Today is the day we celebrate the Crucifixion of Christ. In the minds of most unbelievers, celebrating something as bloody as crucifixion could be seen as just plain strange, if not a bit ghoulish.
At the heart of this, I think a lot of misunderstandings exist about the nature of the cross of Christ, and I’m afraid that the church has only exacerbated the matter by misconstruing what the atonement really is.
What the atonement is not
- Simply a moral example to humanity to inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.
- A payment that God paid the devil to ransom our release from the devil.
- Merely what God required to forgive sins, or what you see in the typical Christians tracts that present the “Romans Road”. Don’t misunderstand me, it is that in on a certain level, but there is much more to it than simply that.
So…why then the cross?
Jesus’ words in John 12:24 are particularly enlightening about this subject:
I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains [just one grain; it never becomes more but lives] by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest. (Amplified Bible)
Often Christians interpret this passage as something they must do; that they must die to their own selfish desires to become more Christ-like. While I think there is some truth to that, I think Jesus is referring to himself in this passage. Throughout the first 19 chapters of John’s gospel are references to Jesus being the only begotten Son. After the resurrection however we see Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn. 20:17) The only begotten Son (the one grain) is planted and dies, but in the end it produces many other sons. Satan thought that by inciting Judas’ betrayal he was ridding himself of a problem, but in doing so the life of Christ was reproduced in believers many, many times over!
The writer of Hebrews elaborates further:
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.
God, who is Love, wanted many sons participating in his glory. As sons, we partake in Christ’s divine nature, or at least those which can be communicated – love, joy, peace, faithfulness, etc. This participation in the divine life is further illustrated in Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, and Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches. How could a perfect being communicate this type of life to us? Robin Collins has come up with an interesting theory of the atonement that he calls the Incarnational Theory, and I’ve personally found it to be helpful, at least in some respects. Here it is in a nutshell:
As finite creatures, something such as the nature of God is completely foreign to us. You can’t do something ridiculous like graft in a tree branch to a lion, but only another tree, that is to say you have to find something of the same nature. Through the Incarnation and Passion, God entered into our human situation of death and suffering and overcame the this alienation. Jesus was fully human/fully divine and acted in complete moral perfection. Jesus exercised the virtues (faith, love) that God intended man to exercise in the face of human suffering, persecution, uncertainty, opposition, etc.
Interestingly, God could not personally, actively exercise these virtues apart from the incarnation. Apart from the incarnation, God could not experience temptation, danger, uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, lack or victimization. We now can take part in this life by being “grafted in the vine” by placing our faith in Christ, and it is this that saves us from sin.
We “tap in” to the divine virtues come not only from reading or hearing scripture, but these spiritual disciplines are also intertwined with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, our Connector to Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit also supernaturally transmits to us Christ’s subjectivity. One analogy Collins uses that I actually think is really cool is we can imagine somehow through technology a future in which a person can tap into and adapt the desires exercised by an extremely courageous or loving person. Imagine we could all tap into Mother Teresa’s subjective compassion for the poor, or Muhammad Ali’s confidence in the face of a fight.
Or another example is how children pattern themselves after their parents. Our view of the world and behavioral patterns are often unconsciously picked up or patterned after those in our environment whom influence us. Paul speaks of following God, as dearly loved children follow after their parents. (Eph. 5:1-2) What we could not change through the self-effort of our distorted human desire, God “works in us both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)
The cross was not merely the price that was paid for our forgiveness, but where our warped, selfish, sinful selves died; where we partake of Christ’s full facing of human frailty and alienation and yet in the face of it we overcome through the resurrection. We now gradually learn to put off selfishness and grow into godly maturity as we tap into the mind of Christ through the help of the Holy Spirit. Through doing so, we get a victorious mentality, a son of God mentality. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Romans 12:2, Eph. 2:6, 4:22-24).
The cross is not just where we become forgiven sinners, but where we also died. As we tap into the mind of Christ we see ourselves in Him; dead to the praises of men and our selfish impulses, and moreover, alive with Him, victorious over the loneliness and powerlessness that world tries to hold us captive to.
There are other theories of the atonement I find worthwhile; in particular I’m a fan of the “Christus Victor” interpretation, which I hope to tackle in a future post because I see that I’ve hit the 1000 word mark, so if you’ve got this far, thanks for tapping into Christ’s patience to get to the end!