What Happens on the Cross?

Wading in…

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What Happens on the Cross?

How would you answer this question?  Aside from the basic fact that Jesus dies… what is affected, what transpires, what is changed?

The way that we answer this question is, I think, incredibly important.  I think that the way we perceive the cross makes a huge difference in the way that we understand God and the way that we relate to one another as God’s people, God’s children, God’s beloved.

A couple of months ago we sat in the Parish Hall at Saint Andrew’s wondering how we might best use the time between worship services, what topics we should consider when we gathered for the Sunday Forum.  In that gathering a plea for help seemed to grab everyone’s attention.  “How do I respond to co workers, family, people I associate with, whose faith traditions lead them to respond very differently than I do to the events in the world around me?”

We were having this conversation in the terribly difficult time following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the emotion and energy that we all felt was a response to public statements by national religious leaders that those horrific murders had happened because God is angry with us as a people, and as a nation.

Of course this kind of statement is nothing new.  We heard the same kind of talk when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; a sinful and wicked city had been brought low.  We heard it when the terrorist flew airplanes into the World Trade Towers; America was being punished for listening to the voices of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way (Living the Questions, p. 106).  We heard it when the tsunami hit South East Asia; God was punishing Muslims for denying Christ.

Does God punish us by sending natural disasters and jihadists among us?  Does God work to get our attention by killing or destroying us?  Does God allow people with guns into our schools because we have “excluded” God from the public schools?

In Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity the authors state,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

So what does all of this have to do with the cross?  It is the cross, and my understanding of what happens on the cross, that shapes my understanding of who God is, of God’s nature and character.  I cannot reconcile what happened on the cross with the idea that God’s hand was at work in the AIDS Crisis, in Hurricane Katrina, in the Tsunami in South East Asia, in 9/11, or in Newtown.

So we are back to the original question, “What happens on the cross?”  At the most basic level the answer to this question is that through the cross we are reconciled to God; that through the cross our relationship with God is restored.  That seems easy enough but now we come to the tougher question…  How is it that Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles is to God?

Did Jesus die for our sins?  Was Jesus’ bloody death on a Roman cross the blood sacrifice that was required to make satisfaction for our transgressions?  Did Jesus stand in as our substitute, enduring the agony and painful death that we all deserve for the sins that we have committed against God and one another?  Did God sacrifice Jesus in order to pay off the devil, ransoming us from captivity to sin and death?

Remember that quote from Living the Questions,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

Did God demand or require that Jesus die in order that we who have betrayed God and one another might be reconciled to God?

Does God require a blood sacrifice to make satisfaction for sin?

Does God’s wrath require that we die for our sins?

Does God’s justice allow someone else, someone innocent of our offense, to die on our behalf in order to atone for our sins?

These questions might seem flip or disingenuous but they are questions that beg to be answered when we hear people claim that God has visited death upon us through sickness, famine, or natural disaster because we have sinned.  They are questions that beg to be answered when people say that the obscene violence that seems to permeate our culture and society is God’s way of getting our attention and putting us back on the right path.

Is it possible that God uses pain, suffering, violence and death to reconcile us all, one to another, and to God?

In Thinking Theologically, chapter 3 of Living the Questions, the authors quote Harry Emerson Fosdick…

“…telling the story of a distraught student who exclaimed, ‘I don’t believe in God!’  Fosdick Replied, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in that God either’” (p. 24).

There is another way of understanding what happens on the cross.  God did not demand Jesus’ death.  We did.  God came into the world and shared God’s dream for all of creation with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We responded to that dream, to God’s love by pushing God away.  Unwilling to see ourselves through God’s eyes, unwilling to cede the fantasy that we are at the center of all things, we nailed God to a tree.  In giving God’s self into our hands God loved us enough to give up control of the outcome, loving us before we could love in return, loving us when we didn’t love in return, and refusing to abandon us even when we betrayed him to an awful, violent, and bloody death.

Having endured the cross God has experienced the worst very worst that lies within us.  There is no depravity hidden from the God who wants only to love us and who has died at our hands.

And yet, knowing who we are, knowing what we are capable of, knowing what we have done, God has not abandoned us!  God loves us still!

In coming posts I will be exploring traditional or classical understandings of the cross, seeking to offer a more nuanced understanding than is represented in this introduction to the conversation.  I will also be exploring the writings of some contemporary theologians whose ideas about reconciliation, atonement and the cross challenge the models or theories that seem to portray violence as redemptive.

If you find yourself intrigued and want to do some exploration of your own I highly recommend Living the Questions, chapters 3, 8, 10, and 11.

I would also recommend Why the Cross? God’s at-one-ment with humanity.  Published in The Christian Century, March 11, 2013.  Written by Charles Hefling.

I have added the Article by Walter Wink from which chapter 11 of Living the Questions draws its title, The Myth of Redemptive Violence to the reading list.  It offers a history and critique of a world view built around a God of violence and pain.

I hope that you will join me in this journey, offering your insights, questions, and reflections by commenting on this post.



4 thoughts on “What Happens on the Cross?

  1. Hey there, Andy! This looks really interesting. I’m hoping your blog entries will consider it with depth and thoughtfulness, but not as much verbal density as the Hefling article. I wanted to read and really digest that article, I really, really did – the topic fascinates me, but it was just so wordy and a little bit over my head at times. As one example here’s this quote, “Any exposition of “crucified for us” along the lines drawn here is susceptible, so it seems, to criticism on the ground that it is an “exemplarist” or “moral influence” account, at best no different in principle from the one that got Abelard in trouble and at worst Pelagian.” (What got Abelard in trouble? And, who is he, for that matter? Pelagian?) I mean, sure I COULD Google these things…but I’d rather read/comment along with thoughtful/deep thinking but “ordinary” folks, not exactly scholarly folks with assumptions of background I lack. 🙂

    Looking forward to reading along as you explore!

  2. I wasn’t able to maintain belief in a god who was vengeful, vindictive and requiring blood sacrifice in exchange for love. To me, that was incomprehensible and contributed to my staying away from religious life. If that was God, I would not believe.

    I appreciate the interpretation of a loving god who holds us in love no matter what we do. And yet it is a god of life and love that wants us to take the right next steps into being alive and loving each other, whether we know each other or not. Being introduced to these ideas, it is easier to imagine a god with whom I want to remain aware and engaged.

    I find it helpful to think of Jesus as human and in relationship with God rather than as actually being God, especially when I think of the cross. I can grasp more easily the concept of Jesus’ decision to let the crowd take him, standing firmly in his commitment to live out his faith in God as Jesus knew him, even if we killed him for it. In this imagining, Jesus was taking the right next steps into aliveness and leaning on God’s love. I am comforted to think, like a parent, of God’s swooning agony as we tortured and killed a beloved, and yet who loved us through it all, to and through the end and until now. That kind of love and reconciliation brings me to tears and to my knees with an open heart, full of gratitude and amazement.

  3. What happens at the cross is extremely important and I appreciate the way in which you have addressed the subject.

    The Old Testament shows that substitutionary sacrifice, as seen in the Day of Atonement is necessary for the forgiveness and (temporary) removal of sins. But, the New Testament shows us that what has really gone wrong with us is not simply wrong actions, but wrong motives. It is our hearts that are broken and separated from Yahweh.

    On the cross Jesus Christ takes upon himself our broken nature, our dead hearts, and gives us himself so that we can have life and reconcilation with our God. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” writes St. Paul in 2 Corinthians.

    It is the beautiful gospel.
    Well may the accuser roar of sins that I have done, I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none.


    What do you think about it Father?

  4. Pingback: To Restore All People to Unity with God and Each Other Through Christ | God Talk

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