This morrning I’m sitting outside a Starbucks not far from mi casa. It’s a beautiful summer’s morn. The sun is rising in front of me, the rays fighting their way through some a.m. clouds.
I don’t see the sun rise often. It’s calming, centering. I should see the sun rise more often. As the fiery blob appears to ascend to the top of the sky, I think about how we used to believe the sun actually did ascend. For most of human history, we thought the earth was the center of the universe. Weird, right? And when Galileo tried to convince people otherwise, he was put on trial and forced to live the final years of his life on house arrest. Why would people cling with such vigor to something that isn’t true?
I’m glad we don’t do that anymore.
I’m being facetious, and you’ve probably gathered that. We do, in fact, cling to faulty and outdated ideas, even if they no longer serve us.
I believe this is true of the cross. Our dominant view of the cross no longer serves us. More than that, it’s not healing the world. It’s not bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. Look around. Look in the mirror. The penultimate moment in the history of Christianity, the death of God’s son on a tree. A moment so ridiculous, so radical. It should transform us. It should heal the world. But it hasn’t.
Why? Could we have it wrong? Did Jesus really die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins? Did Jesus really absorb the wrath of God? Is this who God really is?
That’s what I was taught and probably what you were taught. It’s the dominant narrative of the cross, especially in American Christianity and has been for a long time.
It’s time to change the narrative.
JESUS DIDN’T DIE ON THE CROSS FOR OUR SINS
Jesus didn’t die on the cross to pay the penalty our sins, to balance the cosmic scales, to wipe the divine records clean. This view of the cross is hugely problematic, for a lot of reasons.
First, it’s not in the Bible. That’s right. Sure, if your heart so desired, you could find verses that support your view. But the language of Jesus paying the price for our sins isn’t there.
Second, and piggybacking on the first, this view of the cross is NOT – and I repeat, not – the historical view of the cross. For the first thousand or so years of Christianity, the death of Christ as payment for our sins was not the dominant view. Not until 1098, when St. Anselm penned the infamous “Why Did God Become Human?” did this idea begin to take hold. The payment for our sins view of the cross is not ancient Christianity. It’s not traditional Christianity. It’s less than a thousand years old.
Third, though, and most troubling, are the implications of this theory on our view of God.
One of the most important questions you can ask is this: Who is God? I contend it’s the most important. Show me your image of God, I’ll show you your future. Your operating image of God shapes everything about you. Your thoughts, behaviors, everything.
You become what you behold.
This is why what we think about the cross matters. The events at Golgotha lay the cornerstone for Christian faith, so what we think about the cross determines what we think about God.
OUR VIEW OF THE CROSS SHAPES WHAT WE THINK ABOUT GOD
So what does the Jesus-paid-the-price-for-our-sins view reveal about God?
If Jesus had to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, then God is wrathful, angry, and quite frankly, petty. He’s a God who must kill his own son or else we’re going “down there,” to the eternal basement, where the door is locked and the key tossed away for all of eternity. That’s a long time. The penalty for sins view of the cross legitimizes violence. If God killed Jesus, then it’s okay for us to hurt or kill other people, especially if those people threaten us. And we have. Christians have killed people under the banner of progress or self-defense for centuries. Violence is more than okay. It’s godly. Virtuous. You’re protecting yourself. Your family. Your country. You become what you behold.
If this is your view of God – and it is for most Christians – fear will dominate your days. You will never draw near to a wrathful God. Does he even want you to draw near to him? I’m not sure. But even if he did, why would you? He killed his own son. That’s freaking scary, man. I don’t want to be near a God like that. Intimacy is impossible.
If this is your dominant view of God, you spend your life in a never-ending cycle of trying to prove yourself. When a price that great is paid for you, whether you realize it or not, you spend your days trying to pay it back. I was worth it, Jesus. See all the good things I’ve done. I’ve read my Bible…twice. I tithed last week. I haven’t lied today. You try to earn your salvation through your behavior. So your faith becomes more about what you do (or don’t do) than who you become. Have we not seen this in our churches, from sea to singing sea?
If this is your dominant view of God, you will always believe your identity is flawed. And most Christians do. I hear it all the time: I’m a wretched, sinner. I’m broken sinner. These are identity statements. And, as any good psychologist will tell you, if you believe your core is flawed, you will never change. You will ruminate in shame all of your days.
If this is your dominant view of God, you will elevate the death of Jesus over the life of Jesus. I mean, honestly, if the cross is where Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, does the rest of his life even matter? Who cares what happened before the cross? The cross is all that matters. You substitute worshiping Jesus for following him.
To summarize, then, if the cross is where Jesus absorbed God’s eternal wrath, the dominant image of God is an angry, petty, punitive Presence who believes violence is necessary for healing, who’s distant and unconcerned about your daily life and who’s apathetic (at best) about allowing most of humanity to dwell in torment for all of eternity.
