In response to my recent post, God is Love, Christ is Pain, an atheist reader asked why God had to sacrifice himself in order to forgive us.
“If a god who is omnipotent wanted to forgive us,” he wrote, “couldn’t he just forgive us, and make it so we never forget? Why sacrifice himself to himself?’
By dying in the manner he did, Christ knew he was creating an image so vivid, and so visceral, that it would forever last in people’s minds, hearts, and imaginations. God couldn’t ‘just’ forgive us without getting personally involved, without bringing it down to our level—without, ultimately, his very graphic mortal expiration on the cross. Because he knew that nothing but something that extraordinary would stick with us. He knew that people tend to forget, that we naturally get so focused on our own lives that the reality of God—which is, after all, a fairly nebulous conception—tends to slip first from our minds, and then from our hearts. Jesus didn’t want that to happen. He wanted us to remember what he had done for us. So he made the means by which we are eternally forgiven as real for us as he possibly good—and that meant availing himself of the sheer, raw, dramatic magnitude of the crucifixion.
Jesus didn’t sacrifice himself for his sake. He did it for ours. And so he made sure to do it in a manner that we’d never be able to forget. And, sure enough, we haven’t.
So to expand on that a bit:
Jesus knew that people would always know that he knew that he was God. Time and again Jesus says, either explicitly or implicitly, that he is God—as he does, for instance, at John 10:30, when he says, “I and the Father are one.” So there’s no question that Jesus knew he was God. How could he not?
Now, if Jesus knew that he was God, and he knew that we knew that he knew that, then he also knew that a lot of us wouldn’t be able to help but think that he, in a way that we very definitely don’t ever, had it made in the shade.
None of us are quite so assured of our fate, are we? We can say that we are—we can claim full confidence that we are going to heaven. But the bottom line is that we don’t have anywhere near the assurance of our ultimate fate as Jesus had of his. We can’t possibly.
So Jesus is stuck. He wants us to know that he truly and fully identifies with us—yet, at the same time, he knows that we know that he’s a good deal more than mortal.
So what does Jesus do? He chooses to demonstrate for us the complete depth of his identification with us, by allowing himself to die on the cross in the horrible manner that he did. Because he knew that we would always remember the nightmare of the crucifix. God or not, Jesus got tortured. His body was beaten and flayed to a pulp. He knew that if he allowed himself to suffer that prolonged and horrible violence, we would never be able to deny his dedication to identifying with us.
He made sure that we knew that he suffered as we suffer. And then some.
And when his final moment came—when his pain and suffering had reached its terrible crescendo—Jesus proved to us that his identification with us was absolute and complete. Jesus showed us that at the moment of his death he felt himself no more God than we do.
“My God, my God,” he howled. “Why have you forsaken me?”
That’s not a God crying.
That’s one of us.
We know Jesus was God because he defied death. And we know he was mortal because of the way he died.