Lou: Could you say something about the idea of “substitutionary?”
Graham: It’s true that He died in our stead. He died as a substitution. After all, either He dies or we die. However, that’s where the comparison ends, because if God let you and me and all other sinners die, all it would have proved is the truthfulness of His warning, “If you sin, you will die.” And God could say to the universe, “Was I right? I said sinners would die, and look, they’re dead.” But the universe would not have had answers to questions two and three. But when Jesus died, there was no doubt in the minds of the universe that God was not killing His Son. They were clear about that. And they also saw clearly the horrible consequences of a punitive picture of God. The death of Christ answers all three questions. It’s more than just us or Him. His death is infinitely more significant than ours. But had He not died, we would have been left to reap the consequences and we all would have died. So in that sense, yes, He died in our stead. But beyond that there’s no comparison. His death is infinitely more significant than the death of every sinful man or angel who has ever lived. The death of angels and men would not have answered the questions.
Lou: What you’re saying, then, is that the “satisfaction” idea doesn’t encompass everything that’s involved in the atonement, does it?
Graham: Oh, I think it makes it much too small. I think it puts God in a very bad light. And on top of that, it doesn’t answer the questions of the great controversy. Many folk who prefer other understandings of the plan of salvation do not understand that there has been a universe-wide great controversy over the character and government of God. As I mentioned in Chapter One, even Luther, hero of the Christian world that he is, could not conceive of these larger issues because he didn’t appreciate the book of Revelation. Not many through the years have seen the sixty-sixth book picture of a universe-wide controversy over the character and government of God. And so they have seen the death of Christ as primarily a plan just to save you and me, for which we are very grateful. It’s just that the larger view makes the cross much more significant.
Lou: I guess it comes back to this. What one understands the problem to be has everything to do with what the answer to that problem is.
Here’s an important question. “Are you suggesting that how Jesus died is the way the wicked will die at the end of the thousand years, that God will give them up as He gave up His Son?”
Graham: As far as the giving up is concerned, I believe that’s the meaning of the third angel’s message. He will “pour out His wrath without mixture” (Rev 14:10). This is the last time God’s wrath is expressed and, as a result, all the wicked will die.
Lou: Is that God becoming furious then?
Graham: My understanding would be that if we should look up and see Christ looking at the death of the wicked, He would be crying, “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” But we still would die.
Lou: Does that mean you share the view that God doesn’t kill anyone? Is that what you are saying, that God never has and never will?
Graham: Well I honor anybody who wants to put God in a good light, but I think some have gone too far, and that raises its own problems. It seems clear to me that many, many times in the Scriptures God has put His children to sleep. Take the firstborn in Egypt. They didn’t die because they were bad. They died because they were the firstborn. Someone suggested that the devil does God’s killing for Him. But the devil is not that cooperative, you can be sure. No, the firstborn in Egypt died because the angel of the Lord put them to sleep. And it’s possible some of them may arise in the resurrection of the righteous. Who is to say they were all bad boys? In the Flood, with the 185,000 Assyrians, and on many other occasions, I see God Himself putting His own children to sleep. But as Jesus said, it’s only sleep. He resurrects them too. Those boys in Egypt who went to bed that night, they are awake the next morning, as far as they are aware, without any consciousness of the time between.
Lou: But now you are making a distinction that is biblical, that is, a distinction between the first and second death. What about the death of Jesus? Did He die the first or the second death?
Graham: The first death is the death we all die if we live long enough. It is a death that is followed by a resurrection, whether righteous or unrighteous. It is the consequence of living in a world of sin. Even relative saints like Isaiah and Elisha died. The second death is the one the Bible warns us of, the death from which there is no resurrection.
Which death did Jesus die? Had He died of crucifixion alone, He would have died the first death. But He died to demonstrate that awful second death. How come, then, did He rise on Sunday, if there is no resurrection after the second death? I don’t think Jesus came to show that in the second death you die and stay dead forever. How could you demonstrate that anyway? We would have to live forever to see it. There’s no way you could really answer that. Rather, He came to demonstrate how His Father is involved in that death. And even before He was dead, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Then on Resurrection Sunday He went up to Heaven to see if the heavenly council agreed. And He heard them say, “Yes, it’s finished. You’ve cleared up all our questions.” So I think He answered all the questions that needed to be answered in the only way that they could be answered, and we don’t need to ask more of the cross.
One more point, if Jesus died to pay the legal penalty, and the legal penalty is the second death, you have a real problem. The crucial feature of the second death is that you never rise again. So if the cross is all about a legal system, if He died to pay the legal penalty, then He should still be in the grave. In that case, since He went up to heaven on Easter Sunday, none of us is paid up and we are in serious legal trouble.
Lou: So the resurrection is one of the most significant reasons why the strictly legal model would not be adequate.
Graham: When He went to heaven, the angels didn’t say, “Wait a minute. You are supposed to stay dead for eternity to pay the price for sin. Hurry back to earth, we won’t tell anybody we saw you out of the grave.” Instead they said, “It’s more than enough. You could have come up on Friday!”