For most of my adult Christian life, I've been trying to understand what happened on the cross. I used to give the stock Christian answer: "Jesus died on the cross for my sins." I still think that statement is true, but I've become less and less clear on exactly what it means.
First there's the problem of individuality. Yes, I'm a sinner. Which is to say, I turn away from God through selfish actions. Little things like harboring resentment towards my husband, snapping at our children, allowing anger to simmer inside when I feel slighted by someone else. And bigger things like neglecting to care for people in need. Moreover, I put myself in the place of God on a regular basis. I could go on and on, but it gets a bit tedious. So I'm willing to admit that I am a sinner, and I recognize that my sin separates me from God's goodness, and yet it seems like one more exaltation of self to think that Jesus' death comes down to my personal sin.
What I'm starting to understand is that my sin is included in Jesus' death, but Sin is a much more comprehensive problem than my own pride and misdirected love. Jesus' death must have conquered Sin with a capital S—the problem of evil that trickles down into my life.
Then there's the problem of the word "for." Did Jesus die because I sinned? Because we sinned? Because Sin exists? The typical orthodox response is that Jesus died as a substitute. He—the sinless one—took our sin upon himself and gave us his righteousness. He became a sinner, that we might become a righteous ne. But the Bible seems to go even further. Paul writes that Jesus "became sin" (2 Cor. 5:21) and "became a curse" (Gal. 3:13). Both phrases are contested, and I'm no New Testament scholar, but the work Jesus did again seems to go even further than our personal repudiation of God and God's grace.
Then yet another series of question arise. Did Jesus die because God demanded it or because Sin demanded it? Was the cross the work of sinful humanity or of divine providence? Or the work of Evil in a more broadly defined sense?
I haven't figured out the answers. Every time I think I understand, something pops up and pokes a hole in my analogy. For instance, I think about Jesus taking the place of me, a convicted felon, and receiving the death penalty in my stead. It captures the wonder of his sacrifice for us, but then God becomes unjust in punishing the wrong person. So I move to a debt analogy–Jesus pays the price I owe. That captures the justice of it but misses the full impact of the sacrifice. And so on.
I wonder if the same thing happened for the writers of the New Testament. They agree on the centrality of the cross and resurrection of Christ. They agree that Sin is a problem and we are all culpable and entrapped by it. They agree that something happened on the cross that overcame Sin and allows us to have access to God. And yet they employ a host of metaphors to try to explain what exactly it was that happened there. Somehow, Jesus' work on the cross offers healing of brokenness, forgiveness from sin, freedom from slavery, ransom, restoration, payment of debt, satisfaction of wrath, full life with God.
I'm no physicist, but the mystery of the cross reminds me of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (yes, I checked with my physics teacher friend about this one), which states that you can never measure both the location and the velocity of an electron simultaneously. I'm not sure we will ever be able to pin down the exact nature of the cross. I'm tempted to choose one analogy and try to fit everything else into it. But at the end of the day, I'm satisfied with the knowledge that Christ died for us and God vindicated him by resurrecting him from the dead. I'm satisfied with the mystery of the cross.