NonChristians may wonder why Jesus' followers would choose an instrument of execution as the symbol of their faith, even if that symbol is, so to speak, "historically accurate." Why commemorate a grievous event? Many questions surround the crucifixion and why Christians view it as pivotal. But perhaps the place to begin is with one of the most basic questions: Was the crucifixion really necessary?
Many people ask why an all-loving God would create a universe in which such a terrible price must be paid for the stumbling of one man and woman.
The answer has to do with the significance of that stumble. Adam and Eve, knowing it was forbidden, chose to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were, in effect, exerting their will above God's, defying His divine directive, despite His obvious position of authority over them. While His love for them was in no way diminished by their actions, they ruined the pure relationship they originally enjoyed between themselves and the One who made them.
The damage is reflected in Adam and Eve's impulse to hide. Notice that God did not turn away from them (see Genesis 3:8-10). Adam and Eve immediately acquired a sense of shame. Their guilt came between the two of them as it did between them and God. While the all-wise, all-powerful, loving God who made them gave them one simple restriction, Adam and Eve would not accept it, and they demonstrated in the process that humanity is hazardous to itself.
The "death sentence" that resulted from their rebellion was not the arbitrary decision of a rash, vindictive God. Rather, it was the necessary consequence of human folly, the attempt to live outside the authority of life's very Source. God knew the inevitable result; hence His clear warning to Adam, which Adam did not take seriously, at least not seriously enough.
What could be done, then, about this death sentence that humanity had brought on itself? God's perfect love for His creation required that humans be rescued from their plight. But God's absolute justness also required that the penalty for sin must be paid. Perfect obedience had to make up for disobedience, and blood atonement had to be made for sin, "for without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Heb. 9:22). But humanity's sinful nature after the fall, its inclination to rebel against God, made it impossible for any human to be perfectly obedient (Ps. 14:3). And the living God, in His spirit form, could not possibly die a death of atonement.
The only answer to this seeming dilemma, the only solution for the problem of sin, was for God to take on the flesh of His beloved creation. In the form of a God-man, He could overcome temptation through perfect obedience, made possible by His divine nature, and conquer sin by submitting Himself to a sacrificial death of His human body. Jesus Christ, the God-man, accomplished what neither Divinity nor mortal flesh could do alone – reconcile the Creator with His creation; rejoin that which had been torn apart,: redeem that which had been lost; recreate that which had been destroyed.
The crucifixion, then, was necessary to satisfy the requirements of God's perfect love and His absolute justness. In the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man, both love and justice were satisfied. God was, as ever, true to Himself.
Old Testament Prophecy
The crucifixion, like many other aspects of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, was foretold in Scripture long before the Messiah's birth. Isaiah 53 describes at length the "Man of sorrows" who would become "despised," "stricken by God," and "pierced for our transgressions," even though "He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth." The destiny of the Messiah, as clearly depicted in this passage, is to "[bear] the sin of many, and [make] intercession for the transgressors" ( Isa. 53:12). His suffering makes sinners whole: ". . . by His wounds we are healed." (Isa. 53:5).
Perhaps the most stunning Old Testament passage that foretells the crucifixion is Psalm 22. The opening verse is an exact rendition of some of Christ's words on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Similarly, the taunts of the crowd, specifically those of the chief priests and scribes recorded in Matthew 27:43, are also described in verses 7 and 8 of Psalm 22. It is also predicted that Christ's robe will be appropriated by his executioners: "They divide my garments among them, and cast lots for my clothing." (Ps. 22:18). Specific details of a death by crucifixion, no less than 700 years before that method of execution was even invented, abound in his psalm: "I am poured out like water" (excessive blood loss); "all m bones are out of joint" (dislocation of the elbows and shoulders); "my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth" (agonizing thirst); "they have pierced my hands and my feet" (the piercing nails); and "I can count all my bones" (exposed ribcage caused by flaying from the Roman scourge).
