As Christians throughout the world commemorate the crucifixion of a whipped-raw Jesus on Good Friday, and as they symbolically eat Christ's body and drink his blood on Easter Sunday, one might well ask: What in God's name is going on?
Christian blood symbolism harks back to ancient Israelite temple worship, in which animals were killed and offered to God as substitutes for the human sinners who gave them up. "Life for life" was the basic principle, because evil at its root is the enemy of life, and the spilling of blood is the most powerful sign of life sacrifice.
The Hebrew prophets themselves made clear that these rituals formed an elaborate picture of God's holiness and our sin. God recognizes sin to be mortally serious, so the most graphic symbolism of life and death was necessary to portray both its cost and its redemption. Indeed, this view has been shared by many other cultures: Hence, blood sacrifice, including human sacrifice, has been reported around the world.
The Israelite sacrificial system, however, also testifies to God's mercy. God was willing to accept animal substitutes and forbade human sacrifice, although it makes no logical or moral sense to do so: How can the blood of bulls or goats possibly make up for human sin?
Christian belief affirms that human sacrifice was, in fact, necessary. Humanity has to pay for humanity's moral debts, and those debts amount to a weight sufficient to crush the life out of us. Jesus called himself the "Son of Man," an ancient phrase that seems to have meant "the representative of humanity," and (in a way no one understands) took on himself the consequences of human sin. He died a sacrificial death – blood galore – as our scapegoat, as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
So the blood symbolism makes grim sense. "Life for life" is still the logic and, in this "great exchange," Christ receives the consequences of human sin while all who will avail themselves of his work will receive the benefits of his goodness.
Many people understandably have seen all this as bloody nonsense, or worse. They see in this scenario a sad little Jesus who's a victim of a deity's bloodthirsty rage. But remember that orthodox Christianity affirms that the one God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Cross is not a Big Father God pounding a Smaller Son God to death. It is the One God who suffers in all three persons: as the Son on the Cross, yes, but also as the loving Father and Spirit who hate to see him hurt, even as they support him in his work.
But why doesn't God just forgive us? Why does anyone have to suffer at all?
If you've forgiven a painful injury, you know how much it hurts to refuse to get even, let alone seek vengeance, and instead to forgive. Forgiveness always entails suffering. The Cross, moreover, is not just an elaborate and shocking symbol of God's self-sacrificial forgiveness. It actually accomplishes something.
Many of the world's religions speak of wrong actions as affecting the order of things, not just making the gods, or other people, or oneself unhappy. In India, when one fails to do what one should, one's negative actions create negative karma. In tribal societies, breaking taboos creates a bad situation that requires corrective action. And in ancient Israel, failing to follow God's law created a kind of weight or debt, and required an appropriate sacrifice to remove it.
Christianity shares this sense that sin is not only a rupture in our relationship with God and others that could be met with forgiveness. Sin also causes damage, makes a mess and so on in a range of metaphors that all point to a problem in the nature of things that needs solving.
Little Freddy uses his crayons to decorate Mom's heirloom linen tablecloth. When Mom shrieks in dismay, Freddy sees how sad she is and repents. Mom forgives him. All is well – except that the tablecloth still needs washing. The relationship between Mom and Freddy is restored by forgiveness, but someone still needs to take care of the objective state of affairs caused by Freddy's sin.
In the Cross of Christ, there's a disorder that's rectified, a stain that's removed, a weight that's lifted, a disease that's cured, a debt that's paid, a something wrong that's made right by Jesus's sacrifice of himself. Jesus anticipates that horrible reality in the Garden of Gethsemane and recognizes that the "cup" of suffering must be drained by someone – either us or him. However we feel about him and however he feels about us, the cup is still there. And he chooses to drink it on our behalf.
The Cross of Christ shows us an impressive example of commitment to a cause. It depicts God's love in dramatic terms. It inspires devotion. And, indeed, it marks Christ's victory over all of our enemies – particularly death, hell and the devil. All of these are valid aspects of the Christian understanding of Atonement.
The Cross of Christ, however, also did what was needed to be done. It must be a human being to represent humanity, but only a God could take on the burden of everyone's sin. Jesus, whose very name means "God saves," is the God-man who stands in our stead. That's why Christianity is called one of the "salvation religions." God does for us what we can't do for ourselves, rescuing us from the doom caused by our own actions.
For Christians, that's good news. That's Good Friday.
John G. Stackhouse Jr., a professor of religion at the University of Manitoba until 1998, is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver. His most recent book is Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil.