"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21-23).
The apostle Paul predicted long ago that many people will view "the message of the cross" as foolish and impossible to believe. On an internet forum, a user by the name of Skeptikitten said that, "Christianity is illogical in general. To claim that a god needed to sacrifice a human form of himself TO himself in order to forgive mankind for the horrible crime of simply being human because their ancient ancestors (a dirt man and a rib woman) ate a magic fruit given to them by a talking snake is just ridiculous."
I have spoken with many atheists recently who share this view. Just as Paul predicted, they view the story of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection as "foolishness."
On one hand, Paul is clear that God purposefully chose this means of redemption so as to weed out the prideful and the arrogant. God is "pleased" when His message is humbly believed and obeyed, not when men believe only because their intellect is satiated. It's as James says in James 4:6, "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." So I have no intention of making "the message of the cross" easier for you to believe by compromising, making excuses, pleading with you to see how reasonable it is, and so on.
On the other hand, I do believe that there are some misconceptions out there about the cross and why Jesus had to die for our sins.
In this article, I'd like to provide a concise explanation of biblical salvation.
Created in God's Image
The crescendo of God's creative work was/is mankind. This is evident in Genesis 1:26 when God says,
"Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
God made us different from all the animals. He made us in His image in the sense that we have an eternal spirit, or "inward man" (Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:2). In other words, God created us to be different. Why did He do this? Because He wanted to create a being with whom He could enjoy intimate, eternal fellowship.
God's desire for fellowship with man is clear from the very beginning. He placed man in the Garden of Eden, or paradise, and was in the habit of "walking in the garden" with man (Gen. 3:8).
But a relationship that is forced - a relationship that isn't optional - is hardly a relationship. We all understand this. And so God gave man free-will by instituting law. This way, man could choose to remain in a relationship with God or to disobey and remove himself from God's fellowship. The blessings of obedience were indeed great...but there were - and had to be - consequences for disobedience...
The Penalty of Death
There are consequences for committing a crime. On a practical level, a fear of consequences often (and should) deters us from committing crimes, even when those crimes might be appealing to us. While some laws seem arbitrary, they are generally intended for our benefit and/or for the greater benefit of society. In this sense, consequences not only intimidate us, they actually help us to live a more fruitful and happy life, and for others around us to do the same.
In the Bible, sin is any transgression of God's law (1 John 3:4). And just as we are punished by the civil authorities when we violate the law of the land, we are subject to divine punishment when we violate the law of God. As I explained in the previous section, it is a very serious thing when we sin against the holy God who created us in his image. Therefore, He has deemed that sin is a capital crime.
This is seen in the very beginning:
"Of every tree of the Garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:16-17).
God warned Adam and Eve of the consequences of sin. When they did eventually sin, they could't blame God; they only had themselves to blame.
Now, did Adam and Eve die the instant they sinned? Not physically. Satan actually used this to deceive Eve when he said, "You will not surely die" (Gen. 3:4). You see, they didn't die physically, but they did die spiritually!
Death is defined in the Bible as a separation. Physically, it is the separation of the soul from the body (James 2:26). Spiritually, it is the separation of man from God.
"But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Is. 59:2).
"The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4).
"For the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23).Of course, Adam and Eve's sin did also result in physical death in that it caused them to be expelled from the Tree of Life, which had the potential to grant them immortality (Gen. 2:22). We are all subject to physical death because of that "original sin," but we are only subject to spiritual death when we sin.
Unfortunately, we all eventually choose to sin. That makes this a global problem.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned..." (Rom. 5:12).
We all follow in Adam's footsteps by choosing to sin. Because "the wages of sin is death," we have all separated ourselves from God; we are all spiritually dead. If we do not resolve this problem before we physically die, we face eternal separation from God - the ultimate punishment.
When we sin, the consequence is eternal death, or separation from God. This is a fate from which we, seemingly, cannot escape. Thankfully, God is willing to accept the death of something else in our place. This is the idea of a substitute sacrifice.
This first took place in Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve sinned, God "made tunics of skin, and clothed them" (Gen. 3:21). Where did the tunics of skin come from? From an animal that had to die because of their sin. In this case, the sacrifice literally covered them.
But also consider these verses...
"For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30).
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Leviticus 17:11).
"And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22).
This is also seen in the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12. God was going to kill the firstborn sons of the Egyptians as the final act of judgment against Egypt. To avoid this fate, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and "take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it" (vs. 7). Notice verse 13...
"Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt."
Again, this is the idea of a substitute sacrifice.
Throughout the Old Testament period - for thousands of years - untold millions of animals were sacrificed to atone for man's sin. When an animal died, it took the penalty for our sin - death! Therefore, the shedding of blood through death allowed man to regain access to God...to be in fellowship with Him again and to have eternal life.
An Imperfect System
It's true that God commanded His people to offer up animal sacrifices for thousands of years. By doing this, they received atonement for their sins.