Other psalms (such as Psalm 69, which mentions in verse 21, "They gave me vinegar for my thirst.") also contain details of the crucifixion. The odds that King David, by mere coincidence (that is, without divine help), would have been able to conjure up all these predictions of a not-yet-existent form of execution, are exceedingly remote at best. After all, it is not surprising that God would use prophecy to prepare humankind for what C.S. Lewis once called "something absolutely unimaginable from outside our own world": The God who is outside time entered our time dimension, told us (through His prophets and chroniclers) what He was going to do, and then did it, on a cross outside Jerusalem, some two thousand years ago.
Adoration to Execution
Few people have ever witnessed such a drastic turn of events as did Jesus' disciples during one week in Jerusalem, what Christians have come to call "Holy Week." In the span of less than seven days, they would see their beloved leader go from adoration to execution–from being hailed and praised by crowds outside the city to being jeered and ridiculed by a bloodthirsty mob. They themselves would desert Jesus. Peter would deny even knowing Him. In the span of less than seven days, their world would be turned upside down, seemingly shattered, and they would find themselves cowering behind locked doors in a small room somewhere in northwest Jerusalem. They behaved as men caught unawares in a tide of terrifying events.
In spite of everything the disciples had been told, in spite of a the prophecy in Scripture, the men did not anticipate how drastically things would go that week. Perhaps they had been lulled by the stunning response when Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. "A huge crowd" spread their clothes on the road, cut down branches, and cried out "Hosanna to the son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'" Soon "the whole city was stirred" by this great commotion, and when strangers asked just who it was the crowds were lauding, they were told, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee" (Matt. 21:8-11). This adulation made the disciples' hearts swell with joy. At last, Jesus would be recognized and adored as the Messiah by all Jerusalem.
If Jesus Were God, Didn't He Know What Would Happen?
While we can see that the disciples' hopes were misled by cheering crowds, we must also ask two questions about Jesus Himself. First, did He know in detail what was about to happen to Him? Second, if He did, then why, as the self-proclaimed Son of God, with all the powers of heaven at His command, did He do nothing to stop those events?
Scripture leaves no doubt that Jesus knew about the events that were to take place that week in Jerusalem. He was not some hapless victim of unforeseen circumstances. From the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus knew exactly for what purpose He had come here. After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He told His disciples, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." He then went on to give the example of a seed dying to produce many seeds and the importance of a man being wiling to "lose his life. For this very reason I came to this hour" (John 12:23, 27).
Later, at the last supper with His disciples, He was more explicit: "My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me and just as I told the Jews, where I am going, you cannot come" (John 13:33), and "I came from the Father and entered the world: now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father" (John 16:28). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said specifically, "The Passover is two days away and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." (John 26:2). He had known, even before He went to Jerusalem, that He would be betrayed and turned over to the chief priests and scribes, who would condemn Him to death and deliver Him over to the Gentiles, who would flog Him and crucify Him, after which, on the third day, He would rise again.(Matt. 20:18). He knew beforehand that one of His own disciples would betray Him, and He knew precisely which of them it would be(John 13:26).
This is not the language of someone who has no idea of what is about to transpire. In addition to His foreknowledge of events, He believed He had the power to stop them. He told the men who arrested Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal twelve legions of angels?" (Matt. 26:53). But Jesus did not pray for 36,000 to 72,000 angels ( a legion contained 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers) to be sent on His behalf. He knew that His death must happen if the Scriptures were to be fulfilled, and if humanity were to be delivered from the bondage of sin and death. As much as Jesus' human nature must have dreaded the suffering He knew would be inflicted on Him, His divine nature could do no less than undertake the sacrifice called for by His perfect love and perfect obedience to the Father's will. So, while Palm Sunday's enthusiastic crowd outside Jerusalem was a thing of joy for His disciples, it was the cause of mixed emotions for the Lord Himself.
As for the scribes and the Pharisees, they realized that the city was swelling with crowds of people who had come to celebrate the Passover. The last thing they wanted was for Jesus to proclaim Himself the Messiah before all Jerusalem and have the majority of Jews gathered there respond to Him by falling at His feet. The Palm Sunday procession made that prospect very real to the Jewish leaders. The hardness of their hearts clouded their eyes to the Messiah in their midst. Ever since the raising of Lazarus, the Pharisees and Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, had been plotting to kill Jesus (John 11:45-53). Palm Sunday merely set into motion the cold-blooded plans that they had talked about for some time.
