Many People Suffer. What’s the Big Deal with the Cross?
In our day, there is often confusion about the nature of the cross and the necessity of Christ to suffer death upon it. If God is all-powerful, isn’t his suffering just a fiction? Is sin really that serious? Couldn’t God forgive mankind simply by a wave of his hand? This week, Vince and Jo answer questions about whether Jesus’ death on the cross counts as true suffering in light of his eternal life, and why blood sacrifices were required in the Old Testament.
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host Michael Davis. For as long as Christianity has existed, there's been confusion over the necessity and effect of the cross. Some are amazed at the lengths in which God would go to save us from our sins. Yet others are perplexed as to why God would choose the cross as the means in which Christ would die. Why was it necessary? Why from the Old Testament all the way through Christ's death has God required a blood sacrifice. Additionally, if so many people suffer for their entire lives, and many throughout history have actually gone to the cross, why was Christ's suffering even on the cross, that big of a deal. Before we get started, Vince, can you tell us a little bit about our upcoming youth conference Refresh, happening June 18th through the 21st at the Zacharias Institute in Atlanta, Georgia?
Vince Vitale: Absolutely, Michael. One of the things I've been really encouraged about is a lot of young people are listening to Ask Away. I'm finding it a lot as I travel around, teenagers who are coming up. I think it's particularly because it's a question-based podcast and young people in particular living in the culture and the time that we do, they have questions. If you're listening and you're a young person Refresh is the place to come to. You're going to be together with your peers getting mentored by the RZIM team. It's not just us downloading content to you, but it's a chance to really engage in your actual questions, to ask your questions, to have conversations about them. Likewise, if you're a parent with children, this would be an ideal conference to send them to. We would love to have them. We'd love to journey with them for a week. We find year after year now that people leave, several days after coming to the conference, deeper in their conviction of faith and deeper in their confidence in being able to live out that faith and share it with others.
Michael: I actually have a really exciting piece of news for our listeners. We're actually giving away a 20% off scholarship to our Refresh conference. All you have to do is go to RZIM.org/ZI. Go to Refresh register, and then put it in, "AskAway" - one word, "20." Actually all three in one word, "AskAway20" and you will receive 20% off the cost of admission.
Jo Vitale: Bargain.
Michael: Bargain. Listen, this is really...Before we get started, we have some exciting news. You guys just had your kid.
Vince: We did.
Jo: Two months today.
Vince: Raphael. In fact, today is the first day that we're at work and he's being watched. If you hear a few sobs throughout the episode you'll know why.
Jo: Yeah. I’m just texting on my phone because I have pictures now.
Vince: Yes, I know, yeah. He's a really sweet boy and he's been a great blessing.
Jo: Yeah, he's been awesome. This morning was hilarious. Life is so different now. I was sitting there early this morning trying to read about blood sacrifice and then, out of the corner of my eye, I'm just watching the baby monitor because he's lost his pacifier and he's like aggressively trying to chase it down. Obviously he cannot pick it up right now but he won't quit so he spends like an hour just going after this thing. He's not crying. He's just trying to grab it in his sleep. All I could think was, "Wow. He's so like Vince.” Vince is just as persistent as that.
Jo: Or sometimes we'll go to the beach on vacation and Vince will be there. Everyone else is bored playing Frisbee so they will sit down, but Vince will be there throwing a Frisbee into the wind just so it'll come back to him, and just go for like another hour just not quitting. I was like this kid is just like his dad.
Vince: I don't know what Jo's talking about.
Michael: That is equally hilarious and one of the saddest things I've ever heard.
Jo: I know but now you're going to have someone to play Frisbee with. So there you go, yeah.
Vince: That's true. I can't wait for that.
Vince: I have a fun fact for the Ask Away listeners as well. I received this from our colleague Dan Patterson in Australia last night. He was traveling several hours to an event and he wrote that he was binge listening to Ask Away, really encouraged by it. Then he said, "If you listen at double speed, you guys sound really smart." That's the trick. If you haven't thought that we've sounded smart enough just to listen at double speed and that'll do it.
Michael: For me it's triple speed, right? Maybe quadruple speed.
