‘Died he for me who caused his pain, for me who him to death pursued. Amazing love how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me?’ – Charles Wesley, ‘And Can It Be?’, 1738
As we celebrate another Easter, I have been thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross and what it really means. The view I was always taught was that Jesus is the substitutional atonement for our sins and that he took our place and became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Therefore God the Father turned his back on Jesus because he couldn’t look on sin. Jesus took the punishment we deserve. I have a problem with that last sentence. For a start, it is not biblical. Let me explain why.
Firstly, it goes against the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). This was God himself up on that cross. Later in the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that God will never leave us or forsake us, so it hardly follows that he would forsake his own son. This is a God who dies; this is indeed, as Juergen Moltmann has said, the crucified God. His death is the great sacrifice that God himself has made to reconcile the world to himself.
It is only God himself who could do this. This is what evokes such gratitude in me at Easter, that God himself comes down and says ‘I’ll take the hit for you’. What love! What grace for creatures as undeserving as us. This is not cosmic child abuse. This is God himself taking the abuse.
Greater love has no one than to lay down their life for their friends. And then, on the third day, he actually defeats this scourge of death and is raised from the dead. The job is done, it is over. It is indeed finished, as Jesus said on the cross. And in the resurrection we have him leading the way for the new creation, the renewal of the cosmos which he so loved (John 3:16), the coming together of heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when there will be no more tears and no more pain…and no more death. And it is all because of that first Easter 2,000 years ago.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Col 1:19-20).
Jesus said ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn 10:30). In the mystery of the Trinity, we have a God who dies. God the Father didn’t turn his back on Jesus. God himself was on that cross, taking my sin and the sin of the whole world on his broken shoulders. Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me?