Does Forgiveness Require Death?

By this time it was noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last. – Luke 23:44-46

On Friday March 23, 2018 a terrorist took hostages at a French supermarket in the town of Trebes. When police arrived on the scene the lead officer made a decision. He offered himself as a hostage in place of a female hostage, an offer that the terrorist accepted, probably saving the woman’s life. When negotiations failed, the terrorist shot the lead officer, critically wounding him. Police stormed the supermarket, shooting and killing the terrorist. The lead officer was rushed to a hospital, where he later died. Colonel Arnaud Beltrame’s incredibly heroic action was lauded around the globe.

I suspect that this story will be told in churches around the world this Good Friday. You can see the appeal. Preachers will suggest that Beltrame’s sacrifice is like Jesus’ sacrifice. He willingly gave his life to save the life of another, just as Jesus gave up his life to save sinners. It’ll make for a compelling sermon illustration. But there’s at least one problem with it. Spin out the implications of the comparison and you come to realize that God in that scenario is the terrorist.

At least that’s what some Christians would claim. Their Gospel narrative goes something like this: God must punish sinners by casting them into hell, but God loves us and doesn’t want to do that. So, God sends his own Son to die in our place on a cross. Jesus’ death satisfies God’s righteous wrath so that God can forgive us. So, let’s play out the comparison. The police officer is Jesus. We are the woman. God is the terrorist.

Of course, some would say, the terrorist’s intentions are evil and God’s intentions are good. The terrorist’s violent anger is unrighteous and God’s is righteous.

But I’m still troubled by that comparison, so let me invite you to wrestle with a couple of questions that I’m wrestling with on this Good Friday:

  • Is the God revealed in Jesus a God who requires someone’s death in order to forgive? There are certainly passages in the Bible that can be interpreted that way, but is there another way to understand what Jesus is doing on the cross?
  • If Jesus must die so that we don’t have to, is that really forgiveness at all? I’d be grateful if someone paid my mortgage, but I wouldn’t say that the bank “forgave” my debt.

Jesus is often referred to as “the Lamb of God”, referring to the Passover lamb in the Exodus story (Exodus 12). But the Passover Lamb in the Exodus story doesn’t die for the sins of the people. The blood of the lamb is a sign of God’s covenant love for the Israelites. How might that shape our understanding of what Jesus, the Lamb of God, is doing on the cross?

Like the disciples at the cross in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 23:49) today is a day to watch, weep, wait and wonder at the mystery of God’s amazing love.

What do you believe to be true about Good Friday?

Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN

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  • Jerry W Lindberg

    The Covenant requires our death. Humans will die for many things; country, family, faith. Jesus said those who lose their life will gain it. I take him at His word. The words in red are not “inspired” of men, but commanded by His Father. They are accurately recorded by men who had seen the risen Christ. They knew that to deny Him would result in a fate worse than death.