Dr Andy Bannister, director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, explores why he believes Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary
At the heart of the Christian faith lies an incredible claim: that Jesus died on a cross to forgive our wrongdoing, our evil and our brokenness, what the Bible calls ‘sin’. From the very beginning of the Christian Church, Christians claimed that Jesus had died for our sins.
The scandal of the cross
It is all too easy to miss how startling this Christian focus on Jesus’ crucifixion was. Jesus had claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. The first Christians—most of whom were Jewish—claimed Jesus was this Messiah. However, in common Jewish belief, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Romans who had conquered and oppressed the Jewish people, not supposed to get crucified by them.
Furthermore, in the ancient world, crucifixion was one of the most painful and humiliating ways to die – reserved for criminals and outcasts. Thus for Christians to claim that their Messiah, their Lord, their God, had been crucified was scandalous. Indeed, the New Testament recognises this: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23)
Why did the early Christians boldly and shamelessly and in the face of persecution preach that Jesus had been crucified, killed for our sins? There is only one historical explanation: because that is what happened and however unpalatable it was to Jews, Romans and Pagans, Christians faithfully stuck to the historical story.
Jesus himself had also predicted his own death on many occasions, for example in Mark 10:45 where he says that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. According to the Bible, Jesus himself, 2,000 years of Christian witness and the testimony of two billion Christians today; Jesus died for us.
But to many modern people, this seems ludicrous. I hear two common objections. First, “I’m not a sinner, there’s nothing wrong with me. How dare you suggest I would need ‘forgiveness’.”
The second is “Why can’t God just forgive us? Why did Jesus need to die? Why was his sacrifice on the cross necessary?”
All have sinned
Let’s start with the objection to the death of Jesus for our sins “there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a basically good person.” The truth is that human beings go wrong in all kinds of ways—I do and you do, we all do. You are, if you’re honest with yourself, basically a pretty mixed bag, as am I. Or as best-selling author and film writer, Nick Hornby, put it: “I’m a good person. In most ways. But I’m beginning to think that being a good person in most ways doesn’t count for anything very much, if you’re a bad person in one way.”
In 2009, golfer Tiger Woods gave his first press conference after his multiple affairs and lies had been uncovered. A journalist asked him: “How could you lie to so many people for so long?” He replied: “Because I first learnt to lie to myself.”
Imagine if you had to watch a cinema screening of your entire life; every thought, word and deed. Some bits would be great, other bits would make you cringe with embarrassment—all the stupid decisions, all the rude hurtful things you said about others, all those secret thoughts and selfish ambitions. All the things you did—but also the good things you didn’t do. Imagine then, if everyone you ever met was invited to the screening and asked to judge you.
The truth is that God sees every aspect of our lives like this and says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He says that every one of us needs forgiveness. No exceptions.
Why can’t God just forgive us?
Why isn’t it enough for us to simply say “sorry, God” and for God to forgive us—why did Jesus have to die?
Well, notice something for a moment. Real forgiveness, genuine forgiveness is always costly. Imagine you reverse your car into mine in a car park and dent it, causing £1,000 worth of damage and your insurance has expired. Taking pity on you, I forgive you the debt and let you off—you have been forgiven, but your forgiveness came at a price. I paid the price so you could be forgiven. Your forgiveness was not free.
Or consider a wrong that isn’t economic. Imagine somebody insults you, shames you, and damages your reputation. What happens at this point? You could make the person suffer. In this age of Twitter shaming, for example, perhaps you could engage in hash-tag justice and round up a social media mob to hound and harass the person who hurt you, in order to get even. Or, in other parts of the world, maybe you even take things a stage further and employ vengeance to get even at the person who hurt you.
The only alternative to the spiral of hatred and violence that comes from responding to violence with violence, or hatred with hatred, or betrayal with betrayal, is to forgive. But forgiveness always carries a price. If you choose to forgive the other person, you have to carry within you the cost of forgiving them and turning away from vengeance. You have to pay the price for forgiving and not holding onto your pain or your honour.
Corrie ten Boom lived with her father and sister in the Netherlands, where her father ran a watchmaker’s shop. Committed Christians, Corrie and her family began helping to smuggle Jews away from the Nazis, hiding many in their home. In 1944, they were discovered and were arrested and shipped to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where her sister Betsie died an agonising death.
Corrie survived and began a post-war career as an evangelist, speaking about God’s love. But one day, something shocking happened. Let me quote Corrie’s own words:
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fräulein’, he said. ‘To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!’
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer: ‘Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your Forgiveness.’
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on Christ’s.”