Jo: Yeah. I think I talk quite fast already so that's surprising to me.
Vince: I was thinking that. I was like Jo at double speed...Dan is a smart guy. Yeah.
Jo: Or he just kind of nicely tunes me out. It's great.
Michael: There is no real easy way to segue into these questions because they're really, really heavy and hard. I'm just going to jump right in. This one is from Corey. Since Jesus has always existed in glory with the father and the spirit, when we compare his meager 33 years on earth, including his intense suffering on the cross, it was really just but a blink of an eye in comparison to the glory before that event and after. Isn't it the case that anyone who lives with chronic pain for the majority of their life actually suffers more than Jesus did by comparison? Since it was God's own plan from the beginning that his son would shed his innocent blood on our behalf, why should we think that this is such a big deal?
Vince: It's really a good question. I've heard this question consistently recently. I'm not sure exactly why we're hearing it more frequently, but we definitely are. My first thought when I read it is that sometimes we forget that the same can be true for us as well. If you're listening and you're a Christian, then our suffering too is the blink of an eye compared to the eternity and the glory that awaits. 1 Peter 5:10: "The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while," it says, "will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast." Then Paul in Romans 8: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
Vince: Yet God did not trivialize our sufferings, right? Our sufferings too are in that sense of brief moment compared to the eternal glory that awaits. Yet, God didn't say no big deal about our sufferings. He came to suffer alongside us. That's how seriously he took our suffering. In turn, I don't think we should look at his suffering and, for that reason, say "No big deal."
Jo: Yeah, it's...I think maybe the reason people are asking it so much is because, at heart, it is that question of does Jesus actually really get our pain. Does God really understand what I'm going through? I get where it's coming from but I actually think part of what makes it a big deal is actually precisely because it was planned. I think, Corey part of your question seems to imply maybe that, because it's chosen, somehow it's lesser. I actually think that makes it a bigger deal, because, unlike the rest of us who...We're in this rough situation where we're suffering, whether we would choose it or not. God actually didn't have to.
Jo: God was not in a place where he had to. In fact, you wouldn't expect a god to do something like that so the fact that he intentionally puts himself into our suffering really shows how deeply seriously committed he is to doing something about it, as Vince has just said. I also find it fascinating here that, to some people, the weight behind this question is I'm not sure God has suffered enough. Whereas, for a lot of people, the problem is that God has suffered at all. There are two different stumbling blocks here. A lot of other faiths that God would step down and humble himself is disgraceful and degrading, so it's interesting to me how we come at this from different perspectives. One way or the other, we're struggling with the amount that God has suffered.
Jo: I guess one other thing to think about is there's a sense, from the outside certainly at least, that even as human beings suffering tremendously perhaps in your own life, we still carry the suffering of ourselves and then the suffering of the people around us who we love but there's a limit to that. I often just think, "Wow how much is God suffering, in the sense of carrying the suffering of the entire world?" He sees everything. Imagine the pain of seeing people you love, billions of people all over the world, seeing everything that's going on, and having to carry that every single day.
Jo: Even from an external perspective, I think he's carrying a tremendous amount. Of course, the question here is not just what is he experiencing and grieving over because he loves us from the outside, but has he stepped into it and what is happening at the cross. Is he really in a place of pain as well?
Vince: Yeah, and to turn that around really the same point from the other direction suffering of any sort is a big deal when you love the person who's suffering. It's an interesting question, "Did Jesus not suffer enough?" If our hearts are actually towards Jesus in a way that we truly, deeply love him than any suffering that Jesus went through should be something that breaks our heart and that we shouldn't see as not being a big deal. We notice it now with Raphael. At the moment, his suffering is pretty minimal on the grand scheme of things. Yet just seeing the beginnings of that cry from him and you just want to draw near and say, "I'm here," and it breaks your heart. I wonder if when we ask that question of, "Is it no big deal, Jesus is suffering," does that reveal more perhaps about Jesus suffering or more about where our heart is with respect to Jesus himself?
Jo: Yeah. Then of course there's just the fact of the matter that, yes, the cross is obviously one of the most torturous, grim, barbaric, horrendous deaths in the ancient world. Even if you want to put that to the side and say, okay, but maybe...There've been some terrible things that've happened in human history. There've been some unbelievable forms of torture. Perhaps other people have suffered physically in some way, in worse ways, than what took place on the cross. It's not taking account of what is going on there being so much greater, of course, than just the physical suffering. There's also the spiritual component there as well.
Jo: Just that big question of, "What does it mean for Jesus to become sin for us?" What is taking place in that moment when symbolically everything goes dark because of how tremendous the judgment is that has fallen upon Jesus? What is happening within the Trinity when he is in that agonizing place of carrying the weight of the sin of the whole world and being torn away from the Father and from the Spirit. I think maybe we grapple with it and we struggle with it because, of course, we can't put ourselves in that place. We can't even begin to comprehend how big that moment is and magnitude and the scale and the horror of everything that Jesus is carrying. To literally become sin for us is...I don't think anything could match that in terms of what is actually taking place.
Jo: I think sometimes, understandably perhaps, because we don't...It's so beyond our comprehension but I think it's a lot more going on there than just the nails through the hands and all the rest of the torture, as awful as that is, as well.
Vince: Yeah. I was reflecting this morning that suffering is in part a function of your starting point. Someone has a tear in a ligament in their shoulder, like for your average person walking around, it's a minor tear. You're not in a lot of pain. It's not that big of a deal. If you're a professional pitcher, that's a very big deal. The frustration or the suffering that might cause in your life might be significantly different; the difference between me breaking a finger or a concert pianist, who has invested their life and playing the piano, breaking their finger or the true genius who at a young age loses his cognitive ability.
Vince: One question worth asking here is what was Jesus as starting points? If ... Philippians 2, if he is in very nature God, and then from that starting point he then decides to make himself nothing, that is remarkable in terms of the suffering based on the distance there between his starting point and then what he willingly accepted that he was everything and then he chose to make himself nothing. I think we lose sight of just where he was and what he decided to do when we think about the suffering that he went through.
Jo: Yeah. I also think it's an interesting concept because, again, a lot of people often say, "It's just a brief moment. He had glory before and after," or, "He knew it was going to end and it would pass away. How is it really a sacrifice if you know that you just got to get through it and then you're going to be in glory and it's going to be great?" Where is there the real cost here. I think just because you're going to pass through something doesn't mean it doesn't really had ... I just gave birth, so can absolutely speak to the truth of that. People say, "This contraction's going to end soon. Then you get to breathe." That's true in one sense but it doesn't take away from the intensity of the moment. If Vince had said, "No big deal. Just man up that would not have gone down well.
Vince: Then I would not be sitting here right now.
Michael: Yeah, I'm pretty sure you'd be in a shallow grave somewhere actually.
Jo: It's true you endure that for the joy set before you of having a baby. Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. I think sometimes we think, "Is that a selfish act? Jesus endures it for the joy set before him because then he gets to be in glory and everything's going to be great?" Actually the point is, of course, he was already in glory. He didn't need to go through the cross to gain anything in terms of his status, in terms of how good life would be for him. What is the joy set before Jesus that he didn't have before that he would have off debt? It's us. It's having us with him. We're what he gets. That's why he comes to suffer so that there would be an end to all pain, to our chronic pain and our suffering and hope for us. I think ultimately that's what this is about; is about him enduring pain so that we don't have to anymore.
Vince: Yeah, and to your previous point, the Christian parents who go through the utter horror of losing a young child, the same could be said that you can be reunited with that child and this will just be a brief blink of an eye before you are. Yet, not only would it be so insensitive but it'd be wrong to say that that was not significant suffering because of what's coming next. The suffering ... Part of what makes it suffering is just how present it is. Sometimes we underestimate and forget the full humanity of Jesus's suffering. When you think about his suffering, he died young with great potential. He left behind possibly a widowed mother. He watched his mother as he died and he turned to his friend and said, "Will you take care of her?," because he wasn't going to be there to take care of her.
Vince: He was betrayed. He was taken captive. He was deserted by his friends. He was falsely accused by many people in public. Think, even in our culture today, to be falsely accused on even the smallest point, even us as the sinners that we are, what a trauma that can be. Here is a man who was utterly sinless and is falsely accused by many in public. Then he's slapped and he's spat on. He's beat up, He's scourged and finally he's crucified.
