Having placed, in my last post, a very large question mark over the whole concept of what is know as ‘Penal Substitution’ – the theory which sees Jesus dying a horrible death on a Roman Cross to satisfy the wrath and anger of God his Father – we now need to address the void created by such doubt and ask – how then do we understand the Cross and the death of Jesus? Of course thousands of volumes have been written on this subject down through the years – so what I offer here is miniscule by comparison. However, such is the scope of the question posed that, even for a very brief overview, we will have to split our consideration over two posts.
Let me say from the very outset that I have come to the conclusion, with many others before me, that a full comprehension of the meaning of the Cross is beyond our finite understanding. And it is certainly beyond any ‘box’ mentality or restrictive ‘Systematic Theology’ towards which the western theological mind tends. I am in full agreement with the old Scottish Theologian Dr. Robert Story (1790–1859) of Rosneath, Dumbartonshire, when he said, after reading a book on the Atonement by his friend John Macleod Campbell (1800 – 1872) of Argyllshire-
‘All books that contain what are called theories or doctrines of the Atonement, must at some point or other fail; for they deal with that ‘mystery of godliness,’ which was itself the outward expression of a divine love which ‘passes all understanding’.
I have also come to the conclusion that the Cross, its meaning, impact and reach are multifaceted. It is not good enough to say the Cross means X when the whole alphabet is incapable of defining its mystery and majesty.
With all that said, to even begin to understand something of the significance, impact and universal reach of the death of Jesus on a Roman cross over 2000 years ago, I believe the we need, as we have before, to go back to where it all went wrong so long ago – Eden.
In our second post in this series I said – ‘The way I see it, the tragedy of Eden was primarily the tragedy of a broken relationship.’ However, the depth of that estrangement and its cosmic consequences are very difficult for us to comprehend. One of the results of this fracture was that the spiritual darkness into which man descended, after he was expelled from The Light of Eden, made it impossible for him to see God clearly. The Apostle Paul, speaking of the effect of this for the human race says – ‘Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God ..’ (Ephesians 4:18 NLT)
And it is not as if the religious mind, darkened, as it also is, as a result of alienation from The Light, is any better – in fact it is far worse and more dangerous! Think of the religious leaders in Jesus day who twisted the truth of God and angered him so much that he accused them of being of ‘their father the devil‘ – the Prince of Darkness. In truth they could not see God – because their own minds were veiled in darkness. Now, let me be so bold as to say I believe we have religious leaders and theologians in our own day who, in the same way, from darkened minds, are unable to see God for who he truly is. In other words their perception of him is warped and confused. What if, what if those we spoke about in our last post who teach that God is angry and vindictive and full of wrath are speaking from darkened minds? Just asking – not saying! And what if our health, wealth and happiness preachers likewise offer us a twisted vision of God and have, to use Paul’s terminology – ‘wandered far from the life God.’ Again – just asking.
Jesus spoke in these terms all the time –
‘When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when it is unhealthy, your body is filled with darkness. Make sure that the light you think you have is not actually darkness.’
(Jesus – Luke 11:34 & 35)
The problem of the darkened mind is a very real one – and is, I think, much more widespread in the religious world than we realise. And boy does that cause a problem for those in search of the true God! But there is hope! Notice what the Gospel writer Matthew tell us about Jesus ministry –
‘This fulfilled what God said through the prophet Isaiah:
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light.
And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow,
a light has shined.’
Yes, The Light had come to dispel darkness and break its power. And Jesus did just that throughout his life and ministry and would go on to do it, at the Cross, in a way no one, but no one expected.
The night of Jesus arrest by the Temple Guard is, I think, very interesting and instructive in this regard. First of all please note he was arrested by the religious powers of the day. Then he asked those arresting him – ‘Why didn’t you arrest me in the Temple? I was there every day. But this is your moment, the time when the power of darkness reigns.‘ (Luke 22:52)
Please note these words very carefully – ‘This is your moment’ – the moment of the religious powers certainly but behind that and them – ‘the time when the power of darkness reigns’. In other words this was the moment when the powers of darkness masquerading as representatives of the God of Israel were to put that God to death. And, it was, they believed, their final moment of victory. Jesus foretold this in the ‘Parable of the Wicked Tenants’ (Luke 20) – ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ they said. The powers of darkness thought that after Cross everything would fall into their hands. But they were wrong! God triumphed, Jesus rose – darkness, death and all they represented were defeated. The second Adam overcame where the first Adam failed!
‘When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.’
(Romans 5 NLT Selected Texts)
To the early church this theme – ‘Christ The Victor’ (Christus Victor) was primarily how they saw and interpreted the meaning of the cross – for it was upon the Cross that God, in the person of Jesus, defeated darkness, death and hell. This is still primarily (not exclusively) how the Eastern Church interpret the Cross.
Icon from the Eastern Church depicting Christ The Victor. He stands on the broken gates of hell.
We might also ask why was it that, during the crisis hours of the Cross, darkness covered the land (Matthew 27:45). This surely, although very real, is also a metaphor of the battle which raged between good and evil, light and darkness, God and the Devil. And, when Jesus died and his body was lowered to the ground I have no doubt but that the powers of darkness rejoiced – this was, they thought, their day of victory – and so did everyone else who witnessed it! Make no mistake about it the death of Jesus was, at the time, considered an unmitigated disaster for his followers. But, but what appeared like defeat was victory and what appeared to be the end was the beginning of something new – resurrection would say so!
But the darkness of the Cross is seen not only as – ‘the moment’ – the time when the powers of darkness unleashed their hellish hatred and vitriol on the innocent Jesus – it was also a place where the depth of the darkness into which humanity had sunk met face to face with Divine Love. The best description of this I have ever heard came recently, not from a Theologian but from Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson during an interview with American Podcaster Jo Rogan. (1) Neither of these men, I hasten to add, make any claim to be Christian. However I would strongly encourage you to listen.
A final question and thought for the moment. How did Jesus himself view the tragedy of Eden? Of course, as we know, he does not mention it during his ministry. However, it appears very obvious from his teaching, both in parable and by action, that the restoration of relationship, caused as a result of the fracture of union between God and man, and which we can trace back to Eden, was his primary concern. Indeed, this is the ultimate end in view at the consummation of all things –
‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive .. Then the end will come, when he (Christ) hands over the kingdom to God the Father .. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.’
(1 Corinthians 15:28).
This is the ultimate end – the goal towards which all creation strives – perfect union with God. So too then the Cross was and is the ultimate place of restoration and reconciliation. One of the very early hymns of the Church goes like this –
‘For God in all his fullness
was pleased to live in Christ,
and through him God reconciled
everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.’
To be continued …
1 – ‘Jordan Peterson Teaches Joe Rogan about the Cross’ – UTube. The whole section of the interview shown here is well worth watching – but to listen to the part on the suffering of Jesus go to 4:56 CLICK HERE