Forgiveness always comes at a price. Corrie discovered she didn’t have the resources within her to pay that price, faced with one of the guards who had done what he had done. But she found in Jesus somebody who was able to provide them.
Couldn’t God just forgive us?
Nobody just forgives. You can’t just forgive, because forgiveness always comes at a price. Always. Forgiveness means that you bear the cost so that the perpetrator doesn’t.
When you forgive somebody, you effectively bear sin—you bear the wounds so you can forgive them. So it should come as no surprise that when God chose to forgive us, rather than to punish us for all the ways we have wronged him and wronged one another, that he would go to the cross in the person of Jesus and die in our place.
As New York Times best-selling author Tim Keller writes in The Reason For God:
“On the cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, although on an infinitely greater scale. I would argue, of course, that human forgiveness works this way because we unavoidably reflect the image of our creator. That is why we should not be surprised if we sense that the only way to triumph over evil is to go through the suffering of forgiveness, that this would be far more true of God, whose just passion to defeat evil and loving desire to forgive others are both infinitely greater than ours.”
In Jesus Christ—whom Christians have always understood to be God in the flesh—God took our pain, our violence, our evil, into himself, absorbed it, bore the wounds and paid the price, so that he could forgive us and, eventually, destroy all evil without destroying us. That’s why Jesus, God with us, God in the flesh, God who stepped into space and time, gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
The perfect sacrifice or a life thrown away?
If you’re walking with a friend on a bridge over a river and your friend suddenly says: “I love you, let me show you how much” and they dive over the side of the bridge, into the river and drown, I think your reaction would be: “What! Why? Why did you do that stupid thing? How did killing yourself possibly show you that you loved me?”
But think of another type of sacrifice. For example, in 1916, Billy McFadzean, a 20-year-old soldier, was fighting in the First World War in the Battle of the Somme. A box of hand grenades slipped into a crowded trench, dislodging safety pins in two of the grenades. Realising what was about to happen, McFadzean threw himself on top of the grenades, which exploded, killing him, but his action saved the life of dozens of his comrades. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
What makes the difference between throwing yourself pointlessly off a bridge, or what Billy McFadzean did? What matters is if you sacrificed yourself because it was the only way to save others.
When we look at what Jesus did when he went to the cross, we have to ask the question. Was Jesus foolishly throwing his life away in some meaningless action? Or was Jesus doing it because he knew it was the only way to save me, to save you, the only way we could be forgiven?
The Bible puts it like this: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this—while we still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
When it comes to forgiveness there is always a cost. There is always a price. And that’s why Jesus paid the price he did, for our forgiveness, because of God’s great love for us.
Freedom for the captives
In his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes two characters, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton – who look almost identical. The climax of the complex story comes when Darnay is imprisoned and facing death but Sydney arranges a swap so that he is imprisoned and faces death in his place. Sydney loved Charles’ wife Lucie to the extent that he was willing to die to save her from widowhood.
I don’t know about you, but I find stories like that incredibly powerful. They move us deeply, But they don’t change us. Stories of great self-sacrifice in history or literature often make me wonder if I’d be that brave if ever the test came. But examples can’t change us.
Even ethics can’t change us either because we consistently fall short of our own standards. We look at Sydney Carton’s story, or Billy McFadzean’s, and we gulp and we feel small.
But the historical story of what Jesus did is different. It’s not supposed to be an example that stirs us to do better. Or inspires us. Or makes us go misty eyed at Jesus’ love and courage. Or make us want to be nicer to our neighbours.
The story of Jesus isn’t that kind of story. In fact it’s not just a story, it’s our story. We need to see ourselves in it. We are the Charles Darnay figure, imprisoned and facing judgement. We are imprisoned, condemned by our pride and self-centredness, by our privilege, by our meanness, by our pettiness, by our desire for power and to be god in God’s place. But Jesus comes to us and whispers: “Let me take your place. Let me pay the debt you can’t pay. Let me set you free. Let me give you forgiveness as a gift.”
Jesus offers us forgiveness, peace, reconciliation and friendship with God but he does so at a tremendous cost. He did it for us.
Stories of great courage can inspire us. Stories of great sacrifice can move us. But when you realise that you’re part of Jesus’ story and part of the reason he went to the cross was for you, it can change you. So often as human beings, we’re driven by fear and by pride. But Jesus’ story, Jesus’ death destroys both.
You and I are so bad Jesus had to die for us. That destroys pride. But we are so loved, that he was willing to die for us. That destroys fear.
Don’t let fear or pride hold you back from all that Jesus has to offer and from discovering what Jesus’ death, for you means and from the new life that can flow from that.
Dr Andy Bannister is the director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity. This article was originally published on Solas’ website.