For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).
After choosing the title “Making Sense of the Cross,” I had second thoughts about it. I realize that the Cross is central to the Christian faith. But to be honest, I cannot make sense of it. There is no way that I can figure out why it is essential for our salvation. God is able to save us simply because He loves us unconditionally and wants a relationship, right? And we know that what God wants, God gets. Well, maybe not. And perhaps making sense of the Cross should not be about figuring out the formula of how it worked to save our souls, but just about how we can find a handle to hold on to the mystery of what theologians say is one of God’s most essential acts.
Just why did Jesus die on the Cross? Historians would tell us it is because He was perceived as an enemy to the Romans and therefore to the Jews who desired relative peace with Rome. Many Jews in Jerusalem, particularly those in high religious positions, knew that rebels had in the past incited the Romans to attack and massacre not only the inciter of revolution but thousands of innocents who were suspected of sympathizing with the rebel. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, and to many this sounded as if He was calling for a replacement of the Empire of Rome. The Jewish leaders knew that Jesus had been collecting a large following, because word of His healings and other miracles had spread. Perhaps the triumphant entry into Jerusalem just a week before His death was the last straw for them. If Jesus’ Jewish enemies had believed that Jesus might indeed be successful in overthrowing Rome, things might have been different. But other “messiahs” weren’t successful and ended up being put to death by Rome, leading to the ransacking of entire Jewish towns and the deaths of many Jews. Why should this Jesus be any different? Jesus was a dangerous man. The Romans did not crucify people for teaching others to be kind and to love one another. They crucified people who were perceived as dangers to the Roman Empire. That is why Jesus was crucified.
But is that all there is? It is overwhelmingly evident that the Cross has central to the Christian faith throughout the two millennia of Christian history. You find crosses everywhere you go within the modern church. You are told that if you say you believe in the Gospel, you believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and our salvation.
Jesus died on the Cross for my sins. Or so it is said. Another way of saying it is that the Cross accomplished atonement. At-one-ment. Reconciliation to God. Just how does that work? The Jesus of the four gospels really does not address the question of why he had to die. He simply tells His disciples that He must die and will rise on the third day. John’s gospel records Him giving a vague hint of the reason for His death: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24). He died so that the fruit of the Gospel could multiply. That still leaves us with many unanswered questions. Most of our theology of the Cross comes from Paul’s epistles and traditions that evolved through the history of the church. While there are several theological models for understanding atonement and the Cross, you might find it hard or impossible to make sense of them. If you Google “Theories of Atonement” you find a number of ways they are classified. But they do seem to fall into three major categories:
One, the theory that because of our sin, Satan owns our destiny, but Jesus’ obedience and death on the Cross, Christ won the final victory over Satan’s power. It is not really clear how this victory was accomplished. Perhaps by the Resurrection, which of course was an overcoming of death. This is called the “Christus Victus,” or simply the “Victory” theory. It might be a modification of a similar model, called the “Ransom” theory, which says Jesus’ death paid to Satan the ransom that Satan required in order to free us from bondage to him. These theories are both believed to be among the earliest and are usually attributed to the early church founders. If you are accustomed to attending western Christian churches, you have probably heard it proclaimed that “Jesus’ death accomplished victory over Satan.” You may not be familiar with the “Ransom” theory, but you have come across it if you have read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story Aslan the Lion, who represents Christ, wants to rescue the boy Edmund from the White Witch, who represents Satan. Edmund has betrayed Aslan and the other children in the story. But the White Witch reminds Aslan of the great magic that was set up at the very beginning of time, that he who betrays Aslan will belong to the White Witch. Therefore, the White Witch claims Edmund as her own and plans to kill him. After a long session of negotiation, Aslan gets the witch to agree to release Edmund if he, Aslan, is killed in his place. The White Witch just cannot resist the opportunity to put the great Aslan to death, and so the lion is killed. The children and their friends mourn, knowing that their beloved lion is dead, but eventually Aslan comes to them, resurrected!
