suffering. In fact, Ephesians actually uses the terminology of “descending” to describe the cross, equating the cross with identifying with the lowest of human experience.
At the cross, Christ not only legitimatized and empathized with the anger and desire for retribution, but the finality of the penalty of the cross means that Christ also expired and de-legitimatized any further acts of exacting revenge and retribution. Retribution has been exacted, “it is finished”. Our desire for retribution has been fully realized, this justice is done. For us to pursue revenge against our enemies is to deny Christ’s claim of it being “finished”. To get retribution from others is trying to recreate a form of justice that Christ nailed to cross, and is done. And by satisfying and closing the door on retributive justice, God opened the door and pointed us towards restorative justice (as well as deterrent justice).
Why Christ Had to Suffer
While this post is primarily concerned with the necessity of the cross for atonement, it is certainly central to many other aspects of Christ’s teaching. For example, it is the ultimate demonstration of the sacrificial way of life that he taught, the way of the Kingdom of God. Regardless of how his sacrifice achieved our atonement, that fact that he died for the sake of others is central to defining how we are also to live (and die).
In exploring and considering the necessity and sufficiency of the cross, and why “Christ had to suffer” in this way, it is my conclusion that the cross does not make sense as a one-for-one repayment of direct injuries to God or violations of arbitrary decrees of God, but rather as mediation for the pain of God as He empathizes with the victims of our exploitative behaviors towards each other, as the satisfaction and end of revenge, and as the path towards restoration with God and each other.