Vince: When you think about just that humanity of what Jesus went through, and of course he's killed by those He created. Acts talks about us as offspring of God, quoting the Greek poets. Can you imagine that? You're being killed, but who you being killed by? People who you created, your offspring. Thinking about looking at Rafael and him responding in that sort of way to me, wanting to kill me, you can barely even imagine it.
Vince: Sometimes I think we have a lack of imagination because we hadn't reflected deeply enough and consistently enough and long enough about what Jesus actually went through for us and the humanity of it.
Michael: You were talking about the fact that Christ died for communion with us and so that we can ... That we are his gift, we are the bride and he's the bridegroom. I think a lot of people also ... and maybe you can elaborate a little bit about the communion between the father and the spirit and Jesus. From eternities passed, they had perfect communion and that was broken.
Jo: Right, and in one sense people say, "Oh, it's just three days." What does that mean when you're a god who's outside of time? What is the eternal component to that? In one sense, they live with that forever so I don't think we can really begin to speak to what that suffering cost. Not just even for Jesus ... People think of Jesus suffering on the cross. Rightly so but they ... People forget about the suffering of the whole Trinity in that moment as well. It was Naomi Zacharias said a little while ago, "If someone she loves life was in danger, she would ... Like her child was in danger, she would instantly step in and give her life without even thinking about it.
Jo: To have to stay there and watch your son give his life for somebody else, the agony of that is a parent. That's the worst thing in the whole world, and so I think we miss just how much is going on there, not just for Jesus, but for all three within the Trinity and the profundity and the agony of that experience.
Michael: Let's get to question number two. This is from Bridget. Why was a blood sacrifice necessary in the Old Testament pre-Jesus days? I guess knowing that it makes it easier to understand why God needed to put himself through the cross, I often don't understand why forgiveness was not possible without it.
Jo: Yeah. Bridget, I'm really glad you asked this question because I think for us in the world we're in today, blood sacrifice is a notion that is just really hard to get our heads around. It seems very gory and uncivilized and we think, "Why can't people just sort of talk things out? Why all the mess and the blood? What is the deal?" It seems very strange so, yeah, a lot to get our heads around actually with this one.
Jo: I think just as a starting point we've really got to go all the way back to the beginning with this one. The point being that God is a God who gives us life. That is a gift that he's given us as creator of the universe and ... That's a life that he gives us to live unto him for his purposes: to live it well, to love others, to care for the world that he's made. None of us are living those lives that we owe to God and so, in a sense, we don't deserve the life that we've been given and God would have every right to take it back. That's really our starting point.
Jo: I think a lot of people though, when they think of blood sacrifice, the idea in their head is there's a really angry, violent God who wants to kill us and so we're trying to appease them by just feeding him animals in the hope that maybe we'll distract him enough that he won't lash out at us instead. I think that's the mindset. Understandably a lot of ...
Vince: He's just really hungry.
Jo: Right, he just really wants some steak.
Jo: Yeah, so I think there's confusion there in part because that's how a lot of other ancient myths do talk about blood sacrifice. That's what you see in a lot of the Greek mythology, for example, or Roman mythology. Actually, in the Bible, it's something quite different when we're talking about animal sacrifice. The difference here is it's not people trying to make something up to God by giving him an animal in a hope that he won't lash out at them. Actually the Bible talks about God himself as providing the animals, as it being provision that God makes precisely because he doesn't want to take our lives. He actually wants people to live and so he's trying to find a creative way, when we haven't lived right, to both uphold justice but also to allow there to be a way forwards. In that sense, it's actually an act of grace right from the beginning.
Jo: People often talk about the Old Testament as being all about law and grace coming in the New Testament. Actually, there's grace throughout because at no point are people ever living up to God's standard but God is constantly finding a way forwards. In the Old Testament he does that with animal sacrifice. The animals are first and foremost symbolic. When you're looking at the blood that's being shed, it in a way speaks to the mess of the world that we've made. It speaks to sin. It speaks to how ugly and violent it is, what we've done. You're right. It's a grim act, but it's grim what we've done with the world and so I think there's an appropriateness there.
