Is the Cross Unjust?

In response to my post last week on the importance of the resurrection, I received this honest and thoughtful comment: “I’ve had discussions with various friends who tell me that Jesus’s death as well as the Old Testament scriptures makes it seem like we have a God that requires blood sacrifice to be happy. That seems really pagan and messed up to a lot of people, so how do we resolve this?” Since many people, including some confessing Christians, express doubts and even objections to the idea of God requiring Christ’s painful and bloody death on the cross as payment for our sins, this is an important question. And what better time than Good Friday to talk about Christ’s death? So here are a few thoughts that I think bear on the issue.

One place we might begin is to consider an oft-quoted portion of C. S. Lewis’ essay “God in the Dock,” found in the outstanding collection that bears the same name (note that the “dock” in an English courtroom is the place where the accused sits):

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

I bring this up because it introduces an important point. If the biblical God really exists, he is the sovereign Lord over all creation. He is also the definitive standard of both righteousness and love. In fact, we wouldn’t even have any meaningful notion of what these things were if not for him. So then, the question needs to be respectfully raised: what justification might we have to object to his requiring a sacrifice of blood for sin? Put more broadly, what right do we have to stand in judgment of God? With what standard will we take his measure and find him lacking?

On the other hand, if God exists, but he’s not always represented accurately in the Bible, how can we know him? Who gets to decide what God is and isn’t like? Do we leave it to every person to form his or her own opinion? How then do we judge between conflicting views? Should we rather leave it to a group of scholars to sift through the errors and falsities of the Bible and pronounce authoritatively on who God is? But then what do we do with the tendency for each generation of such scholars no longer tethered to the biblical witness to find God to be very similar to their own image? Can we trust in these pictures? Won’t a new generation challenge the prevailing view soon enough?

Considering a third alternative: if we claim God’s supposed bloodthirsty nature is an argument that he does not exist, we run into still another problem: where do we get our notions of just and unjust, right and wrong, good and bad, etc. Lewis is again illustrative here. Concerning the charge he had once leveled at God, he writes this in Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

Substitute the word “God” for “universe” and the force of Lewis’ argument is brought to bear on our own question. If you dismiss God’s existence on the basis that it would be too cruel and unjust to subject his Son to horrifying suffering on the cross, where will you find any suitable foundation on which to support your view of justice in the first place? Who or what determines what is just in a world without God?

All these arguments are admittedly presented in their barest form. And while I believe them all to have a great deal of force in the end, we would do well to consider their ability to answer various objections, a task beyond the limits of this post. At a bare minimum, however, I hope to suggest that taking God to task for requiring Christ’s blood as atonement for sin is not so easily done.

Having said all of that, I do want to affirm that both the OT and NT present the idea that a sacrifice of blood is needed to deal with our sin against God—with the OT examples actually pointing forward to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ shedding his own blood on the cross. Moreover, I would argue that God’s sending his Son to be crucified makes a great deal of sense when placed in the larger biblical framework, a framework that (1) portrays God’s own holiness and righteousness, as well as his sovereign and rightful claim on our allegiance, as being much more profound than we might otherwise think (see, for example, Psa. 96:9; Isa. 6:1-5; Rev. 4:11, 15:3-4), and (2) maintains that our sin against him is consequently a very, very serious matter, justly deserving God’s wrath and ultimately our death (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 6:23). Not incidentally, this is why so many people are shown in the Bible to be scared spitless when confronted with God’s holy and glorious presence.

But though these things are central and non-negotiable in the biblical perspective, they don’t present us with the entire picture. The God whose righteous nature issues in his deliberate and appropriate wrath against sin is also repeatedly described as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (see Exo. 34:6; Psa. 103:8; Jonah 4:2, etc.). Further, the apostle John can even make the incredibly significant assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

This leads to the central tension of the biblical storyline: how can God demonstrate both his righteousness, which relentlessly demands a just payment for sin, and his love and mercy toward people who stand guilty of rebellion against him? His solution to this dilemma is the cross. Paul explains in a crucially important passage of his letter to the Romans:

For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:22-26)

Though page after page could be written on the significance of these verses, I’ll make only three important points:

1. Because of his righteousness, God cannot pass over sins forever. He must deal with them (v.26).

2. God therefore put forth Jesus as a “propitiation” (NIV: “atonement”) by his blood. The word denotes a sacrifice for the satisfaction of wrath. Christ’s death on the cross fully met his righteous requirement of punishment for sin. (Indeed, it was the only sacrifice available to us that could do so–see Hebrews 10).

3. God did this so he could be both “just,” in that he exacted the proper payment for sin, and the “justifier,” the one who, motivated by his mercy and love and solely on the merit of his Son, accepts those who place their faith in Christ as perfectly righteous in his eyes and consequently no longer deserving of punishment (see Rom. 5:1; Eph. 1:7, 2:4-9; 2 Cor. 5:21)

Seen in this light, God sending his beloved Son to the cross is revealed as nothing like blood soaked barbarism. It is instead a carefully purposed act of both perfect justice and astounding mercy, the very heart of the good news that is the biblical gospel.

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