They dared not seize Jesus openly for fear that His popularity among the people would incite a backlash, and perhaps even spark a riot that would bring a harsh crackdown from the Romans during the Passover feast. So, while Jesus was teaching at the temple that week, they tested Him instead, trying to ferret out any hint of either disobedience to Jewish tithing laws or defiance of Roman tax law. Jesus, knowing they were seeking to trap Him, asked for a coin (which had Caesar's image stamped on it), and adroitly instructed them to give to Caesar what was Caesar's, and to God what was God's (Mark 12:14-17). The Jewish leaders were undoubtedly frustrated, being unable to arrest Jesus openly or to get Him to doom Himself with ill-chosen words against the Romans.
But opportunity soon presented itself when one of Jesus' own disciples, Judas Iscariot, approached the chief priests and asked them, "What are you wiling to give me if I hand him over to you?" They agreed on thirty pieces of silver. Judas was to let them know when the "opportunity" was ripe–that is, a time and place when Jesus was away from the people (Matt. 26:14-16).
Judas's hand was forced, so to speak, when at the meal called the Last Supper, Jesus identified Judas as His betrayer (John 13:26). Even though the chief priests had wanted to avoid seizing Jesus during the Passover feast, Judas probably relayed to them that the plot was exposed, and if they were to move, it had to be immediately. While Judas was again consulting with the chief priests, Jesus took His disciples out of the city toward the east, to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas would have no trouble finding them there later, since Jesus "often met there with his disciples" (John 18:2).
In the garden, Jesus sought a quiet spot to pray. His hour of suffering was drawing near, and He knew it. As He prayed, His mental and emotional anguish were so great that, according to Luke, "his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
Although rare, this condition of "sweating blood," called hematodrosis, is known. It is caused by breakdown of the capillaries in the sweat glands, usually when a person is in a state of extreme anxiety. A small amount of blood gets mixed with the sweat, and the sweat is tinged pink. Physically speaking, the blood loss is minor, but the condition itself is more than likely a sign of psychological duress. There can be no doubt that Jesus was suffering just that, for He told His disciples, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" (Matt. 26:38). But in His prayer He achieved a superhuman victory over His very real human fears, and in the end, He was able to say to His Father, "May your will be done" (Matt. 26:42). It was just minutes after that when Judas arrived with "a multitude" (Mark 22:47) of temple guards. Over the next several hours, Jesus would endure six separate trials, and make seven journeys back and forth through Jerusalem. This display of legal overkill and political indecision occurred because the chief priests and the Pharisees, who wanted Jesus dead, did not have the legal power to execute Him, and the Romans who had the legal power to execute Him, had no reason to want Him dead. Jesus was first taken before Annais, the titular high priest, then before Caiaphas (Annais' son-in-law and the official high priest that year) and the Sanhedrin. All this took place at night, even though according to Jewish law it was forbidden to hold trials at night. After a parade of false witnesses, who could not agree on their testimonies, the predetermined verdict was rendered: Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, and the outraged elders pronounced Him deserving of death. He was spit on, slapped and punched. (Matt. 26:67-68).
In the morning, the Jewish leaders took Jesus to Pontius Pilate, hoping to obtain quick approval of their verdict, but they knew full well that the Roman governor would never condemn a man to death over a religious matter. They needed to make Jesus appear as some sort of political threat, and so in front of Pilate they said the Nazarene opposed payment of taxes to Caesar and claimed to be Christ, a king" (Luke 23:2). Pilate asked Jesus one question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" In reply he heard not the reply of an angry insurrectionist, but the calm and simple answer of the self-contained prisoner, "It is as you say." The quiet dignity Jesus displayed must have impressed the Roman governor, for he turned to the chief priests and said, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."