But do you remember how, according to Genesis 1:26-27, mankind was made in the very image of God? And do you remember how God gave us dominion over the earth and all the animals? Here's what I'm getting at: something that is of much lower value than us and isn't equal to us can't be seen as a proper substitute.
The Bible confirms this...
"For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4).
The book of Hebrews, especially chapters 9-10, explain this more fully. Without getting into all the details, there is one question that is worth answering: what was the purpose of killing millions of animals if they couldn't provide total redemption from their sins? I'll come back to this.
It was the imperfection of the Law of Moses and the system of animal sacrifice that warranted a better sacrifice and a more perfect system. This was accomplished through...
...you guessed it! Jesus Christ!
"Behold, the Lamb of God..."
Throughout the Old Testament, we find prophecies and foreshadowing of a coming Savior. These prophecies have a common theme: someone would come that would offer true and total redemption to the whole world!
Consider this partial list of such prophesies:
- Abraham would have a descendant that would bless ALL nations (Genesis 12:3).
- Moses foretold a prophet to whom Israel would turn (Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22).
- A descendant of David would reign as the Son of God (1 Chron. 17:10-14).
- He would be pierced in His hands and feet (Psalm 22:16).
- There are over 60 such prophecies.
But take special notice of this one in Isaiah 53...
"Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth" (vs. 4-7).
Someone was coming who would be our substitute sacrifice, and unlike the millions of bulls and goats that the Jews had slain for thousands of years, His sacrifice would be perfect.
Lo and behold, at just the right time in history (according to the prophecies in Daniel), Jesus was born of the virgin Mary as the "Son of God." When He began His ministry at 30 years of age, John the Baptist - the one sent by God to set the stage for Jesus - said the following when he saw Jesus walked toward him...
"Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).You know the rest of the story. Jesus performed miracles, taught in parables, preached the coming kingdom...and was eventually betrayed, arrested, tried, scourged and crucified. His hands and feet were pierced. His blood was spilled. And when the prophecies were all fulfilled - and after years of ministry - He said three simple words.
It. Is. Finished.
Three days later, He was resurrected from the grave to show His power over death, and to show us that, through Him, we can overcome death...
"But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:20-21).
"Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus was our substitute sacrifice. He died on our behalf and shed His blood that we might have life once again - eternal life and fellowship with God. This had been God's plan all along. We call it the "scheme of redemption" which God had "foreordained before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:17-21). Paul called it the "mystery" of God which unfolded throughout the Old Testament and which was revealed in the New Testament (Eph. 3:1-7).
It's also important to understand that Jesus' sacrifice atoned for all the sins that had been committed under the old law (Hebrews 9:15). The animal sacrifices had "rolled" the people's sins forward to Jesus. When He died, the faithful of old acquired total redemption.
Yes, Jesus "paid it all" for you and me.
The Love of God
Why did Jesus have to do this? As I pointed out earlier in this article, many people find it absurd that God had to sacrifice Himself to save us from Himself. This wording is a bit misleading, and is intended to make God's plan look and sound absurd. This meme (at right) is yet another attempt by Bible skeptics to highlight the apparent "absurdity" of the gospel message.
Here's a better way of putting it: God sacrificed Himself for us to deliver us from a fiery fate that was never intended for us (Matthew 25:41) but that we deserved, and to give us something that we don't deserve - eternal life with Him.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
"But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 2:5).And my personal favorite...
"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).You see, we have chosen to sin and have sealed our own fate. Rather than viewing the sacrifice as an absurd, tyrannical act with ulterior motives, we need to see it as the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice.
You've lit your own house on fire, and Jesus is knocking on the door saying, "Let me in so I can save you from the fate you've fixed for yourself." You've jumped into the swirling, foaming water and are going to drown; Jesus has extended His arm to deliver you from the tempest...but you have to accept His offer. You've sinned and have chosen to live outside of His grace; if you die in such a state, your fate is sealed. God saw your condition and gave His only Son to die for you, and He's pleading with you to return to the light.
"'For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,' says the Lord God. 'Therefore turn and live!'" (Ezekiel 18:32).
"...so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).
"The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
Your eternal fate is in your hands. God has done everything; He has made all the preparations. The offer is on the table. It's now up to you to accept the offer. You must believe in Him! You must repent! You must "turn and live." You must experience the "washing of regeneration" (i.e. baptism) so that your sins can be removed and you can be "raised to walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:1-5).
I wrote this lengthy article to clarify the issue of salvation. Have I proven anything? Maybe not. It is my firm conviction, as odd as it may seem to you, that this doesn't need to be proven...that you already know in your heart that this is true. Maybe you've repressed that knowledge. Or maybe you get it. Either way, I implore you to take this very seriously, to ponder your soul's eternal fate and to accept God's offer of salvation.
If you have any questions about this, please let me know.