On the Mystery of the Cross

As we come to contemplate the Mystery of the Cross, it may be tempting to simplify this mystery and boil its complex, multiple layers of significance and meaning into a single, plain, black-and-white understanding of atonement. Yet, the God who is so complex and mysterious and beyond our simple comprehension simply does not work like that. In one way, the Cross does mean one simple thing: that Christ died for our sins – something that Scripture holds clear and that we can all agree on. How is another matter.

One way of looking at it which is widely believed by some as the only way of considering the Cross is the concept of Penal Substitution (don’t snigger at the back) – the idea that God is angered by our sins, so angered at our so many sins that the only way it could be sorted (or atoned) would be by Christ, God’s only son taking on for us (ie substituting for us) the punishment that we should receive (that’s the penal bit), and that the key act of salvation was therefore Christ’s death on the Cross.

There are a number of lines of Scripture which suggest this:

  • Isaiah 53:6 – “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
  • Isaiah 53:12 – “yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
  • Romans 3:25 – “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
  • Galatians 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
  • Hebrews 10:1-4 – “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

However, this can be seen as a selective collection of passing comments related to a number of different contexts, which do not build into a coherent doctrine. Our understanding of what Christ actually did for us on the Cross is much more complex than a simple commercial transaction.

The Church of England’s Doctrine Commission published The Mystery of Salvation in 1995. It restates the view of the 1938 Commission that “the notion of propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian” (p. 213). It also observes that “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission.” Instead, it recommends that the Cross should be presented “as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God” (p. 113).

Steve Chalke, a high-profile Baptist minister has described the idea of penal substitution as  “cosmic child abuse”, for which he has received much criticism from those who use penal substitution as a test of biblical orthodoxy. However, St Paul used a number of different metaphors to describe the meaning of the cross, and clearly continued to develop his theology as he continued to be led by the Holy Spirit. We forget at our peril that Scripture was (and continues to be) a work in progress.

Fr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, broadcast a Lent Talk a few years ago:

“What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we’d say they were a monster.

It just doesn’t make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate. As he said, ‘Whoever sees me has seen the Father’. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God’s nature. And the most basic truth about God’s nature is that He is Love, not wrath and punishment.

Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love showed a God who didn’t need placating. As she was “drenched in the love of God”, she realised that the wrath of God is no more than a human projection, and that for God to be God, he can’t be less merciful and loving than the best of human beings. As Julian wrote,

“wrath and friendship are two contraries… For I saw that there is no manner of wrath in God, neither for short time nor for long;-for in sooth, if God be wroth for an instant, we should never have life nor place nor being.”

The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it’s almost the opposite. It’s about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.”

We can be so fixated on our picture of the punishing God of power we imagine up in heaven, we can’t grasp he’s really down here, bleeding and dying at our side.

The most powerful illustration of this comes not from a Christian writer but a Jew, Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner, who described his experience of Auschwitz in a famous book called Night. In the face of so much horror and evil many lost their faith; yet for a few it became, paradoxically, a new realisation of God’s closeness to them. In one harrowing passage Wiesel tells how a young boy was punished by the guards for stealing food. He was hanged on piano wire, while all the other prisoners were forced to watch:

“For more than half an hour the boy stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony before our eyes. We were all forced to pass in front of him, but not allowed to look down or avert our eyes, on pain of being hanged ourselves. When I passed in front of him, the child’s tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me a man muttered, ‘Where is your God now’? And I heard a voice within me answer him, ‘Where is he? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows’.”

This above all is the meaning of the Cross: that God is one with us in our sufferings, and not just 2000 years ago but through all time. The Cross should not therefore be seen as punishment, but as a victory, a coming together of God and humankind, an act of God’s love and not his punishment of a scapegoat. It is an overcoming of death: the resurrection is therefore much, much more important than the cross.

On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship. God shows he knows what it’s like to be the loser; God hurts and weeps and bleeds and dies. It’s a mystery we can hardly glimpse, let alone grasp; and if there is an answer to the problem of suffering, perhaps it’s one for the heart, not the reason. Because the answer God’s given is simply himself; to show that, so far from inflicting suffering as a punishment, he bears our griefs and shares our sorrow. From Good Friday on, God is no longer “God up there”, inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions. On the Cross, even more than in the crib, he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us.”