They protested vigorously and accused Jesus of stirring up the people form Galilee to Jerusalem. Discovering his prisoner was a Galilean, Pilate thought he had found a way out of this increasingly sticky political problem. He had Jesus transferred to Herod Antipas, under whose jurisdiction Galilean problems fell. But, much to Pilate's annoyance, within just a few short hours Jesus was back and so was the Jewish mob, louder and angrier than ever. Still finding nothing deserving the death penalty, Pilate tried to appease the crowd by promising to "chastise" Jesus before releasing Him, but the mob began to call for a crucifixion.
The Roman governor then tried one last tactic to avoid what appeared to be a brewing political disaster–a full-scale riot in Jerusalem at Passover time. Traditionally, as a gesture of goodwill during the Jewish feast, the Romans released a prisoner. So Pilate asked the crowd if they wanted Jesus released to them in keeping with the tradition. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to call not for Jesus but for another prisoner, a murderer and insurrectionist named Barabbas, whose name, ironically enough, meant "son of" (Bar) the "father" (abbe). And so Pilate , bound by his promise to release whomever the crowd chose, freed Barabbas, "son of the father," while the real son of the Father was bound over for execution. The crowd was vociferous in its sentiments: "Crucify him!" (Matt. 27:20-23).
When Pilate saw "that he could not prevail [and] that an uproar was starting" he then performed one of the most famous political retreats in history. He washed his hands before the multitude and pronounced himself "innocent of this man's blood" (Matt. 27:24). He was disgusted with the Jewish leaders but refused to quibble with them any more, though predictably, quibble they did, even over the wording of the sign that Pilate had placed at he top of Jesus' cross (John 19:19-22).
Once Jesus was officially a Roman prisoner under pronouncement of death, He was subject to the standard punishment under Roman law. Prisoners were flogged before they were crucified. So far, Jesus had been on His feet for more than six hours, dragged from the house of Caiaphas on one end of Jerusalem to the Roman fortress of Antonia on the other, then to the palace of Herod, then back to the palace of Herod, then back to Antonia fortress. Altogether, he walked more than three miles. He had been beaten by the temple guards, the elders, and Herod's guards. But the Roman soldiers would prove the most brutally efficient of the lot. Once again, Jesus was beaten and spit on. The Romans put a crown of thorns on His head and a reed in His hand, and in mock obeisance, knelt before Him, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" (Matt.27:29-30). Jesus was stripped of His robes and tied naked to the flogging post.
Jewish law forbade any man to be struck more than forty times, and so, to be on the safe side, the Jews traditionally administered 39 blows when punishing someone. But the Romans, not bound by such traditions, had been known to flog victims until they died. The Roman flagrum, or whip, was not merely a tool of punishment; it was an instrument of torture, specifically designed to inflict severe pain and damage. The flagrum had two or more leather thongs attached to a handle. At the ends of the thongs were lead balls and shards of bone. The lead balls bruised the victim while the sharp bones ripped away at the flesh, gouging out chunks of skin and exposing skeletal muscle and the bones in the back. The punishment was administered in alternate blows by a pair of Roman soldiers, one standing on either side of the victim. Flogging was so severe that the victim suffered massive blood loss and went into shock. This hypovolumic state, in turn produced intense thirst in the victim, because the kidneys were trying to maintain the body's water.
Unlike some traditional depictions of the crucifixion, Jesus did not, in fact, carry the whole cross to the site of his execution. Roman crosses were made up of the vertical beam, or stipes, which weighed 200-250 pounds, and the horizontal beam, the patibulum, which was 75-125 pounds. The entire load of more than 350 pounds of wood simply would have been too much for any prisoner to carry, and so, instead, he carried only the crossbeam, resting on the nape of the neck, the arms outstretched and lashed to the broadbeam.
Death on a Cross
Crucifixion may be the cruelest form of execution ever devised. In fact, the strongest adjective in the English language used to describe pain – "excruciating" – means "out of the cross," and is based on the Latin verb cruciere, "to crucify". The intent behind crucifying individuals was not merely to put them to death, but to subject them to a slow and agonizing torture in the process. Besides tremendous blood loss, the victim also suffered crushed nerves, dislocation of the elbows and shoulders, and extreme difficulty in breathing, which eventually led to suffocation. Add to this the humiliation of dying as a public spectacle.