Jo: I also think there's something very costly about it. You're giving up your best animals. These are the animals you in part would need to live off at home to survive. It's costing you something, which I think also speaks to the fact that we do ... That sin is costly, that there are big consequences to it. There's something symbolic about the innocence of the animal and the fact that actually what we owe to God as an innocent life and none of us can provide it. At that point, the best we've got are animals to do that.
Jo: Of course, it's not just symbolic. It's also substitutionary. There's a sense in which the animal is taking what really you owe. Of course that's where the problem really, really hits home because what animal can substitute for a human being. In a way, there's something symbolic going on that God sets up but it's really a temporary measure rather than a permanent one. To point towards the fact that sin is a big deal, it needs to be dealt with and, of course, blood ... Blood is in particular is important here because throughout the old testament, blood represents life in, in Hebrew thought.
Jo: When we talk about the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the word there in the Hebrew it literally means cover. It means to cover over the sin that you have, is covered over by the blood of the animal. Of course, that's just a temporary state because it can't permanently fix anything.
Vince: Good to be married to an Old Testament scholar.
Jo: Sorry, I was running through that pretty fast.
Vince: No, it's fantastic.
Michael: I'm surprised you didn't do a Hebrew word study.
Vince: Even today blood, symbolically, it still speaks powerfully to a person's love for you, a person's willingness to sacrifice to you. Even in phrases we talk about blood, sweat and tears for one another or being blood brothers because you've shared blood or you shed blood for someone else or someone who's a blood donor and saves someone else's life. I heard maybe a week ago there was a quote. I couldn't quite remember it this morning, but it was something along the lines of, "In the greatest expressions of love, there's always blood on the ground." It made me think of what Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this to lay down one's life for one's friends." To love is to choose suffering for the sake of another. There’s no more poignant symbol of that, I think, than blood. That symbol makes sense because it speaks to us of how much that God loves for us. He was willing to shed blood for us.
Vince: Now, on the other hand, Bridgette, I want to really resonate with the fact that this idea of animal sacrifice and a blood sacrifice seems odd. If it seems odd to you, it should. The Bible says that it's odd too. You're speaking something that the Bible affirms and I'm thinking here of Hebrews 10 where it says, "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming." Then it says, "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Then later on and quotes from Psalm 40 and it says, "Sacrifice and offering, you did not desire. With burnt offerings and sin offerings, you were not pleased."
Vince: If you're looking at this system and saying, "That doesn't seem very desirable. I'm not really pleased with that," well, you're speaking the exact words that God has spoken. That's a fine instinct. Yet, as Jo has said, it is a shadow of things to come. When you ask that question, "Okay, if he didn't desire it, if it's not pleasing to God, why did he command it?" I think that can often seem very odd to people. Here's just a few examples that, just for further consideration, I'll just throw them on the table. They helped me to think this through a bit.
Vince: If I'm trying to get a friend to start working out, I don't start with the seven days a week, three hours a day routine. I start with something quite minimal, which is a shadow of and a glimpse towards what I ultimately hope for that person. It may not be what I'm ultimately pleased with, but it's a step in that direction. It's a glimpse of what could be.
Vince: When my mom was trying to quit smoking, I can remember actually a portion on that journey where we were trying to get her to have 10 or less cigarettes a day. I would actually praise her at the end of the day if she had 10 cigarettes. Now, I didn't want her to have 10 cigarettes that wasn't the best for her. That wasn't my ultimate hope, but it was a step in the direction of showing her what was possible and ultimately quitting.
Vince: I was thinking about sports as well. Again, all my thoughts now are about Rafael but, before long...
Michael: I totally called it.
Vince: Before long, we're going to probably enroll him in some sports teams and maybe not when he's really young, but as he gets older, I'm going to encourage him...
Jo: You should see Vince with him in the activity gym even now. It's hilarious.
Vince: Yeah, you're right. He's already playing...
Jo: He's one week old!
Michael: He's going to end up being a coder and he's going never want to be outside.
Vince: It's true.
