Here’s the thing about history: History is not about events that happened; it is people’s stories about events that happened. The only way we know anything is through narrative; we make sense of our world through metaphors. All of our observations of the world around us first pass through the filters of our narratives before we can order and process them. The world is simply too overwhelmingly chaotic otherwise. We need to know which of the millions of events we witness daily need to be foregrounded and which we can ignore. We need a sensory triage system to tell us what to focus on and why. And we do that by giving meaning to the events that we experience. This meaning is generated through the various narrative frameworks that we learn and develop. Those narrative frameworks might be social and cultural narratives, they might be religious narratives, they might be narratives developed through personal experience. And these narratives do not operate in isolation: our personal narratives birthed in our individual experiences uniquely nuance the way we experience and express our socio-cultural narratives, so that every person’s worldview is unique, even though they may share many common meta-narratives. The bottom line is this: we do not know events; we know stories about events.
When it comes to the cross, then, and developing a Christian theology, we need to start by acknowledging that the only thing that we can all pretty much agree on is that Jesus was crucified. Everything else is narrative. To complicate matters, these narratives through which we make sense of the cross are hugely complex and often contradictory.
To give you just a brief taste of this, consider this: we know the cross of Jesus only through the gospel writers, who each try to make sense of it through their own particular meta-narratives, and their retelling of their cross narratives – made retrospectively, after they have had many years to reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus and interpret that event – are themselves framed by particular understandings of how to recount historical narratives that are largely foreign to the modern reader. In other words, they tell stories in ways that are different from the ways we tell stories, ways that we don’t get. Layered on to that is two thousand years’ worth of shifting interpretations of the cross that have – over time – splintered Christianity into numerous denominations. All of this is further compounded by a modern tendency towards a Platonic dualistic mindset, which refuses to let us blend, for example, fiction and non-fiction, and then – added to that – an Enlightenment paradigm that defines truth very narrowly as that which can be empirically proven; a belief that through the power of the rational human mind and the scientific process all things in the universe are knowable. And if that wasn’t enough, it is all clothed in a Modernist insistence that the world be understood in personal and individual terms. In other words, when we look at the cross, we – without necessarily knowing it – apply a whole range of filters to our interpretations of it.
But the fact of the matter is that all we really know is that Jesus was crucified. Everything else we believe about that event is interpretation. There is nothing wrong with that – it is natural and inevitable. But it matters. And acknowledging it matters. So long as we steadfastly refuse to see that when we read the gospels we are engaging in interpretive acts, reading ourselves into the narratives about events and thus projecting meaning onto them, we risk making ourselves and (consequently) our mimetic natures (and all that goes with that) the final arbiters of truth. The stories we tell ourselves about historical events matter because they determine how we respond to them; our beliefs shape our ethics. Our ethics, then, are the lived expressions of our faith. Note that faith is not the same as belief. Belief is an intellectual activity; faith is trust. So while I do not for a moment think that whatever it is we believe happened at the cross constitutes faith, I do think that it provides the basis for faith. The cross provides a reason for trusting God
So let’s look at the cross. At Calvary, Jesus is tortured, mocked and murdered. If we are going to use it as a basis for faith (i.e. trust) in God, then it is very helpful to know where God is in the whole affair.
There are several options. Option 1: Penal Substitution theories would place God alongside the murderers of Jesus. In this view, God essentially uses the persecutors of Jesus as tools through which to vent His wrath against our sin. The innocent Jesus receives God’s punishment for our sins, and God’s wrath is satisfied. This view, because it must assume that the event happened by divine design, must side God with those baying for Jesus’ blood. God may well hate the process, but is nevertheless compelled to side against Jesus, which makes God complicit in the murder.
Option 2: God is silent. It is hard to argue against this, actually. Nowhere in the gospel accounts do we receive any indication that God intervenes in this scene. Aside from Jesus’s cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, which is an obvious allusion to Psalm 22 and can be easily explained in ways that do not suggest that God actually abandoned Jesus, there is no mention of God’s participation in this scene at all. It could be because God does not exist; it could be because God is indifferent; it could be because God elects silence even though God is on Jesus’ side. Each possibility has its own faith-ramifications.
Option 3 is the radical option: God is not outside of the event after all, neither participating vicariously nor spectating. God is right in the thick of the event, participating visibly – as the victim. Christians have always held that Jesus is God. And that means that God is at the cross. We just don’t see God because God is not in the sort of places where one expects to see a God. Instead, God is being mocked, tortured and murdered. The notion is so antithetical to all of our stories about gods that we are blind to the possibility. Gods don’t die – certainly not by mortal hands. Gods do not forgive transgressions against them – they demand justice. Gods are powerful. Gods are kings. Gods vindicate the righteous and smite the wicked. And surely our God is the biggest and mightiest smiter of them all? The very idea that God would die as a sinner at the hands of the wicked is an outrage. But that is the skandalon that the early church believed in.