While the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they did not practice it sparingly, either. Usually they crucified only slaves and insurrectionists, but as with any conqueror, their occupation of foreign lands was met with fierce resistance. The Romans' reply to political rebellion was both savage and dramatic. The crucifixions, as well as the sight of rotting bodies hanging for weeks on end on the crosses, were intended to deter anyone else who might have contemplated resistance to Roman rule. The overlords meant business.
In Jerusalem, the site for such public executions was a place outside the city's western gate. The Hebrew name for this site was Golgotha, meaning "Place of a skull"; Luke also calls it Calvary (Luke 23:33). While Calvary was probably about one-half to one kilometer from the Antonia fortress, the scourging and beatings Jesus had undergone had driven Him to utter exhaustion. Under the burden of 75 or more pounds of crossbeam, the robust carpenter and rabbi who had trekked all over Israel on foot the last few years could not even make it to the city gate. So the Roman soldiers, no doubt not wanting their prisoner to die on them before He had suffered His full punishment, pulled a man from the crowd (identified in the gospels as Simon of Cyrene) and forced him to carry the crossbeam the rest of the way to Calvary.
At the execution site, three vertical beams (or stipes) were already in place in the ground. As with many crucifixions, this was a multiple execution: two other men, described as robbers by Matthew and Mark, were also to be put to death. Even the hardened Roman soldiers must have noticed the difference between these two and the prisoner Jesus. First of all, the soldiers had heard their own leader, Pontius Pilate, declare he could find no fault in the Nazarene, no reason He should be put to death. Then too, Jesus was without defiance, anger, or bitterness. He did not curse His executioners, as most men would have. Instead, He offered up a quiet prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:24). How did this attitude of forgiveness affect these soldiers, who had tasted so much of anger, hatred, and death? For at least one of them, who in all likelihood had served on many execution details, this would not be just another crucifixion. What he saw would lead him to declare that the prisoner known as Jesus was none other than the Son of God (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39).
The nails that fixed Jesus to His cross were five inches long. The Romans did not drive the nails through the palm of the hand, since the weight of the body hanging on the cross would have torn through the flesh, and the victim would have fallen to the ground. Instead, the nails were driven between the two bones of the forearm, the radius and the ulna, right near the carpal bones of the wrist. As the nail pierced this location, it crushed the median nerve, the bigger of two nerves running through to the hand. The pain would have been almost beyond description. (As a comparison, one need only think of the sharp, shocking pain a person feels when bumping his or her "funny bone"–in reality, the ulnar nerve.) In addition to crushing the median nerve, the broadened top portions of the nails also rubbed against the peroses, the sensitive membranes which surround most bones.
After Jesus' arms were nailed to the crossbeam, the Roman soldiers lifted up both beam an prisoner, and fitted the crossbeam into a notch on the stipes. Since, at this point, Jesus' feet were not yet nailed to the cross, His arms bore the weight of His entire body. The tremendous load would have pulled both shoulders and elbows out of their sockets, dislocating them, and stretching His arms by some six inches. With the arms at about a thirty-degree angle to the horizontal line of the crossbeam and with no weight supported by the feet, the loading on each arm would have been approximately six times Jesus' body weight. As the joints were dislocated, the joint capsules (enclosing the synovial membrane and other tender parts of the joint) were torn, and the muscles stretched.
Jesus' feet were then nailed to the vertical beam, one on top of the other, with His knees in a bent position. The single nail, thrust in an upward direction, went through the metatarsals, the foot's equivalent of the palm of the hand. Once again, a nerve was crushed (in this case, the plantar nerve in the sole of the foot), causing excruciating pain.
Now that He had been fixed to the cross, the real ordeal of the crucifixion–a slow death by suffocation–was just beginning. The straining of the muscles in His torso, caused by the weight of His body hanging on the cross, forced His chest into a fully expanded position, thus making it nearly impossible for Him to inhale unless He pushed up with His legs and relieved some of the strain on His diaphragm. Thus, the effort just to breathe was a torment–shifting His weight to His legs, feeling the burn of His thigh muscles and the scraping of His scourged, bloodied back against the rough wood of the cross, eventually having to let the weight return to His distended arms before the need for air became so great that He was forced to repeat the process all over again.
