The blood-curdling scream signaled that she had not yet given up. Hours of pushing, and the baby had still not descended. The OB was weighing her options, while dad wiped mom’s forehead and encouraged her on. She screamed again, pushing and puffing and praying that this agony might soon draw to a close. The pain was so… intense, so utterly mind-numbing that she wondered, for the thousandth time, why she had wanted to have another child…
This is a scene that plays out day after day in hospitals all over the world – women experiencing extreme pain as they do their part to bring new life to – and into – the world. But what does this have to do with Christian apologetics?
Recently, I corresponded with a skeptic who posed some interesting questions about the Christian faith. She began by arguing that if indeed Christ rose from the dead, this would have been no sacrifice on his part, but a bargain, as he traded a normal body for a perfect one.
This, I responded, misses the point of what Jesus did: because his body was human, he experienced the pain and suffering that the crucifixion brought with it, in the way that any flesh and blood human would. There are many things that may result in eventual gain that are exceedingly painful. You wouldn’t tell a mother who is about to deliver that her “sacrifice” and pain are any less real because she will be getting a healthy child “in return.” The mother’s suffering doesn’t “cause” the child to be born; it simply accompanies it, a feature as it were of the nature of things. But willingly enduring pain or suffering, in the service of others, is worthy of recognition and praise. What she endures still constitutes a sacrifice for her, even if she too gains in the process.
So too for Christ: though something better was in store, it nonetheless was a sacrifice for him to go through the steps necessary to complete his “substitutionary atonement.” And it wasn’t the pain that brought salvation; like the child birth referred to above, pain isn’t the point of the process; it is simply, and sadly, a byproduct of it.
Christianity does not teach that Christ’s suffering “caused” our salvation, as if he needed to satisfy the whims of some sadist. The mistake implicit in the challenge is the assumption that God is some kind of monster, who measured the pain Jesus suffered until it reached some point where he was finally satisfied. No, it was not Jesus’ experience of agony that God was measuring. It was, instead, Jesus’ perfect life, while a man, that put him in a position to accept in our stead what we in fact deserved. Many people have suffered similar, or even worse, deaths, but they could not take on for others what they themselves deserved based on their own conduct. Since sin is something that we all do, and since sin results in separation from God, then a sinless man would be the only kind of man who could take, on our behalf, the consequences that we merited. This is why Jesus made a point of saying that no one took his life; he did what he did voluntarily, which is the only way it would, or could, have been accepted.
Had he been a sinner himself, this “sacrifice” would have been of no avail, as he would have had his own debt to pay. Had he been simply another man, chosen at random to be the scapegoat for God’s wrath, a colossal act of unfairness would have resulted. But God took the punishment upon himself. Since God the Father and God the Son are “consubstantial” – of the same essence – God’s infinite wrath is absorbed and balance by an infinite and all powerful being.
Skeptics often claim that perfect justice and perfect mercy cannot coexist; one or the other must give way. But hasn’t God done just that? Has he not balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy through his perfect love – satisfied for eternity within the persons of the Godhead? Those who accept God’s gift receive forgiveness through Christ, while those who die in rebellion receive the just consequence of their choice.
In dying for our sins, Jesus did more than “sacrifice.” He demonstrated the sublime elegance that can solve even apparently insoluble problems, and open for us a path back to the Father.
Posted by Al Serrato