When you look at the cross what do you see? The Bible presents various views of God, suffering, sacrifice and the crucifixion. Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ and theologians have wrestled with these mysteries seeking answers suitable for their time. The search continues today. How can we relate God, Jesus Christ and the crucifixion story to the scientific age in which we live? We must be careful not to suggest our answer is the only one containing the whole truth; remembering the Eastern Churches interpretations are different to the Western Church.
Most of us have lived under the impression that Jesus died to satisfy the demands of a righteous God offended by our sin. We were told Jesus did what we could not do because of our fallen nature. He paid the price for our sin. This concept was proposed by Anselm who lived in the 11th century, which had a predominant feudal culture. It has remained central in Western church theology to this day. It’s a judicial concept demanding payment or punishment to satisfy the demands of divine justice, enabling God to forgive our sins.
The down side of this transactional concept is we are given the image of a brutal, punitive God totally devoid of mercy demanding violence before he can love his own creation. This theory (which is what it is) relies on ‘original sin’ Augustine’s understanding of Genesis 3 – being ‘born in sin’ renders us unable to satisfy the demands of justice and a righteous God. This concept leaves us with the fear of a punitive, merciless God who sees us as guilty. We feel God is distant and cold. No wonder many reject God. This substitutionary, or transactional theory of Anselm was accepted as satisfactory in a feudal culture, but it places no emphasis on the total life and teaching of Jesus and offers no mercy for the redemption of the natural world and our current cosmic culture. In this view ‘Salvation became a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and the Father, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for the human soul and for all history’ (Rohr).
An alternative concept sees the cross as a dramatic demonstration of God’s unconditional, unlimited outpouring love for those who rejected, scorned and finally crucified him and for the whole world. This demonstration is, in effect, God saying, “do to me the very worst you can and I will still love you and accept you into my love, despite all the venom, hatred and pain you can pile on me – there is no limit to my love for you”. The quality of love we see on the cross is relentless and changeless; not the false accusations, nor the betrayers kiss, nor the slap across the cheek, nor the soldiers whip, nor he jeering crowd, nor the nails and thorns – nothing could deter his love for his whole creation. This love, without any reservations, is demonstrated again and again in the entire life and teaching of Jesus.
Think of the stories he told of the forgiving father and his prodigal son, the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the widow sweeping the room until she found the lost coin, the penitent sinner in the temple. Think of his actions in dining with Zacchaeus, eating with sinners, touching the leper, protecting the prostitute, breaking religious codes of conduct and crossing cultural boundaries, his overflowing mercy toward the bereaved widow, the worried centurion, the woman taken in adultery, the entire crowd who were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus never punished anybody. He looked on them with compassion.
The Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin believed God is present in all things and his suffering love lies at the heart of the universe. We were made by love for love. In Genesis 1 we are seen by God as good at birth. That creative love, which is indestructible by death, transforming it through resurrection and new life, conforms to nature’s pattern of death and resurrection. That is the love which embraces the whole world, accepts us and will not let go of his creation no matter what we do. In Jesus and the cross we see the heartbeat of God.
In a world of repeated crisis, continual change and global suffering we can look at the cross and see a dramatic demonstration of a God whose love towards us remains constant, never changes, embraces all things and shares our experience of suffering. This is the God who engaging with us will accompany us through any suffering and lead us into a new global age. Such love as this becomes restorative and healing. ‘Jesus did not die to change God’s mind about us, he died to change our mind about God’.
Look at the cross again and see the confirmation of God’s Total Love for us and all his creation. It speaks directly to our global need of healing and can generate a new kind of wholesomeness at every level of life.