There's a lot of confusion about the meaning of Jesus' death. I don't mean that the average person doesn't get what the theologians are telling them - I mean that the upshot of most of the discussion among theologians is confusion.
The most popular understanding right now is that people sinned, God was justifiably mad, and the only way to deal with that madness was for God to vent his wrath on someone. By virtue of Jesus' own sinlessness, he was able to take the wrath on himself, and balance God's ethical books. Now God is not mad anymore, or at least, not mad at any who agrees to take Jesus up on his offered exchange.
I think there are some problems with this picture, and I would venture to say that most theologians think so too. But if you've been taught that THIS is the gospel, pure and simple, let me point out that Christians didn't teach this story for hundreds of years after Jesus. A more popular story was called Christus Victor, and pictured the cross as a deal between Jesus and Satan. Satan had lawful claim to the sinners of the world, Jesus offered himself in their place, and Satan agreed to the deal, not realizing that Jesus would rise from the dead almost as soon as Satan managed to destroy him. In this view, the cross is more of a sneaky trick, and God isn't the problem that Jesus had to solve.
I think this view is much closer to the biblical concept, but there are still some rough edges. CS Lewis claimed it was okay that we didn't completely understand what was happening on the cross - that we should expect to see many dimensions to what happened. And I think that is closest to the truth yet: Jesus was creative and brilliant, and each of his actions carried many many layers of meaning.
There is another problem. People seem to fall into two camps: those who focus on Jesus' life and teachings and actions, and those who focus on Jesus' death and its ontological significance. These two camps seem to be split between an emphasis on radical engagement with the world, and a focus on achieving salvation. With a focus on salvation, Jesus' death is often seen more as an eternal timeless thing, rather than a specific moment in history.
Today, I saw another layer of the meaning of Jesus' death. And that layer is a seamless connection between Jesus' life and the cross.
Usually we look at the cross as sacrifice, but Jesus didn't sacrifice just to sacrifice. He sacrificed to identify.
Jesus was the burning, flaming presence of God, and his mission on earth was to carry that flame to the places it had never gone. From his birth in the backwaters of the Jewish countryside, to his emergence as a homeless wandering preacher, he was identifying with those on the outskirts of the godly world. From the rag-tag band he gathered around himself, to the gentiles he praised, he was pulling in different factions into his circle of light. From fraternizing with prostitutes and tax collectors, to touching the hands of lepers...he was bringing the presence of God to places it hadn't been seen. Every step he takes is as if he's saying, "God is here too."
In his worldview, where he went, God went. And he was ready to go absolutely anywhere that God needed to be. Every time he touched someone, he must have seen himself carrying the presence of God to those outside the bounds.
Not because he was bringing a rule-book they hadn't heard before. No, he was lifting the shadow of rejection and exclusion that hung over the people. He was pulling back the curtain, revealing the light that was ready to come pouring through.
And so it is only natural that Jesus finally found himself walking towards the last place on earth that God would go - the summit of carcasses, where evil went to die and rot. "Outside the camp" in Jewish parlance, the place God did not recognize, the place where all others finally and completely turned their backs. The place of curses; and Jesus walked into it, willingly, daring us to look at him as the presence of God, descending into the place we cannot stomach him going, because we cannot stomach acknowledging it ourselves. Jesus purposefully went to the place that all heaven and earth said was outside God's sight, and once there, he fully and completely took on all the rejection and ugliness that it entailed.
And in the darkness of rejection by God and all humanity, we are invited to see that God is there too, dying and vomiting with us.
Jesus' death wasn't to placate anybody. It was to make sure we saw the brutal truth that God is in everyplace, and that no barrier or darkness can separate us from him.