The second group of theories include the “Satisfaction” and “Substitution” theories. They are similar to the first group but claim that God, not Satan, required something in order to accomplish atonement with humanity. While the “Satisfaction” theory is sometimes attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1034 until 1109, the theory is really rooted in the traditions of sacrifice among the Jews. The Israelites were commanded in the Law of Moses to make offerings and sacrifices, for various reasons, to appease God. These sacrifices did satisfy God, but His people believed they were obligated to make them on a regular basis, until the early church proclaimed that the final and sufficient sacrifice had been made by Jesus on the Cross. I find this theory very rich in biblical tradition, but many people of the modern era, including myself, would have difficulty finding meaning in it. But as the ideas of justice, payment for wrongs, and punishment continued to be a part of western culture, theologians of the 16th Century came to the rescue with a similar theory, “Penal Substitution.” It suggests that because of our sin, God’s justice required our punishment, but God in His mercy sent His son to take that punishment instead of us sinners. This is probably the most common theory taught, preached, and set to music in the Western church today. When I researched it, though, I could not find much biblical grounding for it. While it seems to be a cousin of the Hebrew-Jewish sacrifice tradition, nowhere in the Scripture do I find a suggestion that the object being sacrificed is being punished. And little if any suggestion that in the Crucifixion, God the Father was punishing His Son. And of course one naturally wonders why a loving father would have his son killed because of his anger at those who are not his children.
Finally, a third theory says that Christ died in order to influence humankind toward moral betterment, and to show how much God loved us. This is usually called the “Moral Influence” theory. It was formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and became popular during the Enlightenment. In this theory, no principle of Justice was satisfied, but humankind was shown the extent God was willing to endure suffering because of His great love for humankind despite its sinfulness. And it is a call for all of us who would follow Jesus to take up our own cross daily (see Luke 9:23).
There is yet another theory I want to mention, the “Recapitulation” theory, which does not clearly fall into one of the above three groups and is not well known in the Roman Catholic or Protestant Churches. This theory states that Christ, by His obedience, undid the effects of Adam’s disobedience. As the “New Adam,” Jesus changed the nature of man from fallen, disobedient, unrighteous, to righteous. This theory has traditionally been popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
I personally struggle to make sense of any of these models. Paul wrote that the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but is the power of God to those of us who know Christ. I would add that while it may not be foolishness to us believers, it is confusing. And through the centuries, theologians have come up with these theories of atonement in order to explain it. But none of them adequately answer for me the question of why Jesus had to die on the Cross so that I can be saved.
I was nearly grown before I ever really wondered why Jesus died. Like any child who grew up in the American Bible Belt, I saw many churches, and I saw crosses in every one. I learned early that the most important symbol of our faith was a cross. I learned that Jesus was nailed to one. I never wondered why: it was just obvious to me that He had enemies. And I certainly did not imagine the pain that Jesus endured while He hung on that cross. Since we were Protestant and lived in America, the crosses I saw were empty. When I first noticed a cross showing a crucified Jesus, my mother explained that while these were popular in the Catholic Church, we Protestants like empty crosses, because we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Mama added that while Catholics also believed that Jesus rose, we Protestants like to emphasize that by displaying an empty cross. This explanation satisfied me at the time. And through my developing years, I cultivated the idea that how Jesus died did not really matter. The fact that he was resurrected was what really made the difference in who He was.
Then one day I asked a Catholic why their church liked crosses showing a crucified Jesus. I was told that was so we would not miss the fact that Jesus was really human, that He was threatening to the officials in government and in the Jewish religion, and that He really suffered greatly for us. Not only did He rise for us and go to prepare a place for us, He suffered and died for us. I then began to consider the possibility that we American Protestants missed something by displaying all our crosses empty, cleansed from all the pain and death.
There have been attempts by writers and other artists to make us more aware of Jesus’ experience of rejection and pain. One of the best known today is the 2004 film by Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ. This movie showed enough blood and gore to earn an “R” rating. It was probably as good a portrayal of what crucifixion was like as was possible on the screen. It was painful to watch, so painful to some that they were not able to watch it to the end, or they chose to forego seeing it altogether. I heard reports of non-believers being won to Christ by having seen the film, but this surprised me. I thought that while the film did a pretty good job showing what Jesus went through, it never answered the question of “Why.” And that is the question that must be posed in order to proclaim the message of the Cross.
Now when I reflect on the question of why the Cross is important, I remind myself that I believe that it is part of the whole reason God came as Emmanuel in the first place. God came to be one of us, but He did not come to be one who is privileged, or even one who has a pretty good life. When Emmanuel came, he was born to one of the poorest families, and He had to endure rejection by the most prominent members of His society, the label of a terrorist, and the horrible death that terrorists against Rome at that time were subjected to. Of course, all of this was a product of sin. The sin of imperial power and oppression, and the sin of acquiescence to this power. So when He became one of us and identified with the human race, he not only came to share with us the agony of urgent temptation, the pain of poverty, of imperial oppression, of loneliness, and of rejection, but also the pain of violence and death which was the pain of the Cross. And since I can believe in the Resurrection, I can believe that He was victorious over all this. It was God’s act of identifying with us and enduring with us all that we are subject to that saves us. That is how I try to make sense of the Cross.