It sounds bad to say it like that. I know. But if I’m honest, that’s the God I’ve served most of my life. I served God out of fear, not love. The God I described above is the God of the American church. We can change, though. We must change. Because, again, I sound like broken record, but you become what you behold.
GOING BACK TO THE CROSS
We need to return to the cross, again, for the first time. We need to sit with the scandal of it, the injustice of it, the travesty of it. We need to see it for what it is: the murder of an innocent man at the hands of an angry mob. We assume Jesus had to die, had to go to the cross. He didn’t, though. He chose the cross. God chose to allow humans to nail him to a plank of wood. This, first and foremost, should disorient us. It should shock us. Who is this God? This crucified God. Who is this man that would allow such a thing? I sure wouldn’t. No chance. But God did. Why?
Let’s start here: the cross reveals the nature of God. The cross is the supreme act of love in the face of heinous evil. The cross doesn’t reveal what God does. It reveals who God is. The cross reveals the pattern of God’s love, the depth to which he’s willing to go to dwell with humanity. He’s willing, even, to submit to our patterns of violence and injustice.
WHY JESUS DIED ON THE CROSS?
So, if Jesus didn’t die on the cross to pay the price for our sins, what is the point of the cross?
THE CROSS SHOWS US THAT DEATH IS THE ONLY PATH TO HEALING.
Jesus did die on the cross to save us from our sins. I don’t think there’s any doubt that. Jesus didn’t die, though, to take away our sins. Jesus died to show us the only path to healing sin: death. You must die. You must let go. The cross shines a light on all the silly and futile we go about purging sin from our life. We modify our behaviors. We try scapegoating. Blaming. Victimizing. But the only way to save yourself from sin is to die. What’s dying, you see, is your false self, the part of you that needs to be separate, special, set apart. We don’t like that, though, so we throw our energy somewhere else.
As Richard Rohr says, “The crucifixion of Christ was a devastating prophecy that humans would sooner kill God than change themselves.”
The only way to experience True Life, a deeper feeling of joy and peace and love, is to stop demanding everyone else change and start changing yourself.
THE CROSS IS THE FINAL WORD ON THE GREAT SINS OF HUMANITY – PRIDE, VIOLENCE, WAR, PROGRESS. THEY WON’T WIN OVER LOVE.
Jesus’s death exposes all the ancient sins of humanity – pride, violence, greed, war, exclusion, and so on. They won’t win over love. Love is more powerful. You can’t bring peace into the world through coercion or power. Leaders throughout history have come and gone. In their prime, many of these leaders built large kingdoms and threatened to take over the world. Now, they’re all six feet under, and their kingdoms lay in rubble. Love is stronger than any form of earthly power. You can’t kill it or destroy it. Love WILL overcome all evil in the end.
The cross is a searing indictment on our love of empire, how we put our trust and faith in its false claims of security. How we continue to take up arms, fight violence with violence, and place self-sufficiency over self-sacrifice. Christians claim we want to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth, but we’re not willing to go the way of the cross. We’re not willing to walk the path of non-violent love. We’re not willing to divorce ourselves from empire. We place more faith in political systems than in Christ.
The way of the Cross, which is the way of Love, can and will heal the world.
The question for us is this: will we echo the cries of the mob – Crucify Him! – or will we take up our cross and die ourselves? Will we play a part in the kingdom coming to earth or we will cling to our comfort?
THE CROSS DESTROYS THE FINAL WALL SEPARATING GOD AND HUMANITY
As you move through the pages of the Old Testament, you see the many plights of God’s people. Starting with Noah and the wickedness of the people. Then Moses comes along and God uses him to free the Israelites from slavery, but the Israelites grumble and complain. Then you have the period of the judges, culminating in the people wanting a king, like their neighbors, a divine gut punch to their ultimate King. On and on I could go, but it’s a different chapter in the same story: there’s a large gap between God and humanity. God tries everything to fill the gap, but nothing works.
God’s not content with disconnect, though. God desires complete solidarity with humanity, with you and me, so he fully immerses himself in the human experience. The Son of God puts on a coat of flesh. He doesn’t exempt himself from any part of the human experience, not even death. The cross, then, shows the depth to which God is willing to descend to unite us to him.
The implications of this love are legion. This one truth alone should cause you to stop and weep, to fall on your knees and worship God. What kind of God would do such a thing?
So, there you have it. The cross. The point here isn’t to agree with me or disagree with me. The point is to look honestly at the cross and ask whether our dominant view of Good Friday is transforming us, healing humanity, bringing the kingdom of God to earth.
I can’t make that decision for you. But I’ve made it for myself.
Grace and peace, friends.