Many atheists arguing against the Christian faith will invariably state that they believe that the concept of one person paying another person's moral debt is untenable. In their view, the only true justice is essentially "to each his own" or to put it another way, everyone must get their just desserts.
However, the concept of vicarious atonement was not simply a new idea that arose amongst the first century disciples. In fact, old testament high priests had to make atonement for the sins of all the people of Israel in the temple as well as for their own sins:
"1 Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.
4 No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
'You are my Son;
today I have become your Father' 6 And he says in another place,
'You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.'
7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek."
Therefore, vicarious atonement was not new, nor was it considered immoral or wrong from the ancient near east view point. Furthermore, the role of high priest was a calling and not just anyone could perform this function, because the stakes were so high (more on this in a bit). Additionally, the atoning sacrifice had to be performed year after year, because the high priest would sin again and because the animal sacrifices did not offer complete, perfect and eternal atonement.
What about today?
Some would argue that this concept of someone 'getting off scott free' is at the heart of the impulse of liberalism that so many conservatives today despise. Two things: First, we must understand that the idea of vicarious atonement in no way is cheap grace or the same as people getting off scott free. The atonement is costly. The cost is death and the bearing of eternal wrath. Understand that no one is getting off scott free -- He gave his life freely, so that we might become like Him in His suffering and righteousness. Mark that.
Secondly, and here's the main point: We could never pay this debt!! It's not enough to say that one must pay one's own moral debt. Because it can't be done. That is why God's wrath and hell is eternal. If that is our condemnation, then it will never be enough.
When Christ died for our sins on the cross, God declared that it is enough -- that is finished. Our debt has been paid in full -- by the only means that it could be fully paid!!!
This runs parallel to the idea that because of original sin and our spiritual father being in Adam, we are unable to fulfill the demands of the law. Similarly, Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses on the cross, and by satisfying the demands of the law. In the same way, He fulfilled the demands of God's wrath for our sin and
He has paid our certificates of debt we each earned
"And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Colossians 2:13-14
The Romans would issue a debt certificate with a list of crimes committed against the state which required "payment" and post them publically.
Pontius Pilate issued a certificate of debt to Jesus when He was sentenced to be crucified, and it was nailed to the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (John 19:19).
Once the crimes were sufficiently paid for, the certificate was then canceled and stamped with the word tetelestai, meaning "paid in full." Colossians 2:14 says Jesus "canceled out" (paid) our certificate of debt. And remember, this debt was more than anyone but Jesus could have paid.
Jesus' last words on the cross were our own victory cry, "It is finished!" Literally, in Greek the word is "tetelestai!"
"He said, 'It is finished!' And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit." (John 19:30).
What was finished?
His work of redemption paying for our certificates of debt against God that are so great that even those who go to hell for eternity will never be able to pay.
PAID IN FULL! Yes, One person can pay another person's moral debt. In fact, only One Person -- Jesus Christ -- can pay the debt that we all deserve. Look to the cross today. Believe in the one who can free you. Repent and be saved. Amen.
And Have a Good Friday!