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Rethinking the Purpose of the Crucifixion

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia


The cross has long been the chief emblem of Christianity. The New Testament writings give it a preeminent place. The death of Christ is said to have reconciled us to God, defeated the principalities and powers, destroyed death, provided a ransom, removed our sins. Everywhere, we have language that conveys this idea: The death of Jesus has brought us life.

Out of this language have come elaborate theories of the atonement. These theological formulas attempt to explain how a Jewish preacher's death two millennia ago could remove our sins. Chief among these theories today is penal substitution. For multitudes of Christians, it is the only conceivable way to view the crucifixion; it is the dogma of evangelistic tracts and conservative preachers.

In a nutshell, the doctrine is as follows:

·          God, because He is infinitely holy, cannot look upon or tolerate sin in His creation.

·          At the same time, God loves us and desires our fellowship.

·          This poses a problem of sorts for God, because He must be true to His justice, which demands retribution against all sin.

·          The cross is a resolution to this problem. God poured out his wrath upon Jesus, who took our place at Calvary. He was punished in our stead.

·          Because of the cross, God's justice is satisfied and he is free to welcome us into His presence.

This idea draws support from passages that speak of Christ bearing our sins. According to penal substitution, God vicariously imputed our sins in some mysterious way to Jesus, who suffered for them—just as if he had been the guilty party.



Despite its popularity, the view has some serious difficulties.

For one thing, it asserts that Jesus bore the actual punishment due all people while he was on the cross. The punishment that rightly falls on us fell on him, we hear. But what is the punishment that conservative orthodoxy tells us awaits the sinner? To endure the agonies of a cross for several hours and expire?

I ask this with all gravity, knowing that we are speaking of something supremely solemn: What punishment did Jesus literally bear? The Adventist believes the punishment of sin is permanent extinction of being, annihilation. But Jesus was not annihilated forever—he lives on. The traditionalist believes that sinners will go to hell forever. But Jesus certainly did not do this, either.

Again, this is not an attempt to make light of something so profoundly serious. The point is to show how the penal substitution theory fails to connect the cross to the sinner's ultimate punishment in a literal way.

At this stage, we will get arguments about "equivalence of punishment." Christ's death on the cross may not be the same punishment as ours, but is equal to it because Jesus is the Son of God. All such speculation brings us far outside of Scripture, which never tells us that God exacts one debt from our substitute and a different one from us.

Another problem is that penal substitution undermines the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the free discharge of a debt, not the exacting of payment from another. Suppose a landlord is ready to evict a tenant, but at the last minute receives payment from a tenant's friend. We can never say that the landlord forgave the debt—he didn't. He simply got paid by someone else. Penal substitution unintentionally contradicts the free forgiveness it proclaims.

"Be mindful of your mercy…. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions," wrote the Psalmist. "According to your steadfast love remember me for your goodness' sake, O Lord" (Psalm 25:6-7). God here forgives because of His "mercy," "steadfast love" and "goodness." That benevolent disposition is always the ground of divine forgiveness. Jesus told us to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). Do we withhold forgiveness until we have exacted payment, either from the transgressor or a substitute? No, we are bidden to forgive as God forgives: freely, abundantly and mercifully.


Alternate Interpretations of Calvary

It is unreasonable to demand one simple explanation of Calvary and its relationship to our redemption. After all, many different views of the atonement have ascended, then fallen over the centuries of church history. The ransom-to-Satan theory, Anselm's theory and many others have come and gone.

The implications of the cross are too vast to fit into a credal "one liner." Christ's death is multi-faceted. The following is an attempt to approach the truth of that staggering event from several directions:


The Cross and 'The Powers'

One of the aspects of the cross seldom appreciated by mainstream Christians is its role in defeating "the powers" or "the authorities." In Colossians, Paul writes, "[Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]" (2:15).

The system crucified Jesus. First, the religious authorities handed him over to be killed. Then the Roman government, the most powerful secular force on earth, carried out the deed. The evil system of this world –- the one that adheres to "might makes right," that seeks power over others and crushes its rivals—fastened our Lord to the tree. The authorities sought to wipe him out the way it had done with thousands of others: brute force.

Jesus stood up against the authorities with the weapons of humility, nonviolence and trust in his God. He defied the sword, the spear, the lash. And he triumphed. He started a movement that swept across the globe, despite all efforts of the system to destroy him. Now, the name of Caesar is little more than a curiosity of history buffs; the name of Jesus holds sway over millions.

In an act of nonviolent resistance, Jesus defied the evil world system of domination, and won out. Calvary’s cross has beaten the principalities and powers in a public display of meekness.

The cross is an open and graphic condemnation of the violent world system.


The Cross and Ethics

There is another simple way of looking at the cross, one that remains true to Hebrew figures of speech. It also takes seriously the ethics of Jesus as a crucial part of redemption. It is simply this: Jesus went about preaching the kingdom of God, calling his hearers to radical love, peace and selflessness. He introduced God as a loving Father in heaven. He befriended the lowest of sinners, urging them to repent. Throughout his ministry, Jesus wonderfully transformed lives and set people free. Despite his knowledge that certain death awaited him were he to continue his ministry, Jesus pressed on. He laid aside self-interest to do the will of his Father, and was crucified for it.

That death was a manifestation of everything God calls us to be. Like Jesus, we must lay aside our own interest for the imperatives of love. When we do this, we experience redemption from what we once were. Had Jesus lived out a long life, modifying his message to keep himself alive, his words may no longer reach us through the ages. But he sealed his words in his own blood, forever imprinting them on the human consciousness.


