Christianity raises the bar even higher than other religions by insisting that in order to enter God’s kingdom we must be perfect. Not good, but perfect. Being good is not good enough. As no one is perfect, Christians have the saying that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” My brother may be a better man than I am, and you may be a better man than he is, but ultimately none of this matters because none of us will make it under our own steam. The only solution is for us to “die to ourselves” and become totally different people, morally pure in the eyes of God: “for unless the grain of wheat die to itself, it shall not produce fruit.” So Christianity agrees with Hinduism and Buddhism on the need to extinguish the old self. It disagrees by declaring in advance that this project is impossible.

So how can a salvation be reconciled with divine holiness and justice? This is posing the question in the right way. The Christian answer is that God decided to pay the price himself for human sin. Not just this sin or that sin but all sin. God did this by becoming man and dying on the cross. I want to reflect for a moment on God’s incredible sacrifice. I am not referring to Christ’s crucifixion. I am referring to God’s decision to become man. No other religion can even conceive this. The Greek and Roman gods of antiquity oftendisguised themselves as mortals, but they would not actually become mortal. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes writes that when the Christian missionaries first presented their doctrines to the Aztecs, the Aztecs were totally uncomprehending. Fuentes writes, “In a universe accustomed to seeing men sacrificed to the gods, nothing amazed the Indians more than the sight of a god who had sacrificed himself to men. Yet what other religions hold to be absurd and scandalous, Christianity holds to be true.

Richard Dawkins writes that “atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, is vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent.” This criticism makes sense only if you presume that the Christians made the whole thing up, which would be horrible of them to do to their God. Christians view the atonement of Christ as a beautiful sacrifice. Somehow God not only became man but took on all his sins and burdens in order to make him eligible for the heavenly kingdom. As San Diego pastor Bob Botsford puts it, “Christ paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owe a debt we cannot pay.” Christ on his cross literally assumed all the darkness, loneliness, and sin of the world. Thus, through the extremity of Golgotha, Christ reconciles divine justice and divine mercy and provides man with a passport to heaven. The bridge man was unable to build to God, God has built for man.

“Christ offers us something for nothing,” C. S. Lewis writes. “He even offers everything for nothing. In a sense, the whole Christian life consists in accepting that very remarkable offer.” So what is the difficulty? The difficulty is in realizing that we are sinful and that there is nothing we can do to solve this problem. A related obstacle is accepting God’s authority and His plan for our life. The obstacles, in other words, are those of human pride. Better hard liberty, one of Milton’s devils truculently asserts, than “the easy yoke of servile pomp.” The serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden was also lethally directed at human pride: Why should you serve? Why not choose your own future, which will perhaps be a better future than the one God has planned for you? Why obey God when you can be as a god, a law unto yourself?