What if Jesus Didn't Die?

Over thirty years ago, a hugely controversial movie called The Last Temptation of Christ hit the screens.  It was based on a book with the same title written decades before by Nikos Kazantzakis.  As I recall, it followed the narrative of the novel fairly closely.  The reason the movie caused such a stir--it was a major story in the mainstream press for many weeks--is because it vividly depicted Jesus in situations of real temptation.

While neither the book nor the movie ever showed Jesus falling into sin, and while both Scripture and the Church have always maintained that Jesus was tempted in every way we are--only that He never sinned--the movie pressed the point.  It actually showed Jesus being tempted by many of the same inclinations and desires the rest of us struggle with, such as anger, lust, and revenge. 

The climactic scene in the movie, however, presents Jesus with a temptation none of us would ever have to deal with.  It is a temptation unique to the Son of God.  As Jesus hangs dying on the Cross, the Devil comes to tempt Him one last time--hence, the title of the book.  In this, His greatest temptation, the devil has Jesus look at the people walking by, jeering him: “If you’re the Son of God, come down off that cross!”  Satan tells Jesus he can make that happen and still make it so that Jesus accomplishes His mission to save the World.  He also tells Jesus that he can give Him everything His heart has always desired: a wife and children, and a long and happy life.

Jesus gives in.  He takes the Devil’s offer, coming down off the Cross and proving to the crowds, who go from calling for His crucifixion to adoring Him, that He is indeed the Son of God.  His mission to establish the Kingdom of God and save the World flourishes.  He gets married and has kids and, throughout a long and happy and successful life, is surrounded by all His apostles and friends, who praise and laud him.

At a ripe old age, He approaches a natural and peaceful death.  He is now also surrounded by all his children and grandchildren.  But everything starts to fall apart.  Everyone turns on him, calling Him a deceiver, a traitor.  All He accomplished unravels.  Finally, on His deathbed, the Devil returns one last time and says, in so many words: “Gotcha!  You took the last and greatest temptation of mine.  You came off that Cross and it cost you the salvation of the World.”

Right then, the camera makes a hard shift back to the Cross.  As He hangs dying, Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Then He breathes His last and dies.  This last temptation has brought Jesus right to the brink.  But in the end, He doesn’t give in.  He does die on the Cross.  He does save the World. 

The movie, however, raises a provocative question: What if Jesus didn’t die?  That also happens to be one of several fantastic (and related) questions someone recently asked, which I’m addressing in this and next week’s blogs. 

So, what if Jesus didn’t atone for our sins on the Cross?  The simple answer is: We wouldn’t be here.  We wouldn’t exist.  Without the Cross, human beings--beings endowed with free will--couldn’t exist.  Without the Cross, God would not be able to permit sin and at the same time love us as His own dear, beloved children.  Without the Cross, His heart wouldn’t break when we suffer the fallout of living in a free, but broken and sinful world.

I was doing some work at a coffee shop last week when two teenagers sat at a table nearby.  They were talking so loudly I couldn’t help overhearing much of their conversation.  One of them was sharing about her experience in a previous school she went to.  Apparently, there was a group of “mean girls” there who bullied her.  They were so vicious and cruel, they made her life miserable.  As she spoke, my heart broke.  And I was just a stranger who didn’t know her from Adam!  I can’t imagine how her parents felt.  How much they must have agonized over their daughter. 

Of course, they could have prevented the whole thing.  They could have kept her--and themselves--from all this agony just by locking her in her room and never letting her come out.  Then she could never get hurt and they wouldn’t ever have to suffer watching it.  But then, of course, she wouldn’t thrive as a person.  She could never live her life.  Being locked away safe in her room would be a far more tragic state of affairs.  It would be like she had never lived.

Indeed, locking her in her room would be an extreme and unrealistic solution to bullying.  But, very loosely, it’s similar to the position God is in with us.  He could have chosen to spare Himself all the agony loving a fallen creation would cause Him and just not create us in the first place.  It would literally have been as if we had never lived.

See, when human beings fell into sin it didn’t take God by surprise.  He didn’t go “Oops!  Didn’t see that one coming.”  No, He knew that if He created us, this would happen.  Which means He also knew that, in order to create free creatures capable of love, He would have to make himself vulnerable to all the suffering, all the horrific evil and pain, our sin would cause. 

We can’t love God--or anyone else--unless we have free will.  God can’t love us if He’s not willing to suffer with us.  If we are free to sin--and actually do--then He can only go on loving us if He’s willing to somehow absorb the excruciating effects of our sin, to actually feel all the pain and suffering it causes.  Before creating us, God knew we would hurt one another in vicious and cruel ways.  He knew that, like a loving parent, He would agonize over us.  He knew that our sin would break His heart.   

And, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, the Cross is what enables the Transcendent God to be this vulnerable--in an eternal moment.  To actually feel our pain.  To agonize over us.  To absorb all the awful consequences of sin in a moment in time that marks God, who exists outside of space and time, for all eternity.  For the eternal God, the impact of the Cross on Him reaches back before creation and enables Him through all time to love us despite our sin.

From God’s side of things, the Cross is how a holy God is able to absorb the offense of sin.  The Cross is how He becomes vulnerable to all the consequences of our sin so that, at the same time, He can feel true compassion for the victims of sin and stand with them in justice and love.  The Cross is how God’s heart breaks for His children and the misery they suffer at the hands of sin.  The Cross is the only way to bring into existence free creatures capable of love. 

But--I was also asked--what about all the people who lived before Jesus, or all those since who have never heard the Gospel?  What difference does the Cross make for them? 

So far, I have been talking about how the Cross affects God in His relationship to creation, in other words, from God’s side of things, what is often called the “Objective Atonement.”  And from God’s side of things, the Cross makes all the difference.  How?  Without it, no human being could ever have been created.  No human being would ever have a chance at life--or eternal life.  So even those who never knew Christ benefit immensely from the Cross.  

Next week, I’ll talk about the “Subjective Atonement”, how the Cross affects us; how, from our side of things, it makes all the difference.  In the process, I’ll answer the other two questions that were submitted along with these.

From God’s side, though, if Jesus didn’t die on the Cross, you wouldn’t be here.  Neither would I.  We would never have had the opportunity to enter into a loving relationship with our Creator, to know the ecstasy of eternal life with Him. 

The Cross is the Condition for Creation. Everything--everything--hinges on it. 

Does it make sense to you how, from God’s side of things, the Cross works?  Or does the Cross seem irrelevant, like it wouldn’t matter one way or the other?  I’d love to hear your comments or any other questions or feedback you have!  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave them there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

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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