The Cross and Ratification of the Covenant

Jesus ratified a New Covenant with his death. His blood was the stamp upon the proclamation of a new era—an era of unmatched grace and forgiveness. The cross is a marker suspended in history, dividing the age of ethnic favor and the age of "whosoever will." Therefore, the blood of Christ cleanses us from our sins.

We sometimes hear this kind of language applied to patriotic themes. "The blood of the patriots has made us free," someone might say. Does he mean this in a mysterious sense, a literal sense? Everyone knows this is not the case; he is saying that the deaths of these people set in motion events that led to our freedom. If we can understand such usage in secular language, why not in sacred?

Calvary set in motion the events that gave birth to the Christian church. It was also a symbol of inclusiveness—the Old Testament sacrificial system that built walls between Jew and Gentile, male and female, was fulfilled. Christ was "hanged on a tree," a cursed condition under Old Covenant law (Gal. 3:13). Therefore, he could relate to the needs of the "cursed" Gentiles who wished to know God. The death of Christ, accordingly, brings redemption to those once shrouded in darkness.


The Cross as a Way to the Resurrection

The cross was also the vehicle to the resurrection appearances that so galvanized the disciples. Without his death, Jesus could not have risen. The hope of life beyond death is bound up in the fact that Jesus died and yet now lives. Therefore, the death of Christ brings us life.

Why do we need a doctrine of atonement beyond this? Is the beauty of Jesus' resignation to death not obscured when we turn it all into a cosmic transaction that automatically "fixes" our legal standing with God? With all due respect, penal substitution seems to turn us from the Hebrew thought world, with its grand figures of speech and metaphors, and usher us into the mist of Greek speculation.

And what of this dilemma within the nature of God, the alleged struggle between His justice and His love? This doctrine reduces the death of Christ to the fulfillment of a legal obligation to which God was supposedly bound. Strangely enough, this view suggests that the cross reconciled God to Himself—it furnished God with a kind of "escape clause" whereby He might now be merciful in a way He could not be before. But doesn't this turn the death of Jesus to a kind of divine legalism?


Bearing Sin

Yet, many will insist that the Bible clearly teaches penal substitution. They will point out, for example, that Scripture sometimes tells us that Christ "bore our sins." Is this not an indication that the early Christians believed in penal substitution? This is a possible interpretation, and such a view may be a "minority report" from Scripture. But this is not the only way to interpret such passages.

First of all, we must ask this question: Did Christ "bear" our sins (1) for the purpose of suffering for them in our stead, or (2) for the purpose of carrying them away from us (symbolic language)? The latter makes more sense, given the entire scope of the Bible's message.

One text sheds abundant light on this subject. During his healing ministry, Christ is said to have fulfilled the words of Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases." (Matt. 8:17) Note here that by healing, Jesus was "bearing" the people's diseases. Was he taking them upon himself and becoming sick in their stead? Not at all—he was "bearing" their sicknesses away from them by imparting wholeness. Metaphorically speaking, he was picking up their sicknesses and transporting them away from the sufferers.

In the same way, Christ's death carries our sins away from us by teaching us love, self-denial and goodness. An ethical view of the cross does justice to Christ's bearing of sin. This is consistent with the Old Testament image of the scapegoat, which symbolically carried away the sins of Israel into the wilderness.

Another argument commonly advanced in favor of penal substitution involves the burnt offerings of the Mosaic law. The sacrifices presumably took the place of the penitent, just as Christ takes our place. But the real point of the Old Covenant sacrifices was not the animal's death nor its sufferings. The bullock was not being "punished" in the place of the sinner. Its death was swift and sure, involving little agony.

The main issue of the sacrifice was the application of the blood. The death of the animal was itself only the beginning of the sacrifice. Elaborate ritual surrounding the use of blood was the essence of atonement, a practice fraught with mystery. Whatever its meaning, and however it may typify the crucifixion, the Mosaic sacrifices bear little resemblance to penal substitution.


The Cross Focused on Sanctification, Not Metaphysics

I believe that we preserve the grandeur of Calvary when we view it as a means of sanctification. Jesus' death works a change in us so that we give up our sinful, self-absorbed life and walk in his steps. This is salvation, the life of cross-carrying discipleship. But for many Christians, the response here is automatic. Christianity is not about living right or being selfless, but simply about accepting Jesus as Savior and believing in his vicarious atonement. The death of Christ is more about getting us "off the hook" for our sins than about making us better people, they tell us.

The New Testament, however, supports the idea that Christ died chiefly to bring us into a state of transcendent goodness. Note the following:

"He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people who are zealous of good deeds." (Titus 2:14)

The cross is here set forth as a means of purification and good works, not a means of changing our legal standing in God's eyes.

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." (1 Pet. 2:24)

Here we find the familiar idea of Jesus bearing sin, but for the purpose of making us "live for righteousness," not for the purpose of intercepting our punishment in a substitutionary way.

"And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." (2 Cor. 5:15)

Clearly, the cross was designed to turn us away from self-centered living to follow Jesus.



The message of the cross should always be coupled with the message of discipleship. We must take up our cross and follow Christ in a life of servanthood and love. It is common for the New Testament authors to speak of the cross, then to speak of our need to "die" to sin and self-centeredness. And that is the crucial point—the grand objective of the crucifixion. It is for our sanctification that Jesus gave his life. Paul's declaration "I am crucified with Christ" should be ours.

But is there no place for the idea that Jesus in his death effected our redemption in a way that goes beyond ethics? Is the forgiveness of sins not tied in some way to Calvary? This I will not deny. I leave room for that possibility in my belief system. But I will say that such ideas must be regarded as mysteries hidden within the Divine.

When we speak of the crucifixion, we ought not devise theories, but sit in awe of such great condescension.

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference