The Meaning of the Cross

The atonement is shaping up to be a significant issue amongst evangelicals in the next round of Us against Us. Following is an extended quote from N.T. Wright. It is taken from The Meaning of Jesus which he co-authored with Marcus Borg.  

[The] central emphasis on the unique achievement of Jesus’ death as the sin-forgiving, once-for-all liberating act of Israel’s God remained at the center of early Christian thought, sustaining but not being replaced by the belief, which became so beloved of theologians and pastors in later years, that the sin of individual sinners had been dealt with on the cross. What is the relevance of Jesus’ death, seen in this way, to the church, the world, and the individual Christian today?

Traditionally this question has been answered in terms of the remission of sin and guilt, whereby the individual sinner finds peace for a troubled conscience, in the present, and the assurance of ultimate forgiveness from God, in life after death. This answer is, I believe, perfectly true and valid, biblically rooted and pastorally as vital as ever it was. It does not, however, tell the whole story that the New Testament tells about the meaning of Jesus’ death. To explore that fuller story in no way detracts from this individual application but rather sets it in its proper context.

The larger story concerns the victory over evil as a whole that was won, according to the New Testament, on the cross. (It is interesting to observe how in the “traditional” readings this central biblical theme is regularly screened out, though making an occasional comeback in such works as the celebrated Christus Victor of Gustaf Aulen.) It quickly becomes clear, of course, why this theme is regularly ignored: there is an obvious credibility gap between such a claim and the realities of the world. The now-traditional scheme avoids this problem by projecting the victory on the one hand inward, into the heart and conscience of the believer, and on the other hand forward, into the state of affairs after death or at the end of the world, except in that the forgiven sinner will now live in a different manner, out of gratitude for forgiveness and in the power of the Spirit working in his or her life. This, of course, is not to be sneezed at: forgiveness is one of the most powerful things in the world, and when God’s forgiveness is then passed on by the grateful recipient, all sorts of new situations can be created, all sorts of new possibilities of healing can open up.

But the New Testament, not least Paul and the book of Revelation, regularly point beyond this to a larger and stranger victory that is to be worked out in the world, a victory beyond what can be measured in terms of the effect of forgiven Christians making their own personal impact. Somehow, the suffering of Christians in the present, as they share Christ’s sufferings and groan in awaiting their final redemption, is to become the means by which the Spirit of God prays from within the heart of a world in pain, in order that the world itself might be redeemed. Somehow, the witness of the martyrs, as they live their lives and die their deaths in obedience to the gospel of Jesus, puts into effect the victory of the cross above and beyond the immediate impact that their witness may have on the actual observers. Somehow, “through the church” (particularly, it seems, through the fact that Jews and Gentiles are brought together into one body by the cross) “The many-splendored wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Somehow, “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” These things -suffering, prayer, martyrdom, church unity, the eucharist-all derive their meaning from the death of Jesus, and all make that death effective in strange ways in the world around, beyond and what may be calculated in terms of individual humans coming to faith.

In particular, the cross, seen in the way I have outlined it, opens up the possibility of a more deeply rooted political and liberation theology that is normally offered. It is not enough to analyze the causes of oppression and suffering in the world and to encourage people to stand up to them. Darker powers, unseen forces, are involved in these struggles, as Walter Wink and others have eloquently argued; and only the believ that the principalities and powers have in fact been led as a bedraggled and defeated rabble in Christ’s triumphant procession will provide the right foundation for a true Christian political activity. Without being rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, such activity all to quickly becomes a “religious” version of one or another contemporary ideology.

Granted all this, the cross of Jesus, seen as the place where, because of the election of Israel and the messiahship of Jesus, the pain and guilt of the world were concentrated once for all, becomes rightly the focus of much Christian spirituality and devotion. Meditation on Jesus’ suffering and death becomes a vital and central way of celebrateing and gaining access to the free, forgiving, healing love of the creator God.

Many will object, of course, that it is morbid to focus on someone’s sufferings; that such meditation encourages passivity in the face of evil; or that the cross has become yet another weapon in the armory of those who use the religion of others as a means of gaining or maintaining political control over them. All these can be true. Yet the death of Jesus still draws children, women, and men to the love of the one true God and, holding them in that love, sustains them not only in their personal living but also in their own wrestling with the powers of evil, giving them courage, like Janani Luwum, to stand up to
the Caiaphases and Pilates of this world and to take the consequences. The cross of Jesus is thus the Christian symbol par excellence, forming the focal point of Christian spirituality, Christian praying, Christian believing, and Christian action. And the manifold ways in which it is and does all this can trace their roots legitimately to the mind and intention, to the action and passion, of Jesus himself.

What, at the end of the day, is his view? More to follow.

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