Growing up, I heard and was taught about one theory of the numerous theories of atonement within Christianity. That is, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, that Jesus died and was completely forsaken by God (punished) in our place so that we could all be forgiven through faith in Christ. There was really no other way around it. You had to accept this understanding of atonement in order to be saved (I've had pastors tell me this).
Many people don't even realize that this is a theory and not an absolute, and that there are many other theories about what happened when Jesus died on the cross within (orthodox) Christianity.
Due to the doctrine of "Original Sin", that the world was cursed and condemned by sin because of the disobedience of Adam in the garden, blood was required in order for God to forgive and to reverse the universal curse. And not just any blood, but that of God's own Son.
In other words, God was/is so angry with sin that wrath had to be displayed. And that wrath was intended for us. But, because God is so loving, the wrath was put on his only Son instead. God had to kill Jesus so forgiveness could be offered to us. God's wrath was released on Jesus, who took on our sins, so we could be justified. You know, "just-if-I'd" never sinned.
So Jesus' dying on the cross was required to bring about what we call salvation from hell. This understanding holds that just as there was some sort of cosmic shift when Adam ate the fruit in the garden, there was also some sort of counter shift when Jesus breathed his last breath and shed his blood on the cross. A gap was bridged between us and God.
I'd like to note that this "sacrificial systematic" understanding of forgiveness of sins is one of many metaphors used throughout scripture when referring to what Jesus did on the cross.
But doesn't this make God out to be, as my four year old suggested, "a bad guy"? Probably not for most of you because you see the sacrifice of one's son for someone else as a loving act. However, if anyone else would have acted in such a way, the authorities would be called and the father would be locked up for child abuse/murder.
But where I probably have the biggest problem, is that this theory also suggests in every way that God's forgiveness could not have happened unless God's wrath was satisfied. God couldn't fully love us until God brought agony, suffering, and death to someone else. Then and only then would God be pleased and be able to offer His forgiveness.
Now, I know that this will rub many of you the wrong way, for Jesus' death on the cross is the center of your Christian faith. I understand that.
I want to clarify that I am not denying that the cross was some sort of act of salvation. I believe it was/is for several different reasons which I hope to touch on in the next post when I give a little more insight on how I understand the crucifixion of Jesus. However, I don't hold to the understanding that the cross was God's way of taking out his uncontrollable wrath on someone so that He then, and only then, could offer forgiveness and salvation to others.