brown cross on green grass field during sunset

Good Friday, the Cross, and Atonement

We have now reached the final chapter in the Christian experience of Lent – Holy Week. Lent ends Sunday with Easter. Central to the experience is the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross in what has become known in the United States as Good Friday.

The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross defines Christianity. The empty cross symbolizes the sacrifice for Protestants and the same for the crucifix with Christ on the cross for Catholics. Christians wear a cross around their necks and pinned to their clothing. Christians display the cross in their churches, homes, and many other places important to their lives. Christians find potent symbolism in the cross.

The cross draws Christians to it symbolically because it means so much spiritually. Christians over the centuries have found many points for disagreement and division. Almost all Christians agree, however, that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was essential to be saved from the consequences of sin. We kneel at the cross either literally or metaphorically to surrender our lives to Christ and claim redemption through grace. Unfortunately, Christian theological harmony stops there. Division begins with the question, “How did Christ’s death on the cross redeem me from my sin?”

Theologians have debated that question for centuries, almost from the moment Jesus returned to God. The question addresses what is known as the Doctrine of Atonement. Many answers have come from the debate, resulting in many doctrines of atonement. If you are Protestant, you probably have been taught what is known as the Doctrine of Penal Substitution. In a nutshell, that doctrine holds that God is pure, holy, and just and that none of us as sinners can be with him because we are not pure and holy. God’s justice required a sacrifice to restore us to the holiness essential to the proper relationship with him. Jesus had to die as that pure sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sin as our substitute.

I was taught that doctrine as a young child and accepted it unthinkingly for many years. Somewhere along the line logic began to niggle at the back of my brain with a conundrum. The problem I pondered goes something like this: Jesus shared the divinity of God. Why would God require that he put himself to death to expunge my sin? Not being a theologian, I investigated and read many theologians discussing the various doctrines of atonement. In the end, I felt twisted as a pretzel by trying to follow the various paths of exegesis. I was not nearer to understanding.

I have been left with what I suppose is now my own doctrine of atonement. It is simple. I think Jesus had to die a death that was so dramatic, so terrible, and so public that his death could not be denied and would stand for history. I confess to having no support for that doctrine. History, however, has preserved the names of very few people who were crucified. The crucifixion of Jesus was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus. More important, the crucifixion and horrible death of Jesus imprinted the loss deeply on his followers. They went into despair and hiding for fear they too would be killed. And then the Resurrection occurred. Some even at the time denied it by suggesting that Jesus either did not die on the cross, which the very public and dramatic torture and death refuted, or that his body was stolen, and his followers fabricated the Resurrection.

The problem with the latter argument is that if the Resurrection did not occur, then the Apostles and the other followers of Jesus lied about the Resurrection and were so committed to that lie that they willingly died for it. Talk about defying logic! Human experience tells us that liars rarely, if ever, cling to their lies in the face of a sentence of death unless they recant. Common sense therefore supports the Resurrection.

I accept the fact of the Resurrection by faith, but it is pretty easy to do that as a point of logic also. The Resurrection affirms for me that through Christ God accepted me into his Kingdom no matter my sin and began to prepare me for life in the Kingdom the moment I accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord. I have experienced that and know it. You see, the only truth about how Jesus redeemed me that matters to me is that he did it. When it comes to how, and what is the correct doctrine of atonement, I really don’t care. The cross began the process and the empty tomb completed it. The only truth I need is that he became my Savior on the cross and my Lord and King when he rose from the tomb.

As with most Christians I will again on Friday journey to the cross. I will stand before it in horror at the way Jesus was tortured and died. I also will stand in wonder that he did that to open the gates of God’s Kingdom to me through grace. Then I will turn my eyes away, for I know that Sunday’s coming.

Happy Easter!  

©2021 Thomas M. Trezise


  1. Steve Cloak on July 15, 2021 at 8:47 am

    Faced with the same questions, within my consciousness and from my first grade CCD students, I end up stating “in Christ all things are possible”….might be a bit of a cop out but I tend to end up speaking in circles when trying to explain what God did with the crucifixion of his son, part of the Trinity….

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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