I've asked myself a hard question, and maybe you have too at some point:
Couldn't God simply forgive? Why did Jesus need to die so God could forgive?
We know what forgiveness is. I forgive.
Forgiving other people is not exclusive to Christianity, but Christians understand that we forgive others when they hurt us because we have a God who forgives us a debt we could never pay.
Our unpayable debt
When Peter asked how many times he should forgive someone, Jesus told the story of a servant with an enormous debt. The master forgave the staggering amount, but then the servant grabbed a fellow servant by the throat and began throttling him, demanding payment for a lesser debt. The servant had forgotten all that had been done for him and instead focused on what he was owed. (For the full story go to Matthew 18:21-35.)
If you owe the bank money you can't pay, you can bet your boots they'll take your house, your car, and anything they can to shake every penny from you, before writing the rest off as some sort of corporate tax break. You're left bankrupt, with penalties that affect you for years.
So what happens when God forgives us? According to Jesus' parable, we start fresh. We aren't bankrupted by forgiveness, we are debt-free!
We read how Jesus' death on the cross atoned for sin, and it is through him that we have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. We come to understand forgiveness, and we are amazed by it.
But why does the cross need to come into play at all? God is all-powerful. Can't He just forgive and forget, without that messy business of sacrificial death?
I just can't believe that God is constrained by a system He doesn't want. However the system works, then it is that way because God made it that way. I truly believe If God wanted to forgive his people in the Old Testament without animal sacrifices He could have. If God wanted to forgive us without the cross He could have.
So why then? Why ask people to bring animals, grains, wine, oil, and incense? Why set up a system of atonement sacrifices that could only be perfected by the gift of Jesus on the cross?
Smarter people than me have tried to answer this question, but I think it might be one of those questions that need to sit there for a while. I've been sitting with this one for about two years. Do I have it all figured out? Nope. But I feel like I'm getting closer to the truth. It was through my journey writing my first novel that opened my eyes to a new idea of understanding the cross.
What Story is God Telling Us With the Bible?
God loves stories! The Bible, inspired by God Himself, is one long story. A true story of the human condition, and God's plan to fix it. Sure there's amazing poetry, proverbs, genealogies, and prophecy in there too, but even there the same basic storyline keeps driving forward from beginning to end. And what a cast of characters! They are real, flawed people who lived and died. Their stories show the intricacies of human frailties and sin, but also courage, love, and faith. There is something to learn from each and every one of them.
God is masterful at “show, don't tell”
This is one of the top rules for any writer. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, and millions of other authors could have told the moral of their story in a few sentences, but instead, they fleshed it out in flawed characters and settings. It seems to me that God thought it would be best to have a visual representation of atonement. Considering how we humans like things to be tangible and concrete, that makes total sense.
I could talk till I'm blue in the face about the power of sacrifice and not affect you at all, but a thirty second blip in the news about someone heroically dying for another, and you will be in tears. Because it's a real sacrifice. It's beyond idea and theory, it happened.
God chose, for reasons known best by Himself, to use sacrifices to show atonement. Animal sacrifices merely were the foreshadowing Jesus on the cross as the sacrifice once for all, the unexpected twist in this epic story. He wanted to show us His love for a broken world in the ultimate way, rather than just tell us about it.
God had a story outline from the beginning
He allows his characters to make their own choices, but He's got a narrative to follow. If He was sitting as His writing desk, I'd guess His outline to have the headings of Creation, Fall, Separation, Redemption, and Restoration -with all sorts of details worked in between, and all sorts of ways He's going to lead the story to where He wants it to go. I believe God has ALL the power, so technically God could forgive us without needing Jesus' sacrifice, but that wasn't the story God designed. He had a specific plan where He desired to create, grow, shape, and perfect us.
God created a world, then broke the fourth wall
Writers make worlds. Some, like JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling, create one so spectacular you can almost believe it exists. Do you know that moment when the author's voice suddenly arrives in the story in their own voice? You see it more often in older books. They pop in to summarize, explain, or moralize?
Or maybe you've seen it on TV, where a character speaks to the audience or looks straight in the camera as if sharing a joke. Generally, as writers, we're not encouraged to break that wall, interrupting the narrative to type to the main character,
“Don't do that! If you do that you're gonna suffer!”
Well, God broke the fourth wall, and walked straight into the story Himself, getting it back on track to the way He wanted it to be. He steered mankind towards the final conclusion He's planned that'll blow everyone's socks off.
The Cross was God's choice, His plan. This is the story He wanted to tell
The cross didn't just happen, it wasn't the story running amuck, it was planned from the outset. (See this post on Evidence for Jesus in the Old Testament for more about God's plan in the Old Testament for salvation through Jesus.) Why He chose this particular plot is a mystery to me, but I am profoundly grateful that He wrote me a story where there is room for character development and a plan for a happy ending.
I'm just one person within a tapestry of characters. I can't see the big picture, because I'm in my own storyline. Perhaps someday, when The End scrolls across the sky, I'll finally understand why things had to be the way they were.
Oh, and I'm not the first one to think of God and Jesus as a writer. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” - Hebrews 12:2