It's surprisingly difficult to answer the question: "How it is that Jesus dying on a cross opens up a relationship with God?" In fact, the Church has grappled with various atonement theories for centuries. Chris Goswami explains what the major issues are, and why it matters
Many Protestant Christians think they are following Jesus, the God of the Bible, but in truth they have turned him into Molech - the angry God of the Canaanites. He storms about in the Old Testament (Leviticus 20:1-3) and furiously demands that humans must make child sacrifices to him. He is not nice.
The above paragraph is broadly what Bible scholars and Christian authors such as Brad Jersak and Steve Chalke say. Many Christians today wrongly see God as angry, vengeful, and desiring blood, they argue. And they're not alone! Some churches have stopped singing the hymn 'In Christ Alone' because it contains the lines “And on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”. The accusation is that this famous modern day hymn depicts God as a vengeful deity, like Molech.
A Western understanding
In the 11th Century the Western church split with the Eastern church. After this happened, the two sides developed their own understanding of how the cross works. Both sought to answer the question: "How it is that Jesus dying on a cross opens up a relationship with God?"
The Western church (which would later split again into Protestant and Catholic) based their understanding on the idea of a law-court. There has been a crime (sin), so somehow there has to be a suitable punishment, a repayment for wrongs done. So, the innocent Jesus is crucified, and justice is served, as in a law-court. This theory of the cross is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA (but don’t mention PSA to your GP or strange conversations will follow).
An Eastern understanding
But our brothers and sisters in the Eastern orthodox church say PSA is barbaric – it makes God out to be some kind of angry tyrant. The idea of “an angry God demanding his pound of flesh” is crude and mistaken, they say. Instead of thinking about a lawcourt they use the image of a hospital. The world is terminally sick, and the cause of our sickness is death which entered an otherwise perfect world because of sin. The cure for this is that Jesus himself must enter death to battle with and defeat death, from the inside. This theory is called Christus Victor or Christ as conqueror. Humanity’s greatest problem, it states, is that the devil and his works have enslaved humanity through the fear of death. But, through Jesus, death is put to death.
Supporters of Christus Victor argue that PSA is about sacrifice, but God increasingly distances himself from sacrifices through the Old Testament. And, sure enough, there are passages such as Hosea 6:6 (later quoted by Jesus): "I desire mercy not sacrifice". Or the passage in Micah 6 about God wanting not sacrifice, but for us "to act justly love mercy and walk humbly". According to Christus Victor, mercy triumphs over sacrifice. Mercy triumphs even over judgement.
There are other theories of the cross too (and yes, there are verses in scripture to defend all of them).
Why does it matter?
It matters if we want people to understand the cross.
People who argue against PSA say that it is incomprehensible to non-Christians who, in general, have a strong sense of fair play. “God sending someone else to die instead of you” isn’t fair, they say. I can relate to that. As a young man there was one idea that stopped me becoming a Christian for many weeks. It was exactly this idea of fair play. To me it seemed appalling that someone else should die a terrible death for stuff I had done. In the end, however, my Christian friends persuaded me that God loved me so much, it was already done - I could continue being shocked, or I could accept it. I accepted it.
But there is another was of looking at PSA and it comes from our experience as parents. If you are a parent, you will know that you would do pretty much anything for your child. Your love for them is often greater than your love for yourself. So much so that, as parents, we have sometimes wished whatever illness or calamity our child was suffering upon ourselves. I know I have, and I know others have. Both Jersak and Chalke skip over the point of parental grief. That’s a mistake. Father and Son are one in ways we cannot fathom; surely the pain of the Father in witnessing the death of his Son was crushing, devastating.
And PSA raises another difficult question: Why does God ask us to forgive others freely if he doesn’t forgive us freely? Demanding the death of innocent Jesus and then saying to us, “I forgive you” – well that’s not free.
But again, surely our forgiveness for each other is only “free” because of the death of Jesus?
One Gospel – more than one understanding
Penal Substitutionary Atonement is often taught as the only Gospel truth. That’s a great shame as Christus Victor and other mainstream understandings of the cross each give us a new insight into the heart of God, and a historical event which is hard to get our heads around.
Thankfully in the end we don’t need to know exactly how or why the cross works. I’m not even sure we can know. We just need to embrace it.