Weekly Edgework #10 - Sept 7, 2004

Down at the Cross

What in the world was Jesus doing when he hung on the cross two millennia ago? The amount of blood he spilled that day doesn’t come close to the amount of ink that has been spilled in the 2000 years following trying to make sense of that event. Indeed, much of the New Testament revolves around that question. And contrary to those who want everything simplified, logical and literally true to the exclusion of all other ideas, New Testament writers posit a variety of ways to explain what Christ was doing on the cross.

My Sunday School teachers in my early years did their best to convey the meaning of the cross to me while remaining faithful to the biblical text. I was told that God the Father was angry at me for having disobeyed the rules he had made, but Jesus wasn’t. In fact Jesus loved me so much that he was willing to take the licking I deserved so I could go free without being punished. But that worked only for those who had heard about Jesus and invited him to come live in their hearts. It seemed so unfair to me that many little boys like me in China would never hear about this so they would have to spend eternity in hell with the Devil.

On other occasions I was also told that the Devil had taken me and everyone else hostage and demanded God’s son as a ransom to let us all go. So God the Father sent Jesus to earth to let the Devil kill him and take him to the pit of hell. But God tricked the Devil by resurrecting Jesus from the dead after three days, thus snatching him from the Devil’s claws and bringing him back to heaven. The trick worked because during those three days, while the Devil was delighting in the ransom he had won, we all got away! That is, if we believed every word of this story. Those who didn’t hear about this trick or those who heard it but didn’t believe it, didn’t really get away from the Devil after all.

In between these stories I memorized snippets of verses like “God is Love,” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature.” Such verses seemed to contradict what I had been told earlier that God was angry and intent on destroying me. So if God loved me, why would he even want to beat me up and throw me into a lake of fire? The whole drama involving God the Father, Jesus his son, the Devil and me was shrouded in mystery, wonder and some unresolved contradictions.

Now that I am older and have spent a life-time studying about what happened down at the cross, I still doubt that I have it all figured out. I have discovered that there are many “theories” about what happened at the cross that Christians have championed throughout the Christian era. And each has its basis somewhere in the New Testament. The oldest theory is probably the one held to by Ireneaus, known as the “Christus Victor” theory. He said that at its core the meaning of the cross is that it was there that Christ defeated all the cosmic forces of evil, including the Devil. In the eleventh century Anselm formulated the “Substitutionary-Satisfaction” theory as foundational to the cross event – that is the one in which Christ takes the licking I deserve, his Father’s wrath is appeased, and I go free. In the twelfth century Abelard proposed the “Moral Influence” theory which holds that the basic problem is not disobedience needing to be punished but a broken relationship which Jesus came to heal.

For most of my life, if I wanted to be safe in the circles within which I moved, I had to agree to Anselm’s “Substitutionary-Satisfaction” theory. God is Wrath and he will get his pound of flesh! That included turning his face away from Jesus hanging on the cross because he couldn’t stand the sight of his own son with the sin of the world on his shoulders. He had to abandon Jesus, at least for a while, in order for his wrath to be appeased. Didn’t Jesus speak the truth when he cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Apparently Anselm and many of my teachers believed that he did.

I don’t. Not any more. The reason I can say that with confidence is the fact that shortly after uttering this cry of despair taken from Psalm 22, Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” How would it be possible to commit one’s spirit to someone who had turned away? That means that the Father was still attentive to his suffering son. Just like he was to David when he first expressed his sense of abandonment in the midst of his suffering. And just like he is to me when I feel abandoned in the context of my distress.

Today I understand more clearly that the barrier between God and myself – the dividing wall of hostilities – is not rooted in the heart of God. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:17). The barrier is a broken relationship because of sin. Whatever it was that happened down at the cross did not emanate from the heart of a wrathful God out for vengeance. It came from the heart of a God of love bending all his resources toward reconciling us all with himself. It was not a trinitarian God temporarily estranged within itself. It was a triune God working together to reconcile all things everywhere.

My personal experience of coming to Christ seems to support this view. After many years of being tortured with the threat of God’s anger at my wickedness and the fear of ending up in hell, tortured for eternity, I finally knelt in submission to Christ. As I did I sensed a relational barrier come tumbling down between God and myself. And my first impression of God, once the barrier was down, was that he was smiling down on me. To my surprise there was no cudgel in his hands. His hands were stretched out toward me and I experienced repeated waves of love and acceptance such as I had never known before. Had he quickly hidden his big stick? I don’t think so. I now believe his hands were already extended in my direction even before the barrier came down.

The question I still ask is whether it might not have been possible to meet the God of love without being tortured by the threat of eternal damnation for most of my youth. I think if my early mentors had had a better understanding of what happened “down at the cross,” it would have been possible. I could have been spared the emotional and spiritual trauma I suffered for many years as a growing child. I am not so naive as to think that sin and evil do not exist or are of no consequence. But I am naïve enough at this point to believe the truth of the verse I memorized in my early experience at Sunday School, namely: “God is Love!” I only wish it hadn’t taken so long for me to experience the truth of it all.