It is hard to imagine a symbol more central to Christianity than the cross. At the same time, it is also hard to imagine a symbol that creates more questions and even confusion than the cross does.
Some people wonder why Jesus had to die?
Couldn’t God have forgiven our sins without the crucifixion?
What does Jesus’ death on the cross say about God?
What does it say about us?
In a sermon on this topic, Brian talked about a familiar explanation of why Jesus died on the cross along with what many people found to be a new understanding of the crucifixion. You can watch the sermon below.
While most Christians understand that Jesus died for our sins in order to pay a debt we could never repay, there are multiple ways to view the crucifixion and why it happened. The purpose of this Starting Point lesson is to introduce you to some lesser known ideas about the meaning of the cross.
DISCLAIMER: Conversations and debates about the crucifixion have been taking place since the days immediately following the events of that first Holy Week. There are countless books written on the topic by the greatest thinkers of every age. The views presented here are not meant to convince you which idea is right, but to invite you into a conversation that is much broader than most people realize.
Okay, so let’s get started with a video that is sure to get you thinking and will likely push a few buttons, but hang with it until the end as it addresses several issues with which many Christians struggle. The presenter, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church, ELCA.
This video comes from a church owned curriculum called Animate: Faith. We've posted the video for your use only within this study. If you would like to borrow the original DVD for small group study, contact the church office.
So, right off the bat she challenges two of the most common understandings about the crucifixion:
1. That Jesus died because God was angry at human sin and
needed a sacrifice to appease that anger.
2. That our sins created such a huge debt that in order for us to
have relationship with God, that debt must be paid –
something only Christ can do.
Both of those ideas come from the same understanding that theologians often refer to as Substitutionary Atonement.
This idea was first developed by a man named Anselm in his book Cur Deus Homo?, (Why the God Man?). Written at the very end of the 11th century, the book argues what many of us have been taught all of our lives – that Jesus died for our sins.
Regardless of opinion about the truth of the argument, Anselm’s book is one of the most important writings in Christian history. It is dense, but well worth the read.
In his sermon, Brian talked about a view many people hold in tension with Anselm. It is the idea that God sent Jesus not in order to change God's mind about us, but to change our minds about God. Richard Rohr writes a great summary of that theory. You can read it here.
Some scriptures used to defend Substitutionary Atonement include the following:
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. Romans 5:8-9
While Substitutionary Atonement has become what many consider to be Christian Orthodoxy (basic belief), it is interesting to note that of the major theological understandings of the crucifixion, there were at least two other theories that dominated Christian thinking for approximately the first 1,000 years of our faith.
The earliest theory regarding the purpose of the cross goes all the way back to a man named Origen (later joined by Gregory of Nyssa) who proposed around the year 190 AD that Jesus died as a way to defeat the evil of the world, namely Satan. Often called, The Ransom or Christus Victor (Victorious Christ) model, this theory argues that the crucifixion served as a kind of bait and switch which allowed Satan to believe that God had died on the cross, leaving Satan the winner. As soon as the devil took the bait, God’s victory was assured through the resurrection.
Scriptures used to argue this theory include:
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:45
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
Not long after the development of the Ransom/Christus Victor theology a man named Iranaeus argued that the Cross was a Means of Transformation for the world. He basically said that through Jesus’ death, a door was opened that allowed for humans to be in closer relationship with God. In essence, that door lets us escape the corruption of this world and allows us to become more holy and pure.
A scripture found at the heart of this understanding is 2 Peter 1:4, which says:
Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
The last of the four views we will look at is sometimes called the Moral Influence Model of Redemption. Introduced by Peter Abelard about the same time of Anselm’s writings, this approach understands that the life and teaching of Jesus is so powerful that it is intended to serve as a model and inspiration for how we live our lives.
Basically, we are called to show that we are Christians by our love and the best way to do that is to model Jesus life, which was the perfect example of transformative and sacrificial love.
To at least some degree, Nadia Bolz-Weber argues for this understanding of the cross.
A primary scripture for this argument is John 15:12-13
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
So there you have it - four ideas about why the crucifixion happened and why it is so important to our faith.
If you’ve hung in this far, congratulations! You are now among the thousands of people who have been debating what happened on the cross for almost 2000 years.
- What do you think?
- Which of the above ideas are familiar to you?
- Which ones are new?
- Which one makes the most sense to you?
- Which one is most challenging?
However you understand the true purpose of the cross, as we approach the day of remembering Jesus’ crucifixion and the story of the resurrection that follows on Easter, we are all called to consider what these events mean to our lives and how we will live in response to them.
If you have a thought to share or question to ask, feel free to post a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!