There was, in fact, no way for a victim of crucifixion to get enough air. Medically speaking, the failure to intake sufficient oxygen and expel the carbon dioxide from the lungs led to a condition called respiratory acidosis, or an increased acidity to the blood as the carbon dioxide accumulated there as carbolic acid. Since Jesus had already lost a considerable amount of blood during His scourging, the acidosis overtook Him even more quickly than it otherwise would have. In response to the lowered blood volume and oxygen levels, His heart would have begun to pump very rapidly. In all probability, He developed pericardial effusion, or the buildup of fluid in the sac around the heart. This fluid, clear and slightly straw-colored, would have been the watery substance described by John as issuing (along with blood) form Jesus' side when one of the Roman soldiers speared His side to see if He was indeed dead (John 19:34). (John, who was standing near the foot of the cross next to Jesus' mother, was by his own testimony close enough to notice such a detail.) The terminal event–that is, what actually caused Jesus' death–would have been cardiac arrest as a result of cardiac arrhythmia, a weak and irregular heartbeat.
The "swoon theory" (the hypothesis that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but merely swooned and later revived in the tomb), has been advanced by some groups in recent centuries in an attempt to refute the resurrection. The main problem with the swoon theory (and there are many) is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding of what happens to the human body as a result of crucifixion. The blood loss and the damage to bodily tissue were extreme to the point of fatality, just as the Romans intended them to be. Historians and medical experts alike have agreed that the exhausting trials, the beatings, the flogging, and ultimately the crucifixion were indeed enough to kill a man, even a young and otherwise healthy one.
Moreover, the Roman soldiers who attended Jesus' crucifixion had presided over countless executions before this; so, even given the circumstance of Jesus' unusually rapid demise (a matter of hours, rather than days), these soldiers could be counted on to know the difference between a live body and a dead one. That one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with his spear to verify the prisoner's death is testimony to the conscientiousness, not the ignorance, of the Roman guard. Any failure to carry out their orders to the last and fullest detail (that is, leaving the execution site before the prisoner was certifiably dead) would have been a gross dereliction of duty, in all likelihood punishable by death under the code of the Roman army. Therefore, it was in the self-interest of the soldiers to make sure all three men received the full sentence of death.
Victory, Once and For All
What now needs to be considered, especially in light of the question of how one death can atone for all sin, is something beyond the merely human and physical. As we examine the metaphysical aspects of the crucifixion, we find ourselves dealing not with Jesus' human nature but with His divine one.
A question often asked regarding the crucifixion is how Jesus' death could atone for the sins of all human beings--those who lived in the past, those who are alive now, and those who will live in the future. To be honest, theologians have never been able to fully explain the mystery of just how an event fixed in time and place–a hill outside Jerusalem around the year A.D. 33–can span the whole of human history, from the first man to the last person, and provide atonement for everything in between, from Adam's fall to Armageddon. It is impossible for the finite human mind to grasp the workings of an infinite God.
Theologians can point to God's clear and repeated assurance in the Bible that the bonds of sin and death have been broken once and for all. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, "Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary...to offer Himself again and again,...[but] was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people" (Heb. 9:24,25,28). In Romans, Paul writes, "...Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all" (6:9-10). In other words, the "righteousness" that humans lack is provided to us by Jesus, through belief in His death on our behalf; and this death, accomplished at Calvary, need never be suffered again by Christ. Unlike the lambs of Passover, which had to be sacrificed in the Jewish temple every year, the Lamb of God was sacrificed once and only once. It is no mere coincidence that the events of Jesus' arrest and execution occurred at Passover time. God was unfolding His "new covenant" with unmistakable timing.
Theology, however, is not the only means we have for trying to understand the atonement. When we speak of Christ's dying on our behalf "once and for all," what we are really speaking about is a phenomenon of time–an even t fixed in the finite ("once" in time) but spanning the infinite ("for all" time and beyond). Where the language of theology fails to clarify, the language of science can now help. So it is to science (or, more accurately, the God of science) that we turn to more fully understand Christ's death.
