Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Mystery of the Cross

A while ago I had a rant at the songs showcased at last year's TWIST event, including their focus on the bleeding Jesus.  The issue came up for me again recently in my own church.  Normally when I'm playing music in church I choose what we sing, but a couple of weeks ago I was helping someone else out and they chose a song by Pat Sczebel called Jesus Thank You, the first verse of which goes:

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me

A polite but pointed discussion ensued.  I find the third line shocking.  It portrays God the Father as a filicide, a killer of his own child, a cold and calculating psychopath who sacrifices his own child in order to satisfy some kind of cosmic scheme of his own devising.

My two fellow musicans, who are both highly intelligent and educated people who have thought deeply about theological issues, justified the line theologically - to summarise, for forgiveness to come about, the price of justice needs to be paid.  But of course my problem was not so much theological as emotional.  I was struck forcefully, and not for the first time, with the horror of the concept.

Since then I've been wondering why it is that we are able to talk dispassionately about this subject, why the horror of it is not more apparent.  I've concluded that perhaps we are desensitised to it.  Familiarity does not exactly breed contempt - Christians like my two friends are very reverent about the cross - but it breeds a certain unreality.  Theological formulations stand between us and the blood and agony of crucifixion.  We talk of the body and blood of Christ, but without fully realising it we are thinking about bread and wine.

Of course it is one thing to say that Jesus died for us, and quite another to say that God killed him.  This brings us back to another version of the classic problem of the three-legged stool.  Christians conceive of God as having three key attributes.  He is seen as perfectly loving, perfectly just, and all-powerful.  In the light of our suffering (and Jesus' as well) it is virtually impossible to assert that all these things are true.  If God is indeed all-powerful and loving, why did he not arrange the universe so that such suffering would be unnecessary?  Is it not a failure of love for him to allow us to go astray, when he certainly could have prevented it, and then to punish us afterwards? 

There is, of course, another way to look at it, and it is the way Paul does in the rather more ancient song he quotes in Philippians 2.

...have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is not the severe, just God who crushes his son to satisfy his own immovable justice.  This is a God who somehow gives up any claim to divinity and allows himself to be taken to the cross.  In this view, God the Father does not kill Jesus, he is killed by human beings.  In the face of this trial he does not abandon his mission and his obedience to the call, but prefers death, and this obedient death is somehow redemptive for us.

I don't claim to understand how this works.  What I am saying is that if Jesus is our picture of God, then this is a very different God to the all-powerful, all-wise supreme being bequeathed to us by the marriage of theology with neo-platonism.  Rather than crushing his son in our place, he takes our place.  He becomes like us and experiences our frailty, not as a pretence but for real, to the point of torture and death.  The cross then becomes a symbol not of God's justice satisfied, but of God's love fulfilled in the face of our own injustice.  God didn't kill Jesus, we did.


Brad McCoy said...

Hi Jon. Firstly, I agree that familiarity desensitises. I was talking with some friends last night and realised how desensitised Christians are to the atrocious violence in the OT because of the comical or caricature way it is presented in Sunday school.

But, onto your main point I think it is helpful to think of Jesus as God himself, not the son of God, when dealing with his death. For in what sense is he God's son, other than being the physical manifestation of God and the perfect human servant? He is not, I think, God's son in such a literal sense, rather the father-son concept is a way of us understanding God; an analogy even. Then we see his death much more as humans killing God, rathr than God sacrificing his son. And I think this is more in line with how the NT writers refer to it.

Jon said...

Yes brad - hence my favourite quote from Albert Noland.

"We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.... To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity...."

Hermit said...

John, I'm not a great thinker, but I am becoming of the opinion that there is a duality to just about everything in our religion (faith?). There is one God, but there are three persons who are God. We have free will, but God's will is done. Sinful man killed Jesus, yet God sent His Son to die in our place.