“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
In the past couple weeks, I have had two atheists suggest something to me which never even occurred to me when I was deciding to become a Christian. Both of them proposed that because Jesus Christ knew he would be resurrected made his sacrifice less loving, or that humans could surpass God’s love if they did not believe in the afterlife, but sacrificed their life for someone else. It took me a while to even think of a good response to this, because it was honestly an idea that never occurred to me.
When I was seriously considering whether or not God is loving, I was open enough to Christianity to accept all of its claims at once. That is, I accepted that Jesus’s sacrifice, if it occurred, was sufficient proof of God’s love. I was moved enough by the crucifixion – by the suggestion alone that God sacrificed his Son for me, even though I didn’t believe it – to not question that it was the utmost expression of God’s love. Most Christians are highly offended by the question itself. To put it in comparable terms, imagine a father sacrificing his life to save his son’s life. Afterward, the son complains that the father knew they’d be together in heaven anyway, so it wasn’t all that meaningful, or the son complains that the father did not leave him enough of an inheritance behind. To Christians, this question smacks of ingratitude.
Personally, I am less offended by this question because my own position just a few years ago was not that much different than the position that the askers are in today. However, my impression is very similar to that of other Christians: asking this question indicates a lack of appreciation for the sacrifice. That is, those who ask it are willing to run with the idea that God is loving, but is unwilling to accept that He truly sacrificed Himself to redeem them. In fact, my impression is that they don’t feel the need for redemption because they think they’re doing a pretty good job of being good on their own. The logic I’ve frequently heard is, “if there is a God, he won’t punish me because I’m a good person.” If one is to seriously consider Christianity, one must accept all of its tenets at face value and then start questioning whether it is consistent in its entirety. This means that, when analyzing the crucifixion, one must accept that what Paul explains in Romans 8:23: “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Only then can we proceed with the rest of the analysis.
First of all, I see no reason to assume that Jesus could be 100% certain of his resurrection, though I believe he had complete faith in it. It is important to remember that God is triune. The Son and the Father are separate and have different qualities. Isaiah 40:28 says that, “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary.” Yet we see that Jesus does not share God’s omnipotence, for several times in the gospels he grows tired and rests or sleeps (John 4:6, Mark 4:38). Furthermore, I see no reason to assume that Jesus shared God’s omniscience. Although God certainly enabled Jesus to see and know certain things that no ordinary human could know (John 1:48-49), Jesus’s knowledge was still limited. In Gethsemane, he prayed “If this cup may be taken from me,” indicating that he was not certain of the necessity of his sacrifice. I would say that he definitely believed that he would be resurrected, but he didn’t have 100% certainty that it would occur, though I’m not sure he fully considered the epistemological basis for his belief since Descartes hadn’t come around yet. Jesus also frequently went off alone to pray, demonstrating that his relationship with God was not simply a matter of being totally unified, but that he too had to set aside time to build up his relationship with God and spend time conversing with God.
It is essential that we remember that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Therefore, his pain is felt as vehemently as that of a human being, although he had the promise of returning to the earth. It was suggested to me that because God is omnipotent, a little pain is meaningless to him; he wouldn’t feel it as much as an ordinary person. This thought process undermines our understanding of Jesus as fully human. I think one simply needs to watch the Passion of the Christ to appreciate Jesus’s pain. Yes, eventually Jesus would have the benefit of eternal life, and the pain of his sacrifice would perhaps become less poignant. Yet Christians have the same promise: all of our sufferings in this world will be replaced by eternal joy. But our current suffering is still terribly hard, just as the crucifixion is still incredibly painful.
Furthermore, the resurrection is essential to Christ’s message. We must remember that it wasn’t simply the sacrifice which proved God’s love, but the redemption. As 1 John 4:10 says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Atonement is achieved not merely by Jesus’s sacrifice (which would seemingly redeem all humans), but by making mankind turn to God once more. This requires proving that Jesus’ claims about his divinity and the authority of his moral teachings are true. Were Jesus to die without resurrecting, we would have insufficient proof of his divinity and thus no reason to listen to his moral teachings. We would be free to continue living our lives of sin and constantly be pushing ourselves further away from God. The resurrection is thus a vital component to redemption and gives meaning to God’s sacrifice.
Yet the necessity of resurrection does not entirely contest the idea that an atheist’s sacrifice could be greater than God’s. To answer that claim, I can only refer to Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jeremiah 3:20 tells us, “‘But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,’ declares the LORD.” As the inheriters of Israel’s covenant, now the world has to accept that we have been unfaithful to God. This means that God wasn’t simply sacrificing Himself for His children who loved Him, but for His children who denied Him, who continually sinned against him, who strayed as far from Him as possible. Christ died to cleanse me even when I was caught up in the worst possible sins of pride, wrath, lust, and laziness. The equivalent of Christ’s sacrifice for an atheist would be a husband dying to save his wife’s life after his wife cheated on him ten thousand times, spat on him, cursed his name, beat him, and ran him out of the house. I do not believe that any ordinary man could do such a thing, and to my knowledge, never has such a sacrifice been made by an atheist.
When atheists evaluate the claim that God is loving, they must take into account the sum of Christian belief; they cannot forget that man is sinful, needing atonement. When all Christian theology is considered, it seems to me that the answer to “Is Christ’s death truly the ultimate sacrifice?” is a resounding Yes.