By Eric Stetson — May 2005
(Note: This article was originally published by Hope Through Christ ministries at Christian-Universalism.com.)
Why did Jesus Christ have to die on the cross, if there is no eternal hell for sinners and unbelievers? This is perhaps the single most important question that Christian Universalists must answer. Many Christians believe that Jesus’s sacrificial death enables God to forgive the sins of those who believe in him — but those who do not hold the correct beliefs about Christ in this lifetime can never be forgiven, and must eternally remain separated from God in hell. If there is no good reason why Jesus had to be crucified other than to allow people to escape damnation, then perhaps God really does condemn non-Christians to burn forever in the torments of hell.
Fortunately, there is a good reason for the cross of Christ other than what fundamentalists teach. And this alternative explanation can even be found in the Bible. The reason for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is that it proves that God’s love is unfailing and conquers all evil. The cross is not a dividing line, permanently excluding some people from the love of their Creator. No, the cross is a ladder to heaven through which all people may eventually return to the Father who sent His Son, Lord Jesus, into our world.
Foreshadowing in the Story of Job
Before Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the grave, it was very difficult for people to believe in the goodness of God. People usually feared God but did not necessarily love Him. God seemed to arbitrarily favor some people and not others, according to whim and caprice. When bad things happened, people thought God was punishing them or had abandoned them — they had no concept of a loving Father in heaven who cares about the welfare of each and every one of us and wants to save us through divine grace.
The disturbing implications of the ancient view of God as a graceless tyrant were explored in one of the most important books in the Bible, the Book of Job. As the story goes, Job was a righteous man who was tortured by the devil — with sicknesses and calamities one after another — so much, that his whole life was ruined. God allowed this to happen and did not answer his prayers for help. His friends told him God must be against him and that he was accursed because of some secret sins he might have committed. Job rejected this explanation and struggled to understand the terrible and senseless things that were happening, but could not find any answer. Naturally, his spirit was crushed and he became angry at God.
But Job never completely lost his faith. Without any evidence backing up his belief, he exclaimed: “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes — I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:23-27). Job had faith that even if Satan completely destroyed him in this life, one day God would rectify the situation by sending a Redeemer into this world who would raise the dead and restore justice in the life hereafter. Amazingly, Job anticipated the coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, thousands of years before Jesus was even born. Job’s prophetic words were recorded in scripture, just as he hoped — and they have already been partially fulfilled with the first coming of the Messiah.
God chose to bless Job in his life by restoring his health, family, and property that the devil had destroyed. Perhaps He did this because Job showed extraordinary faith. But God doesn’t always reward the faithful with earthly blessings. There are countless examples of people who try hard to be good and maintain faith in the Lord, but continue to be assaulted by evil until their dying day. For such people, the only hope is in the afterlife, the new life of the spirit world and the resurrection. We may never understand why God allows evil to flourish in the world and why sometimes He lets Satan run rampant and inflict cruel torments on relatively innocent people — even children, saints, the poor and weak. But we must understand that this does not mean God doesn’t love us. Just look at the case of God’s own Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Did God Love Jesus?
Jesus was far more righteous than Job. In fact, Jesus was the perfect saint, a man who never sinned at all. The Bible says that Jesus was tempted by the devil and completely resisted all his temptations to do wrong. Jesus started a ministry to feed the poor, heal the sick, and comfort the outcasts of society. He had miraculous powers to cure illnesses and cast out demons. Jesus announced that the promised Kingdom of God had come, and he was the King who would bring justice and peace to Israel and the world. Despite all this, God cut off Jesus’s ministry before he could turn his vision into reality. God chose to allow Jesus to suffer and die a death of torture on the cross.
No wonder most people said Jesus was a fraud! He was executed in a grotesque and agonizing way — a death of utter humiliation and degradation reserved only for the most heinous criminals. Perhaps Jesus was cursed by God. If God really loved and approved of him, why didn’t He prevent the crucifixion? Would God allow this to happen to the true Messiah?
Yes. In fact, the Jewish scriptures even predicted it:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:3-9)
So God allowed this perfect man to suffer and die because of our sins, not his own. How is that fair? How could God be so cruel? Like the righteous man Job, Jesus did not deserve what happened to him in his life. And like Job, Jesus was restored after his suffering — not only restored, but given a greater glory than he had before his travails. In Jesus’s case, however, the restoration did not come until after death, in the form of resurrection from the dead. In the resurrection, Jesus became a spiritual being immune to the effects of sin and death, and able to do things even more amazing than the miracles he accomplished while alive before the crucifixion. This was part of God’s plan to prove a point about Himself, our lives, and His relationship with each and every one of us.
