In the aftermath of this unique Easter I am thinking of the cross, its place in the Easter story, its role in Christian theology, its unquestionable power to draw many to God – and its equally distinct ability to turn others away. Paul wrote to the ancient Corinthians that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), and we who understand, understand. But it should be the challenge of the cross – not bad atonement theology – that is “foolishness.”
“In the cross we do not see Jesus set apart from God; we see God.”
I’m thinking about the cross, and my cross-shaped theology in particular, after a conversation with a dear friend. One text message in our dialogue changed his perspective and gave him a new understanding. I think the cross doesn’t sound so “foolish” to my friend now. God doesn’t seem so angry and mean, and Christianity doesn’t seem like fear-filled groveling, but a lived response.
In these days of Eastertide, and as 21st-century Christianity continues to struggle to make its message relevant to a skeptical, increasingly secular (even anti-religious) culture, maybe this is a conversation that needs to be shared.
The message of the cross is “foolishness.” The message of Christians doesn’t have to be. Here’s how the dialogue with my friend transpired….
We had just posted an image to the church’s Facebook account, a message for Good Friday, when this friend texted to ask about it. Many of the free “Google images” for this holy day ring less than holy to me. Bloody, some downright grotesque, they speak a theology that no longer speaks to me, an atonement of appeasement to an angry God, an appeal of guilt and shame to fear-filled people.
Instead, we chose an abstract image depicting the cross at the center, overlaid with words from Genesis. I provided a two-sentence biblical background for the Joseph story and ended by connecting that story with the message of Good Friday: “What you intended as evil, God intended for good.”
So it is with the cross, our Good Friday message communicated: “On this ‘Good’ Friday we remember the cross not because God intended the death of Jesus, but because “in all things God is working to bring about good” (Romans 8.28). If the cross can remind us that God is always working for the good, even using our greatest failures for greater gain, it will be a good day.
My friend wrote to say, “I’ve always interpreted ‘He died for our sins’ as a ritualistic sacrifice to appease someone/something. But your explanation couches Jesus’ death in terms of a lesson more than a straight up transactional sacrifice. Can’t imagine why they didn’t explain this to me when I was eight. Fifty-six years of sublimated guilt resolved in one text message. This is a Good Friday indeed.”
There was a joke about getting this friend baptized, and then he ended my Good Friday with a true touch of Easter joy: “Well, I certainly just experienced an epiphany!”
Like too many people whose stories and lives call out to me in my vocation as a pastor, here is another who left the church because of the church. The stories abound. In most cases, the plot follows a similar trajectory – a theological claim that can’t stand the scrutiny of the hard, honest questions of a thoughtful churchgoer manages to turn God-Who-Is-Love into a distant judge, a capricious dictator, a blood-thirsty tyrant.
God gets a black eye. The church loses another of the faithful.
We need to learn to say it plainly, as Leslie Weatherhead taught me years ago in his book, The Will of God: It was not God’s intent that Jesus die. God’s intent was that people listen to Jesus, follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus. That was God’s intent. What happened, however (as has too often been the case throughout human history), is that fearful and frail people misunderstood, and in a supreme twist of fate brutally killed an innocent man. Weatherhead understands the crucifixion within the “circumstantial will” of God. Yet, God is always God, which for Weatherhead means love and not power.
As the late Baptist theologian Frank Tupper taught me, God is always doing everything God can do, so Love (God) used the bad to bring about the good. Weatherhead frames this within God’s “ultimate will.” Intentional … circumstantial … ultimate.
Weatherhead’s typology may not work for you. It may sound trite or trivial (but what human typology of the divine isn’t, in reality?). It may tend toward simplistic, but with no offense intended, most church people could use a good, simple understanding of God – and the cross – that does not make Jesus out to be the Passive Victim paying the price to the Bad God, making the transaction, offering his pound of flesh to save us from Angry Wrath.
My friend never heard an alternative to this. In more than 60 years, he never heard another way to understand the cross.
I know this is difficult. I know there are lots of proof-text-able verses in the Bible to support a theology of substitutionary atonement. (Jesus died to pay for our sins, so we don’t have to.) This theology is ingrained for many of us Baptists, raised on evangelical preaching, week-long revivals and altar calls, but just like all the verses about a three-tiered physical universe, or slavery, or the subjugation of women, or homosexuality, there are other ways to read and understand holy Scripture. Better ways. Ways that are still relevant in the modern era. Ways that honor human freedom and validate the centrality of Jesus in our faith and leave room for a real, honest-to-God God of Love (which is actually the Bible’s message from the very beginning).
“What his cross teaches us is not what Jesus did ‘for us,’ but what his death teaches us about how we must live.”
Incarnational theology is the heart of Christianity: “God was in Christ reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus reveals to us the very nature and heart of God – so the cross cannot be Jesus’ payment, saving us from God. There can be no distinction between the work of Jesus and the work of God, the nature of Jesus and the nature of God. There is no distinction, no separation in intent or purpose.
The cross must be the definitive act of the revelation of God. In the cross we do not see Jesus set apart from God; we see God.
This is what God is: self-giving, sacrificial love. When we have seen love, we have seen God. And the truth, as the cross makes so painfully clear, is that any “love” that is not costly is not love at all.
The hardest part of all this Christocentric theology, however, is not the academics of it, but the essential cruciform ethic that it teaches. In simpler words, if our theology is centered in Jesus, what his cross teaches us is not what Jesus did “for us,” but what his death teaches us about how we must live. “Take up your cross and follow,” Jesus declared. And, “The one who seeks to save his life will lose it. Only she who loses her life (here is the cross) will truly find it.”
Here lies the path to salvation. It comes not just in remembering Good Friday – but living it, day in and day out. Salvation is dying to self, dying for one another.
Did Jesus die to save us from our sins? If we can live the cross-shaped life he taught, then, by all means, yes; this is salvation indeed!
Related opinion from the BNG archives:
Chuck Queen | God, not an atonement theory, saves humanity
Related news stories: