Making Sense of Jesus’ Death on the Cross

sfMaking sense of Jesus’ death on the cross can be difficult. For many modern secularists, the notion is, on its face, absurd, posing a stumbling block beyond which they will not venture. In his recent book on agnosticism, author Vincent Bugliosi devotes a chapter to proving that belief in the resurrection is, as he says, “demonstrably false.” But is it?

Bugliosi’s first challenge is a linguistic one. He doesn’t think we should say that Jesus “died” because that is inconsistent with Jesus being “alive” three days later in the same body. But this is, at best, purposely shallow thinking. It is precisely the belief that Jesus died that makes the subsequent resurrection miraculous, authenticating Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. In what sense was he “dead?” In the sense that every person who ever lived died; the only difference is that, unlike every other person, his body was restored to life in a body that was no longer subject to corruption and death.

Next, Bugliosi takes issue with the Christian concept of original sin, which he claims is an “incontestable implausibility.” Oddly, he accepts the notion that people are not basically good, especially when their own self-interest is at stake, but he asks “what type of monstrous maleficence would cause [God] to give every human an evil nature?” Implied in his question is the mistake that leads to Bugliosi’s confusion: he assumes that “evil” is a thing that God “gave us.” He seems to think that God punished us for Adam’s sin by giving us an evil nature. But this is not what Christians believe. Once again, Bugliosi creates a strawman that he ridicules and then dismisses.

Christians believe that God endowed man with free will. This free will may not be total and complete: there are things that we cannot will, and things that are so contrary to our natural inclinations that we would never choose to will. But the set of things that we are free to choose – whether in thought or in action – includes choices that run contrary to God’s will. This aspect of our nature, like our basic body structure or the faculties of the mind, is passed on through our genes from one generation to the next. Original sin – man’s inclination to act contrary to God’s wishes – is simply part of the nature that we inherit. Expecting it to end with one generation makes no more sense than expecting our children to see with their ears.

Evil is not a created thing that God gave us, like a finger or a wrist. What we call evil is the measure – the result – of a thought or action that departs from God’s will. When a man commits murder, or fills his mind with lustful thoughts, evil is the result. Because God is perfectly just, He cannot condone or ignore these violations of his will. Some punishment must flow to the offender. Separation is the punishment that God has seen fit to employ. But unlike earthly prisons, which are places of anguish, separation from a perfect being results in a torment that human words cannot adequately describe. That God is just in separating himself from wrongdoers is a simple enough notion; it is the same thing we do on earth. That is what prisons are for, or restraining orders. We recognize intuitively that those who choose to use their will to thwart “the law” and hurt people in the process must be separated from the rest, and restrained.

Bugliosi finishes the chapter with more insults: anyone who actually believes that Jesus died for our sins has “something seriously defective about his or her mental faculties – namely, a very severe intellectual hernia.” Jesus’ death on the cross, he claims, was a useless act. But again, he fails to grasp the doctrine which underlies these beliefs. God does not punish “innocent people” for what Adam did. He has given each of us the same free will, and each of us is guilty before him.

There is an equation of sorts which underlies and ties together these thoughts. To maintain his nature as perfectly just, God must punish the wrongdoer. He cannot simply forgive, for to do so – to abandon his justice – would be a corruption of his own nature. But he created us for a purpose, and that purpose was not separation from him. So He provided the means for us to reunite with him. Jesus provides the bridge that we need. Having taken on human flesh, he stands before God as the one human being who never sinned. No other human being can stand before God having satisfied the law and rightly ask for admission to God’s presence. But Jesus did not ask for admission for himself; instead he offered to accept the punishment we deserve and by so doing to overcome the effect of sin on us. We are washed clean in this process, but the washing is done by Christ. Though he died for all, not all have chosen to accept this sacrifice.

This will not satisfy the secularist who sees in this nothing but folly. But a bit of reflection will allow the thoughtful person to see the elegance in this solution. Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfect love – all finding expression in the person and work of the man-God Jesus Christ.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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One Comment

  1. Mark says:

    The apostle Paul, as usual, nailed it: “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.”

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