What Happened on the Cross?

At the heart of the Good News about Jesus Christ is the message that Jesus died to free us from all that oppresses and blemishes our humanity. The Apostle Paul writes, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Jesus died for our sins . . .” (1 Cor. 15:1; Matt. 26:28). 

Yet the idea of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins is hard to make sense of. Why would a loving God need Jesus’ horrific death by Roman crucifixion in order to forgive and repair human beings? Isn’t sacrifice to God or the gods, especially human sacrifice, a barbarous practice? And while some people do commit terrible acts, most of us seem hardly guilty of misdeeds requiring such a drastic remedy.

Our paradoxical humanity

According to the Scriptures humankind is created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). We are made to experience God’s love in its fullness and to express that love back to God, to others and to all creation in joy. We have been entrusted with the responsibility in love to shape the world with creativity and justice.  When most of us examine ourselves we find various shortcomings, but we probably don’t see any great depravity. That is as it should be. After all, we each carry in ourselves the imprint of what is Good, True and Beautiful. We are even better than we think we are – wonderfully so!

Yet something is clearly wrong. We too often turn away from our truest identity and destiny. That’s easiest to see when we look at the world as a whole. In spite of the existence of tremendous good, we can’t help but recognize that something is terribly amiss. G.K. Chesterton, the British essayist and author of the Father Brown stories, once quipped that humanity’s corruption was “the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.” Wars, injustice, oppression, racism, and horrific crimes throughout history, and our own individual misdeeds, show the truth that we are not what we should be — sometimes far from it. 

At the root of humankind’s wrong-doing is idolatry. Idols aren’t just stone images. Idolatry is the allegiance to wealth, power, status, security, pleasure, nation, “tribe” or self-interest as the most important thing in life. Idols are also distorted views of God that are cruel and life-destroying. When we give our highest allegiance to any of these falsehoods, we become its prisoner. We become enslaved by what we worship.

Inhuman actions (“sins”) follow as the consequence of captivity to destructive forces unleashed by worshipping idols. Our personality becomes warped and our humanity distorted. We lose the capacity to love. We become out of sync with other people, nature and God, exiled from the unity for which we’re created. We are unable to fully live out our purpose as human beings reflecting God’s self-giving love.

God loves us so much that he has acted in Jesus to free us from idolatry, absolve our wrongdoing, and begin to heal humanity’s brokenness. God is restoring our best identity and purpose. No matter how bad our behavior or disastrous our mistakes, our captivity can be ended, our guilt erased, and we can start learning to grow in the likeness of Jesus’ faithfulness to God and unselfish love for others. We can become God’s co-workers repairing a damaged world in love and sharing in the world’s wonderful future. 

Glimpses of liberation 

Scripture provides various pictures, metaphors, parables and stories as pointers to help us understand the meaning of Jesus’ death for our lives. These pictures are partial and shouldn’t be taken as full explanations, for “we see as it were puzzling images in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). Yet they speak to our heart and give us wonderful glimpses into this great act of God’s love. 

Jesus as a ransom.Jesus spoke of his death as a ransom. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). A person captured in war or sold into slavery could be freed by the payment of a ransom. Jesus was saying that his death would free us and the world from the shackles of dehumanization – in part now, and fully in the world to come.

Many of us are bound up by fears, insecurities, loneliness, discouragement. We are captive to destructive desires and habits – rage, greed, lust, diverse addictions. Humans oppress and are oppressed by injustice, poverty, violence, disease, and various forms of suppression of human flourishing. Jesus’ talk of a ransom dramatically declares that there is a way out of this bondage. Liberation has begun. Perhaps the major “release from captivity” picture in the New Testament identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb that was sacrificed as part of the Hebrews’ rescue from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’ death has liberated human beings – significantly now and fully in the world to come — from lives dominated not by Pharaoh, but by all that disfigures and crushes our humanity. 

Jesus defeats the “powers.”According to Colossians 2:15 Jesus’ death on the cross defeated the destructive “powers” by means of the forgiveness of sins. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.In this verse, Sin is pictured not simply as immoral or unjust actions, but as a violent Enemy Force ravaging our humanity. This Force has now been defeated, not by military might, but by Jesus’ self-giving death.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he nonviolently engaged in spiritual battle, routing the “powers of Sin and Death” and repairing creation: forgiving wrongdoing, healing the sick, restoring life, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, receiving the outcast, empowering the oppressed, denouncing the privileged, rebuking bigotry, taming nature, renewing people’s relationship with God, creating community, restoring humanity’s true calling. The destructive Powers fought back through the Roman rulers who crucified Jesus. But astonishingly, the cross turned out to be the decisive blow in the battle against those very forces. Self-giving, nonviolent love defeated violent aggression. Though the key battle has been won on the cross, ensuring ultimate victory, Jesus’ campaign to repair us and the world – with our participation in self-giving love – will continue until all the forces laying waste to humanity are no more (1 Cor. 15:25-26).

