“Jesus died to save people from a blood-thirsty God!” That, says my friend Mac, an influential atheist “evangelist,” is the message of Christianity. “Then, in our place,” he goes on, “God sadistically tortured his own Son to death. If God really wants to forgive people, why doesn’t he just forgive them?”
Funny thing is, a few years back this same Mac was an influential Christian evangelist with pretty much the same message: “Jesus died to save us from God!” Only now he preaches against it.
Here’s why he was wrong, then and now: God isn’t an angry Judge anxious to punish the human race, but a loving Father anxious to rescue it. And Jesus didn’t die to save us from God — he died to save us from us (Matthew 1:21)!
So why can’t God simply forgive us and leave it at that? Look around: Is a world of forgiven-but-unchanged people–murderous dictators, enslaved addicts, abused abusers, angry narcissists–one you want to live in? A heaven full of forgiven but unchanged people would not be heaven.
It would be hell.
Our world is broken, according to the Bible: Earth long ago abandoned the Kingdom of God, a realm characterized by selfless love (1 John 4:8), for a realm characterized by lust for things, for power, for self (Genesis 3).
When a system—car, computer, or planet—is broken, you repair it by replacing the broken parts. The ancient prophets put it this way: “There is no forgiveness (repair) of sin (brokenness) without the shedding of blood (throwing away of broken parts)” (Hebrews 9:22). But what if you happen to love those “parts”? Well, then you have to find a way to repair them. Every single one. A tall order. If you’re human.
But not if you’re God.
Recognizing this dilemma, the ancient Hebrews established, under God’s direction, a temporary solution. By solemnly sacrificing animals, and later eating them (which they would have done anyway), i.e. by symbolically shedding the blood of humans, they created a deep sense of consciousness of the brokenness of our world.
But that was “just a shadow of the good things to come,” a temporary fix, Hebrews 10:1 says. Because “the sacrifices under that system, repeated again and again…were never able to make perfect (to repair) those who draw near.” In other words, it wasn’t the cure for cancer, just a way to live with it. But “in the fullness of time,” Galatians 4:4 tells us, “God sent his son.” The Cure.
Jesus’ death was, in one sense, the last official sacrifice of the old (temporary) plan. It was the offering of the ultimate unblemished Lamb to demonstrate God’s love and to fulfill Abraham’s prophecy: “God will provide Himself a lamb” (Genesis 22:8).
But His death was also the beginning of a new (permanent) plan to fix the system, to restore earth to its place in God’s Kingdom. Not merely a way to live with cancer, but the cure for it.
One morning, as a young believer struggling with Mac’s question, I shouted, “Why can’t you just forgive us, God?” The “still small voice” that answered stunned me: “Jesus didn’t die so I could forgive you, he died so you could receive my forgiveness, so you could be set free” (cf. Acts 26:18). (I later learned that the Greek word for “forgive” in the New Testament means to be “released” from the results or effects of something.)
Suddenly my mind was filled with the most hideous scene: Jesus hovered before me, his arms outstretched, his hands nailed to a rough oaken beam. Blood flowed from his wounds as I piled rocks onto his shoulders and arms. Tears streamed from my eyes as I watched the weight of each stone push him further down, ripping at his wounds. The rocks were my sins—every thoughtless, cruel, self-serving thing I’d ever done, or would do—and they numbered in the millions. I finally stopped, too wracked with remorse to continue. Then Jesus raised his head, his eyes filled with love, and said, “Finish it!”
I grasped that day in a way I hadn’t before the participatory meaning of the cross. Yes, Jesus died for me. But I also died with him–and rose with him. He puts it this way: “Take up your cross daily and follow me. Anyone who wants to save their (old, unchanged) life, will lose it. But anyone who loses their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
It’s an inside job. The Apostle Paul calls it metamorphosis, like the death of a caterpillar and birth of a butterfly. Before a butterfly can be made, a caterpillar must die! “We have been buried with him,” Paul says in Romans 6:4-7. “Our old self was crucified with him…so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
One by one, Jesus is repairing each broken part in our corrupted system, and telling us to pass it on: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33). (“Righteousness” means to set things that are off-kilter “right” again.) And tell people “the good news,” he says, that “the Kingdom is near!” (Matthew 10:7)
One broken part at a time, God–not the angry Judge, but the loving Father–is restoring his children and reestablishing his Kingdom of love!