Michael: It's going to be hilar-
Vince: That's true. The training has already started.
Vince: In the context of sports, I'm going ... Say he's playing soccer. That was the sport that I played the most of. I'm going to encourage him to steal the ball from other people, to push them around as he does it, and then to celebrate when he wins and other people lose. That's straight up weird, right?
Michael: It is, yes.
Vince: It's a shadow of something else. Ultimately I want to teach him some things, through the microcosm of sports, about this cosmic battle between good and evil that we are a part of and that I do want him to engage in. Before he's old enough to fully understand that and to fully engage in that battle, we use things which are just shadows of what's to come to help prepare our children for that. The narrative of the Bible is a narrative of our maturing relationship with God. First, he gave us shadows in glimpses because that was the best way to prepare us for the best of what he has for us later.
Jo: Yeah, it's interesting to me that people really shy away from the violence of it all/ Understandably, I think, but I was reflecting on Steven Pinker, who read the book Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence is Declined. This is what he has to say about the cross. He talks about the fact that God could think of no other way to reprieve humanity from punishment for his sins than to allow an innocent man, his son no less, to be impelled through the limbs and slowly suffocate in agony. He's very disparaging in the way that he talks about it. In general, he's very disparaging about violence and he says, "Look, human nature is getting better now. There's less violence in the world. If you look at history, we're on a positive trajectory." I just ... When I listen to what he says, I just feel like, "Are we living on the same planet?"
Jo: Like we went to the Civil Rights museum this week in Atlanta and it was honestly horrific to, to look at the things people were doing even just a few decades ago in this country and the violence and the aggression of it all. Thinking about the one in four women who were raped trying to cross the border, getting into this country. Violence is everywhere. It's all around us, let alone in the way that we talk to each other. The violence is in our words, it's in our thoughts, it's ... We ... As human beings, we just hate each other. No surprise that we talk about those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and that's absolutely true. It's not surprising that life is in the blood and we're constantly trying to spill other people's blood.
Jo: What is surprising is the fact that the one person who didn't live by the sword, who was the Prince of Peace, is someone who intentionally came and died by the sword. Rather than looking at and thinking, "Wow, how grim and disgusting that Jesus's blood is what redeems us," I actually think, oh my gosh. The god of the universe poured out his blood, even though violence is completely anathema to who he is, precisely to bring an end to it. What could be a more cosmic display of beautiful love?
Vince: Yeah. Through that he gives his whole life for us. I was just thinking about the day before he was killed and then the day itself. In the garden the day before, we have, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to death." Then, on the cross when he lets out that final loud cry, and then he says he gave up his spirit. Then, of course, on the cross because he chose to come physically and to suffer physically, his body is broken and we have the blood there. Body, soul and spirit in the narrative of the passion, every significant respect of what it is to be a person, God gave himself absolutely fully.
Vince: Then, because it was through giving of blood, he makes us family. We become part of the bloodline of Jesus because it's his blood that he shed for us and therefore we say we are blood relatives. He no longer calls us just servants, but friends and family.
Michael: Guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince: We've really appreciated the questions today. Jo, as you said, we do live in a broken world where there's a lot of suffering. Oftentimes, when there are these questions about the suffering of Jesus, ultimately they stem from the fact that we're trying to deal with a world that's broken and get through the suffering that's in front of us as well. The Christian life itself is not easy and we are told that we will suffer in the context of the Christian life. The early Christians suffered horrendously in being stoned, in being torn apart by lions, many of them being crucified. The only reason that they had the courage to be able to go through that was because they were following someone who went through it first, who gave himself fully, who bled first, who gave everything that he had and made himself nothing because of the love that he had for each one of us.
Vince: That gave those Christians the courage to live this life in a way that was for the service of others and for the glory of God, and to be willing to suffer because the one who went before them had suffered. Not just suffered, but who had gone through that and, as we look forward to Easter, had shown that there is redemption on the other side of that. That is a very big deal. The reason it's a big deal is because we need to deal with the suffering in front of us. The reason that we can is because of the way that Jesus dealt with suffering on our behalf.
Michael: Vince, Jo, especially Jo, so glad you guys are back. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.
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