For those who embrace the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory [PSA], the Gospel message seems to hinge upon the need for Jesus to be rejected. In fact, they believe that Jesus NEEDED to die and, in fact, if Jesus didn’t die on the cross then no one would have been forgiven of their sins.
But, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what would have happened if Jesus wasn’t rejected.
What if when Jesus told everyone to love their enemy and turn the other cheek that message had been fully embraced? What if the Pharisees had taken the time to consider the words of Jesus and said, “You know what? We’ve thought about it and we really like what you have to say, Jesus. Please, tells us more about how the Kingdom of God is within us and how we can overcome our oppressors with love?”
Now, imagine if so many people began to follow these teachings of Jesus that even the Romans started to embrace these ideas? What if the faith of the Roman centurion, which Jesus said was greater than anything he had witnessed up to that point, had spread throughout the Roman army? What if eventually Herod and Pilate and even Caesar himself had become convinced by the message of Jesus?
Would that have been a massive failure? Would the spread of this Gospel, this “Good News” of the Kingdom of God, have meant that all of us would remain in our sins? Would the message of Christ have ultimately doomed us all to an eternity in the lake of fire; separated from God forever in a hopeless state of unforgiveness?
I mean, can you imagine the prayer of Jesus on the Mount of Olives going something like this:
“Father, if it be your will, please let someone offer this cup of crucifixion to me. So far, no one wants to kill me. Everyone has listened joyfully to the words you gave me to speak and even the Romans want to know more about who you are and how this Gospel can transform everyone from the inside out. If only someone wanted to crucify me, then I could die and you could forgive these sinful people. But, unfortunately, everyone seems to really love me. Now there’s no way for them to escape your wrath and be saved from their sins.”
Does that make any sense? [I hope not].
Here’s the deal: Jesus forgave sins all the time. He never once waited for someone to even ask for this forgiveness. It was often the first thing out of his mouth; “Your sins are forgiven” [followed by, “What do you want me to do for you?”]
So, forgiving us for our sins wasn’t something that required anyone’s bloodshed. In fact, the only time we ever see Jesus saying “Your sins are forgiven” is BEFORE the cross, not after it. [How’s that bake your noodle?]
If we can try to imagine what would have happened if the message of Jesus had been accepted by everyone – and I believe we should assume that Jesus WANTED everyone to accept it, and that God’s purposes and plans would not have been derailed by that acceptance – then perhaps we can begin to understand just what the Gospel [Good News] of Jesus was actually all about.
“But, didn’t Jesus need to die?” [Someone might ask]
Yes, the death of Jesus was inevitable. Why? Because Christ took on mortal flesh in the Incarnation. This act of immortality taking on mortality meant that – one way or the other – this same Christ would indeed die one day.
Christ’s death was inevitable, yes, but the method of that death was not.
See, when Christ [who is the Author of Life] died and descended into the depths of the grave, it was the catalyst for a chemical reaction whereby death itself was turned inside-out and became transformed by the power of the resurrection. This is why we can say, “Oh Death, where is thy sting?”, because death itself has been touched and forever changed by Life and emptied of all power over mortal flesh.
Because Christ has conquered the grave and death – because Christ lives forevermore – you and I can also live. This is what it means to say that Christ is the first fruits from among the dead.
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” [1 Cor. 15:20-22]
Hey, wait a minute, though. Didn’t the Scriptures predict that the Messiah would suffer and die?
Yes, that’s true. In fact, Jesus himself predicted his arrest, torture and crucifixion as well. He knew human nature and he knew that the people would largely reject him and that those who represented the dominant power structures of the day [both Religious and Political] would invariably see him as a threat.
Part of how Jesus [and the Old Testament prophets] knew that this rejection would take place is simply because it had already happened over and over again: God sent prophets. Those prophets got rejected. Many of them were martyred. This was already an established pattern of human history.
Even Plato [who lived 400 years before Christ] predicted that a truly righteous person would be rejected, beaten and put to death publicly:
“They will say that our just [righteous] man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.” (Ratzinger, Introdruction to Christianity p. 292; cf. Plato, Republic, II.362a)
It would seem that this violent reaction to a man of righteousness was not a big secret to anyone. Indeed, almost everyone was aware of this tendency. Even the pagans.
So, perhaps the message of peace, love and brotherhood might always be met with violent resistance by the crowd and the powers that be. Perhaps this is indeed inevitable. I don’t know.
But, by taking the time to consider the possibilities of what may have happened if our reaction to Jesus not been so violent, I hope we can see the bigger picture of who Christ was and what he hoped to accomplish.
Maybe – just maybe – Jesus didn’t have to die on a cross after all? Maybe the point isn’t necessarily about the death of Jesus? Maybe it’s more about embracing the message of Jesus? Maybe the miracles of Christ’s Incarnation and the Resurrection are sufficient to save us, and restore us and transform us from within?
Again, these are profound questions worthy of our consideration.
But, my main question is still this: If we had listened to Jesus and followed him, would that have been our own undoing? Would that have been a huge failure for Jesus? Would a mass wave of people accepting this Gospel of the Kingdom have doomed us all to remain in our sins forever?
I don’t see how that’s even remotely possible.
What do you think?
Keith’s new book, “Jesus Undefeated: Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment” is available now on Amazon.