All of these scenarios have ramifications for trusting God. The question I would pose is this: which of these makes God seem most trustworthy to you? Which God inspires faith? Would you trust a God who would sanction the murder of an innocent man, even if it is for the common good? Would you trust a God who didn’t exist? Is there anything trustworthy about a God who remains silent in the face of injustice?
But then maybe God wasn’t silent after all; Hen was just speaking in a way that we didn’t know how to hear. We just don’t speak the language of nonviolence very well. But perhaps God was in the midst of the ugliness, challenging evil while refusing to play by its rules, resisting the easy path of making Godself heard through force. Instead, in a supreme act of self-giving love, God, incarnated in Jesus, opened the possibility to another way of thinking and being entirely: maybe reconciliation doesn’t require blood after all.
Reblogged this on MJThompson's Theology Blog and commented:
Occasionally a post is so good, it bears re-blogging without any edit. Some Reflections on the Cross is worthy of such distinction. Contemplate these insights prayerfully.
Excellent insights! Thanks Peter.
I cannot agree that all we know is Christ died. We, also, know that He rose from the dead. The objective evidence for that is overwhelming. It is not mere “narrative”.
What proof do you have of the Jesus figure rising again? to disprove the narrative with fact?
Anna, I would dearly love that to be true but it is not. If. It were, all scholars would believe it but they do not. I do believe in the resurrection and that the evidence for it is compelling but it is circumstantial evidence and far from overwhelming.
Although I don’t usually agree with most of what you.say, i always love the beautiful way in which you write, and the thought and time that has obviously gone into every post. This one is no exception.
I comfess that in this post, I was fascinated to think that you would consider options 1,2 and 3 to be different! We Christians believe that there were elements of each of these three options in the crucifixion of the Lord. You rightly pointed out that Christians believe Jesus to be God – since he himself affirmed this. And as such, God did indeed (option 1) vent his wrath, and place the punishment for sin upon Jesus Christ. But let us not forget Jesus’s words in John’s gospel that “Noone takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord”. And yes God was “silent”. No voice from heaven this time. No legions of angels. For the Son of Man had to suffer and die amd be raised as scripture had foretold. Do you think for a moment that the God who made the universe could not have prevented it? Of course he could have! But God planned this aeons ago. We are actually told that Jesus Christ was the Lamb slain before the creation of the world! . And yet…and yet, the marvel is that option 3 is also true!!! Ah the glorious inescapable truth of the gospel core is indeed contained in this, your option 3! Thankyou for mentioning this! You are right that we Christians do indeed believe what Christ himself said: he and the Father are one. And this, Peter, this is the power of the Gospel! For indeed God was there, in the agony of the cross. Not just the human agony, but the Spiritual agony. As God punished the Lord Jesus for our sin, we never forget that he actually, heHimself, took the punishment. You have really hit the nail on the head. Options 1, 2 and 3 are all part of what Christians believe to be the central event of the history of the universe.
And of course let us not be distracted by thinking that Christianity is primarily about interpretations and cultural overlays and all the other frantically intellectual dissections that can be made and studied and written in heavy journals. Let us never forget that the power of the cross is seen today. The Christian who knows he or she is forgiven, by such an outrageous act of love, is the Christian who is so moved by the grace that he received, that he longs for nothing more than to serve this God of love for all his or her days. No human is able to live the life of self sacrificial love for others; of forgiving and loving and praying for one’s enemies; of spending oneself over and over for the poor, the lost, the hurting, the outcast, the frankly unlovable; of giving and encouraging and coming alongside; of having God’s heart of costly practical love for all people, unless he is empowered so to do. And this, THIS, is the reason that Christianity is so very different to any other philosophy or religion. Because the very human person “teache” that it worships, Jesus, claimed to be God, and was God; God who comes to live within each and every person who believes this, empowering them to live in a radically countercultural way. The Holy Spirit is the One who convicts and transforms and nourishes and gradually moulds us into the likeness of the person of Jesus Christ. And over time, the most incredible thing happens! We begin to truly delight in pleasing God! The things that he loves, become the things that we love: justice, righteousness, service – costly self sacrificial service. It is an astonishing and impossibly wonderful journey. Noone can truly imagine what it is like, to walk with the freedom and joy that the God-empowered life brings, unless they are on that journey themselves. There is nothing that can compare!! Of course the Christian is not fully free from his war with sin, even though he has the Spirit. That will not happen until he or she dies. But he/she loathes her sin and longs to be rid of it completely and as she is increasing conformed to the image of Christ, by the Holy Spirit’s work in her, she is ncreasingly aware of and grieved by her sin. And increasingly committed to obedience and the desire to please God rather than feed the insatiable appetite of the human for the praise and approval of mankind.
