Why Is Atoning for Sins Painful?
Eric V. Snow, sermonette, 10-08-08, Ann Arbor, MI UCG
Why does a good, almighty God allow evil to exist in His universe? Many suffering and dying men and women have long wanted to know what the answer is for this supremely great question. Interestingly enough, the meaning of the symbols and ceremonies connected to the atoning process partially answer this age-old, deep question. So then, why is atonement a painful process? It’s because God doesn’t want men and women to take lightly the process of and the conditions for reconciliation between God and humanity.
S.P.S. The process of atonement is painful and requires sacrifice from both God and mankind because God wants mankind to ultimately learn to deeply respect and to fully obey God’s law before they are reconciled to each other.
Now, is the meaning of the word “atonement” a little vague to us? Let’s see if a standard dictionary definition will help clarify matters for us.
Dictionary definition for “atonement”: “1. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends. 2. . . . the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, esp. as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.” (“Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition.”)
So now, today is the Day of Atonement. Part of the way we draw closer to God is by fasting on this day. Now, when we don’t eat, we do suffer some pain, right? (Of course, fasting inflicts more pain on some of us than on others!) So why does God want us to suffer some in order to become more unified with Him?
In this light, why does God make a blood sacrifice part of the process of atonement? Why does something have to die in order to bring unity between God and man? This is deeply wired into human psychology and emotions: Pagans who knew nothing about the Bible and the true God still made animal and even human sacrifices to their gods. It’s such a deep, universal impulse trans-culturally. For example, in the epic ancient Greek poem “The Odyssey,” Homer’s great hero Odysseus unsuccessfully made animal sacrifices to Zeus when trying to win the favor of the king of gods.
Leviticus 16:15-21 (start from v. 11 if have time; may jump back)
Vs. 15-16: Now here the high priest sacrificed a goat as a sin offering for the people of Israel. Most importantly, notice that both the high priest and this goat represented Jesus symbolically. The high priest played the role of intercessor between the people and God. Likewise now in heaven, Jesus today plays the same role between Christians and God. The intercessor or intermediary works on behalf of people by asking for mercy from God. But then, the ritual surrounding the goat’s death showed God suffered pain also in order to become unified with humanity. Instead of just people sacrificing themselves to God, God also sacrificed Himself to humanity.
Now here we face the deep problem of the theory of atonement: Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God the Father just look down from heaven, and say, “You will be forgiven when you repent”? Why must the process of atonement be painful to God also?
In this context, consider the story of Zaleucus as a way to explain why the theory of atonement required God’s own death. He was an ancient Greek ruler of a city in southern Italy. He had severe laws, enforced them rigidly. His own son broke the law by committing adultery. The penalty for violating this law was to be made blind. As a result, Zaleucus’s roles as ruler and father now conflicted when he had to judge the case. He wanted to have mercy on his son as a father. But as a ruler, he knew if he let his son off lightly, others would say he was unfair, playing favorites, and thus be encouraged to violate his laws in the future. And this was despite the people he ruled now were asking him to be merciful to His son. So how did he reconcile justice and mercy? How did he bring together his roles as both ruler and father? He devised a means of atonement: Two eyes were still to be blinded. But he had one of his own eyes blinded in place of one of his son’s! (For the story of Zaleucus, see Miley, “Systematic Theology,” Vol. 2, p. 182).
Now this story helps to explain why God had to die. Although God sets the terms and conditions for reconciliation with Himself, He can’t do so totally arbitrarily and whimsically like a human dictator when He has such a high goal for His creation: He wants to make beings like Himself who have 100% free will and yet will utterly commit to obeying His law 100% of the time. Now God wanted to achieve the specific and difficult goal of making conscious, intelligent beings who are truly and fully like Himself. Therefore, in order to achieve this goal, God couldn’t make pre-programmed robots who would always obey His law. After all, they wouldn’t have free will. But there was a high cost involved: God had to allow pain and evil into His creation. Furthermore, in order to prove to humanity that they needed to make a life and death commitment to obeying His law, God would have to die Himself.
Theologians in the world have long debated about the theory of atonement. The most sensible theory, known as the “governmental theory,” [which does have some support from Hebrews 10:5-10] is that God wanted to show to all men (and all angels) that violations of His law were so serious that sin will cost the lives of His creatures who break it. So in order to reconcile mankind to God, God had to deter men and women from violating His law in the future. By requiring their deaths for their sins, and then by dying on their behalf as a substitute despite He was innocent Himself, God set up a moral system that both discourages future violations of His law and satisfies the intrinsic claims of justice.
Conclusion: In order to reproduce Himself truly, God made the process of atonement painful to both Himself and to humanity as a way to totally, ultimately, and permanently eliminate pain, death, and sin from His creation. In order to encourage us to commit to totally obeying His law, the process of reconciliation between God and man required total and painful sacrifice from both God and man. Therefore, when we suffer pain and even die because God allows evil in His creation, we should remember also that God endured pain and did die because He allowed evil in His creation.