"Why Did Jesus Die?"
A former agnostic wrestles with some of Christianity's most basic issues
By Alan Scholes
"It's fun to debate with Christians because there are so many contradictions in the Bible." That was my feeling during my years as an agnostic high school and college student. I never called myself an atheist. I felt that anyone who said, "I'm sure that God doesn't exist." was being arrogant. How could anyone know whether or not God existed? So I considered myself to be an open-minded agnostic. I loved to argue with religious people--partly because I just liked to argue (with anyone) and partly because they seemed like sitting ducks. I liked to bait them about the problems that I saw in the Bible. But, you know, it was as I found out more about these "problem areas" that I learned what the Bible is all about.
As I read the story of Adam and Eve for a course on the bible as literature, I noticed something for the first time. Of course I had heard the story before when I would attend church, but I had never read the actual account in Genesis carefully. I saw that in chapter two God commands Adam, "But, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die."
When I looked at Genesis chapter five, I found that Adam lived many years after eating from the forbidden tree and even had several children. I wondered, "Was God just bullying them with idle threats or did the writer of Genesis make a little mistake and misquote God?" I was amazed that anyone in their right mind could believe that the Bible was "God's Word" when it had such a glaring contradiction in the opening chapters. This continued to bother me for nearly two years, but there was something else that bothered me even more.
I had often heard my religious friends say, "Jesus died for our sins" or "Jesus died to save the world." I could see how the good example of Jesus' actions might possibly influence some men and women to live better lives, but it was inconceivable to me that anything done by one man nearly 2,000 years ago could have a direct effect on how we live in the 20th century. And I certainly couldn't see how Jesus' death no matter how noble or unselfish, could possibly make up for all the evil in the world.
In my opinion, if God existed, He would either have a loving and forgiving nature or He would not. If He wasn't inclined to forgive men's shortcomings, I didn't see how Jesus' death could change His mind, and if God was a forgiving sort, I couldn't see why He would need a human sacrifice to prove it.
At the time I never guessed that the answer to the problem in Genesis held a clue to understanding why Jesus had to die. I began to comprehend as I was listening to a lecture by a man named Hal Lindsey (who later wrote the best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth). He said that when God declared that Adam would die the same day, He was not referring to physical death, but rather to spiritual death.
He went on to explain that God had originally created man in three distinct parts or dimensions. The first is the physical body, which contains the give senses. Our body is not who we are. It's the physical house we live in.
The second part of man is the soul. This is the real you and me. It contains the mind (the non-physical source of thoughts which activates the physical brain), the emotions, the will and the conscience or moral reasoning power. The Bible teaches that the soul is non-physical and indestructible (it will exist in some state forever).
There is a third part of man called the spirit. I had always thought that the terms "soul" and "spirit" were just two names for the same thing, but Lindsey explained that the spirit is a sort of "non-physical eyesight" with which Adam could experience the non-physical world and personally "see" God and have fellowship with Him. Adam could look through his physical eyes at Eve and see and experience her. In the same way he could "look" through his spirit and directly perceive and experience God. Both were equally real and intimate.
Now this made a lot of sense to me. As a student of psychology, I had already decided that there must be a non-physical part of man. Even Freud, who was a confirmed atheist, was forced into an explanation of human behavior that involved non-physical elements. (No one has ever operated on a human brain and found a physical id, ego or superego!) I began to see how Adam's spiritual sense perception could have "died" and yet he still could be alive physically.
As I studied further, I discovered that the biblical concept of "death" does not mean "ceasing to exist," but rather means "separation." In the bible, physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. With the soul gone, the body ceases to function and begins to decay. Spiritual death means the separation of the spirit from God. With the spirit cut off from God, a man would still be able to function physically, but could no longer directly experience God.
I began to see that this Hebrew concept of spiritual death described me exactly. I had read and heard a great deal about God and had spent many hours thinking about the idea of God, but I certainly had never directly perceived or experienced Him.
Free to Choose
At this time I began to see the answer to something else that had bothered me. I had always said: "If God created man and man has an evil side to him, then why should God blame man for acting the way He made him?" (In the long run it seemed as though evil were God's fault, not man's).
But as I studied further, I saw that God had created man with freedom to respond to God's love and love Him back. For love to be real, a person has to be free to choose to love (and free to choose not to). For example, I want my wife to freely choose to love me, not to be forced into it.
If God had told Adam, "Here, do anything you ant. There is nothing you can do that would be wrong," then there would have been no way for Adam to express his love and obedience toward God. If nothing was forbidden, then Adam couldn't choose to obey God since there would be no possible way to disobey.
So God gave Adam a choice. He said, "Don't eat from this tree." The moment God said that, the tree became "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." I think the tree was a neutral object from God's point of view. He could just as easily have said, "Don't touch that stick" or "don't pick up that rock." Then we would have had the "stick" or the "rock" of the knowledge of good and evil." Until this time Adam had never personally chosen good or evil. If Adam had chosen to obey, he would have gained a personal knowledge of God. As it was, he chose to disobey and gained an experience of evil.
In choosing to disobey God, Adam died spiritually. In turning away from God's command, Adam's intimate fellowship with God was broken - his "spiritual eyes" went dead and he could no longer experience God.
