Some people say that this Jesus was a good man but in that case why did he get executed as a criminal? Some claim he was god's son, but then this god, his father, must surely have been either asleep or very frail. Other people claim that Jesus was himself divine — the very embodiment of god — but why did god want or need to be embodied? To add to the puzzle, those people who call themselves followers of Jesus point to their leader's gruesome death and claim that it was the apex of his work; the most important thing that he ever did. And even this claim is strange: Why do they say that his crucifixion was the most important thing that he did? Surely it was done to him by somebody else?
So what was going on in that corner of the Roman empire on the hill called Calvary (not even a very big hill) just outside Jerusalem? What happened when Jesus died his painful death? And, in particular, why did it happen?
If we take our last question first, we can answer it by saying, very simply, that when Jesus died justice and mercy were reconciled. But what does this mean? Why did justice and mercy need to be reconciled?
Most people in the world — in “rich” countries as well as “poor” ones — believe that there is some sort of God. In the “western” countries, where monotheistic religions have been dominant for a long time, one popular conception of God is that of a benevolent & paternal figure who, although very mysterious in his methods, is always ready to take care of the human creatures and who, in the end, will somehow make everything all right. This god entity is generally described as being very loving and very powerful but this causes confusion because it is hard to understand why the world is in such a mess and people, everywhere, are suffering; why has the loving, powerful god entity not got his act together and got everything sorted-out?
The people in “western” countries tend not to think much in terms of justice — perhaps because most of them are not made uncomfortable by injustice. There is injustice in the “western” countries but its impact is hard on only a few people and the rest are not made uncomfortable enough to want to pay attention. Whatever the reason, justice is not a major feature of conversation and it is not thought about very much. If justice were considered more often then it might be realised that love and justice cannot be separated. Now if this is the case then the loving god entity must also be a just god entity.
So what exactly is justice? The dictionary defines it as “awarding what is due”. In common English it might be called “getting what you deserve”. Unfortunately we all know that this is not always what actually happens in practise. There have been many occasions when good people suffered and bad people prospered. Most of us can probably think of times when our goodness or generosity was ignored but, if we are honest, we will also admit that there have been times — perhaps many more times — in our own lives where we escaped the punishment that we fairly deserved.
So where does love come into it, and why are love and justice inseparable? Well, suppose a person committed some horrible and brutal offence and was caught, tried and found guilty. Would it be loving to the victims if the judge simply let the offender walk free with no punishment? Would you feel loved if you had been viciously assaulted and your assailant was allowed to wander off unhindered, perhaps to attack you again quite soon?
Not only that, but would it really be loving to the offender if they were never punished? Their own conscience could never be free from guilt until they had received “what they deserved”. Also, if we are so convinced that a person is in error that we are prepared to punish them, then true love should also want them to improve. Love wants the best for everybody. A kick-up-the-ass, or even the threat of it, is often just what we need to get us to do what we always knew we ought to be doing or to stop us from doing things we already knew that we ought not to be doing.
Justice, then, is no bad thing but this is of course to state the obvious since we all already knew that justice was good and desirable — every time we cry “its not fair!” as we do very often and very quickly we are admitting that (a) we know what justice is and (b) that it is good and (c) that we want it.
A common theme in religious thinking is that of the “day of judgement” when the all knowing, all wise, all powerful god entity finally dishes out to everybody what they do really and truly deserve. This is justice of the ultimate and unquestionable variety because all the evidence will have been considered quite impartially; the intent of the parties will not be neglected; any valid excuses will be fully allowed and when the verdict is given there will be no need for, nor any possibility of, an appeal to a higher court. Indeed, there cannot possibly be any higher court; as the judge rules, so it will be, for ever and ever.
The certainty of this divine justice is such that we have been told that we should not seek revenge, and not just because it happens to be bad for society but because “God says, it is for me to avenge — I will repay”.
Ultimately, justice is the prerogative of God alone — and must be because only God knows all the circumstances and motives. Our mortal justice is merely a shadow of the real thing.