Thankyou.for your posts.
Dear friend, I thank you most sincerely for the kind words. You are generous in your criticism. And there is certainly no need to apologise for any typos. They happen when one writes from a place of passion.
I think we are starting from the same base: the conviction that Jesus is the incarnation of God and that if you see Jesus, as he claims, you see the Father. I think where we differ is on what it is we see of God when we see Jesus. I completely agree that it is possible to get so caught up in interpretations and cultural overlays and intellectual discussions that one misses the power of the cross. But I also think that it is foolish to ignore the existence of those things. I think the modern Christian has largely rendered those things irrelevant, and this has a direct (and negative) impact on theology (and therefore – more importantly – on how we relate). Briefly, when we deny that what we see when we look at the cross has been filtered through various cultural paradigms and inherited ideological filters, we make ourselves arbiters of truth. In other words, by denying that we are doing any interpretive work when we see the cross we invest our own interpretations with the status of the absolute truth. It is only when we can recognise our own interpretations for what they are (ie fallible interpretations and not absolute truths) and begin to engage in actively attempting to understand what has informed them, that we can start to see through them to what the cross is ‘saying’. To ignore the impact that our own cultural and linguistic and ideological filters have on how we make sense of the cross is essentially to say that what we think God intended at Calvary is more important than discovering what God may have actually intended, because it is to refuse to see any difference between the two. To refuse to engage with the two thousand year church history of scholars wrestling with what the cross meant is similarly arrogant – all it does is affirm that my own interpretation must of necessity contain more truth than any who have gone before me. It is a refusal to listen and learn. I do not believe that cultural studies and academic studies muddy the theological waters at all; they clarify them.
I think where we differ is on our definition of sin. We both would agree, I think, that at the cross God deals with the issue of sin. But I don’t think we agree on what the nature of sin is. The reason that the three options I propose are, I believe, fundamentally different, is that they frame the problem of sin differently. I do not believe that sin is a crime and punishment problem; it is a brokenness and healing problem. The metaphors that Jesus used when talking about sinners were medical metaphors (it is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick). One does not punish sickness out of a patient. A study of early church atonement theory would clarify this point: Clement of Alexandria (who is most likely the one who took over leadership in the church in Jerusalem after Peter and James) held that sin was involuntary and irrational ie not a conscious moral choice, and more like a disease. For the first 1000 years of church history there is not even a hint of a belief that God was punishing Jesus in our place on the cross. If sin is a disease, then options 1 and 2 are unhelpful in trying to make sense of what is happening. But if sin is a disease – and a social disease – then option 3 is illuminating. As it does for you, the cross awakens in me a profound awe for God, a deeper awareness of the way that sin separates me from the abundance of life that God would give, and it draws me to God as a moth to a flame. Because at the cross I see that God – indeed, the whole trajectory of Creation – is non-violent, non-retaliatory, peace-making, self-giving, loving. and I long to establish that Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This is, as you say, a completely different God from all the gods and ideologies the world would have me worship. And the key difference is that this one is no tyrant, demanding reconciliation through blood. This God does not threaten me or coerce me or into obedience. Instead, in Jesus I see a God who understands that a broken world will not be mended through violence; only love – radical, forgiving, self-giving love – has the power to bring healing and reconciliation.
For me, options 1 and 3 are not compatible. God cannot both employ violence to achieve justice and renounce its legitimacy to that end. God cannot be simultaneously violent and non-violent. For me, option 1 makes God a murderer and a tyrant. But Option 3, ah – that is different. Like you, when I look at the suffering Jesus I see the face of God, and I cannot look away. At the cross I am judged (or compelled to judge myself), confronted with my complicity in the brokenness that is the world, and inspired to a better way of being in the world. And so, like you, I find a freedom in the revelation of the cross that I cannot but write about. I cannot help sharing the beautiful face of God I see in Jesus, amidst the ugliness of the cross. And I know, friend, that you have seen that beauty too, and I thank you for sharing that with me – even late at night. Shalom
I wrote the above and sincerely apologise for the typos late at night. Hope you can decipher it!