I had read in the New Testament that "the wages of sin is death." I now realized that "wages" are not a gift or a punishment. They are simply what we deserve, the natural result of our work. On payday you don't go to your boss, get down on your knees and say, "Oh, please, be kind and generous and give me my paycheck." You expect to be paid. It is the natural result of doing your work.
In the same way, spiritual death is not a punishment from God, but rather the natural result of man's free choice to separate himself from God and His will. Adam unplugged himself from God spiritually and the result was that he was cut off from God permanently. Adam had poked out his own spiritual eyes and there was nothing he could do to restore them.
Even God Himself couldn't restore Adam's spirit without nullifying his free will. (That would be like a parent who says, "You're free to choose whether or not you want to go to the party tonight, but if you choose to go, I'm going to lock you in your room.") In order for Adam to be free, God had to honor his choice of disobedience and spiritual death.
When Adam disobeyed God, something even more startling happened. Not only was Adam eternally cut off from God, but apparently there was such a profound change in Adam that he passed on this spiritual death to all of his offspring.
In the physical realm we know that some damage (such as radiation) can be so profound that a genetic mutation takes place and every generation after that is affected. Something like "spiritual mutation" took place when Adam sinned, and everyone since that time has been born physically and soulishly" alive but spiritually dead - cut off from God.
My first thought was, "This seems unfair. That means I have to suffer for something Adam did thousands of years ago." But I soon realize that there were many times when I had consciously chosen to do things that I knew were wrong. If I hadn't inherited spiritual death, I would have cut myself off from God through my own choices! And I saw that God couldn't just forgive or overlook man's sin - to do so would take away his freedom and make him less than human.
But I still didn't se how Jesus' death could be the solution to man's problem of spiritual death. One thing in particular bothered me about Jesus. According to my Christian friends, Jesus was supposed to be God's perfect Son. In fact, they said He was God Himself in human form.
And yet in two difference places it is recorded that on the cross Jesus cried, "My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me?" This was the most obvious problem of all. It seemed that Jesus Himself lost faith at the very end. How could we believe Jesus to be the perfect Son of god when He Himself seems to have denied it with His dying breath?
This proved to be the key which helped me to finally understand the Christian faith. I learned that Jesus not only died physically on the cross--He died spiritually. While Jesus hung there, God the Father reached back in time and took the spiritual death that had been generated by Adam and those who came after him and placed it on Jesus Christ. Then (because He created time and lives outside of it) God looked forward in time and took all the spiritual death generated by you and me and all the other men and women who will be born until the end of time and put that death on Jesus too.
Now I could see why Jesus cried, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?" He was experiencing to the fullest the spiritual death generated by countless men and women throughout the ages. He literally experienced spiritual hell on the cross as He was cut off from God, even though He committed no sin and was not deserving of death. He actually died spiritually in our place.
One thing, continued to puzzle me. I could see how Jesus, if He lived a perfect life and therefore was never unplugged from God, could die spiritually for one other man's sin (and it seemed logical that He would have to stay dead eternally). But I couldn't understand how Jesus as one man could possibly die and stay dead for only a few days - the Bible says He was resurrected three days later - and still manage to pay off several billion eternities of separation from God.
I found the answer while I was a student at San Francisco State College. I asked a math major who lived in my dorm about this, and he replied, "You've forgotten that Jesus, though Hew was in human form, was actually the infinite God. If He had suffered spiritual death for even 10 minutes, He would have generated more than enough death to pay for the 100 billion eternities of separation from God. Remember He was giving up infinite life, and infinity multiplied times anything still equals infinity." Or as he wrote down for me:
Jesus yielding infinite life
x 10 minutes=
infinite eternities of spiritual death
But I was still confused about this: Why, if Jesus' death paid for all the spiritual death for all the ages, do men still experience separation from God? Then I realized that God still can't violate our free will without making us subhuman. God has gone to great trouble and sacrifice to provide forgiveness for us and to restore us to fellowship with Himself. Forgiveness and a new spirit are free gifts that He offers us. If we refuse His gift, we will continue to experience spiritual death, and when our physical life ends, we will be cut off eternally from God and His love.
Those who accept Christ's death as payment for their spiritual death are given new "spiritual eyes". They are again complete in body, soul and spirit. For the man who has this new nature within him, physical death is no threat. When the soul sheds the physical body, the man himself continues to grow and have fellowship with God through His spirit.
Recently I was discussing some of these things with a student named George. I asked him, "Have you ever wondered about any of these things?" He said, "Yes, in fact, I was sent to a religious grade school and high school, and took many courses in Christian teaching. I often asked my teachers about things that didn't make sense to me, like how Jesus could die for the whole world. They would always put me off or say, "We're going to discuss that next month," and I never tot my questions answered. Today is the first time I've really understood how Jesus' death could affect me personally."
Then I asked him, "Would you like to thank Christ for taking your spiritual death and ask Him to come into your life?" George said, "Yes, I really would," so right there on a concrete bench i the midst of the campus, George bowed his head and asked Christ into his life. As well as I can remember, what he said was this: "Lord Jesus, thank you for taking the spiritual death that I deserve. Come into my life and give me back a spirit so I can really know You. Give me the strength to obey You every day. Amen."
At that moment George began the most vital and dynamic experience life can offer - knowing God Himself. You can have that same experience.
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