I’ve been thinking about the cross a lot lately, and will share my thoughts and theories in good time. But before I do that, there is a glaringly obvious point that is almost always forgotten as soon as people start debating explanations of what the cross means.
The cross is an event that happened in time, not a theory. This event is itself part (the climax) of a larger narrative. Of course we can form theories, and they will help you to appreciate certain aspects of the event. But they are never the event itself.
I don’t watch much sport, but allow me to use an example many South Africans will know: the drop goal by Joel Stransky in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
In 1994 South Africa had its first democratic elections, and sanctions against our sports teams were lifted. Finally, the Springbok Rugby team – national heroes – could measure themselves against the best in the world. South Africa was still politically fragile, but the optimism in the country, inspired by Nelson Mandela, created a vibrant energy. In 1995 we hosted the Rugby World Cup. Against the odds, South Africa made it to the finals where be played the New Zealand All Blacks, who dominate world rugby. The country stood still that day and watched Nelson Mandela (very unexpectedly) appear at the pre-match ceremony to wish the team good luck. It was an incredibly moving moment: he wore the captain’s jersey – the black president identifying with the sport whites hold so dear. The game was hard-fought. Winger James Small tackled Jonu Lomu, a guy twice his size, and had to pull himself off the field by his arms. The All Blacks scored tries, and South Africa could only keep up by penalty kicks. In the last minutes the score was tied 12-12, meaning that the All Blacks would win on tries scored. Stransky played flyhalf (similar to a quarterback), and made use of an opportunity to attempt a drop goal – a rare and high-risk move that paid off. I don’t remember much of when I was 8 years old, but I do remember my non-rugby watching parents jump to their feet at that moment. It was surreal. We won! For the team, it was the culmination of a long, tough campaign through the tournament. For South Africa, it was just what we needed politically. It was South African sport announcing our return to the world stage. We could compete with the best. For Stransky, it was the reason for his career.
So what happened? We could build theories of the drop goal. There would be the guys favouring the substitutionary theory: he did it for South Africa, in our place. Some others may respond that it was a legal move, and according to the rules of the game he had the right to do it. The narrative rugbylogians would say, “no no, systematic approaches don’t work. You should use our Story-System”. Others would say it was a move of liberation, a political statement, or made reconciliation. Some would say he overcame the All Blacks at the game’s death. Victory over the forces of evil, in death. He made us, the social outcasts, winners. Still others would observe that he gave himself in selfless service to the team in the rest of the game, and that is what we should be emulating. Then the sceptics: soccer players would keep on asking why it wasn’t hand-ball, and who he was kicking the ball to. Those who don’t believe in rugby would say that the camera angle just makes it look like a drop goal, but actually we can’t be sure it ever really happened. Witnesses, but no science, you see. No repeatable experiment. And extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence, after all. Besides, who needs sport to unite a nation? Can’t we just do it ourselves? And what kind of petty referee would demand that he actually kick it over? We’re all adults. Just award the points. That’s what we do in our backyard rugby matches. And so this would be debated forever. But if you ask anyone who was there and was cognizant of all of the factors, and saw what happened, what would they say? Would they be able to capture it all in their response? Probably not.
The Great Wall of China
This brings me to the next thought about explanations. Something that has been bothering me for a while now is that even if we can give good answers to pointed questions, the answers still don’t satisfy us. I think that the reason for is that they are just that: answers. They are not what we are looking for. What we are looking for is appreciation. It’s a bit like someone who goes to the Great Wall of China and asks “What is this wall like”? So he throws a tennis ball against it, and it bounces back. He got his ball back, but he still doesn’t know whether the wall is solid, and he still can’t appreciate the wall. So then he tries a golf ball… Understanding the cross or many other things about God is a bit like this. We throw questions, get answers back, and are not satisfied. Because it is very rare for an answer to lead to appreciation.
In their purest forms, most of the atonement theories around the cross are complementary, not contradictory, and do enrich our understanding of what happened. But every valid answer to an invalid objection will not satisfy you completely. You are still throwing tennis balls against the Great Wall of China. The theories might all be true, but unless you face the event on its own terms, perceive it and experience it for yourself, it remains just a theory. You need to walk the wall and touch the stone.
The crucifixion is not a theory, it is an event.
Finally, we should not forget to view the cross as art. Art draws us in, bypasses our will, awakens our imagination, and shows us beauty. That is what most people were looking for all along – not explanations, but appreciation. Awe. And until we appreciate the crucifixion also as art, we won’t ‘see’ it at all.