What the cross is not

A brief Lenten reflection on some of the misconceptions about Good Friday.

It is not…

  • Simple. If anyone starts explaining the atonement by saying that “It is simply”… Run! It is not simple, and it is not any single thing.
  • Jesus fulfilling the law perfectly on our behalf and then dying, so that we are now perfect little law-fulfilling Pharisees in God’s eyes. He doesn’t do self-deception. Yes, Jesus was the faithful Israelite while on earth. Yes, he was obedient in the way Israel wasn’t, even unto death. But it wasn’t to score points on our behalf.
  • Jesus paying Satan off. There are ransom sayings like Mark 10:42 “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many”. I believe that the ransom was not paid to anyone, but refers to what it cost God to forgive. The focus of redemption-language in the NT is on the cost: “You were bought at a price”. It is like saying “you will pay for that (third piece of chocolate cake). Or “you are paying attention to this essay” Who are you paying? The computer screen? No, no-one. But it does come at a price. You could be reading 9Gag.
  • Jesus outsmarting or deceiving Satan. This theory goes that because Satan killed an innocent man, he now has no claim on our lives and God can legally bind him or arrest him. Satan never features during the Passion narratives, except for tempting/possessing Judas. God did not need the crucifixion as an excuse to bind Satan, and he did not deceive him. It is humanity that stood condemned that day. (See Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.)
  • Jesus ‘paying’ by his suffering. The magnitude of his suffering doesn’t equal or cancel the magnitude of mankind’s guilt. It is not as though he suffered maximally, and by doing so, secured salvation for us. He suffered greatly, but that is not the ground of our reunification with God. God was not “balancing the numbers”, with Jesus’ tally in the one column, and ours in the other.
  • God punishing Jesus. This is a controversial one. We often hear that Jesus ‘bore’ or ‘absorbed’ the wrath of God. But the cross isn’t the lightning rod for God’s anger. Some people think that he wanted to vent, and instead of hitting us with the fire and brimstone, he lashed out at Jesus. I have not found any evidence of this in the Bible. God’s wrath burns against evil (sin), and Jesus did turn it aside so that it didn’t come on us. But this refers to the way the Passover lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the Israelites let the “angel of death” pass over. That is very different from saying that the lamb took the punishment instead. God didn’t punish the Passover lamb, and he didn’t punish Jesus (the lamb of God) either. It is tricky, though, because there are some verses that do point to something very much like it (Is. 53, Gal. 3:13, Rom. 8:1-4, 2 Cor. 5:21, etc.). But we need read these very, very carefully and honestly in context.
  • Jesus dying so that God can love us. No, God’s love is the source of atonement, not the result of it. Christ died for us because God loves us, not the other way around. “For so loved God the world, that he gave his only Son…” as the famous verse (John 3:16) goes.
  • Some clever way for God to get around a legal matter that had been holding him back. Sometimes God is represented as this ingenious lawyer (like those ingenious 16th century lawyers, Luther and Calvin…) who is looking for a loophole to acquit guilty humanity, and then gets this idea “Aha! I’ll kill an innocent man in their place!”
  • Jesus simply setting a nice example for us so that we can know what love is about. It is that as well, but it is so much more. Something objective happened that day that forever changed the way we relate to God. Saying that “God is love” while stripping it of all its meaning with respect to Jesus’ sacrifice is like having your cake and eating it.
  • An innocent man being condemned to die so that guilty people may go free. Yes, he paid the penalty of our guilt, though it was not punishment. Yes, he is sinless, though that isn’t the whole basis of our justification. There has been a legal declaration by the court finding in our favour, i.e. we have been acquitted of all charges, and it has something to do with Jesus being a substitution for us and being innocent. Because he died, we don’t. But the way it is normally presented sounds like a mistrial or some farcical court proceeding. We are forgiven on the grounds of Jesus’ death, and the result is our justification. Not the other way around, I think. It is a much richer concept than simply a travesty of justice.
  • Jesus extracting forgiveness from a harsh and punitive Father, or the Father sending a reluctant Son to do his bidding. We must reckon with the Trinity. “Jesus was very God, very man, and very God-man” – Karl Barth. It is, in some sense, God on the cross.
  • God’s love overcoming God’s justice or wrath. It is difficult (or impossible) for us finite creatures to be both merciful and just, but at the cross God’s mercy and justice kiss. We can’t play them off against each other. The cross is a sober assessment of the moral cancer that infects all humanity. But it is also the resounding declaration – like a nuclear explosion on that dark Friday on Golgotha – of the lengths to which the loving, living, dying God will go to heal us.


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