How Jesus Getting Nailed to the Cross Saves Us

imagesDefending Christian doctrine can be a daunting task. Sometimes, as amateur apologists, we may be asked a very specific question about an esoteric topic. But many times we are asked, perhaps a bit sarcastically, to make sense of our core beliefs, and we may not have much time, or much space, to do it. Recently, I took a shot at answering this question, posed online by an atheist:

“Ok, I’m wondering if you guys can answer this in a meaningful and intelligent manner. Just how exactly does Jesus getting nailed to a cross save us?”

I don’t claim to have all the answers… or even most, for that matter. But since we are to “always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), I tried summing it up like this:

“Understanding how Jesus Christ saves us first requires us to understand from what we are being saved. Christians believe that God, an eternal and perfect being, stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against his law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as a perfect being, demands not just ordinary justice, but perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? For earthly justice, separation of the offender from the society whose laws he has transgressed is typical. For some set period of time, the offender can no longer enjoy the benefits – the goods and comforts – of the society he has wronged. But because God is eternal, temporal separation is not a possibility. The separation we experience – from the source of all comfort and all good- is an eternal separation. This place or status of eternal separation from the one perfect being is called Hell.

We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward it. Christians believe that he won’t. That indeed is bad news.

You ask how “Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us.” I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians hold that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, he accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, he is the only man whom God, in his justice, cannot punish. If God punishes him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which atheists such as Christopher Hitchens often accuse him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells his disciples that no man takes his life. He willingly gives it up.

Why? Because as an eternal being, he is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out his wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though he did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”

In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve. It is the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from a perfect being.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us.”

This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more “meaningful and intelligent manner.” My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.

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  1. AD says:

    I took a similar approach with one of my friends the other day and he asked “How do we know god is perfect?” Does anyone have a good answer to help me explain this further to my friend?

    • Al says:

      The first step is to make sure you agree on what the term means. We, as created imperfect beings, can contemplate and recognize certain attributes that exist in nature, things such as power, goodness, knowledge, etc. We didn’t create these attributes and we do not possess them in a flawless or complete way. Reason leads us to conclude that there must be a creator adequate to explain what we see in creation; he must possess these attributes that we become aware of, either by having created them or by their being a part of his nature. This creator being, then, must possess these attributes in their complete and flawless form. How else could he have either created them or have them be part of his nature? Thus, God embodies perfect goodness, for example. The quality we see as good God possesses in a flawless and complete- i.e. perfect – measure. Note too that this helps place in perspective the common challenge regarding God’s “limitations.” Why can’t he make a square circle? Does he have infinite mass? These types of questions mistake the term “perfection” for a maximal amount of a thing, such as how much something weighs. In sum, we reason our way to recognizing that God is synonymous with a particular type of entity or being – one which possess perfect attributes.

  2. TM says:

    It strikes me that your entire belief system is based on pre-suppositional ideas. For instance, the idea that a perfect God requires a perfect Sacrifice and you conclude that a perfect sacrifice can only mean the blood sacrifice of a perfect human, that is, someone who has not committed a sin. And why should you postulate that this God must accept and can only accept “blood sacrifice” of some kind? This conjures up “virgin sacrifices” and other forms of superstition with regard to appeasing the “gods”. At the very least, it gives you something in common with other superstitions that seek to placate the anger of the Almighty. I’m not sure that God is so given to blood-lust. Ultimately this entire scenario that you paint only serves to call into question the whole point to Creation in the first place, especially if God knew the end result. Your position leads one to ask, “What is the point to Creation, and why does God create?” This is your appropriate starting point, or so it seems.

    One additional point, It seems very possible from a historical standpoint that one Jesus was not nailed to the cross. An argument can be made that nails were not used in the crucifixion. No less an authority than William L Craig has conceded this point. It seems that orthodox Christianity uses this symbolism to exaggerate the “punishment” or “torture” that Jesus endured, as can be seen in films like “The Passion of the Christ”. Who knows?

    • Al says:

      My belief system is based on information provided in the Bible, which I find to be reliable because I believe that the historical evidence supports that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected from the dead, thereby authenticating his message and teachings. I then make use of reason to make sense, as best I can, of those teachings. When I refer to “perfect” in relation to Jesus’ sacrifice, this is not a mere word but a conception that requires a bit of consideration. It’s hard to reduce such thoughts to a 1000 word essay. Please feel free to write me at al@pleaseconvinceme.com if you’d like to discuss this in more detail. In short, I would say the following in response to your comments/questions: while “blood sacrifice” is a part of the culture into which Jesus was born, I don’t believe that his death needed to be bloody. The point isn’t that he died a violent death, but that he lived a perfect life. If he didn’t, he would not have the ability to stand in our place, since he too would be worthy of punishment. Unlike the superstitions that you reference, Jesus’ sacrifice does not placate an unhappy god, it balances the books on our behalf. Justice and mercy are both satisfied. God does not ignore our wrongdoing but finds a way to allow us back into his presence. God doesn’t feel “blood lust,” but consistent with his nature, demands justice. The point of creation is for us to share eternity with God. Unlike any other type of life form, we are the only ones who have intelligence and free will. Yes, God knew that some would reject him. That’s what free will means, after all. If he overwhelmed us with his perfection, our will not be free. So there must be a period of separation from him in which we can either accept God’s gift, and let him do the work necessary to prepare us for re-union with him, or reject him. He gives us enough information and knowledge to make the choice both fair and informed, but not so much that accepting him is forced upon us. Finally, whether nails were used or not, crucifixion is a horrible way to kill someone.

    • Rick says:

      If you are familiar with the Abrahamic Covenant made by God, you will understand that God had to take the place of man to pay for sins. God states in Rom_6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. As for the punishment that Christ endured, when you understand how a covenant works you will understand why Jesus (God in the flesh John 10: 25-30) had to endure such immeasurable treatment. there is so much to understand and yet we will never understand it all, God’s way are much higher than or ways. only by studying the Bible are we given a window into all of this. as for Jesus being nailed to the cross here is some scripture, this takes place after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to some of his disciples. Thomas wasn”t present at that time and this is what they were telling him. Joh_20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” I hope this has helped in some way.

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