God is not bound by time, nor by any of our three spatial dimensions. For years people questioned the bible's accuracy in describing God as acting "before the beginning of time" (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2), but recent discoveries in physics have demonstrated that what was once understood as mere metaphysical, theological mumbo-jumbo is actually scientifically feasible. Time, by definition, is that realm or dimension in which cause-and-effect phenomena take place. Time must also be understood as having a point of origin, a definite beginning, since it would be both pointless and illogical to discuss the notion of "timeless time."
According to the space-time theorem of general relativity, such effects as matter, energy, length, width, height and time were caused independent of the forward-only, irreversible time dimension of our universe. This means that at least one (and possibly more) time dimensions outside our own must exist for matter, energy and our spatial dimensions to have any independent causation. The concept of at least two time dimensions (picture a two-dimensional plane rather than a one-dimensional line) seems to square with what the Bible says about God–that He can act and, indeed, has acted outside the time dimension of our universe, and in particular, what we understand as human history (Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, p. 80).
Therefore, in a very real sense, there is no "before" and "after" the crucifixion as far as God is concerned, if indeed it was the eternal Creator hanging there on the cross. Jesus, in His human nature, underwent the crucifixion "once" (that is, at a strictly defined date and time in human history), but in His divine nature, he also undergoes the crucifixion "for all," if by that we are to understand that the crucifixion is not limited to or bound by that date and time in human history. In other words, because Jesus was and is God, He could, as God, save people who died before A.D. 33 or were born after that same year. He could indeed apply the effects of salvation to all creation, from its very inception on into eternity. That is just what the Bible says He has done: "This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time" (2 Timothy 1:19).
It would therefore be entirely possible for a God who operates outside our time, and who has infinite life and love to give, to take on Himself the individual suffering and punishment due every human being ever born. That is why Christians maintain that Jesus suffered more than any one individual ever has–because He took on an eternity of torment for every single member of the human race. His physical suffering was enormous, but His spiritual suffering was truly infinite. That is the agony of the cross.
In human terms, nothing is "glorious" about the terrible sight of someone hanging on across. But when we begin to understand God in God's own terms, mysterious and unexpected as they often are, we see that the cross is the supreme glorification of God, precisely because it is the supreme revelation of God in His most loving, gracious, and amazing interaction with His creation. The degradation of Jesus' humanity on the cross is what glorifies, or reveals, His divinity. He who is Most High would choose nothing less than to become most low. That is His nature, to pour out His very essence, grace, love and holiness, on His people.
Paul perhaps expresses it best when he writes that Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" (Philemon 2:6). It is not God's nature to hold selfishly on to His glory or perfection; instead, because He is perfect, He unselfishly chooses to share that glory and perfection with us, His creation. Compare this act of supreme humility on Jesus' part with Satan's act of supreme pride. Jesus, the Son of God, who was and is rightly entitled to all the accolades of divinity, submitted all those entitlements to the Father's will and took "the form of a servant (Philemon 2:7); that is to say, He became a creature whose place it is to serve God. The Master surrendered all His rights and took on the role of a servant. The angel Lucifer, on the other hand, was a servant who tried to become master. He tried to claim the right s of divinity, to which he was not entitled. Man, alas, was too easily tempted to repeat this same pattern of rebellion.
The cross reveals to us two great truths about ourselves and God: first, we humans are so horribly wicked that when Love incarnate walks among us, we will reject it, spit on it, punish it, and nail it to a tree to exterminate it; second, that Love is so great it will undergo all that we subject it to, and still emerge more powerful than our wickedness. God's love cannot be exterminated because God Himself cannot be. That is a powerful lesson for those of us who fear we are beyond God's reach. Jesus' outstretched arms on the cross are arms that can and do encompass the whole earth. The "deep, deep love of Jesus," as the old hymn says, has reached into the depths of hell, has broken the power of death, has healed all grief, and has turned all shame into glory. The deep love of Jesus is the most powerful force the universe has ever known. It waits for only one thing–for willing hearts to receive it.