Recently, someone asked this question online, and I thought it worthy of an extended answer.
I am a sinner. That fact I cannot deny. As a sinner I have broken God’s law. Now that Law, according to some, demands my death and the only way out for me is for someone else to die in my place – to pay the penalty for my crime. Because all mankind are in the same boat they must die for their own sin. The only way out for me is to find an innocent person, that is, without sin, to die in my place and that someone is Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God. As I understand it, that is orthodox Christianity and the view commonly held among Seventh-day Adventists.
This view raises some troubling questions:
* Is justice, that is, the demands of the Law, served if an innocent pays the debt of the guilty? Is there any civilised culture that would condone such a practice?
* How is justice served if the innocent goes free and another suffers the penalty?
* Does granting mercy to the guilty negate the demands of the Law? Does granting mercy in our legal systems today weaken the intent of the law or should we demand the full force of the law is applied without mercy to transgressors? or
* Is it only legalism that demands the sentence be meted out without mercy?
Do I misunderstand our understanding of the Cross? Or has the development of theology by a Church with a Western world view created a position contrary to the view of the Biblical writers?
There is no real short answer to the question. There is only a relatively short answer. I will attempt that here.
1) God meets people where they are. In Old Testament times, the gods were thought to be very powerful, but also capricious and ungoverned. That is why the Psalmist and other Old Testament worshipers of Yahweh *loved*the Law. Yahweh was a God who lived by his own law, who was not capricious.
So for people used to lawless, all-powerful gods, a legal explanation of atonement was comforting. Instead of, “You made Ba’al angry, so he will punish you!” Yahweh said, “You have broken the law, therefore you have earned punishment.” For ancient people, difference was amazing, and liberating; unlike Ba’al, whom you might anger for no reason, what provoked Yahweh’s punishment was consistent, understandable, and predictable. So for some time — some centuries — God explained himself in this way.
Don’t forget, as late as Sinai, the commandments says “you shall have no other gods before me.” It doesn’t say, “there are no other gods.” That will take several centuries of growth before the people can begin to understand that.
So, when you frame the question in terms of law and punishment, you will get an answer that is framed in terms of law and punishment. But let me share something from my experience in working with the legislature: laws only exist to deal with situations where relationships break down. Let me give you an example.
In my state there are divorce laws. I have very little idea what they say, because my wife and I have no intention of getting divorced. Our relationship is such that we have no reference to divorce laws.
Let’s take another example of breaking a relationship, and how it relates to law. Suppose that I agree to pay you a certain amount for tomatoes from your garden. So long as we both honor our end of the agreement, there is no need for law to become involved. But if I give you counterfeit money, or I find that you have given me rotten tomatoes, and in either case the guilty party denies what has happened, then one of us might seek legal recourse.
And that’s the case with Jesus death on the cross. If you frame the question in terms of law, you will get a legal answer. But the deeper question is, what happened to the relationship that requires such a drastic remedy?
When the Serpent tempted the woman, the temptation did not involve appetite for food so much as appetite for power. The serpent stated that God was withholding the fruit of The Tree of Knowledge because if the woman ate it, she would become like God, knowing good from evil. The implication is that God had not told the truth, that He cannot be trusted.
Since trust is the currency of every healthy relationship, this doubt, this suspicion of God’s motives undermined that relationship fatally. The whole idea that gods were capricious is simply an elaboration of Satan’s basic deception: God cannot be trusted.
So that is the source of the rent in the relationship between God and his creatures. I say, “his creatures,” because we see it in the animal kingdom. We speak of “wild” animals, and “domesticated” animals. Wild animals do not trust humans. And some domesticated ones do not trust us either — and for good reason. The book of Job shows us that that doubt extends beyond this planet.
Who the “sons of God” in Job chapters 1 and two are, we cannot say with certainty, but they are not inhabitants of this planet. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the whole trial of Job is for their benefit.
If God is love, and he wants us to love him, then he must somehow find a way to restore trust in him. Coercion cannot be the answer, because it forces behavior at the expense of the will, at the expense of trust.
Since it cannot be forced, and God values liberty and free will, that allows for the lamentable outcome that some will never trust him. That still leaves the difficulty of how God gets two different audiences to trust him. From our perspective, the first and foremost is ourselves. How can God persuade us — we who live with the consequences of sin in our own lives — that he is trustworthy.
And second, how can he convince those who have not sinned, whether angels in heaven, or intelligent beings from some other planet, that he can be trusted absolutely. It’s relatively easy to accomplish one or the other; but accomplishing both is far more difficult. Beyond that, Scripture testifies that eventually he will convince everyone! Every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that he is just and righteous.
How that happens is our next subject.