Watch Him staggering from one cobblestone to another, His calf muscles taut and trembling. Watch the blood drop running through His eyebrow, then falling to diffuse into the sweat on His muddy cheek. Watch His back giving way to the weight, falling to the ground, then shift the frame to the next millisecond, as the splintery wooden beams come crashing down into the ribboned flesh. Watch the Roman soldiers as they whip reality until fatigue has them whipped. Watch the shock as an African man from the sea of faces is drafted, volunteered by his proximity. Watch the young trance-like shock of Alexander and Rufus as the cross slowly rises, holding their father in its shadow. Watch the Cyrenian and the Nazarene continue their braided path down the Via Dolorosa, tethered by human circumstance and divine eternity.
Yet continue to watch in amazement and look into His face. The weight of the cross is gone and yet it has not. His eyes remain windows into a heavily weighed-down soul. How can this be when He bears the weight of the cross no longer? A lightning revelation into your heart lays bear the reality: He is still carrying a weight greater than those wooden beams upon His shoulders.
It has been said that the cross of Christ will be the science and song of the redeemed through all eternity,1 but even now there is so much to mull over, even in our sin-muddled state. Truly it would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ, especially the closing scenes.2 The promise of transformation beckons as we stand there beholding with unveiled faces and pliable hearts.3
It's not only the scenes that are worth mulling over. There are also those fascinating, all-absorbing questions. Why was He carrying that weight? And who placed it upon Him? Of course, the simple, obvious answer is that the Roman soldiers placed the cross on Jesus. However, they were simply agents of the Roman Empire and the fact that they could easily transfer the cross to an African bystander named Simon, yet could not remove His greater weight, shows that some greater spiritual transaction had taken place. Making it more personal, we could say that we placed the weight of our sin upon His shoulders, that the hammer was in our hands. Yet this answer is also insufficient because most, if not all, of us would have never even thought about transferring our sin onto Jesus, let alone have the capacity to actually accomplish that personal spiritual transaction.
Looking down through history with prophetic eyes, God unveiled to the ageing Isaiah the incredible reality:
The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.4
What a shock! What an outrage! The loving God of heaven laying the accumulated spiritual debt of this world on this innocent Man.
People with spiritually unregenerate eyes still recoil at the thought. The late New Atheist Christopher Hitchens was openly contemptuous of the whole biblical saga of the cross because he felt that the vicarious redemption that Jesus provided for us on the cross is immoral. It is immoral, he said, because it involves another human being taking responsibility for our sins, when we should take responsibility for those sins ourselves.5
Yet in spite of Hitchens’ strong objection to the cross, the reality is that without it we all face the relentless, unforgiving wages of sin, namely death. We cannot take responsibility for our sin without facing eternal oblivion—a reality that not even Hitchens could avoid. But what if? What if the Person on the cross was not merely a human being, so the cross did not involve merely a human sacrifice? What if He was actually God Himself, being found in human form, taking on the role of a servant and assuming the spiritual debt that we all need to pay? What at first glance comes across as an immoral and ethically irresponsible act becomes an incredible, divinely-planned, cross-shaped window into hope, eternal life, divine love and grace.
Others have also baulked at the thought that God was actively involved in the punishment and death that Jesus experienced on the cross. Psychiatrist Tim Jennings believes that Jesus merely experienced the mental agony caused by the burden of sin He was bearing on the cross. According to Jennings, this was the natural consequence of the spiritual weight of sin that Jesus was carrying.6
The difficulty with Jennings’ understanding is that there was nothing natural about what Jesus went through. He was an innocent, sinless Man so He was not experiencing the natural consequences of His own thoughts and actions. At the same time, the natural consequence of all of that burden of sin should have been that we, every single one of us, should have died. What happened on the cross at Calvary was a totally unnatural, indeed supernatural event, when God actively and intentionally transferred all of our sin and its punishment onto Jesus. As Hitchens mused, how can an innocent Man like Jesus carry the responsibility and consequences of all of the sins committed by humanity? There is only one answer, the answer Hitchens explicitly rejected: the Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of us until His life expired and our sins were expiated. As Isaiah notes, “the punishment that brought us peace was on him”.7 Isaiah goes on to point out, in multiple ways, how God was actively and intentionally involved in this process:
Yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.8
Does this biblical understanding of God actively laying both our sin and its punishment upon Jesus at the cross mean that God is an angry, wrathful God, as both Hitchens and Jennings contend? No, quite the reverse. It's because of the power of God’s incredible love for us that He was willing to intentionally and decisively intervene and redirect the natural consequences of sin that we were facing in a way that was unnatural and supernatural. We can be forever deeply grateful for what God was willing to do for us through Jesus on the cross.9
The cross is also powerful and clear confirmation that in the near future God will step in to intentionally and actively destroy sin and unrepentant sinners. This is not a picture of an angry, wrathful God bent on laying into people who do not do what He wants. Rather, it's because of God’s great love for His faithful followers that He does not let sin continue indefinitely. It also shows His great love, even for unrepentant sinners, that He intervenes so that they do not need to endure indefinitely the hell of their own making.10
To be honest, I'm really glad that God actively and intentionally steps into this world to deal decisively with sin. It shows me the incredible power of His courageous love.
- The Great Controversy, page 651.
- The Desire of Ages, page 83.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18
- Isaiah 53:6b (ESV)
- Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books, 2005, p58.
- Refer to Tim Jennings’ information sheet “Punishment for Sin” comparing this concept in his Healing Substitution Model and the Penal Substitution el:http://comeandreason.com/files/share/Spectrum_Punishment_for_Sin.pdf
- Isaiah 53:5b (NIV)
- Isaiah 53:4b (NIV) and 53:10a (ESV)
- “God’s love has been expressed in His justice no less than in His mercy ... Christ shows that in God’s plan they are indissolubly joined.” The Desire of Ages, page 762. For further insight into what Jesus did for us at the cross, read Ellen White’s Testimonies, Vol. 2 “The Sufferings of Christ”, pages 200-215; John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, IVP 1986, which discusses why Christ died and the self-substitution of God; and Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand, Zondervan 2008, particularly the section “What About the Cross?”.
- Refer to theological responses by the Adventist Biblical Research Institute to the questions “Does God Destroy Sinners?” https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/theology-judgment/does-god-destroy-sinners and “Does God Destroy?” https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/theology-godgodhead/does-god-destroy
Dr Sven Ostring is Discipleship Movements director for the Greater Sydney Conference's Personal Ministries department.