The Scandal of the Cross - Conclusions and Implications

A death on a cross is a scandalous, horrific, and shameful thing, something detailed all too well by Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. That Jesus died on a cross, and for the Christian, that it was necessary is not a matter of debate, in question is why? (See recent previous posts for more on this.)
Not too long ago it was popular to where bracelets with the letters WWJD. (What Would Jesus Do) The faddish nature of this gradually became appalling, but the initial idea was a fine one, if not a terribly distressing one. (What might the actual implications be?)

The answer to the question, What Would Jesus Do, is given to us in four different gospel narratives, making the answer at times all too apparent. In the end, Jesus died! God died! And before this? He was a poor man, with no place to lay his head. A lowly servant who taught his disciples that the first will be last and the last first, that they must pick up their cross and follow him, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, and our enemies, yah, we have to love them to.

The common narrative (penal substitution) on the death of Jesus describes Christ’s death as balancing a cosmic account book. One in which all the sins of all of humanity are blotted out by the death of Christ. We then have only to receive this free gift to obtain eternal salvation. There is nothing in this narrative that I think needs to change, rather it is what is not in this narrative that is so terribly disconcerting. The last few posts have detailed a matrix of metaphors by which the cross has been and is being communicated. For most Christians in most places, these metaphors have been refined and simplified down to one controlling view point. “Jesus died to… (fill in the blank)”

In contrast, I believe that Christians would do well to first reengage the cross of Christ devotionally, spiritually, and meditatively. And second, reengage it theologically, examining the variety of historical and contemporary ways the cross has and is being understood. The past few posts have given us a starting point for doing that but are hardly sufficient. None of this theological re-examination needs to undermine orthodoxy or even Evangelical orthodoxy. (Though feel free to question even these assumptions if your so inclined. I believe your faith will be stronger for it.) Rather, a fuller understanding, will, I believe, drive us to radically alter the way we behave.

Previous Posts in this Series

The Scandal of the Cross (5)

In the previous posts we have looked at both the major Biblical metaphors that are used to describe the cross of Christ and the major Theological metaphors. We have also looked at the nature and concept of metaphor.

Biblical Metaphors

Theological Metaphors
Christus Victor Model
Satisfaction Model
Moral Influence Model
Penal Substitution Model

(To be sure there are probably more than just these eight.)

The point of all of this is to illustrate the multiple ways that both the biblical authors and the Church have grappled with the death of Christ. And to press us to likewise grapple with what it means for our God to die on a cross.

I don’t want to get into the myriad ways these metaphors work together and implore us to become more like Christ. That is for you to explore. For now, all I want to say is that I think that these metaphors are best understood as complimentary and incomplete. In many respects, what God did on the cross, and in the cosmos at the same time, is beyond understanding… but not completely, and not to the point of being unintelligible. We have metaphors that make sense. We need to be aware of them and then use them, all of them. (Maybe some more than others, but all none-the-less.) And they need to influence how we behave, as all good theology does.


The Scandal of the Cross (4)

The meager paragraphs that follow are hardly sufficient to address the issues at hand. This is more of a “for your information” kind of a post, listing what is out there, and giving us a starting point from which to dialog. Most of you can feel free to read this, say “Oh that’s nice” and move on. It is, however, what I have been musing on lately and so it goes on this blog. If you have the time or inclination, I would love to discuss just how terribly important all of this is, but I doubt that you do. I certainly don’t seem to, as is evident by the frequencies of the posts here lately.

In the last post on the scandal of the cross, we looked at the variety of biblical words and images used to describe what Christ did on the cross. In this post I want to look at the variety of theological motifs available to the church. These motifs have been developed to answer some basic questions.

Why did Christ have to die?

Why did he have to die on a cross?

How does Christ death on a cross save us?

What happened on the cross, spiritually and theologically?

God forgave sins before Christ died. Why then was Christ death necessary? Why doesn’t an all powerful God simply forgive people, without any of this death nonsense?

For the Christian, that the cross saves is not in doubt. But questions about how and why, may still remain, particularly if one chooses to question the Sunday School answers she was given as a child. The answers that follow are theological in nature, not apologetic. Meaning that they are meant to help Christians understand the nuances of what they believe, not convince unbelievers of the truths contained within. What follows is foundational, and academic. It might seem dry, but these are the historical building blocks from which pastors, missionaries and others work. This post gives you access to a few short descriptions, so that we can work from the same sheet of music.

Below I am only going to give you some titles and short descriptions of different perspectives. Its up to you to look into these in-depth if you are so inclined.

Cristus Victor as Recapitulation.
Iraneaus (130 - 202) was one of the first to put forward a theological understanding of the death of Christ. From his perspective, Jesus conquers the devil on the cross, largely by tricking him. As a prize he wins back the rights to humanity. The devil thinks he is defeating Christ by killing him, but in actuality, because the devil does not know the rules, he is sealing his own fate.

Christus Victor as Ransom
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) taught that Jesus offered himself as ransom for humanity. He gave himself up to the devil, but the goodness of Christ was too much, and the devil lost his grasp, losing his prize as well as his prisoners.

According to both of these perspectives Christ conquers the Devil.

Satisfaction Model.
Created by Anselm (1033-1109) during the middle ages, this model relied heavily on Medieval imagery. Anselm rejected any notion of the devil being owed anything. Rather, Christ offers himself as satisfaction to God for the debt that sinful humanity owed to God.

This model is very similar to penal substitution models that developed later, but due to the different settings they developed in, are in fact, very different. The satisfaction model draws on the obligations that people in various positions owed to each other during the middle ages. For instance, surfs had obligations to the Lord of the manner, and he in turn had obligations both to his surfs to provide protection, and to a king above him, providing the required payments of various goods. Likewise, Jesus satisfies the debt we owe to God, by dying on the cross.

In contrast, the penal substitution model, draws on a system of courts and justice, different than a system of debt and obligation common in the middle ages.

Moral Influence Model
Abelard (1049-1142) was the first to bring this perspective to bear. He first rejects all other notions as described above. He then simply states that it was Christ love for humanity that brought him to earth. Offering us an example of how we ought to live. That he was killed was simply an outgrowth of this, and in his death also he showed us how to behave. In his life and death Jesus drew humankind unto himself by his selfless example, causing us to repent and love God.

Penal Substitution Model
Charles Hodge (1797 - 1878) was one of the first proponents of this model, the most common perspective taught today. It is basically very simple. God would like to live with us all happily ever after, but because of our sins, and because he is holy and just, he cannot. As a solution, God sends his son to earth to suffer the punishment we deserve. Because Jesus paid our penalty, God can now regard us as holy, and commune with us. Many of us have heard the story of the judge that pronounces one guilty of all their sins, but then says, “if you accept the payment that my son has offered” he will bear your guilt and you may go free.

The main difference between this model and the Satisfaction model is that in the latter, Jesus pays a debt we owe, but in the former, Jesus steps in to take the punishment we deserve.

In the coming final post on this topic, we will look at the implications for these models and the one’s found in the Bible detailed in the earlier post.