An Atheist Asks: Why Did Christ Have to Sacrifice Himself to Himself?
In the comments section of my recent post, God is Love, Christ is Pain, a respectful and thoughtful atheist reader asked me why God had to sacrifice himself in order to forgive us. "If a god who is omnipotent wanted to forgive us," he wrote, "couldn’t he just forgive us, and make it so we never forget? Why sacrifice himself to himself?"
My response was this: "By dying as he did, Christ knew that he would be creating an image of that act that was so vivid, and so visceral, that it would forever last in people’s minds, hearts and imaginations. God couldn’t 'just' forgive us -- without getting personally involved, without in every last possible sense of the phrase bringing it down to our level, without his very graphic mortal expiration on the cross -- because he knew that wouldn’t stick. He knew that people tend to forget; that we naturally get so focused on their own lives that the reality of God -- which is, after all, a fairly nebulous concept -- tends to slip first from our minds, and then from their hearts. Jesus didn’t want that to happen. He wanted people to remember what he had done for them. So he made the means by which we are eternally forgiven as real for us as he possibly good -- and that meant availing himself of the sheer, raw, dramatic magnitude of the crucifixion.
"Jesus didn’t sacrifice himself for his sake. He did it for ours. And so he made sure to do it in a manner that we’d never be able to forget. What Jesus did on the cross was compassionate, mercy, and love of the highest possible order. And we haven't forgotten it yet."
I now find that I want to add something to that answer, and figured I'd do it here. That something is this:
Jesus knew that people would always know that he knew that he was God. Time and again, he either flat-out says, or heavily implies that he is, in fact God; like, for instance, at John 10:30, when he says "I and the Father are one." So there's no question that Jesus knew he was God. How could God not know his own nature?
Now I'm no theologian -- and I'm certainly not offering here anything having anything whatsoever to do with any Official Doctrine that I know of -- but it seems to me that if Jesus knew he was God, and he knew we knew he knew he was God, then he also knew that a lot of us wouldn't be able to help but think that, in a way we very definitely don't, he had it made.
Jeus was God. It doesn't get any better than that. And he knew he was God. He knew his story was going to end well. He knew that when his adventure here on earth was over, he was going back to heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father. There's no way that's not a wonderful place to be.
None of us are quite that lucky, are we? We can say that we do, but the bottom line is that we don't have anywhere near the assurance about our ultimate fate as Jesus had about his. It's not possible that we could.
What Jesus wants, though, if for us to fully understand the complete depth of his identification with us. And that, I think, is why he let himself die on the cross in the horrible fashion that he did. Because he knew that we would always understand how terribly, terribly real that was. God or not, he got beaten. He knew that we would forever after that understand that he did become one of us. He did suffer the worst any of us could. That, too, is not in question.
And he didn't even leave it at that. He actually gave us every last indication that when his final moment came -- when his pain and suffering had reached its terrible crescendo -- his identity with us was absolute and complete. We know that as he was dying, Jesus felt himself no more a God than we do. That, I think, is the sheer, knee-buckling power of his finally crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
We know Jesus was God because he defied death. And we know he was mortal because of the way he died.
He did it. His point got across. It stuck. It's as real now as the moment that our great hero, exhausted, breathed, "It is finished."
(The follow-up post to this post -- which I wrote in response to some of the very good questions raised in the lively comments section to this post -- is Inquiring Atheists Want to Know: What, Exactly, Was the Sacrifice Jesus Made?)