Recently in discussions with some people who have an atheistic worldview, I have been particularly struck by comments they have made regarding something they see as a very bad element of Christianity, but which I think actually displays the magnificence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Most people have heard the Christian view that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Many atheists (and I think Muslims as well) view this as unjust and immoral! The idea that people can just let Jesus pay the penalty for their sins and then have a ticket to heaven just seems wrong to them. It is too easy. It removes all responsibility, they think, for these believers to act morally from that point on. “How could they be already forgiven for whatever they do,” they say, “even if it’s rape, or murder. How unjust!” I do understand their concern, but they are missing so much.
First of all it is ironic, to say the least, that my atheist friends, who have made it abundantly clear they don’t believe in any objective moral values and obligations and that morality is entirely subjective, are clearly upset about the fact that Christian doctrine can be immoral!?
But more importantly, what I find so striking though is that what’s missed in the accusation “God is unjust for forgiving immoral people,” is how extraordinarily wonderful & fantastic it is that God is willing to not judge us on the basis of our immoral behavior, but is actually willing to pay the penalty for it so that we can still come into a relationship with him now and forever!
Think about what the alternative is — that a perfectly holy God would judge us according to our behavior! Is there any one of us who would be able to stand before him and say and “I’m good enough?” Of course not — there is not one of us who has not been immoral at least some of the time. There is not one of us who, through our own self-centeredness, has not brought at least a little bit of evil into this world.
“Not me,” you say. Really? Let’s say we could make a movie of your life. Now it wouldn’t be just any movie, but it would contain everything you have ever done, said, or even thought. It would also include every judgment you’ve ever made, out loud or just in your head, about anyone else’s behavior. “He’s such a liar.” “She’s a real slut.” “What you did to me wasn’t fair.” On opening night, as you are surrounded by all the world dignitaries, the complete movie of your life goes up on that screen. Is there any one of us who would not be just a little bit embarrassed as some of the scenes go across that screen? We all fall short of our own moral standards, let alone God’s! And we all prove that we believe in these standards by using them to judge others.
Now, I know that many of us, including myself, have thought “I haven’t done anything that bad — God won’t mind.” But God is a perfectly holy being like a pristine, pure bottle of water. Each of us, however, is like a polluted bottle of water, some more polluted than others to be sure, but what happens when you mix any polluted water with pure water? Obviously, the mixture becomes polluted. Well, God cannot allow his being to become polluted! The polluted water, each of us, must be purified first.
If God were to judge us as we deserve, none of us would be pure enough to come into relationship with Him. We would be separated from his presence forever — which means separated from his nature, the very paradigm of goodness forever.
My atheist friends are right that there needs to be justice. God’s holiness and justice demands that evil be punished. A God who just winked at Hitler and said, “Don’t worry about it Adolph — you were a bad little boy, but just come and spend eternity with me anyway,” would not be a just God. The problem is we all want justice, but nobody wants justice applied to them. As Bruce Cockburn’s states it in his song Justice, that we all love to see justice, just done on somebody else.
Yet God isn’t only a just God that requires a just penalty be paid. God’s overwhelming love for each of us also drives him to do something and that something is what Jesus Christ willingly did. **His justice demands that a just penalty be paid, but his love doesn’t want us to pay that penalty. So he pays it Himself.*
The reason the message of Christianity is called the Good News (which is what the word “gospel” means) is because the message is that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, loved us so much that he willingly took upon himself on the cross all the evil that I have brought into this universe, and you have brought into this universe and all human beings have or ever will bring into this universe and paid the just penalty for it. Somebody had to — if not Jesus then you and me. Jesus Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the world was the perfect and only solution to this tension between God’s justice and his love. Otherwise, by our own doing, we would be separated from God forever.
God desires a love relationship with each of us that will last for eternity, not for his benefit — he doesn’t need us; but for our benefit. We were made in such a way that we fully flourish only when we are in a right relationship with God. Think about what a loving relationship is. It has to be entered into freely or it is not love. God is not a spiritual rapist. He will not force himself on us. He woos us like a lover, but he leaves it up to our free choice to personally receive his free gift of mercy, forgiveness and a love relationship with him. We have to consent to freely accept what he has purchased by Christ’s suffering and offers to us.
So think about it — isn’t it fantastic news that a holy and just God, who by his very nature cannot merely wink at evil or sin, loves us enough that he has provided a way out of being eternally separated from him? Aren’t you glad that if you are genuinely sorry for the evil that you have done and genuinely repent (which means choose to make a 180 degree turn and start heading in the other direction), that God will still allow you to come into his open arms, even on your deathbed? I think and hope that my atheist friends should and would recognize what wonderful news this truly is!
Do you think what is called ‘the gospel’ is good news? What is stopping you from receiving Jesus and his free payment for your sins right now?