At the heart of the Christian Gospel lies a simple-sounding transaction: when you believe in Jesus, God exchanges your sin for Christ’s righteousness, and thus you get to go to Heaven because you are no longer guilty. Or are you?
In I Corinthians 15:9, the Apostle Paul writes: “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Notice the verb tenses: “I am,” not “I was.” Even though he has already believed in Jesus and accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, he’s still guilty of having persecuted the church, and consequently is still, present tense, the least of the apostles and unworthy to be called an apostle.
This is because of what guilt is. Guilt is not a debt to be paid or a stain to be washed, although believers frequently use such terms to describe it. Guilt is a fact of history. Either you did something, or you did not do it. You can no more exchange your guilt for someone else’s righteousness than you can exchange your past for theirs. You may be forgiven, but forgiveness does not change the facts of the past. Forgiven guilt is still guilt.
Think what it would mean if guilt were something that could be transferred to other people, the way your mortgage can be sold to a different lender. The Bible says that Jesus died for the sins of the world—not just for the sins of believers, but the sins of the whole world. If the sin and guilt were literally transferred from us to him, that would mean you and I were sinless and innocent, regardless of whether or not we believe in Jesus. We could all go to Heaven because we’d all be God’s sinless children, and we’d belong there. There would only be one actual sinner, and that would be Jesus. And who’s going to die for his sins?
Think about that. If God had literally transferred actual sin and guilt from sinners to Jesus, then Jesus would be a pedophile. He would be literally guilty of sexually molesting children. In fact, he would be, not just the worst pedophile in all of human history, he would be the only pedophile in all of human history. Nobody else is guilty of sexually molesting children, because he took all the guilt for himself. Jesus would be solely guilty of every sexual assault that ever happened or ever will. That’s what it would mean for God to literally take the guilt away from the actual sinners and literally put it on Jesus.
But of course, that’s silly. We all know that accepting Jesus does not move guilt from one person to a different person. Guilt is a fact of history, an attribute of the unchanging past. Paul knew that he was still guilty of persecuting the church, even after repenting and accepting Jesus, because past does not change. We can change how we respond to someone’s guilt, but we can’t change their guilt because we can’t change the past. (And if God somehow magically did change the past, such that the sinner did not commit the sin, then there’s no sin to need forgiveness, and thus no need for any savior.)
But if guilt and sin cannot, in fact, be moved from one person to another, then what happens to the Gospel? The so-called substitutionary atonement is the whole point of the Gospel. Believers have supposedly washed away their sins in the blood of the Lamb (to use Christian terminology) based on the assumption that Jesus took all his own righteousness and gave it to all the sinners, and took all their sin and guilt as his own, in exchange. If that did not happen, if it’s not even possible for that to happen, then the crucifixion was pointless, and Christians have no basis for claiming salvation. The most central, essential element of the whole Gospel turns out to be a lie.
The Gospel is a story, invented by people. And like all man-made fictions, it can move you and astound you and enthrall you, if you let it. But it’s not going to be perfect. In fact, there may be gaping holes in the plot, that you overlook because you enjoy the story so much.
The Gospel is one of those stories, and this is one of those gaping holes.