Last week’s question came from Elise, and it’s puts an even finer point on our Lenten #progGOD Challenge (there are already some great responses). Here it is, in a nutshell (read the original post to get the whole context):
I have had an ongoing relationship with Christianity in which I alternately really get it or really don’t. I really dug into this the last time I fell away, and the biggest issue I have is with the Cross…
That’s not to say I have a problem with Jesus sacrificing Himself on the Cross; I understand the mercy, the sacrifice, the love that is inherent in that gesture, and that part I think is awesome. The issue that I have is that it was required in the first place. How could a loving God heap death and/or eternal damnation on his children for their sins and call it justice? Why did Jesus have to step up in the first place?…
How is the Cross’s necessity combined with the fact that only about 1/3 of the world’s population identifies as Christian/Believer a demonstration of the justice of a Loving God?
Well, Elise, it’s a great question, and it’s one that’s on my mind a lot lately. I am thinking about writing a book on the death of Jesus on the Cross — its meaning and significance — even as I’m also writing a book on prayer. It’ll be kind of a book sandwich.
You’re not exactly asking Why Jesus died on the Cross. In fact, your question is less about Jesus, and more about the very nature of God. You’re asking if God required Jesus’ death.
The short answer is No.
No, Jesus’ death was not required in order for human beings to be reconciled to God.
The classic conception of God is that God is capable of all things. Indeed, the most classic way conception is this: when people talk about a being that is capable of all things, we call that God. This is how Aristotle and Aquinas write of God, and it’s what I think of when I think of God. If there is a God, this God is capable of all things.
Therefore, it stands to reason that God did not have to allow the death of Jesus to be the mechanism by which humanity and all of creation was reconciled to God.
In other words, if you agree with me that God, by definition, is capable of anything, then you must also agree that God could have chosen another way to achieve reconciliation. Indeed, God could have chosen from an infinite number of ways. Indeed, God could have chosen to never allow the breach in the relationship in the first place — God could have stopped “The Fall” and thereby preempted any need for reconciliation.
Your question betrays that you, like many of us, were raised in the shadow of Reformed theology. In those circles, it’s common to argue that God’s justice “demands” a sacrifice — since we’ve sinned, God “cannot” let us experience eternal life in his bosom. We “must” pay for our sins, and since we cannot, Jesus pays that price for us.
I put certain words in rhetorical quotes in the previous paragraph because I reject them, just as I reject all language that implies that God is ever bound to do anything. I believe the God is one being in the cosmos who has complete and total freedom. God is the only non-contingent entity, anywhere, ever.
These are statements that I reject as non-sensical:
- God was bound to ________.
- God must do ________.
- God’s character requires that he ________.
- God cannot ________.
You get the point. So here’s an internal conflict in Reformed theology. One the one hand, Reformed theology teaches that God is absolutely sovereign and can do whatever God wants (which I agree with). On the other hand, Reformed theology teaches that God’s sense of justice requires propitiation for human sin. As you can see, those two points are incompatible.
As I’ve laid out in other posts — and hopefully in the forthcoming book — I think there are other reasons for the crucifixion that are far more beautiful, life-giving, and intellectually satisfying than the Reformed answer that Jesus death was in any way required.
So I ultimately agree with you: it’s very troubling to think that Jesus’ death was required. In fact, it’s theologically incompatible with a traditional view of God. Therefore I urge you to reject that notion.