But I suppose the early Christians in the Roman Empire had a greater ability to appreciate what the Cross meant than we moderns do. Most of the crosses they saw were ugly and fearful, and sometimes dying people and dead bodies hung on them. We moderns think of shiny objects made of gold or brass, jewelry or adornments in a house or church. Perhaps to really understand what Jesus went through in order to be one of us, we need a story that resonates with our own experience of love, rejection and sin.
There are some stories and films that are truly Christian stories that will never find their way into a Christian bookstore or be shown as part of a church sponsored Bible study. The 1979 film Hardcore tells of Jake Van Dorn, a successful businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the single parent of a teenage daughter named Kristen. Kristen goes on a church youth trip to California and inexplicably does not return. The distraught Van Dorn hires a private investigator to try to find her, and the investigator finds a pornographic film featuring Kristen and two men. Van Dorn first endures the pain of having to watch the film and identify the girl as his daughter. Then he has to wait while neither the private investigator nor the police can turn up further clues on Kristen’s whereabouts. Van Dorn assumes she was kidnapped by members of the porn underworld. So, Van Dorn himself embarks on an odyssey, visiting porn shops and massage parlors in Los Angeles, actually hiring prostitutes just to have an audience and show Kristen’s picture, asking if they had seen her. When it became apparent that this would turn up nothing, Van Dorn himself poses as a pornography producer and goes through the motions of recruiting casts and crews for pornographic films. And of course, as Van Dorn rubs elbows with members of this sinful, sleazy underworld, we feel the pain he must be experiencing as he sees what his daughter is embroiled in. Finally, he finds Kristen and tells her he has come to rescue and take her home. But Kristen rejects him, saying that she joined the porn industry voluntarily and wants to stay. A physically and emotionally exhausted Jake Van Dorn finally tells her that he will not force her to leave. Finally, Kristen relents, says that her father can stay, and the film ends with hope that father and daughter can repair their relationship.
When I first saw this film I liked it, but until recently, the fact that it describes something about Jesus never occurred to me. Then one day as I was thinking about how Jesus might have born our sin for us, I suddenly remembered seeing this film about 38 years earlier. What Van Dorn walked through because he loved his daughter must be like what Jesus endures because He loves us. The ugliness of our sin. The pain of realizing that this is the world in which God’s son or daughter is imprisoned in. The driving will to rescue that son or daughter at any cost.
Okay, here is what I have to conclude, or at least what I choose to conclude. Reader, you may choose not to see the Cross as significant to your faith. It is the power of God to me, but, that is only true for me when I give up trying to figure it out. All of these theories of atonement were human attempts to analyze Jesus’ death and what it accomplished, and they were developed years after Jesus’ actual death. And I must add that this did not begin after the end of the biblical period, but it began with Paul and his writings, some of which became accepted as Scripture. Christians understand them in either of two ways. One, as formulas, definite answers to burning questions about why the Son of God had to endure crucifixion and what it accomplished. Or two, as metaphors that we humans with our limitations might use in order to better relate to God and His grace. It seems to me that when one regards them as formulas or explanations of God and what He does, they fall way short. Not one of them has emerged as the explanation of the Cross that Christianity accepts. That is not only because of their limits as man-made conjecture, but also because Scripture does not clearly support one over any of the others.
In Kee Sloan’s novel Jabbok, Jacob (Jake) Jefferson, a character who might be modeled after Jacob of the Old Testament, remarks that “Being faithful has more to do with asking questions than having answers.” Jake explains that people think they need answers so that they can control things, not so they can have faith. As a faithful believer, I will continue to have questions, and the doctrines and theology of the Cross will guide my questions rather than provide answers. To be willing to live life with many unanswered questions, yet trust God with these questions, takes a tremendous amount of faith and courage. In the final analysis, the power of the Cross is mystery. I do not understand it. Even Saint Paul did not thoroughly understand it. Only God understands it. And He loves us so much that He is willing to rescue us at any cost.