Unfortunately this promise of divine justice does not look very attractive because a god who is good must be offended by most of what we think and most of what we do, and a god who is loving must dispense justice. The problem comes not so much because of what we have done but because of what we are. Young people might be able to fool themselves into thinking that they are basically all right and good-natured but as people get older they often begin to realise that actually their basic nature is pretty rotten all through. We are, as a species, fundamentally selfish, arrogant, proud and greedy.
Many people and some faiths (such as Islam) have tried to claim that actually most people are good at heart, but the fallacy and hollowness of such claims is quickly exposed by the lack of supporting evidence and the overwhelming mass of evidence to the contrary; across every century and every land there has been violence, greed, selfishness and atrocities. Men have beaten their wives, women have deceived their husbands, children have disobeyed their parents, rulers have oppressed those they were responsible for and always there have been liars, cowards, cheats, swindlers and thieves. All of this has come from people who, we are told, are “good at heart”. What a sick joke!
Now we are supposed to have taken control of our destiny. Perhaps we have, but the results so far do not look promising. In the workplace, lying and deceit is so common that it is hardly thought wrong and it is often actively encouraged by senior colleagues. Our national leaders — men and women who are supposed to be as far beyond reproach as is humanly possible — cannot be trusted to speak the truth about even minor matters. Many of them cannot manage to to be faithful to their own wives and yet they are still allowed to manage national affairs. Violence and brutality are seen more often and more openly. Children kill one-another with knives and guns. Scientists play games with creation and tell us that it is for our good; they are apparently either incapable of understanding or incapable of caring that their work merely unleashes one moral problem after another on a world that is still struggling with moral basics. Profit rules supreme. Moral values must fall in line somewhere behind.
This is all very bad, and yes, we have heard it all before and if we had any sense we would start doing something about it. Alas, the common response is that the problem is somebody else's — the politician's, the businessman's, the clergy's, the teacher's. In fact we blame the problem on anyone except ourselves. “Poor little me. I am only a nobody, what could I do about it?” So nobody does anything and, unsurprisingly, our nations continue to crumble and fall apart.
What a sad and pathetic end for any nation: not defeated and conquered in open conflict, not fallen through an honest mistake, not afflicted by some unforeseeable disaster, not even just unlucky. No, like the worst of all drunken men we will perish by drowning — in our own vomit and moral excrement.
That would be bad enough and popular thought might like to stop at that point, but there is worse to come. A god who is loving (and therefore just) cannot be greatly pleased by creatures who insist on living as we do. Our wound is self-inflicted and the god who is loving absolutely MUST eventually act in judgement, not only on our nation as a whole, but on each and every one of us individually. What is a nation? It is a collection of people. It is the people who make or break the nation and it is the people individually who will one day stand before the judge and give their accounts.
Even worse is that we cannot stop doing what is wrong and therefore when god comes to give us what we deserve we have not got much to look forward to and we have plenty to dread! Divine justice promises to be horrible experience for everyone.
So, our evil natures cause us plenty of problems in this life and will make any “next life” or “after-life” pretty rough too if divine justice is going to be administered. However, our evil nature is also a problem, albeit a solvable one, for God.
God's problem is simply that he created us to be with him but because of our evil, God is obliged to send us away in punishment. The chasm that our badness creates between God and us is far too wide for us to cross. We were intended to spend eternity with God but have never even got close and, under our own efforts, we never can. We have become rebels where we were supposed to be friends and we are strangers where we should be family. We are out in the dark and travelling alone.
However, if this God really loves his human creatures then he must somehow want to bring them back to where they belong and to the place that they can live happily and harmoniously, but, as we have seen, love demands justice and justice for those who cannot turn from evil means that they must be banished from God forever. And, since there is nobody who does what is right, it seems that God is going to have a very lonely eternity.
It is a no-win situation: We must be banished from the very source of creation and life and light and the God who created us and loves us and wants us must be the one to send us away.
You might by now begin to see why justice and mercy need to be reconciled. Perfect love can manage to want us and to care about people like us who are perfectly unlovable. However, perfect love also demands perfect justice which, for evil people who cannot change their wicked ways, demands eternal punishment. The loving god wants to be reunited with those who he is obliged to exile to the eternal equivalent of a Siberian prison camp.
