On the face of it, it’s absurd.  Perhaps even offensive.  The Son of God must die in our place to save us from our sins.  This is what God’s justice requires in order for Him to be able to forgive us; the only way for Him to reconcile His justice with His mercy.  Known as the doctrine of the Atonement, it’s one of the central doctrines of Christianity.  And it’s riddled with problems:

First, it sounds suspiciously like the sacrificial cults of primitive religions.  The shed blood of the Son replaces the shed blood of an animal.  What kind of God needs to be appeased this way?  It’s so petty.  And the whole notion of blood sacrifice is archaic.  We’ve evolved so far beyond this, the Cross stands as a relic of superstitious belief.

Second, how is this not a case of Divine child abuse?  The Father sends the Son while He supposedly waits in Heaven for His wrath to be satisfied by Jesus’s suffering and death.  This Father-God needs His “pound of flesh”—if not ours then His Son’s—before He can forgive.  Not only is He abusive, He’s vindictive and arbitrary to boot.

Third and most problematic, why can’t God just forgive us?  If He’s so loving and merciful, why can’t He just excuse our sin, declare it forgiven and be done with it?  Why does He need to go through such a ridiculous and costly gesture?  Why does anybody need to suffer and die?  It seems as though He is bound by some standard of justice He created and, as God, should be free to change! 

The whole thing is nonsensical: What possible connection is there between our sin and His death on a cross?   How does an innocent person’s death—even if they are God—pay for someone else’s sin?  What possible connection is there between believing in Him and having our sin wiped away?

I once taught a highly intelligent student who loved everything she was learning about Jesus, especially His life and teachings.  She was very open to believing in Him.  However, the one hurdle she just couldn’t get over was the Cross.  It was so absurd to her, that, as far as I know, she could never bring herself to believe in Him.

I feel her pain.  I get how someone can save someone else from drowning.  I get how they might even end up sacrificing their life in a failed rescue attempt.  But the Son of God sacrificing His life on a cross to save us from our sin is like someone diving into a pond and drowning in an attempt to save someone trapped in a building fire!  What’s the connection between the Cross and our sin?

Even the early church recognized the absurdity of this belief.  In I Corinthians 1:18-25, Paul speaks about the “folly” or foolishness of the cross.  He goes on to say that it is the “wisdom” of God.  But he never explains how.  This smacks of blind faith, as if absurdity is the criterion for belief—the less sense something makes, the more faith is required to see its wisdom.  Just believe!

As a skeptic, I categorically reject this kind of faith.

So how could someone like me, someone who needs so see the logic to believe, ever have accepted this doctrine, a doctrine that is so central to Christian faith?

Simple.  The Resurrection.  Because I couldn’t deny the evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead, that He is God, I could accept that the Atonement, no matter how absurd it seemed, was true; I could trust that it was necessary to reconcile us to God even though I couldn’t begin to comprehend how. 

Jesus made it very clear, especially at the Last Supper, that He was dying in order to save us from our sin.  (Few scholars today deny the historicity of His words and actions at the Last Supper because they were so scandalous—eating human flesh and drinking blood, the symbolic action Jesus chose to explain the substitutionary sacrifice He was about to make on the Cross in order to reconcile humanity to God, were absolutely abhorrent to First-Century Jews and, hence, too embarrassing for the Church to invent.)  And anyone who can come back from the dead should be trusted! 

If Jesus is risen from the dead, then the Atonement is true whether or not we understand it.

Having said this however, there is good reason to think the Atonement is true—if the Cross actually is what it claims to be, it has to appear absurd to us.

Here’s how: If the Cross actually is the substitutionary sacrifice that reconciles God’s justice and mercy within Himself, then it is a transcendent transaction.  As something that happens within God, it is something infinite.  Finite creatures like us couldn’t possibly fully comprehend it. 

If the Cross is what it claims to be, then, we should expect that it would lay beyond our understanding, that it would seem absurd to us.

In fact, if we (finite creatures) did fully comprehend it, it couldn’t be that thing that needs to happen within God for us to be reconciled to Him.  The absurdity of the Atonement actually confirms that it is exactly what it purports to be.

One last thing.  Even though the Resurrection led me to accept the doctrine of the Atonement as a divine transaction I would never be able to fully comprehend, over the years I’ve had a hard time leaving it this way.  And much to my surprise, I’ve stumbled upon a couple of explanations and analogies that start to make compelling sense of it.  They can’t fully describe the inner working of God, the infinite transaction at the heart of the Atonement.  But they do reveal how the Atonement is absolutely necessary. 

In future blogs, I will share how I came to see that a God who creates free creatures out of love would have to do this very thing in order to save us from our sin.  While human reason could never have guessed the Atonement, once revealed, a higher rationality begins to emerge; it begins to make profound sense.

If you would like to read more articles like this, please “Like” the Raising Jesus Facebook page so we can update you on future blogs, videos, and announcements.  You can also contact me directly by going to the “Contact E.J.” page on the Raising Jesus website.  I’d love to hear your questions and comments.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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