Several years ago, a Muslim man told me that according to his religion, Jesus did not die on the cross. He said that Jesus was a righteous prophet, and that God would never allow such a good man to suffer so horribly.
That is a natural way of looking at the world. We instinctively think that nice things should happen to good people, and unpleasant things should happen to bad people. Of course, this sin-damaged world does not work that way. I deal with the larger problem of evil in my book, The Beauty of God for a Broken World. In this column, I want to address the more limited question implied by the challenge above: Was the death of Jesus compatible with God’s moral government of the world?
1) God didn’t allow Jesus to be captured and killed. God planned it. The apostle Peter said that Jesus, who was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23).
2) The greatest suffering of Jesus was not His physical agony, but the wrath of God poured out on Him for our sins. “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.... The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:5, 10).
3) Jesus was not captured and killed against His will. He said, “I lay down My life for the sheep.... I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:15, 17-18).
4) Jesus was not just a man picked by God for this fate. He was God who took on our human nature in order to save us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
5) By His death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished two great works: First, He paid the debt of sin for all who trust in Him. Second, He trounced the devil and all his demons. “He cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them” (Colossians 2:14-15). Jesus’ death was not a defeat. It was the first move in a grand victory.
6) Therefore, the crucifixion of Jesus was not an example of God deserting a good man to a horrible fate. It was God’s way of taking on Himself the punishment we deserve so that He was able to uphold His own moral law and yet save those who deserved to die. The cross demonstrated God’s “righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 6:26).
The death of Christ on the cross was not a failure of God’s moral government. Praise God! It was the upholding of that government along with incredible mercy and love. As we approach Good Friday and Easter, I urge you to enter by faith into a saving relationship with the crucified, risen Lord Jesus.
[This post first appeared with one minor difference in the Allentown Morning Call on March 9th, 2013 In that post I did not identify the religion of the man who objected to the death of Christ.]