We cannot take hold of the help we badly need, and we must be given a punishment we do not want. Unless justice and mercy are reconciled there is no hope for any of us. So, where does the cross come in?
No criminal who wants to remain free in the world can call the police or other authorities without risking detention and punishment. In the same way, we who are, in god's sight, utterly depraved cannot just go wandering up to God and expect to be accepted as long lost friends. Not only that, but a god who created the universe is not part of the universe and cannot be found by those who are inside the universe unless that god enters his own creation and becomes like one of the creatures. The chasm is too wide for us to cross but it is not too wide for god.
So, we cannot get to god yet we have a god who has created us to be with him and who wants the best for us. There is only one possible solution: God must come to us and rescue us from the mess we are in.
This is the claim of those who call themselves disciples of Jesus. Jesus is god as man, the visiting god, god with us, the god who saves, the god who comes looking for us because we would not and could not seek him.
The cross of Jesus is, in brief, the good news that we ought by now to be desperate to hear. On that cross justice was satisfied because Jesus took our sins upon himself and accepted the punishment that was due for them. Furthermore, when God took human form he was able to physically die as we must die and, by dying, was able to enter death and take control over it. The Bible tells us that Jesus took death captive.
But how could this be right since Jesus was a man who never did any wrong? You might recall that the local prosecutors had to bribe ruffians in order to find a basis for charges and the proper legal procedures of the day were deliberately perverted or ignored so that the arrest and conviction might be assured. Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge, acquitted Jesus three or four times saying, “I find nothing wrong with this man”, before finally giving-in to public pressure and condemning him to be executed. Even one of the thieves executed alongside Jesus pronounced him innocent and, finally, the soldier (a Roman Centurion) who was in charge of the execution and observed the last few hours of Jesus life was moved to say “surely this man was the son of God.”
So, if Jesus was so pure and innocent, how is it that his execution somehow satisfies the requirements of justice? It seems extremely unjust for God to punish an innocent person.
At this point it is helpful to know something about redemption. This not an act that is reserved for religion; it is a very common activity all across the world. In England, for example, when somebody is short of money they can take a few of their possessions to a “pawn-broking” shop and exchange them for cash — this act is called “pawning”. Later when they have earned some more money, they can go back to the shop and buy back what they pawned. This act of buying back is called “redemption” and the goods that are bought-back in this way are said to have been “redeemed”.
When Jesus died and took our punishment he effectively paid our debt to the pawnbroker and was thus entitled to recover us for his own. The only reason he could afford to purchase us is because he, having never done anything wrong, had not incurred any debt of his own.
In legal terms, because Jesus never did anything wrong justice had no claim upon him. If Jesus had not been perfect then he could not have taken our punishment because he would have had his own penalty to take — indeed he would have been locked-up in the debtors prison along with the rest of us.
There are a couple of things that we must notice about this transaction: First, the only person who could do the deal had to be perfect himself (outside the prison, not inside). Second, no ordinary human could endure the punishment for the moral debt of the whole world or afford to pay off that vast debt! Now, there is only one person who is perfect and there is only one person who is sufficiently strong — it has to be God in both cases.
In other words, if Jesus did really achieve what it is claimed he achieved then he must have been divine — he must have been God in a human form.
Now this theory of redemption does at least allow us to make sense of a few things: If Jesus is God then his love for his creatures (that's us!) would have provided the motive for wanting to redeem evil people, and if he were God then he would have the endurance and authority to pay the moral debt. The death that Jesus died would have been his work because, as God, he could not possibly have been executed unless he were willing to be executed.
So, the debt has been paid and the prison doors have been opened but has justice been satisfied? And, where exactly does this turn of events leave all of us?
