The Significance of His Sacrifice
Easter is the high point of the Christian year. Christmas may be the bigger commercial and national holiday, but for Christians, Christmas is meaningless without Easter. Jesus came to die, to be an atoning sacrifice for his people. Many songs have been written to celebrate what Jesus did in offering himself for our sins. Add to that books and sermons galore and much has been said about the great and terrible sacrifice of Jesus.
But it wasn’t that great a sacrifice.
Consider what Christians claim about Jesus. He was God the Son with perfect knowledge of all events. He knew what he would have to suffer, but he also knew it would be temporary. He knew his suffering would end and that death would be brief, lasting only three days. He knew he would rise from the dead and return to Heaven. Jesus himself tells his followers in Matthew 20:18-20 that he would be arrested, condemned, killed, and raised to life on the third day.
We measure self-sacrifice by the degree to which a person truly gives of themselves. We are not inclined to speak of self-sacrifice when a rich man gives away a million dollars, but let a poor man give what he has to help others in need and we marvel. The rich man has not really lost anything, the poor man has lost much (the Bible makes the same observation with the story of the widow’s last mite).
We also don’t think much of the man who appears to sacrifice but does so knowing a greater payday is coming. A man can afford to be generous who knows he will soon be provided with plenty. So it is with Jesus. Whatever the size of his suffering, it was followed soon after by his resurrection to life and his return to eternal glory.
No one would take lightly the suffering someone would endure through crucifixion. Hundreds of people were crucified by the Romans. It was a viciously painful mode of execution. But Jesus would have known what he was in for, and known that it was temporary.
He would also know what it would accomplish, and here’s where the story takes another twist.
Christians are fond of telling the apocryphal story of a drawbridge operator. The story goes that a man once operated a drawbridge for a railroad line. He would sometimes have his son with him at work. On one such day, he had just raised the drawbridge for a passing boat when he noticed a passenger train approaching. They had missed the signal that the bridge was up. He had to immediately lower the bridge or hundreds of lives would be lost when the train ran off the drawbridge. Just before his hand reached the lever to lower the bridge, he noticed that his son had jumped down into the gears to retrieve a toy that had fallen. If the man lowered the bridge, his son would be crushed in the gears. If he did not, hundreds would perish on the train. In anguish, the man lowered the bridge, killing his son but saving many lives.
The story is intended to convey the suffering of the Father in sending his Son to die. Its actual meaning is very different. In the story, the man knew what Spock knew: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. We would all agree the man made a tremendous sacrifice, but a sacrifice that was likely warranted by the situation. Many other sons and daughters would have died. However terrible his choice, imagine the condemnation that would have come had he failed to act. If God had the power to bring salvation yet he failed to act, he should likewise be condemned.
This raises another point. In the story, everyone on the train is saved. According to Christian theology, only some people are saved. Many – if not most – go on to suffer forever in the fires of an eternal Hell. God, who is described as both all-powerful and all-loving, does not save all the people on the train but only those who manage to worship the son before plunging off the drawbridge. Christians have various ways to justify this failure to save all (one group chalking it up to God loving man’s free will more than God loves people; another group saying God had to display the fullness of his character by sending people to Hell which demonstrated his divine justice) but in the end, the Father, who could save everyone, chooses to save only some.
In the story, the consequence is an accident. The people would plunge to their deaths through an oversight. In the Bible, the consequence is an act of God. God condemns people to physical death followed by a resurrection at which time all non-Christians are sent to a place of eternal physical torment. It is no accident, it is an act of divine retribution. The train does not plunge off a drawbridge, God flings passengers into the abyss.
A final point from the story. When the man pulls the lever and crushes his son, that son is dead. He won’t be coming back. It is a final act from which there is no coming back. The man grieves because he has lost his son. In the Bible, Jesus’ death is temporary. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit all know that Jesus will rise after only three days. And Jesus was no innocent child who died through an accident – he intentionally came to die.
Consider Jesus’ death from a cost/benefit perspective.
The cost: a day’s worth of severe abuse followed by a cruel death.
The benefit: worldwide fame, and the eternal salvation of many (though not all) people:
- Death would be temporary; there would be a resurrection followed by worldwide fame with legions of followers for at least the next 2,000 years.
- Accomplishing the eternal salvation of millions if not billions of people, people who will now spend eternity in paradise rather than in Hell.
All this from one day of suffering and three days in the grave.
Is that a great sacrifice? Consider if it was just one person saved. Christians like to use the line, “Jesus would have paid the price even if it was just for you.” But consider that case. One day of suffering, three days in the grave, for eternal redemption. Since we are speaking about eternal quantities (eternity joy versus eternal suffering), there would be no way to measure the value of such an exchange. We no longer speak in terms of sacrifice but in terms of a very obvious action. If you could spend $20 to make a person’s life immeasurably better, would you give it a second thought? Would you call it a sacrificial act on your part? Would we not vehemently criticize the man who has the opportunity to do such tremendous good at such a small price yet refuses to do so?
At best, if the Easter story was true, it would be the story of a very wealthy man who made a very small sacrifice in order to do immeasurable good for some while later bringing immeasurable suffering to others.
It was no great sacrifice.