I was brought up in an evangelical Christian home, and the standard explanation went something like this:
- We have all sinned and sin needs to be punished.
- But - God loves us and doesn't want to punish us.
- So, God sent Jesus in our place - to take the punishment we deserved on the cross so that we could be forgiven.
- If I accept what Jesus has done for me then my sins can be forgiven and after I die I can spend eternity with God in heaven.
There's lots of things that are good about this explanation, one or two things that aren't so good, some bits that people tend to struggle with, and quite a lot of stuff that I still don't fully understand.
One part that people do often seem to have trouble with is number 3. If I deserve to be punished, then how is it in any way fair or good for God to punish Jesus in my place? Personally however, I've never particularly had a problem with this - not because I see God as an angry tyrant who is happy to punish the innocent instead of the guilty, but because of the way I see Jesus. I see Jesus as God. I see Him and the Father as somehow one and yet separate at the same time. I can't fully explain this, but based on my experience, in my head and in my heart (and also in classical Christian theology) it somehow seems to fit. What Jesus did was a voluntary act, but it was also an act of self-sacrifice on God's own part! It was about Him laying Himself down on our behalf, not about Him punishing somebody else who didn't deserve it (and it was us who doled out the punishment here in any case...)
I think another valid question though, is why does wrongdoing even need to be punished in the first place? Why can't God just forgive us without either sacrificing Himself, or punishing someone else instead? After all, we forgive each other all the time without dishing out any punishment (at least, many of us do anyway...), so why can't God just do the same?
I still don't have a perfect answer to that question, but as an older Christian I have become aware that there are many different ways of appreciating what Jesus did on the cross - many analogies if you like - and they may not all be perfect in every way, but they do help to deepen our understanding of what was going on. I've also become more and more aware that there was a lot more going on at the cross than I first realised (and probably still a lot more that I'm not yet able to appreciate!) Jesus didn't just die to achieve a straightforward substitution of him for me, so that I could go to a better place when I died - what he did was a lot more profound and revolutionary than that!
I've recently been quite struck by Tom Wright's take on this in "How God Became King". At one point in this book, Wright draws the reader's attention to a story in chapter 10 of Mark's gospel, where James and John - two of Jesus' disciples - ask him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory". Just to put this in context, his disciples believed at this point that Jesus was the "Messiah" - who was the subject of many Jewish prophecies - and presumably still had fairly traditional ideas about what this meant. They were expecting him to overthrow the Romans somehow and establish his own kingdom, and James and John were trying to make sure they got the best positions in the new order! Unsurprisingly this attempt wasn't particularly well received by the rest of the group! There then follows some teaching from Jesus about his somewhat unconventional approach to power, in which he emphasises the importance of servanthood in the kingdom which he is about to establish (and also of suffering, although in quite cryptic terms at this point). Jesus also informs James and John that, "to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
Later on in Mark chapter 15, after Jesus has been betrayed and condemned to die, the story continues:
And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor's headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute Him, "Hail, King of the Jews!This then, is the new Kingdom which Jesus has set out to inaugurate! And these are the privileged positions which the two disciples had been clamouring for!
And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. [my emphasis]
The double-irony of this story is that the Romans were mocking Jesus for having failed in his mission, but in doing so they were, without realising it, confirming the very success of what he had come to achieve! - this was the inauguration of his new Kingdom! This was to be a Kingdom based on love and self-sacrifice, not on power imposed on others, by force, against their will. This wasn't just the creation of a new Kingdom, it was the creation of a completely new type of Kingdom - one that would subvert all the other kingdoms of the world because it was based on entirely different principles!
Conventional logic says that this kind of Kingdom shouldn't work, but as well as challenging our understanding of power, this approach also challenges our understanding of God Himself. This is a God who comes to serve and to lay down His life, not a God who imposes His will imperiously from above. If this is what God is like, then this can work because He is the author of life and He has made all of us in His image. This is the message of the resurrection - that love wins, life triumphs over death and evil and oppression will not get the last word!
If the resurrection didn't happen then this is a nice story with a powerful message but you have to question whether it really has any lasting significance. But if it really did happen then the world is not the same way up as it appears to be. The poor and the merciful and the righteous really will be blessed and the meek really will inherit the earth - although if Jesus' example is anything to go by then getting there may not be an easy ride! The kingdoms of this world that rely on coercion and control are on their way out. A new world order has arrived and is already undermining and subverting them.
This is the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish and it is the Kingdom which I am a part of. I have to admit that I sometimes (OK, often!) struggle to get my head (and my heart) around its principles! It is a Kingdom that has often not been well represented by those who have claimed to be its ambassadors - either because it was too radical for them to fully take to heart or comprehend, or because they have had an entirely different, and much more this-current-worldly agenda! But it is a Kingdom that lives on in Jesus and in all those who (however much they fail) in honesty of heart try to follow him. And it is the Kingdom that will triumph in the end!
And this is the Messiah who I serve. A Messiah - and a God - full of grace. A God who has taken the worst that I can throw at Him and has responded with love and with forgiveness for all of my sins. A God who, in the end, has won and subverted (and is continuing to subvert) my heart!
Upside down God, turn my heart right-side up!
Upside down God, turn my life right-way up!