On the surface, it appears impossible for one person to rightfully die for another's sins. If a judge arbitrarily chose an innocent man -- say, a faithful husband and loving father -- to be executed in the place of a notorious serial murderer like Ted Bundy, we would be morally outraged. Here are a few reasons:
Punishing an innocent man turns the principles of justice upside down. Instead of being rewarded for his virtue, he would be punished for another's evil deeds.
The man chosen for punishment would have no special relationship to the murderer. He would die, not to save a brother or a friend, but a stranger.
Killing a good man in place of an evil man would be unlikely to have any positive effects. The evil man would probably thank the devil for his good luck. If anything, the outrageousness of the substitution would only reinforce his evil perspective.
If killing an innocent man in place of a guilty one is so unthinkable, how can Christians believe it could be right for Christ to die for the sins of the world? Such a belief is based on the radical differences between Christ's substitutionary death, and the arbitrary killing of a good man in place of a bad one.
First, Christ is intimately related to us (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6). He is a man, but not only a man. He is the eternal Word, the Creator of the universe, the Architect of existence, life, and consciousness.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made ( John 1:1-3 NIV). (See the ATTQ articles: How Could Jesus Be Both God And Man At The Same Time?; How Could Jesus Be God If He Had The Limitations Of A Human Being?)
Second, Messiah's death satisfies the principles of justice rather than violating them. It reconciles God's holiness with His love. In fact, apart from Christ's substitutionary death, God's plans for the universe could never have been fulfilled.
Had God created the universe to function like a clock, it would have been a colossal, perfectly designed machine requiring no risk or cost. It would contain no randomness, freedom, or sin. It would require no redemption. But it also would not be the cradle of self-aware creatures made in God's image. It would be void of creativity, moral choice, and intelligent contemplation.
But God desired much more than mechanical perfection. He longed for a human society with the spiritual perfection of freedom in self-awareness, creatures made in His image with the capacity to choose fellowship with Him. Therefore He created the angels 1 and the universe (Genesis 1:31) in a way that made freedom possible. Rather than a clockwork universe, He made the universe the perfect place to bring creatures in His image into being -- creatures capable of worship and love.
Like the father of the prodigal in Jesus' parable (Luke 15), God gave His sons and daughters freedom to fail and even to reject His lordship. And like the father of the prodigal, He loves them beyond measure and longs for their redemption.
Although the fallen state of nature grieves Him far beyond our ability to conceive (Romans 8:18-23), God intended from the beginning to undo the evil consequences of freedom while preserving its benefits. Just as the universe was created (and is sustained) through His Son, it was His Son's task to redeem it.
The sacrifice of God's Son in our place accomplished something that could be done in no other way. Only God's infinite power and wisdom can cancel the effects of our sin and bring it into conformity with His holy purposes. By totally and unreservedly identifying Himself with His fallen creatures, He achieved what they in their freedom had failed to do, and took upon Himself the consequences of their misused freedom.
The death of God's Son on our behalf brought salvation for a lost and helpless race. His perfect obedience and sacrifice were confirmed by His resurrection from the dead and appearance to hundreds of witnesses (Acts 1:1-11 ; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). His willingness to become a human being and personally prove His love to our lost race made it possible for us to see how we can live fully in this world while cherishing goals that include the next (Isaiah 53:6-12 ; John 15:12-13 ; Romans 5:6-10 ; 1 John 4:8-10 ).
So unlike the death of a mere man for another, the self-sacrifice of God in Jesus Christ made it possible for us to reach for the perfection of the children of God ( Romans 8:16-21 ; Galatians 3:26-29 ). It's not only morally right for Christ to die for us, it's the only hope of our ever being morally right before God, the righteous Judge.
~ Dan Vander Lugt
1. God made the angels perfect and without flaw. He made them free, and some angels chose to rebel (Ezekiel 28:13-17).