Jesus bears the intrinsic consequences of our wrong-doing. Another illustration — part of a series of Isaiah passages (chs. 42-53) about the “Servant of God” — helps us understand how Jesus’ crucifixion, on the surface a catastrophic loss, instead brought about defeat of the destructive powers. Isaiah 53 reads, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” 

Here the “Servant” – in Isaiah it’s not clear who this refers to — is an innocent victim, mistakenly thought to be punished by God, who suffers the full consequences of idolatry and wrongdoing as a substitute or representative on behalf of others. Those consequences, as prophesied by Moses, were destruction by the malevolent powers – spiritual and physical — dominating the world. In Isaiah 53, these Powers launch an all-out barrage of deadly arrows and hurled stones that crash upon God’s Servant (instead of us!), an overwhelming attack of unspeakable violence crushing out his life (instead of ours!). Yet somehow in that punishing assault the deadly powers wear themselves out, so that they have no more strength to condemn and destroy us. The Servant’s sacrifice in our place and on our behalf brings us peace and healing.

According to the New Testament this passage was filled full in the crucifixion of Jesus by Rome and the spiritual powers animating it. Jesus absorbed the full assault of the destructive forces unleashed by human idolatry, so that in union with him we could escape their fury. 

The Apostle Paul draws on this picture when he writes that Jesus “was made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus, as our substitute or representative, bore the consequences of our wrongdoing as a “sin offering” (Rom. 8:3), realizing the hope that Israel’s sacrificial system pointed toward (Heb. 9:11-15). On the cross God “condemned sin” (Rom. 8:3) – not Jesus and not us. Indeed, it was God himself incarnate in Jesus who “so loved the world” that he himself absorbed the enmity of those malignant forces, exhausting their potency. In this way Jesus’ death launched our liberation and that of all creation, ultimately to become what God created us and calls us to be.

Jesus as scapegoatA recent picture focuses on Jesus as the scapegoat. According to this understanding, societies superficially resolve their internal conflicts by turning against innocent victims —projecting on them the people’s own wrongs, rivalries and violence. We see this process at work in many historical and current examples. The punishment of the scapegoat relieves societal tensions and brings a temporary and partial peace until a new sacrifice is needed. Jesus was treated as such a sacrifice. But his death exposed the whole depraved scapegoating enterprise. His resurrection proved his innocence and opened a new way of resolving conflicts. Instead of conforming to the rivalrous, scapegoating behavior in society, followers of Jesus – empowered by the Holy Spirit — can be learning to conform to his sacrificial love shown on the cross. We pursue a way of true peace based on non-rivalry and love of neighbor and enemy.

But why Jesus’ death?

The question that arises for many is, if God wants to forgive human beings and repair our lives, why wouldn’t he just do that? How does Jesus’ death fit in? The answer is that forgiveness costs God, just as forgiving others costs us. Genuine love is costly.

Human beings are “wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), and possess an innate goodness and inalienable dignity, yet we have all done things harmful to other people and ourselves. We are complicit in patterns of injustice. While doing much good, and often acting with great compassion and courage, human beings are enmeshed in a world-wide web of dereliction and wrongdoing that is too serious, too deep and consequential for God to ignore, to simply snap his fingers, as it were, and repair the damage. The evil energies unleashed by human idolatry don’t evaporate on their own. Something profound had to be done if evil was to be defeated and our wrongs absolved, for us and the world to have a new start. In the midst of the world’s corruption, God sees the goodness of his creation (Gen. 1:26-31), loves us, and acts to make things right, but at a cost to himself.

