What could possibly be beautiful about death? It’s ugly, dark, and unnatural. When people die, something in us cries out, “This is wrong; this shouldn’t be!” When friends and loved ones are diagnosed with cancer, we’re quick to express our emotions using some colorful metaphors.
When people we don’t even like die, we recast our relationships, making them kinder than they perhaps were, lest we speak ill of the dead. If friends (and strangers) are dealing with the death of a loved one, we offer well- meaning platitudes, assuring them that the departed are in a better place (even when that might not be the case). Even when celebrities die, we find ourselves mourning for individuals we likely have never met and with whom we have only the thinnest of connections, through an experience of their talents.
We try to avoid thinking about death. In fact, we try to avoid death whenever possible. We hate death, even as it shapes so much of our experience of life. And we should hate it. Death was never meant to be. It is a constant reminder of our fallenness. But there’s something strangely beautiful about death. Well, one death, anyway.
The death of Jesus.
Sacrifices and substitutes
At the heart of Jesus’ death on the cross is this concept of atonement, which means, basically, to reconcile sinners like you and me to God. I stress the need for reconciliation because, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to minimize the awfulness of sin, but it separates us from God and condemns us under His wrath.
For the longest time, worship and death were intertwined. Reconciliation with God involved sacrifices and substitutes, specifically in the elaborate sacrificial system of the Israelites. Sacrifices were required for offerings of peace and thanksgiving and for the sins of the people (Leviticus 4). A substitute in the form of an animal, such as a goat, lamb, or bull, free from any visible imperfection. These sacrifices were offered in conjunction with the people’s festivals but also in response to ongoing infractions of God’s law.
Central to this system were the sacrifices for the Passover and the Day of Atonement. On the Passover, God’s people remembered the final plague sent upon Egypt, during which God spared the firstborn males of every family who painted their doorposts with the blood of a spotless lamb (Exodus 12:1-32,43- 51). On the Day of Atonement, they sacrificed two goats. One was killed in the place of the people. The other was released into the wilderness, metaphorically carrying away the sins of the people (Leviticus 16).
Shadows and substance
The New Testament reveals that these sacrifices were only a shadow of something greater to come. They were offered by priests who also had to offer sacrifices for their own sins. And there was no end to them because they couldn’t really take away sin. They could only be a shadow of something better. They could only point toward a perfect sacrifice that was still to come:
And every priest stands day after day serving and offering the same sacrifices again and again—sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right hand of God, where he is now waiting until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy.(Hebrews 10:11-14, NET)
Jesus offered that sacrifice. And he was that sacrifice.
In his life and death, Jesus was the substitute we all need. He obeyed every point of God’s law. Not even Moses, the great prophet of Israel who spoke with God face to face (Exodus 33:11), could make this claim. Jesus’ record before God was spotless, perfect in every way.
In his death, Jesus provided forgiveness for the sin and disobedience of everyone who believes in him (John 3:16; Romans 3:26). He took away God’s wrath and forever made peace between God and his people. Jesus’s sacrifice was what every sacrifice in the Law foreshadowed. Those were shadows. his was the substance. And nevermore would another be required.
The uncomfortable way we see God’s love on display
God’s love is displayed so powerfully in these truths. His provision of a perfect substitute is good news of great joy! No longer do we fear judgment, nor does guilt hang over us. No longer do we face the wrath of God. But there’s something about this that some find uncomfortable; that Jesus would have to die at all strikes some as bizarre. In fact, the prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord was pleased to crush him severely” (Isaiah 53:10), which seems positively outrageous if not outright blasphemous (despite it being a true and biblical statement).
Wasn’t Jesus just demonstrating his love for us on the cross? After all, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sure, he suffered for us, but maybe he did so to show God’s hatred toward sin, not to act as a substitute for sinners? Or maybe Jesus died to release us from Satan’s kingdom, not to appease the wrath of God. Or maybe God has no wrath to be satisfied by the death of Jesus, and it certainly didn’t please God to crush him. After all, God is love, right? Wouldn’t that make Him a cruel, even evil being? Or, well, you get the idea.
The “wheel” of the atonement
Read any number of books and blogs, and you’ll see almost every writer wrestling with this tension: How or why does the death of Jesus please God?
This is a good question because it is key to the whole concept of the atonement. And all of the different theories that exist are an attempt to manage this tension. Some of them are actually good theories. Even better, a number of them are true, though only in part.
At the risk of being too simplistic, maybe think of it like a bicycle wheel. Each spoke in the wheel represents one facet of the atonement: a demonstration of God’s love, the demonstration of God’s hatred of sin, victory over sin and death, and so forth. But a tire is not spokes alone. There is an outer rim and a hub. The outer rim is Christ’s death as a sacrificial substitute. It is through Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice that victory over death is achieved. Jesus’s atoning sacrifice frees us from the kingdom of darkness and God’s wrath is averted. It perfectly demonstrates God’s love, for “love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
We don’t have our wheel without this outer rim.
The hub of the wheel of God’s love
But there’s something else: the hub. The hub is a small part of the tire, but it holds everything together. Without the hub, the wheel is useless. And for the atonement to hold together, it needs its “hub”: Jesus’ choice.
Jesus made it clear: “No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will” (John 10:18, NET). He was not forced by anyone to go to the cross, least of all His Father. Jesus went willingly, taking on human form, living a perfect, sinless life, and dying the most brutal and horrific of deaths. And more than his choice, he was driven by joy to do so: “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
And the Father loved him for doing it.
Look again at John 10:18, this time with a little more context:
This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This commandment I received from my Father.(John 10:17–18, NET)
This is what helps us make sense of the question so many of us struggle with. This is what helps us see Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the good news that it is. The Father loves the Son because the Son willingly gave up his life for his people. He laid down his life, and he took it back up again. He died—and he rose from the dead.
That is good news.
That is the strange beauty of Jesus’ death.