Why redemption through the death of God’s Incarnate Son?
Earlier this week I posted some thoughts on the subject of how Jesus saves us. This prompted a commenter to ask the pertinent question of why the 'saving' had to happen through the death of God's Son.
I posted an answer in the comment section, but, as it was quite long, I thought it might be worth re-posting it here.
As a result of our sins we have distorted God into either a cruel tyrant or a permissive, non-demanding force of love or simply into the non-existent sanction of an oppressive morality--to mention just a few of the many possibilities. In rescuing us, God responded to our needs. He took into consideration our distortions of His divine reality, our suspicions, mistrust, and aggressiveness towards the Divine. In the state of sinfulness we needed more than just moral exhortation and a divine offer of grace to convert us. God's grace had to provide us with convincing and tangible evidence for the reality of His infinite compassion and of His holiness; if it was to respect our rational nature, this evidence had to be both external and internal: historical facts and inner persuasion of grace; it had to be of such power as to shake our fiercely defended idols and dislodge our chained will from slavery and move it towards the right relationship with the living God. In this context the Incarnation and the cross appear indeed as the most appropriate way for our own rescue. God Himself became a human being, and made His own--not the guilt of humankind, a metaphysical absurdity--but the consequences of human sinfulness, that burden of threefold alienation that reaches its climax in death. In this way God showed us in a most convincing manner His own true nature that is pure love and mercy.
The public ministry of Jesus itself shows that even the teaching; the powerful deeds of the Incarnate God were not enough to change the hearts of His audience. All that Jesus could achieve through His life was to unmask and provoke the power of evil in both the leaders and the crowds of His people so that they crucified Him in the name of religion and the defence of public order. But precisely through His death on the cross, through His side pierced by a lance did God reveal His compassionate love in its fullness, a love by which God Himself took upon Himself the burden of each human being's sins. Only then could God's grace working inside our will win over our free cooperation, so that by the power of grace we might change our hearts and begin a new life.
Secondly, another consideration is a simple re-working of St. Anselm's argument. Sin is in fact an offence against God Himself, not in the sense of threatening or diminishing God's divinity, dignity, or glory, but in the sense of affecting God Himself since God take seriously the human being whom He has created in His own image and likeness. If then sin is an offence against God Himself, then it is, in some real sense, of infinite gravity. If, consequently, God decides to treat sinful humankind as adults so that the sinners must face the consequences of their actions and obtain forgiveness by making up for their "infinite" offence, they cannot do this on their own. Only if God becomes a human being, if God takes upon Himself the death of the sinner and turns the process of estrangement ending in death into the human expression of infinite divine love, only then can they unite themselves through faith with the life and death of the Incarnate Son of God. To put it briefly, if God had not satisfied as a human being for the sins of humankind, humankind could not make its own this satisfaction. If the Incarnate Son of God had not offered an infinite love through His living and dying to the Father, we could not have united ourselves to Christ's death, and could not have obtained forgiveness.
Finally, if our sins offended God in His fatherly love by refusing the grace of being a child of God, then it appears very appropriate that the only Son of God should become Incarnate and as a human being, offer to God that unique filial love which God the Holy Father deserves; only then can we, through faith, unite ourselves to the only Son and offer, "through Him, with Him, and in Him" the love and honour the Father deserves to receive from us.
Instead of asking for a hypothetical answer, whether or not God would have become Incarnate if man and woman had not sinned, we have investigated the actual situation of human sinfulness. It is in response to this actual situation that we can understand and appreciate the mystery of Christ, which contains inseparably both Incarnation and Redemption on the Cross.