The idea of a sacrificial death for the forgiveness of sins is alien to our culture. But we ourselves sometimes bear the wrongs of others in love – of our children perhaps, who may at times strike out against us. We do well to absorb their anger instead of expressing anger back. Nor is it uncommon for us as a kind of substitute to voluntarily take on ourselves the cost and consequences of the wrongs done to others by those we love. This sin-bearing love requires a kind of death – a voluntary acceptance of pain, a death to self, a self-sacrifice for others. In this way we understand that forgiveness is costly, and we can relate to the idea that in Jesus’ death God takes the cost and consequences of our wrongdoing on himselfin love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

The Good News is that God himself in Jesus bore, absorbed and dissolved the consequences of our idolatry. Jesus’ death means that no matter what terrible things we’ve done, no matter how horrific our wrongdoing, how awful the damage, Jesus’ death was sufficient. Jesus’ cross is the place where we now find peace. Being brought into union with Jesus, we are forgiven, liberated from idols, and our life is renewed. For many of us Jesus’ death as the basis of our forgiveness isn’t a bizarre and incomprehensible doctrine. We feel deeply that Jesus’ death is enough– as nothing else could have been. 

The cross was God’s decisive act inaugurating the repair of creation — a repair that we carry forward by growing in unselfish love, replicating Jesus’ love on the cross. Jesus’ death means that individuals can become whole human beings in union with Christ, loving God and maturing into the character of Christ. It means that communities of Jesus’ followers can become models of true worship and love of others, denouncing idolatry and injustice, and working to heal the world. It means that the world is a place of hope, not a lost cause. In a renewal that has already begun, the Gospel tells us that ultimately our physical bodies will be transformed (1 Cor. 15:35-54), “creation itself will be set free from corruption” (Rom. 8:21), and heaven and earth will be united as one (Eph. 1:10, Rev. 21:1- 22:5).

But is it true? 

When we review these pictures of Jesus’ liberating death, we are faced with the reality that those who profess Christ have not, on the whole, been any more Christ-like than others, and in many cases much less so. Nor do we see a world liberated. Evil still ravages humanity. So why should any credibility be given to the “Good News” message? Did Jesus’ death really make any difference? 

To be sure, Christianity has made revolutionary contributions to history and culture. Though inconsistently applied and often violated, it has helped bequeath the enduring idea of the inviolable dignity of the individual person “in the image of God” and the social mandate to care for the most vulnerable. Yet, it is obvious that Christianity evolved into a badly compromised component of Western culture, often embracing a self-interested political identity. As largely practiced Christianity has not been, as it was originally, a living movement bringing the fresh wind of freedom. Churches as institutions have too often been instruments of oppression rather than beloved communities conveying the liberating work of God. 

Simply believing in Jesus does not make someone a Christian in the biblical meaning of the term, as Jesus himself warned (Matt. 7:21-23). Idols can be the actual object of the heart’s loyalty for those who appear to be worshipping God. Genuine faith in Jesus is demonstrated by lives growing in unselfish love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). 

Yet the liberating Spirit of God still “blows where it will” (John 3:8) re-animating the movement launched by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and bringing wholeness and freedom. Profound spiritual renewals have taken place throughout history, such as the 13thcentury Franciscan monastic movement and the First and Second Great Awakenings in early America — the latter advancing the abolitionist, women’s rights and prison reform movements — among many others in various places and times. Transformation in Christ is real, as experienced by John Newton, former slave-trader and author of the hymn Amazing Grace; Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, Christian prophet and social reform activist; Dorothy Day, one-time communist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement; young men and women in the “Jesus movement” of the 1970s; and numerous others who have placed their faith in God through Jesus.

In our time the world-healing Spirit of Christ has been at work, among many other ways, in the Black Church-led U.S. civil rights movement, in the sacrificial work for human rights by Catholic priests and nuns during the horrific military dictatorships in Latin America, in the compassionate care for the poorest of the poor by Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity, and in the activists of faith who are being arrested and put on trial for giving food and water to desperate immigrants in the deserts of southwestern U.S.

Growing – albeit in fits and starts — in the character of Christ’s unselfish love and participating – however inadequately — in God’s mission to repair the world is available for all those who genuinely seek to follow Jesus. To be sure, liberation is not yet complete in us or the world. Followers of Jesus – with incomprehensible peace and inexplicable joy — struggle, sin and suffer along with all people in a world of hurt, anticipating and hastening the day when all things are made new in Christ (Eph. 1:10; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Rev. 21:1 – 22:5).

God’s love

The biblical pictures taken together deliver a profound message of God bearing, absorbing and dissolving the consequences of humanity’s idolatry and wrongdoing in himself in Jesus’ death. They reveal the incredible wonder of the selfless love of the Creator for his creation, and the lengths that God has gone to unite us to himself and to repair the world. This is the Gospel — the Good News of God’s immeasurable, unconditional, sin-bearing, violence-ending, liberating, world-repairing, creation-healing, unstoppable love. That love is all we really know, and all we need to know.

Martin Shupack

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