A God who redeemed his badly behaved creatures and then just left them to go back to their old ways would, I suspect, find that he had wasted his time. We humans do not do evil through misfortune but because it is our very nature to be selfish and wicked and hurtful and so once released we would soon begin to notch up a new tally of scores to be settled with the judge. Perhaps the all-loving all-powerful God could get those debts paid-off as well but what would be the point? We are redeemed only as the first step to bringing us back into the family and to make friendship with God possible. There is no benefit in continually redeeming creatures that will never achieve the ultimate goal of the exercise. For this reason Jesus offered more than just redemption; he also offered a new life. And he didn't offer it just because it was a bit prettier than our old ones — he made it available because it was an essential prerequisite to joining the family and attaining our proper place in God's household. This new life is what Jesus spoke about to the religious fellow called Nicodemus when they discussed the act of being born again.
What does it mean to be born again? And who is it gets redeemed and born again? Well who would get out of a debtors prison if the debt were paid on their behalf? This is not quite such a stupid question as it sounds. If you thought the prison was your natural home and if you thought that your evil ways were the most desirable or only ways to behave then you wouldn't leave your cell even if the door were unlocked. If you saw nothing wrong with your prison situation and life then you would hardly be eager to accept God's offer of a transformation. If you were so warped that you actually liked your prison and preferred it to anything else then you would be determined to stay. The only people who benefit from redemption and the offer of new life are those who see their need of it and accept the offer; nobody drags you out of your cell! The person who sees how wicked they are and who desires to be changed and to be eternally free from their own evil is known as a “penitent” person and their act of acknowledging their sin and calling on God to save them from its effects and penalties is called “repentance”.
In the light of this, we can begin to see that religious activity is not useful or helpful. Our religious ritual is the very opposite of the close relationship that God has sought to form with us. It keeps us from God in these ways:
(1) It makes us think that our redemption depends on what we must still do and not on what God, in the person of Jesus, has already done and finished. In other words we spurn the open door and offer of new life and keep trying to dig our own way out of prison — in the process we simply incur a greater debt. If we could pay our own moral debt we wouldn't be in prison in the first place! Thus our religious self-help process is in vain; it is utterly incapable of doing anything to improve our moral standing.
There are many, many people who are sincerely trying to earn a good standing with God. They can't. That is precisely why Jesus had to redeem us by paying the price on our behalf. Their kind of sincerity is ultimately deadly because the person who is trying to pay their own debt and so earn favour with God is, by definition, a person who has not accepted the price that Jesus paid on their behalf and therefore they will never leave the prison. They are condemned for all eternity because they had no faith to trust what Jesus has already done.
(2) Religion (being merely a set of rituals) is the very opposite of relationship. Religion does for our friendship with God what public manners would do for two lovers. A friendship or romance might start with ritual and the sort of official politeness that we use with strangers, but neither friends nor lovers can continue with formality alone; indeed constant public manners from somebody we thought we were close to would be insulting, offensive and a sign of rejection.
(3) Much, if not all, religious activity puts something or somebody between God and ourselves. This is not what Jesus desired. One of the expressions that Jesus used frequently was “follow me”. Time and time again he told the people around him that he was himself what they needed: He did not come to point us along the right road — he is the right road; He did not come to sustain them — he is the sustenance; He did not come merely to talk about truth — he is truth; He did not come to make light for them — rather he is the light they needed; He did not come to only teach them about life — he is life, and it is himself that he offers. And, just because we have heard them so often, let us not fail to notice the audaciousness of these claims: A person who was merely a prophet, or a good man, or a great teacher could never say any of these things. A man might claim to be truthful but no human can honestly and sensibly claim to be truth itself. A man might claim to be alive but a man who is only mortal can never honestly and rationally claim that he is life. A man might claim to point the way but he cannot claim to be the way. But God? Yes, God — and only God — can truthfully and meaningfully say these things. So what of Jesus? Well either he was a deceitful fool or he is God. And if Jesus is God then he is the only person who can go around offering new life.
So how do we get this new life. It cannot be earned, it cannot be bought. It must simply be accepted. It is an act of trust, an act of faith. The person who gets new life is the one who can honestly and meaningfully say to Jesus. “Lord I am a sinner, full of evil and selfishness and totally unworthy of any kind of benefit from you but I believe that you are able to rescue me and that you are willing to rescue me from the penalty of my sin and that you can set me free. Now please lead me home; I put my life freely into your hands.”
on that cross
justice and mercy were reconciled
“...  and you shall call him Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins.”