Why did Christ have to die to make up for our sins? People today find the idea stupid and brutal. Why couldn’t God have given us a way out of them without letting his own son be tortured to death in such a horrible manner? What does the one thing have to do with the other apart from some primitive sense of divine vengeance or legalistic bookkeeping?
It seems to me that outlook on this issue is wrong and based on a denial of the moral seriousness of the world and the reality of man’s actions in it. The modern liberal and technocratic view is that the rational goal of all action is utilitarian—maximizing pleasure, minimizing pain, and the like. Suppose, though, that God wanted to achieve some non-utilitarian good, like making man godlike rather than merely animal? To do so he would have to give man’s actions genuine importance, and in particular give him the power of doing real evil that has real effects in the real world. If that were God’s purpose, then Christ’s sacrificial death becomes comprehensible and even uniquely fitting as a way of maintaining the seriousness of human action while offering man forgiveness. God accepts in his own person the effects of the evil we do and so frees us from it without making it something other than what it is.
The foregoing doesn’t persuade us today. It seems a put-up job, as if God were doing something pointless and horrible to create a dramatic effect and impress people. Wouldn’t it be more Godlike to ignore appearances, and do what’s right and solve the problem in the most humane way possible?
I think the reason we look at the matter that way is that we are too thoroughly utilitarian. We simply can’t conceive of action that is justified by what it is, by the world it expresses and creates, rather than by the external this-worldly goals it achieves. For us everything is manipulative. That’s why modern civilization is radically antiartistic, that’s why the church has rejected the ancient liturgy, and that’s why we find God inconceivable and the world meaningless. Something doesn’t acquire meaning by bringing about what we want, it acquires it by making present to us something that transcends all desire. And that is something that is now beyond our conception.