Chapter 8 of Chris Wright’s excellent book The God I Don’t Understand ties up his discussion of the cross as he answers the question ‘How does the cross work?’ by taking on a further false dichotomy: Human Sin or God’s Judgement?
Those that reject the idea that the cross involves God’s punishment tend to emphasise instead that it is all about Jesus overcoming sin. At the cross, Jesus deals with human wickedness, violence and evil by taking it upon himself, drawing its sting or ‘absorbing’ it as it were. In other words, Jesus bears mankind’s wrath against God, not God’s wrath against mankind.
Wright argues that we need to hold onto both. The cross is the place where the victory of God is won over evil and sin (Col 2:15). But it is also the place of divine judgement. [This is a bit like Scot McKnight’s nice golfing illustration that when we come to the atonement we need to play with all the clubs in the bag, not just one – in this case both the cross as the supreme act of love by God as well as penal substitution]
Chris Wright has a life-long passion for encouraging Christians to understand their faith in light of the story of the OT and it is there that he roots his argument. There is a double truth about Israel. One the one hand she is the beloved people of God, the nation of promise; the focal point of God’s love for the world. On the other hand, she is a people in rebellion; the focal point of the world’s sin against God. And in 587BC she suffers defeat and exile; an event which is simultaneously a result of divine judgement and an act of cruelty and violence perpetrated by the Babylonians.
Here’s the big point. Jesus’ death is in many ways a ‘re-play’ of 587BC but at a much deeper level. Jesus represents Israel, as her Messiah, he embodies the Israel and fulfils her mission and destiny. [the other Wright, the N.T. one, has argued this point at length]. As he represents her in life, so in death. Jesus suffers human evil and divine judgement. Jesus himself links his coming with the imminent destruction of the temple (Jn 2:19-22). Again divine judgement falls, but the difference is that Jesus’ death is wholly undeserved. As Wright says, “every word in Paul’s definition of the gospel is important: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
THE TOUGH MORAL QUESTION HERE IS DOES SIN DESERVE TO BE PUNISHED?
According to the atheist Christopher Hitchens, the idea of divine judgement amounts to a form of totalitarianism; punishing people for ‘thought crime’ that makes Christianity a callous, reprehensible, indefensible and poisonous form of manipulation and control. Well, you can’t say he doesn’t have a point of view.
The Bible has a different perspective. It has no problem saying that sin deserves to be punished. The fate of the wicked is summarised as: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). For God not to judge sin is to abandon justice and any hope of the ultimate victory over evil. For God not to judge sin is to rob ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ of meaning since there are no ultimate moral consequences to our actions.
Wright puts it memorably this way. To see the cross as ‘cosmic child abuse’ is a gross caricature. However, “it is equally a grossly deficient caricature to reduce the cross to nothing more than a cosmic sympathy card, in God’s handwriting, ‘I share your pain.’ The astonishing good news is that God takes the punishment on himself in Jesus Christ. Love and judgement meet at the cross.