One Gave All

One Gave All

"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"
<"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?">
-Words of Jesus on the cross, according to Matthew 15:34

Over the years, more than any other query, I’ve been asked this: Why is Jesus’s dying on the cross a big deal? If someone knew they could save the entire world by dying, and they got to come back in two days, who wouldn’t do it? No matter what the agony, you’d get to return in less than 48 hours, and you’d be the savior of everyone. Even if you didn’t know you were coming back, the questioners ask, to sacrifice yourself for the world would be worth it, wouldn’t it? People have fallen on grenades, and other acts of sacrificial bravery, to save far fewer. I think this is a pretty good question. Here is one answer:

First of all, anyone who’s heard of the death of Jesus on the cross knows it was just about as horrible way as you can die. I won’t go into the details here, but you can find them pretty easily if you’ve never heard them. But, in all fairness, compared with saving the world — whether or not you knew you were coming back — it’s not the biggest deal in the universe many Christians make it out to be. The problem is that as humans we think in human terms, and the easiest thing in the Crucifixion story to relate to is the crippling torture and humiliating death Jesus faced. But, the questioners are right. In the greater scheme of things, one death — to save all of humanity, no less — is not that big a deal.

Here’s what is: 

In the Christian tradition Jesus is a part of God, and came to Earth to become human too. He was born perfect and lived without sin. His entire life. Whether you’re a Christian or not, try to imagine that. It’s not that tough not to rape and murder if you’re decent person. But every tiny little thing you’ve ever done, from yelling at your kids to sneaking food into a movie theater; Jesus didn’t do any of those things. His entire life was lived without spot or wrinkle.

Now, here’s where it gets heroic. In Biblical tradition, sin requires blood sacrifice. All throughout the Old Testament, as well as most of the ancient world, it was so. Jesus came to Earth in part to be that sacrifice, for all the sins being committed, and all the sins that would ever be committed. That means the guy you cut off in traffic this morning, the fight you had with your husband last night, or whatever you’re planning on doing tomorrow, Jesus accounted for that with his blood sacrifice.

But to take the punishment, Jesus had to become guilty. So, while on the cross, all the sins throughout the breadth and width of history were placed on Jesus’s shoulders. In other words, he literally became guilty of all those sins. For all the petty and not-so-petty things you’ve done or will ever do, Jesus became guilty. For all the children ever beaten, starved, or sexually violated, Jesus became guilty.

Think about that. The last rape, murder or case of child abuse you read about: what if that was you who did it? Could you live with yourself? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time some days just with the guilt of the things I have done. I can’t imagine having the guilt of killing my brother or raping a stranger.

Now, I don’t know if this is even possible, but imagine how much harder it would be if you’d never done anything wrong. Ever. To be nailed to a piece of wood, your body in a race to see whether loss of blood or suffocation would kill you first, and to suddenly have all the guilt of all the world come crashing down on you. That’s what Christians believe Jesus went through.

It gets worse.

Christians believe that Jesus was a part of God, and as such was always in communication and harmony with God the Father. But the Bible tells us God doesn’t have anything to do with sin. So then, on that cross, after actually becoming guilty of all the sins ever committed, when he’d never done anything wrong before, the Bible tells us that God separated himself from Jesus. For three hours on that Friday, for the first time in his entire life, Jesus not only became guilty of every abomination imaginable, but he lost contact with God. I’m sitting here, and I don’t even have an analogy to give you. Do you remember being little and getting separated from your mom in a crowd of people? Do you remember what the terror you felt was like? That’s probably the closest human approximation to understanding what it might have been like for Jesus.

In fact, it well may have been the guilt combined with the separation from God that finally killed Jesus. He died much faster than most who were crucified, usually a slow death. You see; the death was actually a small part of it, and perhaps by that point, a relief. It was the journey Jesus took on that cross that is such a big deal. It was willingly taking on the guilt of a hundred billion crimes, both small and unspeakably large, when he’d never committed one before. It was the subsequent severing between Jesus and God, and the added anguish of having his Father for the first time abandon him.

These are the things that make Jesus’s sacrifice truly jaw-dropping. But, as humans, we don’t know what it’s like to be perfect our entire lives and then suddenly inherit all the sin in the world. We don’t know what it’s like to be in perfect communion with God, and then be suddenly cut off, as He turns away from our now-sinful visage. So, we talk about things in humanistic terms, the agony of the death, and the unfairness of being crucified while innocent. Those aren’t the wrong things to dwell on, but they miss the heart of the matter.

On that lonely desolate Friday so long ago, the ultimate sacrifice was made. Not the one usually associated, but the greatest one imaginable.

One gave all.

April 18, 2003

Thanks to Grizzly and Rose for their perspective and suggestions.

"He was bleeding from a beating, there were stripes upon His back
And He wore a crown of thorns upon His head
And He bore with every step
The scorn of those who cried out for His death"


Biff Spiffy said...

Holy crap this is good, a wrenching out of empty tradition toward reason - and true to the text.

Hyperion said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

That was really wonderful. Such a refreshing deeper look at what a sacrifice Jesus really made. Thanks!

Hyperion said...

Thank you for the kind words.