Imagine you open the newspaper one day to find that a judge in your county ordered his own innocent son to be tortured to death in court. You go on to read that the judge stood by watching as the sentence was administered, and as soon as the boy stopped breathing, declared that the demands of his justice had been satisfied. He then proceeded to the county jail, instructed the warden to unlock every cell, and announced that all the prisoners were free to go.
Would you consider this story beautiful? Would you celebrate the compassion and mercy of the judge?
But how is this story any different from the Christian gospel? Christians believe that the innocent Christ was punished in our place on the cross, thus satisfying the righteous wrath of God. How is this notion any less depraved and absurd than the fictional story outlined above?
In order to answer this objection, we must first consider the nature of God's wrath. The imagery of 1 John 1:5 is helpful here:
God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.
We understand that in a brightly lit space, there cannot be a region of darkness. This is not because light is vindictive. We recognize that it is a simple impossibility for light, being what light is, and darkness, being what darkness is, to occupy the same space at the same time. When light is introduced into any space, the darkness which previously occupied that space is necessarily destroyed. As the character of Orual notes in C. S. Lewis’ fantasy, Till We Have Faces,
The divine nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is. We call it the wrath of the gods; as if the great cataract in Phars were angry with every fly it sweeps down in its green thunder.
Yet the New Testament does call it "wrath." Is this a mistake? Is God not really angry with us after all?
In seeking to understand the concept of divine anger, we must first recognize that God’s wrath is not something which is incompatible with his love. In John 3:16 we read, "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life," yet a few verses later in John 3:36 we read, “He who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Likewise, in Romans 5:8 Paul states that through Jesus we see God’s “own love toward us,” yet in the very next verse he states that through Jesus we “shall be saved from wrath.” Again in Ephesians 2:3, Paul tells his readers, “[We] were by nature children of wrath,” but in the very next verse he goes on to explain that while we were still in this state, God “loved us” with “His great love.”
Sinners, therefore, are simultaneously the objects of God’s fierce wrath and the objects of his great love. As Saint Augustine notes,
In a marvelous and divine way [God] loved us even when he hated us. (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 110)
Bible scholar Robert Mounce summarizes the doctrine well:
We recognize that divine wrath is not the same as human wrath, which normally is self-centered, vindictive, and intent on harming another. God’s wrath is his divine displeasure with sin. We call it “wrath” because it shares certain basic characteristics of human wrath. But because it is God’s wrath it can have none of the sinful qualities of its analogical counterpart. (Romans, New American Commentary, 1995, 76-77)
Think of it this way. Imagine you know someone who is a bully. You might have no trouble attending class with this person or working in the same office. You might even be able to strike up a casual friendship. But would you consider him or her your closest companion? Would you be willing to enter into marriage? Probably not. If you are truly a compassionate person, the streak of cruelty which you observe in another would be so distasteful to you that it would place a limit on the intimacy you could share.
Now as any serious reader of the New Testament will note, the goal of salvation is not merely getting through the pearly gates. The goal of salvation is union with God in the deepest intimacy. We see, therefore, that the cross is not an arbitrary act of cruelty. As long as evil infects us, we cannot be fully united to God. If God seeks intimacy with us, he must remove our sin, and according to the New Testament, this is something which can only be accomplished through the death of Jesus. The author of Hebrews states, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:4); Jesus had to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26).
This is the chief difference between the Christian doctrine of the atonement and the fictional news story outlined above. The murder of the judge’s son was a capricious act of violence, but the crucifixion of Christ was not. As John Calvin explains,
[God] is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely. Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ. (Institutes, 2.16.3)
According to Calvin, the crucifixion enables God to do something he "cannot" otherwise do: enter into fellowship with sinful people.
But how exactly does the crucifixion "[wipe] out all evil in us"? This is evidently a deep mystery, but according to the New Testament, it is comprehended in the mystical but very real union between the believer and Jesus. As Peter states, Jesus "bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Likewise, Paul states, "Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with" (Rom 6:6).
I find it helpful to consider sin on the analogy of an inoperable disease. Sin is something which cannot be excises from us. It goes down to our bones; it is twisted up in our veins. The only way to escape it is to die. Salvation can only happen, therefore, if one who is stronger than death comes down, dies with us, and carries us through death into his new life.