Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. ~John 15:13
Take a good look at that picture. I’ve sat through so many sermons expounding on the torture that Jesus endured. Graphic detail about how the cat of nine tails was made and the damage it caused to his flesh. Thirty-nine lashes were the normally prescribed number because law held that there could be no more than forty. It was cut just one short to ensure that the maximum number allowed were not exceeded. Made of shards of bone tied to the end of each of nine whips to inflict maximum damage, it was also meant to humiliate and degrade. Jesus was fitted with a crown of thorns, spat upon, and mocked. All of this before being nailed to the cross where, according to scripture, he gave up his own ghost.
Think about that. The God-man willingly lowering his status at the right hand of God the Father to become both fully human and fully divine. To die a cruel and hateful death, lay in a grave and go to Hell for three days, and be raised once again to ascend to the throne where he would forever remain in his rightful place. He took our place. This is the punishment we deserve for our sins, to die cruel deaths and be laid in cold graves and to be sent to Hell for…well…eternity.
This all sounds like such a romantic story of love, sacrifice, and redemption. And when you are in the throes of some agony, tortured by your own past, facing your own mortality, or staring down your demons it feels like salvation. When you are steeped in a culture that perpetuates this as the “greatest love story ever told” you scarcely dare to think for yourself about any alternative to this being the absolute truth. In fact it is so pervasive in the culture I was brought up in that there is no question about it – no rational thought given to this depiction of love. It just is. What is there to doubt?
I’ll never forget the first time I heard someone question this epic story. It was in a discipleship training class. One of the members was relaying a conversation he’d had with our town’s only professed atheist. He, the atheist, was scoffed at by the members of the class for daring to say that this was no punishment at all. He dared to ask what kind of sacrifice it was to give yourself to die when you know you’ll be raised back to life. What kind of sacrifice is it for the Father if he knows he intends to restore the son to his previous status? How long is that thirty-three years in the grand scheme of eternity? How long is three days in Hell compared to all eternity? How could this begin to be considered penal substitution? How is this…love?
I remember recoiling at the notion of such sacrilege. And yet I could never forget it. I consoled myself in the fact that God would make the wisdom of this world seem foolish. I was a fool for God and proud of it. It makes no sense but I would choose to believe because…well….God. How do you challenge…God? And that, in my feeble mind, made sense. It was alright to be stupid for God. Until I could no longer believe in that God. Now none of that makes sense and it’s okay that it doesn’t.