Defending 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.