On the meaning of the Cross

Recently a friend of mine who teaches theology asked me a question about the cross and atonement. His is the Catholic Theologian Jacob Friesenhahn who wrote a book that has deeply influenced me called "Trinity and Theodicy". His question was this:

"My [students usually affirm] the idea of an all-loving God who desires our salvation, but many struggle with "but why the cross?" questions.  Do you know of any (short) book chapters or articles that offer a good apologetic on this topic?"

My response was a concise overview of my understanding of where the Cross fits in with the overall atonement wrought by God incarnate in Jesus Christ:

I do not know any single place where I got the idea of atonement that I have today. Most conservative Trinitarian theologies focus on the cross as propitiatory sacrifice or judicial substitution. The cross accomplishes something definitive and objective, but at the cost of making God the Father some type of revenge-hungry monster.

What I mean is this: God the Father demands a sacrifice of equal value to the eternal worth of the divine majesty which is offended when we sin and disobey God. This sacrifice is either our eternal torment and destruction in an unending hell, or we allow innocent Jesus to be tortured by the Father on our behalf, dying our death, enduring our hell. So in this theology, the Cross does something objective: It takes the punishment of an angry and abusive Father in our place. But God becomes a monster who is scarcely like the Father revealed in the life, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the other hand, most liberal theologies focus on the cross as some sort of grand example of either how much God loves us, or how we can love like God. They make God loving, but the cross remains only to elicit a subjective experience. There is nothing "objective" that happens on the cross to at-one our relationship with God, and often the Trinity is effectively demoted or denied.

Don't get me wrong. The Cross IS an example. It does show forth God's unlimited Love, and it does show us how to Love, by the act of God giving up his very life for our healing. But it is not MERELY an example. There must be something objective accomplished by it: Something that is actually different about the cosmos' relationship with God because God endured the Cross in Jesus.

So neither theology of the cross really appeals to me. I want the cross to objectively enact something that changes our relationship with God in an ontological way, but also preserves God as universally and infinitely loving. And this is the way I work this out:

For me, the cross is an objective historical enactment of an eternal reality within the heart of the Triune God: The super-kenosis. Hans Urs Von Balthasaar and Jacob Friesenhahn have written at length on the super-kenosis, so I will not go any deeper on it other than to say that the Father-Son relation is characterized by eternal self-emptying into one another, resulting in complete empathy, compassion, and self-identification with "the other".

If this kenotic Love is to be made objectively real in the history that occurs outside of the Divine Self, then this Love will have to take on a concrete form that can be displayed and experienced in the space-time that constitutes history.

So, if God is to have compassion and empathy for the total plight of God's creatures, then God will have to somehow objectively take into Godself the totality of creaturely experience from womb to tomb. And the most complete way for God to do this is to become a material moral agent in God's own world. It is not enough for God to do this merely as an observer in the immanent form of the Holy Spirit. No matter how intimate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is still the observation of a self who is outside the self experiencing the joy and pain of embodied life. Therefore, if God is going to have full empathy and compassion, God will need to become one of us and experience the best and worst of the human experience in God's own body. A finite body that is capable of truly suffering. This God does in Christ.

Likewise, if God is going to forgive, that means that God takes into Godself the consequences of evil actions without demanding that the guilty parties bear those consequences forever. That is, after all, the definition of forgiveness: To take the pain caused by another, without revisiting it upon them, for the sake of restoring the relationship. If God is thus to forgive, God will have to take our consequences in a way that is objective and historical, not merely subjective or hidden in Godself in eternity. The consequences of human evil include but are not limited to: Rejection, betrayal, exploitation, injustice, oppression, abuse, and murder. Thus God must take these experiences into Godself in a fully embodied way, fully experiencing it as a finite person, without exempting Godself from any part of the experience. This God does, again, on the cross as Jesus Christ.

Finally, and most controversially, is the insight that those who create bear responsibility for what they have created. This moral insight is most clear when we demand that car manufacturers or construction companies be held responsible when they create defective, harmful products. I think this is a true insight into the moral nature of the universe and "goes all the way down", so to speak, into the Divine Nature. In order to create the kind of Universe where true Love is possible between finite consenting moral agents, God must necessarily create the kind of universe where indeterminate freedom exists. And when that kind of freedom exists, there will necessarily entail pain, suffering, and death.

I know there are philosophical debates about it, but I must bracket them and just state it how I have come to see it: God created a radically free universe that entails pain and suffering. Therefore God is held responsible-- God holds Godself responsible-- for the suffering caused by God's works. And therefore, in the person of Jesus, on the hard wood of the cross, God objectively and historically takes into Godself the suffering of the universe as an act of Divine solidarity and responsibility. And in so doing, God also demonstrates that the Love made possible by such a messy and painful universe is worth it, and therefore the Universe is inherently GOOD because it is the kind of universe that can attain God's ultimate purposes, despite the suffering involved.

And of course, the cross is not complete without the resurrection. The resurrection is the seal and assurance that all of this is true and that Divine Love does win in the end and does accomplish God's purposes. But to go to the resurrection right now is to short circuit the discussion of the meaning of the cross.

This is how I understand the cross as accomplishing something objective and universal for all of Creation, while still maintaining the universal Love of God.

I'm not saying that I developed my theology independently and there are no antecedents to it. I just cannot recall anyone who frames issues like I do. And therefore I cannot tell you who to read. Except to read the snippets I have written on this in various places.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.