If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
The point is that, if Jesus “died for our sins,” then the idea of justice is meaningless. We must be held accountable for our crimes; if we simply substitute some other avatar in for us, we’ve escaped justice. If Jesus is simply inserted between us and a just resolution to our sins, then we’ve avoided the repercussions of those actions. If Jesus has protected us from all consequences then there isn’t any way justice can operate meaningfully.
This was, of course, part of his radical message. The kingdom of heaven supersedes this one, and justice is doled out on a cosmic scale. Even still, if the sacrifice of Jesus truly absolves us of sins in this life and the next, we’re faced with a situation where justice has no meaning, since evil deeds have no consequence.
Our modern justice system recognizes this. Sure, someone might pay “damages” for an injury committed, but this is meant as restitution for real costs incurred as a result of the crime, not necessarily as a replacement for justice. Of course, there is also a long history of the guilty being able to pay their way out of their just rewards by way of expensive lawyers or the bail system, which is an entirely different problem. Ultimately, though, we punish crimes with jail time or some other loss of rights, which no other person can serve on my behalf. We wouldn’t imprison a person on someone else’s behalf because we “cannot take the innocent for the guilty.”
So why does it work for Jesus?