When the release of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ hit theaters, it turned the world's eye to a real event that occurred over 2,000 years ago. Some today are now asking how such violence could be an expression of love on the part of a compassionate God. Even though the brutality of the cross was indeed real, one must ask if Hollywood is better at depicting violence than it is at explaining Divine compassion.
Is it possible that this movie may have focused more on the shadow of the cross than the sunlight of the cross? Could it have exaggerated a true and ugly focal point in a story that is much larger and much more beautiful?
In the Bible the cross is at the center of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, between the forces of darkness and light. The Bible has more to say about the freedom, joy, and happiness brought about by the cross than it does about the letting of blood.
The cross is a revelation to our dull senses, of the pain which any departure from perfect happiness causes to the heart of God. The Bible says "...and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him as one who is in bitterness for his firstborn" (Zechariah 12:10). Here God uses the tender compassion that fathers and mothers feel for their firstborn child to depict the tragedy of sin.
God also used the sacrifice of lambs in the Bible to demonstrate how sin hurts the innocent. The Bible says of Christ "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not his mouth; He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7). Many are rightly sensitive to cruelty to animals. Some are appalled that God would allow people to sacrifice animals. In times past God used the display of love for animals as a vivid illustration of how sin crushes the innocent. Today we have little sense of the tragedy of sin. Sometimes it is easier for fallen humans to hate cruelty to animals while practicing cruelty to God.
Why did Jesus have to die in order for human beings to be saved?
A part of the answer lies in the fact that a just and perfect God could not simply sweep sin under the carpet and go on running a perfect universe. God must deal with the injustice of sin. Suppose a criminal should come before a judge and that judge would simply excuse a crime of murder, rape, or theft simply because the judge loved the criminal. What would society think of such a judge?
The Bible says: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right" (Genesis 19:25). Selfishness has a natural consequence that eventually results in death to the innocent (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, the Judge, assumed the consequence of sin on the part of man, rather than inflict death upon the sinner. That consequence was death.
How does Jesus' death save us?
Martin Luther said that as God, He could not die, so He became man in order to die. On the cross, he accepted the sin of man against Himself. As a perfectly innocent man he accepted the injustice of man against man.
The death of Christ accomplishes reconciliation, or reconnecting us back to God. Romans 3:25 says, "...whom God set forth as a propitiation" for our sins. "Propitiation" literally means "something that appeases a deity." However, in the Biblical sense it means much more than this. It can mean to "accept hurt", to "forgive", to "show mercy." As sinners we transgress God's perfect law and have no legal right to exist. But God himself who sits as Judge accepts the hurt, pays the price, forgives, and offers mercy.
If a husband should say a harsh word against his wife, and the wife does not retaliate, but lets the word fall upon her heart and crush her spirit; if she forgives and treats her husband as though he had offered only words of praise she pays the price of his sin against her.
It is this way that God pays the price of our salvation. The Bible does not say that Jesus paid a propitiation, but that He is a propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2; 4:10). This means that He, being God, bears the hurt in order to give mercy and forgiveness.
The Bible has many other ways to show how God Himself bears our sinfulness in order to bring us back into fellowship with Him. The story of the prodigal son is one example (Luke 15:11-32). In this story, the father representing our Heavenly Father, accepted the son back into his home and heart even though the son had taken things that could not be restored.
This is what God is like. The cross speaks to mankind for all time. It is graphic enough to reach the most hardened criminal, as well as the most sensitive humanist. Christianity not only acknowledges the cruelty to God in the cross, but dwells on the reconciliation that was won by the cross. The Bible says: "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Romans 5:10).
Christianity focuses on the loving favor God bestowed upon each one who receives the salvation of the cross. The Bible says: "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). This means that peace with God, eternal life, and a glorious future are ours through the sacrifice of Jesus. We may never fully understand it, but we experience the peace, love, and joy that flow from the cross.
Why did Jesus need to die in order to forgive us?
There is another reason which is often overlooked. Satan tried to use God's perfect righteousness as a reason why God should not save sinners. Satan accused God of being a self-serving Judge, saving man for God's own benefit. Thus it was necessary for Jesus to die in order to answer this question before the entire universe (Rev. 12:10, 5:9, 12). This accusation of Satan was cast down at the cross, when Jesus demonstrated to the universe that He, a member of the Godhead, was perfectly unselfish, even unto death.
The unfallen beings of the universe could see that God did indeed become flesh and that Jesus tasted of eternal death. He died under the condemnation of our sins. The Bible says "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, "Cursed is every one who hangeth on a tree" (Galatians 3:13). This curse was recognized to be eternal loss. When Jesus accepted the consequence of our sin against Himself, He could not see beyond the portals of the tomb. He said: "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death" (Matthew 26:38) and "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Mark 15:34).
He was fully conscious that He was God, yet existing as man He was willing to accept the hostility of sin against himself and die rather than treat sinful mankind as they deserve. What greater argument could be set forth to demonstrate unselfishness? This gives a perfect God a perfect right to save sinners.
Sinners may receive this justification and become safe to save (Romans 5:17)! Repentance comes as we see how our sins treated Christ (Acts 5:31). When we confess our sins and ask Him to remove sin from our lives, He will give us power to become safe to save (1 John 1:9, John 3, 1 John 3:9). As we receive this salvation we will seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and live a life of love by His power.
The book, Desire of the Ages, has been recognized by many as one of the best books ever written on the life of Christ because of its spiritual discernment and practical application. We include links below to a few of the chapters from this book that describe our Savior's life, death, and resurrection.