Why Does God Even Need The Cross To Forgive Anyone’s Sins?

Written by Wes Walker on March 14, 2021

One of the criticisms atheists like to throw at Christians is the claim that the cross isn’t a show of divine love, but of cosmic child abuse. Is there a good response to that claim?

Was The Cross ‘Cosmic Child Abuse’?

At the heart of that criticism is the complaint that if God really was all-loving, He would simply extend forgiveness to everyone, and all would be right with the world.

It never occurs to them, in the midst of the accusation, to ask if there’s any good reason why that wouldn’t work. Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane gives us good reason to believe that there really WAS no other way to extend forgiveness.

Was there some other way to bring us forgiveness?

In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

Jesus, when he came face to face with the horror of what was to come, was willing to go through with it, but hoping there was some other way to get the job done. The Father has heard His prayers on many occasions by this point — including once when Jesus told the crowd:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  — John 12:27,28

What was the obstacle to God ‘simply forgiving’ everyone’s sin?

God is God, right? What stops him from making a simple ‘executive decision’?

A little verse from the Book of Romans holds the answer. .. one that is often dwarfed by more well-known verses in the same passage.

The following is from Romans chapter 3. The key portion of verse 26 is highlighted:

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Lifting the same principle to a human context will help it make more sense.

Remember our outrage when we found out General Flynn had been framed by the DOJ? Worse, remember how, the judge refused to let the charges drop? The judge remained hostile even when it came to light the evidence against him had been manufactured, and evidence clearing his good name had been deliberately buried.

If you felt that outrage, you can understand Proverbs 15:17.

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.

Our sense of justice is outraged when an innocent man is unjustly prosecuted. It does the same when the guilty go free… so long as the guilty party is someone ELSE.

Imagine the most heinous crime you can conceive of… say those Boko Haram terrorists who went into a Christian school and captured a few hundred teenage schoolgirls, brought them into the jungle, sending them into sexual slavery, forced ‘marriages’, and a whole litany of unspeakable abuses.

Imagine a scenario where the ringleader gets caught and brought before a judge, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence of his guilt… but the judge somehow dismisses the case.

You would assume the judge was sketchy. Maybe he was bribed. Maybe he was intimidated. Maybe he had some other kind of corrupt motives — like sympathies to the accused or his movement.  Or maybe he was just not that smart.

What NOBODY would assume is that this judge had shown an example of justified and well-deserved compassion. The loudest complaints could — and should — come from the girls and their families over the horrific crimes they had been subjected to.

Where is justice for those girls? How shall the wrong done to them made right? In legal terms, how shall they be ‘made whole‘? In some ways, justice becomes a zero-sum game. Showing mercy to one party means NOT giving the wronged party the justice they deserve.

What is true of a human judge is no less true of God himself, as Aristotle can help show us.

Essential Properties Of God

Are you surprised we’re citing philosophy? Don’t be. It was once considered the ‘handmaid of theology’. If we understand why the ESSENTIAL PROPERTIES of God are important, we can understand why the Cross was the only way forward.

Aristotle explained that an ‘essential property’ of something is the part of a thing or being which, if lost, makes it stop being what it was, and start being something else.

Wood is a byproduct of trees. Change the shape or color or size any way you like and it will still be wood. Burn it to ashes, on the other hand, and the critical detail that made it distinctly ‘wood’ has been lost. The wood has now become ashes. It is no longer wood, it is now ‘not-wood’.

Human beings also have essential properties. You can lose your reason (dementia) and still be human. You can lose consciousness (sleep or coma) and still be human. You can even suffer amputation and remain fully human. Those changes are significant, but do not change your ‘essential properties’.

But… once your vital signs stop, that humanity has changed. It is gone and replaced with something else. The body that was ‘human’ a moment before is ‘not-human’. It is now nothing more than a corpse.

God also has essential properties. If He were to suddenly lack even one of them that change would be as significant as burning wood or human death. It would, by definition, make God something else. He would hypothetically become (to complete our analogy) ‘not-God’.

Some of the essential properties that God is required to posess are obvious, things like omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience. Others, like apectes of His character, are more subtle.

God tells us in his word he ‘cannot lie’, and he is described as Holy. We also have some important absolute statements about His divine justice, including this one in Nahum 1:3…

The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.

If God — who cannot change — is both Holy and Just, He could NEVER ignore cries of justice without doing harm to and comproising His own essential properties. (Remember how He said the ‘voice’ of Abel’s blood ‘cried out’ against Cain’s murder, and it called Him to take retributive action against Cain?)

We have now come full circle to the original problem of whether or not God can arbitrarily forgive sin.

The tension between God’s love toward us and his unwavering committment to absolute moral justice is wrapped up in a single verse in Exodus. In Ex 34:7 the God who is ‘keeping steadfast love for thousands forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin‘ is the very same God who ‘will by no means clear the guilty‘.

  1. He loves us and wants to ‘forgive iniquity and transgression and sin’.
  2. We are all guilty.
  3. He will ‘by no means clear the guilty’.

Sinful humanity is stuck in a catch-22, right? It sure looks that way — until we get to the cross, that is.

Hebrews reminds us of a central idea the Law of Moses set out to teach us, namely that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sin. (Heb 9:22) Again and again, there was always an animal without blemish serving as the sacrifice that would atone for sins.

But could an animal truly satisfy the ultimate cry of unmet justice? No. It had to be a person.

Making matters worse, it couldn’t be just any person, it had to be someone who didn’t ALREADY have sins of his own for which he should be punished. This is where Jesus steps in.

He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Christ Jesus took upon himself our guilt and death so that He could grant to us his righteousness and life.

The only way God could thread that needle is to put the full weight of justice on the only shoulders who could take it — the Son of God Himself.

The only thing left to do on our part is to accept what He has accomplished, lean into the grace He so freely offers, and let that finished work on the cross breathe new life into the way we live and our relationship to the world we live in.

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