Ah, spring is in the air! The earth is warming, snow is melting, sap is running, and early bulbs are readying their colours. Spring is one of the best seasons in Canada, ranked slightly behind Autumn but well ahead of Tax.
And in springtime the thoughts of good christians everywhere turn to … the torturous crucifixion of the son of God.
To this day crucifixion is considered one of the worst ways to die; a carefully crafted theatre of pain and dehumanization. From the spectacle of a slow, spasmodic death to the spectre of an exposed, rotting corpse, the cross was designed to eliminate would-be heroes and warn the masses against rebellion.
Originally a cross was nothing more than a short tree or a wooden ‘x’ staked into the ground but today the lower case ‘t’ version is fashionable. Crosses though history have festooned castles and cathedrals and been glorified in art, literature, fashion, and jewelry. It’s almost like they were trying to forget it was created exclusively for gruesome death.
It seems obvious now in hindsight but Jesus’ Cross was a huge paradox. The first christians weren’t clever theologians, they were simply witnesses to a previously unimaginable idea … in their lifetime the cross changed from the ultimate symbol of death to the ultimate symbol of life.
But what actually happened on that day when the Christ of God died on a timber? Christians are rarely asked to think about the nuts and bolts of what transpired even though it has been the subject of centuries of theological conjecture.¹
I’m convinced christians are more skilled at mining retribution and violence from the Bible than they are at finding the constant examples of grace and love. I’ve mentioned before that evangelicals consistently poll higher in their approval of stricter laws, sentencing, incarceration, capital punishment, military intervention, and even torture. Themes of payback and punishment are within easy reach of anyone who looks for them, but in real life brute force only births new brute force.
So it’s likely the debt payment and barbarism of the crucifixion has conditioned our thinking more than we realize. Consider some of the bold assumptions we take from the story:
God was angry because of sin. (Sure, God hates sin because it hurts creation. But he loves us unconditionally.)
God had to punish sin because of a law of debt and repayment. (Wait, there is a higher court than God?)
This law stated that God couldn’t forgive sin without a sacrifice. (Why not? He’s God.)
The only adequate sacrifice to save humans was Jesus, so God sent his son to die as our substitute. (Luckily the rule book allowed substitutions.)
In a divine sleight of hand, Jesus’ death and resurrection overcame sin and death and foiled satan in the process. (It was the satan who thought violence would win.)
After that whole ordeal, we are now free from hell and death. (Provided we believe the story, ask forgiveness, get baptized, find and support a church, don’t backslide, and do a bunch more fine print stuff, depending on your church.)
No wonder christians keep believing that power and payback are the answers to our problems.
When we pretend we understand the cross, it reveals that we don’t understand it at all. The crucifixion wasn’t a pagan-like bloodbath to satisfy an angry deity – God clearly thought sacrificing innocents was evil. No, this was something more.
It’s best to keep the balance of the crucifixion front and centre. Like most of these things, our need to control the story sucks all the life and beauty out of it. A violent cross is like a paint-by-number sunset – simplistic, mechanical, limited. But a loving Cross is like a real sunset – alive, expansive, indescribable.
Jesus was (is) the mirror of his heavenly father and his response to the horror of the crucifixion was love and forgiveness. Jesus suffered the consequences of (our) human violence and exposed its hypocrisy by absorbing it with love. So obviously the focus of crucifixion wasn’t condemnation or debt payment. It was love and grace.
The Cross wasn’t an angry, paint-by-number transaction, it was ‘God with us’ in the most vivid, authentic way – he experienced the pain of a broken world just as we do. Or as theologian Jurgen Moltmann said, “Jesus didn’t die for God, but in solidarity with us.”
So as this spring season progresses and you experience the images and ideas of Easter, remember there are wonderful Cross purposes hidden in its mystery. And ask yourself the question: Do I care about Jesus because he won a bloody battle or do I love him because he first loved me?
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¹ The theological term ‘atonement’ has to do with reconciling people to God, or ‘at-one-ment’. (I’m not a theologian but I play one in a blog.)
A number of atonement theories have appeared through history, beginning with the early church fathers, and each is supported with scripture. Notice the admission that they are each just ‘theories’. The main variations begin with the newer, more violent one mentioned above: Penal Substitution Theory. The other major players have different emphases: Moral Influence Theory, Ransom Theory, Christus Victor Theory, and Satisfaction Theory, followed by others with minor adjustments.