What does “the Cross” mean? This phrase is a popular one in Christianity. The symbol is proudly displayed on all kinds of popular media – from clothes to album covers without any perceivable link other than marketing. The popular Evangelical meaning is, “Jesus died for my sins!” In particular, I am referring to a very specific usage of this phrase that is called Penal Substitionary Atonement, which in short says, “We are all sinners. God hates sin and has to punish it because he’s just. Jesus is the only sinless one. Jesus took our place on the Cross and was punished by God for all sin (or all the sin of the elect).” The short-hand for this is, “Jesus died for my (our) sins.”
However, this has become challenged in scholarly circles and is pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. Yet, this was the phrase I learned as a summary of “the Cross” growing up in Church. Even in my Christian college there was little alternative to this summary, even though there was growing tension with it.
The doubts and debates are warranted. They say it is untrue and inconsistent with God’s nature and the testimony of the Biblical narrative to say God punished his Son for our sins. Still, this is the narrative many either hold on to or many more have rejected because it pictures God as vindictive and rather petty. I think the major issue is how this understanding of the Cross has influenced the Western Church and Christianity. For instance, the same character of the Father who crucifies his Son, vindictive and violent, has become the character of our churches including our methods of evangelism. Research today has shown popular portrait of the church is judgmental and power-hungry. Likewise, popular modes of witness to God & his story (evangelism) justify manipulation and are based on producing fear. These too have been characterized by abuse, violence, and power.
There are many factors contributing to this, but one in particular is the popular understanding of the Cross. It is therefore understandable how “Christians” doubt much of Christian Tradition. Equally, popular culture too has a growing skepticism toward Christianity present, as well as its past. This is the world you and I live in. A world of skepticism toward our Story – not simply outside but inside the church.
We begin with ourselves. What are your doubts about the Cross? How is it relevant to your life? Or has it lost its mystique with Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ?
I want to affirm the gift that skepticism has brought to the Church. If questions cannot be asked then we cannot discover answers and truth. The danger with skepticism is asking questions to avoid finding answers, rather than asking to find them. God, the Church and its Tradition, and the Bible can stand up to questions – not always with easy answers nor always clear cut. For instance, when we ask about the Cross, the answer is there are many ways to look at. Here are a few quickly summarized (these are summary statements and not intended to explain them. Also none of these makes sense a part from the inclusion of Jesus’ incarnation, life, resurrection, and ascension):
Christus Victor/Ransom – Jesus through the Cross liberated humanity from sin by overcoming Satan and evil. His life, death, and resurrection become the great victory restoring all creation.
Sacrifice/Reconciliation – Jesus willingly and purposefully gave up his life to death as a sacrifice to restore/reconcile what was lost and broken.
Example of Love – Jesus’ death are the ultimate example of love.
Scapegoat – Jesus at the Cross became the ultimate scapegoat to end scapegoating and give voice to all victims.
New Covenant – Through the Cross of Jesus a new community was freed to love, pursue justice, hospitality, and the creation of peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of creation.
Reconciliation – Jesus death on the Cross reconciled the broken relationship between the Divine and the human.
Essentially, the Cross is multi-faceted. Think of a diamond. Depending how the light interacts with it things change. Like the diamond, it’s not the the Cross event that changed, but so much is going on because this cross held Jesus that it has an inexhaustible beauty to be seen and reflected upon. In other words, it can handle our doubts with the explanations we’ve been give, not because it is an untrue or archaic myth with no relevance for today. On the contrary, it can handle questions, because it’s not about a cross. It’s about who that particular Cross held – God. The doubts we have and the questions we bring truly reflect more of us than God.
This is what Lent is about. In Lent we fast and discipline ourselves not to alleviate our guilt to approach God and the Cross like always before. Not to become better people. We journey through Lent to know a truer awareness of our self and to see Jesus, God, and his Cross through a truer lens. This is the gift of Lent, to re-see and re-think the Cross for in it we will begin to see with greater clarity and truth God, ourselves, others, and our world.