Most Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.
However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.
If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.
Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.
Understanding 1: Crime and punishment
If asked to explain how they understand the cross, a great many Christians – probably most – would answer using language something like this: Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins so we could be saved from the curse of death and hell and spend eternity with God. Of course, the actual words used may be different, but the underlying understanding of the significance of the cross would, in most cases, be something along these lines.
Now, if this is how we understand the cross, and if we believe that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ crucified, what does this understanding tell us about what we believe about God?
The most important thing to note is that little phrase paying the price. This is the language of commerce and exchange. What it usually indicates is that the event of the cross was a kind of transaction: some sort of divine deal was done in which the punishment due to us for our sins was transferred onto Jesus so that we could be released from our guilt. This has two major implications for what we believe about God.
First, this understanding requires us to believe that God deals with us on a transactional basis. After all, if that is how God is seen to operate at the central event of the cross, why should we expect him to behave differently in any other situation (unless, that is, we believe he’s fickle and unreliable)? If a price was paid at the cross, an important question to ask is who it was paid to – and there is only logical answer: it was paid to God. What we have here is the God of the quid pro quo, who insists that something must always be given before anything can be received. The something that must be given could be many things – obedience, time, money, evangelistic fervour… I could go on. (I note in passing that this is clearly the God of Deuteronomy 28, who doles out blessings in return for obedience to a set of prescribed rules and punishment in return for missteps.)
Second, central to this understanding of the cross is the notion of punishment, and central to that notion is the idea that the one meting out punishment is God. Within this paradigm, God is quite unmistakably a God who requires us to follow rules and who is compelled – nay, obliged – to punish us if we infringe them. And when I say punish, I’m not talking about a slap on the wrist. We know what the required punishment for transgression is, because it’s the punishment Jesus supposedly took in our place: death. And not just any old death, but the most gruesome, shameful death imaginable.
If this is how we understand the cross, then, the implication is that God opts to deal with his troublesome children on a transactional basis and decrees death to those who fail to keep their part of the bargain by living up to his impossibly high standards (which is what is usually understood by sin). The only escape is to believe (by which we mean rationally agree) that Jesus took our due punishment at the cross. If we accept that, it’s all good and we’re guaranteed a place in heaven.
I may be caricaturing a little here, but if I am then I’m only doing so to make a point: whether we’re aware of it or not, what we believe about the cross really does have clear, logical implications for what we believe about God. You can wrap it up in warm, fluffy language about love and forgiveness, but make no mistake: what’s inside the wrapper can be deadly.
There are other troubling implications we could draw out of this understanding of the cross, but for the sake of time we’ll confine ourselves to just these two. Let’s move on to briefly consider an alternative understanding of the cross.
Understanding 2: Submission and forgiveness
I used to understand the cross pretty much in the way I’ve described above. Now, however, I see it very differently.
First, for me, the cross is no longer the place where Jesus paid the price for my sin to God in the form of his life. Rather, the cross is the place where Jesus suffered the effects of humanity’s collective besetting sin – the sin of scapegoating violence. The wrath he assuaged by his death was ours, not God’s. The price he paid was the consequence of consistently speaking and living out the truth and refusing to play ball with the religious powers. And he paid it not at God’s hands but at the hands of humanity.
Second, where I used to believe that God’s required default response to sin was punishment, avoidable only by entering into the transaction of believing in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, I’m now passionately convinced that God has only one response to sin: forgiveness, full and free. Think about it. Humanity commits the worst possible atrocity, the apogee of violence: it murders God, and it does so in the most shameful and denigrating way possible. And how does God respond? Even as the nails are being driven into his flesh, Jesus responds by praying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”. And when Jesus takes everyone by surprise by returning from the grave, he announces not vengeance and the threat of punishment, but shalom. Peace. He absorbs the worst of our sin and recycles it into forgiveness and peace.
The God we see revealed here, then, is a God who, in the words of Brian Zahnd, would rather die than kill his enemies. And he’s a God who would rather freely forgive even the very worst of our inhumanity and brutality than risk seeing us alienated and separated from him.
Do you see how beautiful this is, and how radically opposed it is to the first, more common understanding of the cross we looked at above?
In the title to this post, I posed the question of whether the cross represents religious self-projection or radical discontinuity. I’d like to wrap up by explaining what I meant.
We are a violent race. You only have to look at history, or even at the world today, to see that. And we are hopelessly, thoroughly embedded in a transactional, exchange-based paradigm in which we demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. For all our talk of grace, we are generally so enmeshed in a transactional worldview that we can’t even see it.
This is why I contend that the crime and punishment view set out under Understanding 1 above doesn’t at all reflect what God is actually like. Rather, it is the projection onto God of what we are actually like. The God who engineers and oversees the payment of Jesus’ body and blood to divert his wrath away from his wayward children is not the Abba of Jesus: it is humanity on steroids. That’s what I mean when I say that, understood this way, the cross is a case of religious self-projection.
Conversely, the submission and forgiveness paradigm set out under Understanding 2 looks very different from how we humans typically think and act. It’s a view in which there’s no place for legal transactions; the only exchange on offer is one where we inflict violent death on God and he stubbornly insists on forgiving us and announcing peace to us in return. Far from being a picture of humanity on steroids, this conception of the cross represents a radical departure from the conventional human order of things. The God we see here is one of whom we can truly say that his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, the cross is the one place where all our false and misleading ideas about both God and ourselves are brought to naught. This can be a painful experience, especially when those ideas are ones we’ve held onto tightly for a long time. But isn’t it better to experience the pain of letting go than to stubbornly hold onto false ideas just because they’re familiar? Only by being prepared to risk letting go of such misconceptions can we gain the fresh ears we need to hear the wondrous news of just how good God really is.
So as Easter slowly approaches and the events of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death begin to come into focus, I encourage you to give some serious thought to how you understand the beautiful catastrophe that is the cross of Christ. And as you do so, ask the Father to show you whether you’ve really been seeing his tender, forgiving heart of love, or simply a reflection of your own very human inclinations.
[ Image: Christopher Brown ]