Jesus suffered in a limited span of time for the sins of the entire world. How many sins is that per minute?
Before you think that question is stupid, I want to point out that it’s actually rooted in a serious (and more sophisticated) question: how could Jesus die for the sins of the entire world?
I was recently (and briefly) part of a Facebook conversation in which someone argued that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. Shouldn’t he be in hell, if his intent was to share in all the punishment that was coming to us? I’d never heard someone complain that Jesus didn’t suffer enough, but that’s exactly what this person was saying.
The conversation ended last night, but I’ve had more time to think and here are my answers to this question.
1. First, an observation. If you know someone is enduring pain so you won’t have to, then why on earth would you insist that they suffer more? Imagine what it’d be like for an American soldier to come back home and have his family complain that he didn’t suffer enough, that he’d only been shot but hadn’t lost any limbs. That’s how I see this attitude regarding Jesus’ death.
But, since it does raise some good theological points, my answer doesn’t stop there.
2. If you’re willing to accept that Jesus’ death played an important part in reconciling you to God, then you also have to realize that there’s a certain amount of mystery here with which you’ll have to learn to be comfortable. We can’t explain how the Cross worked. That’s not asked of us. What is required of us is that we trust God when He says that the death of Jesus was for us. There’s also the point that if you believe that God became man but also subjected Himself to death, then you’ve officially entered the realm of Things That I Can’t Explain.
3. Now, the question of how Jesus could only suffer for a limited time if his suffering was on everyone’s behalf.
First, there’s no direct correlation between Number of Sins Committed and Number of Hours Spent Atoning for Them. This isn’t like balancing your checkbook with your online bank statement and trying to make sure that your debits (“Sins Committed”) and credits (“Act of Atonement”) line up.
Second, the Bible doesn’t give us a single picture of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Jesus is the Passover lamb who averts the wrath of God. He’s also the sacrifice that brought to an end the sacrifices required by the Law. His death undermines the powers of evil. There’s more than one aspect to the Atonement, which means that you can only take these aspects so far before you try to get them to answer questions that they never were addressing. I think this person, though not intentionally, was doing just that by demanding that a particular picture of the cross give more information than it was ever designed to give.
Third, the apostle Paul gives a great explanation of how Jesus’ death becomes effective for us (and mind you, this isn’t the only explanation):
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Link)
Through baptism, we each can be united to Jesus. That union means that we died with him on the cross and we walked out of the grave when he did. Because we are united with Jesus, we are changed. We are not the people we were, subject to sin and the eventual consequences of sin (death).
That’s beautiful. I also think that this answers this question of how one person’s death could pay for everyone’s sins, how Jesus’ limited suffering could somehow be enough to save people from the eternal suffering they would have otherwise endured.
Jesus’ suffering didn’t need to last as long as everyone’s suffering would have lasted … because anyone and everyone can be united to Jesus and his one death.
We don’t have the benefits of Jesus’ death imposed on us, and there’s no risk of those benefits running out just because Jesus didn’t suffer for as long as he could have. Jesus’ suffering does not function as a divine allowance that everyone gets a stake in until the money runs out.
Jesus died, and we each can be united to him and his one death. We don’t ever have to worry that Jesus didn’t earn enough salvific benefits for others through his one death, because we participate in his very death.
So, there’s my answer, dear readers. If you have any complaints or anything to add, there’s a comments section for that.