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Rethinking the Purpose of the Crucifixion
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
· 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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
When we speak of the crucifixion, we ought not devise
theories, but sit in awe of such great condescension.
© 2004 American Unitarian Conference™