The Cross, Love and Forgiveness
Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Messiah says that God’s chosen one would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities,” and that “by his wounds we are healed.” What does this really mean? Does it mean that if Jesus had not been nailed to a cross, God could not have forgiven any human beings of their sins, and everyone would have had to spend eternity in hell? Does it mean that only if a person hears about and believes in Jesus Christ during this lifetime can they ever be reconciled to God and enter heaven?
The answer is no. These popular ideas come from a misinterpretation of Biblical explanations of the crucifixion. It is true that Jesus died for our sins and that his death enables us to be saved, but not in the way most Christians think. First of all, just because Jesus’s death is regarded as similar to an Old Testament animal sacrifice does not mean God is inherently unwilling or unable to forgive our sins without the spilling of blood. God is omnipotent and can forgive anyone at any time, if He chooses to do so. Jesus said, “Your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), and the Apostle John said, “God is love” (1 John 4:16) — so we know that forgiveness and compassion are in God’s nature. Jesus forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery, and he even asked God to forgive the Roman soldiers who pounded nails into his hands! The notion of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb is a metaphor, particularly useful for ancient Jews who were familiar with slaughtering animals in the temple as a way to pay off their sins. But there are more significant ways of understanding the cross of Christ that do not depend on the traditions of any particular culture, nor restrict the love and mercy of God according to a technical, legalistic concept of justice.
Furthermore, just because Jesus died a sacrificial death on the cross does not mean he died to allow us to escape from eternal torment. If condemnation to a neverending hell is the penalty for sin, then why isn’t Jesus currently burning in hell if he died to pay the penalty for our sins? Logically, Jesus would have to spend eternity in the lowest depth of hell, taking on the punishment of countless terrible sinners, if the doctrines of eternal hell and vicarious atonement are to be literally believed. Yes, Jesus died on the cross to enable us to be saved, but saved from what? Is it necessarily an endless hell that our Lord and Savior suffered and died to save us from? This idea not only conflicts with Jesus’s own teachings, but with the overarching message of the entire of New Testament. There is a deeper meaning to the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus that does not include the hideous notion that God planned to burn billions of people alive for all eternity unless one man died a particular type of death.
Jesus himself stated the purpose of the crucifixion: “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12:32-33). In other words, Jesus said he would be lifted up on a cross, and through such a death would be lifted up to heaven in glory, in order that he can bring all people back to God with him. All people includes everyone who has ever lived and will ever live, including the worst sinners, the faithless, and those who die without knowing God or Christ. Jesus thus refutes the concept of eternal hell for any human being. He went to the cross because by doing so, it makes it possible for him to draw everyone to himself, so that they can find the peace of reunion with their Heavenly Father. If Jesus had not submitted to the agony of a humiliating death on the cross, this would not have been possible.
But why? We can begin to understand the issue by recognizing Jesus’s true nature as a human manifestation of the divine. The Apostle Paul tells us that God had to become a human being in order to reach us where we are, to save us from human nature and help us rise into our higher spiritual nature as children of God. God came to earth in the form of Jesus for the same reason Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors: because we need Him to become who God wants us to be, and we cannot reach Him unless He makes the first move. Forgiveness must come from the one who is offended; a helping hand must be extended by the one who has the power.
According to Paul, Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:6-11). God never intended to make anyone suffer for an infinite length of time in hell. By manifesting himself in the flesh as the perfect human being, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s plan was to come to us sinners on earth and draw us to Himself in heaven, until, at the end of time, everyone will finally recognize Jesus as Lord, and therefore everyone will be saved.
When we consider the cross, we should be struck by the fact that God is voluntarily submitting to the worst aspects of human life: pain and death. The Bible tells us that pain and death are the bitter fruits of sin. Therefore, by taking on pain and death, God is taking on the penalty of sin. God is perfect, so He does not deserve this, but He chooses to endure the cross anyway, precisely because it is God’s will to forgive us of our sins. By tasting of sin’s penalty through Jesus Christ on the cross, God gains a whole new dimension that the gods of other religions do not have. God can truly empathize with the anguish of human existence. Empathy is the beginning of mercy, and without mercy there can be no forgiveness.
Because of the cross, God truly knows the human condition. He has lived it, in the Person of Jesus Christ. God knows suffering and injustice. He knows the cruelty of the devil. God can relate to man and his struggles in a much more intimate way, because He has been a man. Yes, God loves us that much — so much that He was willing to go through the cross to reach our hearts.
Compassion for Human Despair
So if an eternity of hell-fire is not what Jesus was saving us from through the crucifixion, what exactly is our salvation? How exactly is Jesus the Savior of men? What would have happened to human beings if it had not been for Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross? Would anything be fundamentally different? In other words, why did Jesus need to go to the cross? Why was the cross absolutely necessary for all humanity?
It is easy for Christians to say that the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ and his death on the cross is what makes our salvation possible, without actually understanding how this makes sense and what it means. The answer has to do with the fact that people cannot save themselves; we all need divine grace in order to rise above our sinful nature and be reconciled to God. But to be a God of grace, love and mercy, God must know what it is to be in need of help. Since God is by definition the Supreme Being who never needs anything, because He is complete and all-powerful in and of Himself, the only way for God to empathize with man is to become a man. By living as a man and experiencing the frustration and helplessness of earthly existence, God can fully understand why we need His grace in order to become who He wants us to be.
Not only is Christianity the only religion that asserts that God personally knows the feeling of human suffering, it is the only faith in which God Himself experienced the emotion of despair — an emotion that God could never possibly feel except as a human being. God, being omnipotent, cannot despair unless He reduces Himself and enters into a limited form of existence where He subjects Himself to other powers. This is exactly what God did by becoming flesh, the man Jesus Christ, and submitting to the injustice of a painful, cruel death on a Roman cross.
Believe it or not, God knows what it is like to lose faith. Hanging on the cross, near death, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). In his dying moments as a man, God Himself actually lost faith in God. As human beings naturally do, Jesus wondered, How could God have allowed such a terrible thing to happen to me? What is the purpose of this suffering? Doesn’t God love me?
Indeed, Jesus Christ died a broken man. In the final moments, we do not hear him confidently proclaiming the resurrection while slipping into the clutches of death; rather, we hear him wondering aloud why God is letting him suffer and die unjustly. But Jesus’s full humanity does not detract from his divinity. In fact, it only enhances it, for it adds an important aspect to the Christian God that is unique among all religious faiths. God loves us so much, He was even willing to endure the ultimate torment of despair, showing us there is nothing He wouldn’t do to help us love Him.
This is why the cross was necessary for our salvation. We can look to the cross and see that God understands and has experienced human misery to the utmost degree — including the sin of losing faith — which enables God to forgive us for all our weaknesses and any wrong thing we might think or do as a result of the human condition. Knowing the extraordinary level of God’s compassion towards us, even those of us who suffer to the point of despair, makes it possible for us to love God as our Father, not merely as a stern Lord who judges us strictly according to our sins when we die. Because of the cross, we know that God is in the business of understanding and forgiveness, not tyranny and wrath.
It is because of Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross that we can truly love God. Without it, we could only fear God and tremble in anticipation of punishment for our inherent sinfulness, which we cannot control no matter how hard we try to avoid committing sins. The crucifixion saves us from our own fear and guilt in the face of an angry god of our imagination. This is the true hell. By understanding the amazing act of compassion that God demonstrated on the cross, we can escape this hellish spiritual condition and find the kingdom of heaven within our hearts, in the form of a mature, authentic love for a God who truly loves us. We can know, as Paul taught, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19).
A Symbol of Hope for the Hopeless
According to the testimony of eye-witnesses recorded in the Bible, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. After being tortured and killed, he was buried in a tomb, but on the third day the tomb was found empty and Jesus was seen alive and restored to glory. The resurrection was the culmination of God’s plan to prove His love for all people. If Jesus had not conquered death and shown this publicly, he would have gone down in history as just another radical Jewish false prophet who was executed by the Romans for treason. We never would have known he was the divine being he claimed to be, and we never would have understood God’s absolute power to change evil into good.
When Isaiah wrote that the Messiah was “despised and rejected by men,” that “we esteemed him not,” and that “we considered him stricken by God” because he “carried our sorrows,” he was accurately foretelling the way people viewed Jesus Christ when he went to the cross. In the time and culture of Jesus, being crucified was the ultimate insult to a man’s character. The Old Testament says that people who are hung on a tree are accursed (Deut. 21:23), and this was interpreted by first-century Jews to include death by crucifixion. For both the Jews and the Romans, this form of execution was reserved for the most heinous criminals and was the sign of a person considered by society to be totally worthless — worthy only of a humiliating torture, a long, lingering death of excruciating pain, hanging naked on a post for the public to gawk at and ridicule. Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thorns, was spat upon, and was even made to carry his own cross to the place of execution, all while crowds of spectators hurled insults at him. After Jesus was sentenced to death, his small band of disciples dispersed rather than acclaiming him as their leader. Even Peter, the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church, denied Jesus three times. Nobody wanted anything to do with a crucified man.
The fact that God picked such an unlikely man for His own incarnation shows that no one is ever accursed, rejected, or damned by God. Not even a person that all of society regards with contempt is actually condemned by anything other than human arrogance and hatred. Even those who are considered to be the worst criminals and social outcasts are loved by their Maker, and can always still be saved. Jesus was considered a blasphemer, a traitor, a dangerous cult leader and a charlatan. He was believed by many to be possessed by demons. People didn’t love him, but God loved him. God chose a vessel of dishonor to fill to the brim with His Holy Spirit — and He did this to prove us wrong about our limited, fearful, self-serving conceptions of the Divine. When Jesus was resurrected, the judgments of the world were proven wrong, and God was proven right. A man who died a death of ultimate dishonor, who everyone thought would go to hell, instead became the only man in human history to rise in glory from the grave.
Whenever we look at the weak and the downtrodden, the sick and the ugly, the disgusting and the perverted, the crazy and the criminal among us, we are to realize that they too are loved by God, and that they too will one day meet us in heaven. We are all sinners, all imperfect — and we are commanded by God not to judge one another, but to love one another as brothers and sisters, all children of our Heavenly Father. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). There are no exceptions, no people unworthy of our love and God’s love. As Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40).
The cross of Christ is a symbol of hope for all people, that God loves every one of us, and will not abandon us even when we lose faith and abandon Him. Even the most hopeless souls have hope in the saving power of Jesus Christ. Yes, even the unbelieving and sinful dead can be saved. As Peter said, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit, through which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago…” (1 Pet. 3:18-20). God came to earth to save us, and he goes to hell to save spirits there. There is nowhere God will not go, nothing God will not do, to help people find peace and forgiveness and return to Him in heaven.
More Than a Watchmaker
It is easy to believe in a remote, impersonal Creator of the universe — a god like a watchmaker who set the gears of the world in motion and now stands aloof, seeing everything unfold but never participating in his creation. It is much more difficult to believe in the God of Jesus Christ, a God he instructed us to call Abba (Dearest Father or Daddy). Does God really love us the way a father loves his children, or does God regard us as mere ants that can be trodden underfoot with little care or thought? How can we know for sure?
In the time of Job, most people believed in a god who allows evil but doesn’t care enough to do anything about it. God often allowed injustice to flourish, and those who suffered had little to look forward to unless their god randomly chose to bless them for inscrutable reasons of his own. Because they knew nothing of Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection, they had no evidence to believe in anything better. People who had miserable lives were thought to be cursed forever, and that was that.
Like the people in Job’s era, we can look around us in this fallen world and wonder whether God really loves us in any meaningful way. Terrible things happen every day, not sparing the righteous. It is only because of the story of Christ that we have hope in a God who can, and will, take utmost human evil and grotesque suffering and transform it for the salvation of all mankind. Job’s prophecy of the Redeemer really is true: Jesus Christ lives and will one day make all things right, and even those who endure senseless misery and shame will one day see God, reconciled and restored to glory. As Paul explained, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn” — until eventually, at the end of time, “God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:22-23,28). God does this not only despite, but because of, the suffering Jesus had to endure. It is by taking on the suffering of the flesh in the form of Jesus Christ that God may reach the heart of everyone who has ever lived. “He who descended [into the flesh] is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” (Eph. 4:10).
Christianity proclaims the Good News that the real God is a God of universal love and compassion, a God who personally cares about each and every human being. As Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7). God wants us to know that He loves us with a deep and abiding love, no matter who we are and what we have done, no matter whether people embrace us or condemn us. God’s love is infinite and can overcome all obstacles. That’s why God appeared on earth as the man Jesus Christ, suffered and died on the cross, and rose from the dead — to show us the invincible power of His love. The cross of Christ is God’s way of proving the unfathomable depth of His love for us — for all of us — so that we can know for sure that God’s love can never fail.