'The Lord God sent (Adam) forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.' (Genesis 3.23,24)
Adam's punishment for his sin was to exchange a perfect and idyllic world for one of hard toil, and to exchange everlasting life on earth for a limited lifetime ending in death. Death was God's ultimate punishment for Adam's sin. And because we are all sinners, we are all subject to that same punishment - the loss of everlasting life, bodies that age and are subject to disease and deformity, and eventual death. Also we no longer live in a perfect world, or at least in the kind of world that God meant us to enjoy originally. It is physical death which God pronounced as the penalty for Adam's sin, and it is physical death to which you and I are now subject, because like Adam, we too are sinners.
'Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned...' (Romans 5.12) Throughout Romans chapters 5 and 6 Paul is talking about physical death. In Romans 6.23 Paul says that the wages of sin is death, not everlasting life in torment. Think about it. If the wages of sin is everlasting life in torment then Jesus did not suffer the wages of sin in our place. But if the wages of sin is physical death then Jesus did suffer that same punishment that we have to suffer, even though he alone did not deserve it. 'For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous…' (1 Peter 3.18)
When Jesus died, even though he was not a sinner, he suffered the same penalty of physical death that we have to suffer. Why? Hebrews says that Jesus 'tasted (experienced) death for everyone, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were sub ject to lifelong bondage.' (Hebrews 1.9 and 2.14,15) Jesus's obedience unto death was a victory over Satan's attempts to get him to disobey God and avoid the cross. Somehow it enabled us to be released from our bondage to Satan and sin. By living a human life totally free from sin Jesus was able to replace Adam as a perfect man from whom we can be born again; and it enabled him to defeat not only the devil, but death itself on our behalf by his physical return to everlasting life.
A second reason Jesus died was to bring us back to God. 'For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.' (1 Peter 3.18) Christ's crucifixion reveals the extent of human unbelief and rebellion, and God's love for us in being willing to sacrifice his son to save us. 'In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.' (1 John 4.10) It reveals Christ's own love for us and ignites a love for him in return. 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' (John 15.13) 'We love, because he first loved us.' (1 John 4.19)
A third reason for Jesus's death was that this was the only way he could prove that resurrection from the dead is truly possible and that he is able to bring us back from the dead as he promised. "Because I live, you will live also." (John 14.9) That knowledge enables us to believe that he is truly the Son of God, and to be willing to die for our faith if necessary in the certainty that whatever we suffer now is as nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8.18)
The typical evangelical ‘gospel’ is that because we have broken God’s laws he has to punish us in the interests of justice, and that the punishment will be an eternity spent in hell unless we believe that Jesus has died in our place by taking that same punishment for us. This argument has more holes in it than a string vest! Firstly, it ignores that fact that we have already been punished by being sentenced to only a few short years on earth which are themselves fraught with suffering. We have thought of physical death as natural instead of it being the unnatural consequence of Adam’s sin, so we have forgotten that it is indeed a terrible punishment in itself.
Secondly if the penalty for sin is not physical death but is to be everlasting life in hell then Jesus did not suffer the penalty of sin on our behalf. It’s no good arguing that his physical death was sufficient punishment. That would be like a judge telling a murderer he needn’t serve a life sentence in prison because the judge’s son had paid a fine of £100 on his behalf. The penalty has to be the same! Where in the Bible does it say that Jesus died in our place? Nowhere! One website headed "Jesus died in our place and is the only way to Heaven" lists a hundred Bible verses, but not one of them says that Jesus died in our place. Sure, Romans 5.8 says that Jesus died for us, but Paul explains that this was to show God's love for us, to justify us (make us righteous), and to reconcile us with God. (Romans 5.8-11) If Jesus really died in our place, why do we still have to die?
Thirdly the typical evangelical explanation of the gospel often misrepresents the nature of saving faith. If salvation is acquired by simply believing that Jesus paid for our sins by his death on the cross then the devil will be saved, for I suspect he is now aware of that too. Satan isn’t stupid, and while he probably did think that getting Jesus put to death would be a victory for him, he must see now that Jesus’s death has resulted in salvation for those who put their trust in him.
The evangelical gospel as it is commonly explained errs because it views judgement and punishment on a legal basis, whereas God’s longing is to relate to us on the basis of love, not law. God had to take away our original immortality, for if we had continued to live for ever as sinners there would never have been an end to sin and all its attendant horrors like murder and rape and starvation and war. But in Jesus's parable of the two sons, when the younger son returned home his father did not say, “In order to reinstate you as my son I must first punish you." He did not say, “I will accept you if your older brother is first punished in your place.” He did not deal with his younger son on such a legal basis. He forgave the younger son freely because of his love for the boy and because of the boy's repentence, for the boy had already suffered for his rebellion against his father by the loss of his ‘friends’, hunger, homelessness and the loss of dignity by being forced to feed pigs. We too have already suffered for our rebellion against God by losing our physical immortality and by suffering in smaller or greater measure from the results of sin in society and the environment. Through this parable of the two sons, Jesus taught us that God is a loving father who will forgive us freely, not because our older brother has paid on our behalf the necessary punishment which must come first, but because he loves us and will freely receive us back as his sons and daughters if and when we repent of our rebellion and unbelief and return to him. It is true that something beyond mere repentance is necessary for us then to live righteously and to overcome the continuing temptations of the devil. To rejoin the household of God as his holy children a real change has to take place in our hearts – we have to be reborn spiritually, and that can only take place by committing ourselves by faith and obedience to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord.
The true gospel – the good news - is that by the grace of God we can once again live for ever. We can live for ever through repentance from our sin, through trusting Jesus to set us free from our bondage to sin and the power of the devil who tempts us, and through committing ourselves to obey Jesus for ever as our Saviour and our Lord. And eventually God will remake the earth as it was originally and we shall be able to enjoy living in it for ever in the presence of Jesus as king. See Romans 5.12-6.11 and 2 Peter 3.13 for a fuller explanation, or read my book, Z: The Final Generation for the full story!