The Cross Of Christ: The Diamond Of Christian Faith

THE CROSS OF CHRIST: THE DIAMOND OF CHRISTIAN FAITH.

{Christ Jesus is our substitute. He stands in our place overpowering evil – destroying its power over us – and setting us free. He does what we cannot do for ourselves. I contend that the dominant Christian notion that Jesus pays the price for our sins is a simplistic interpretation that fails to properly express the completeness of Jesus’ work on the Cross. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not over come it.” [Jn 1: 5]}

Early in my Christian walk I came across the use of a diamond as a metaphor for the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth. The Crucifixion of Jesus, like a diamond, has many facets. Like a diamond the Cross’ beauty and worth lies in the combination of its facets. The different faces and cut bring out the beauty and worth of the diamond.  It is a great treasure. However if we look only at one facet we will not appreciate its true worth and beauty. If we want to discard a facet because it has some imperfection we will lessen its worth and beauty if not destroy it. One can’t discard a facet of a diamond and still retain its integrity. I have found this metaphor a useful tool in dealing with difficult and challenging doctrines and theories about the work of God.

Let me proceed. I want to write a little essay on Christ Jesus’ substitutionary role.  I want to do so to clear my head regarding an insight I had reading the opening chapters of Mark.  I am very familiar with Mark’s account of the Gospel.  The scene is the Capernaum synagogue. Mark has it as the first occasion in Jesus’ public ministry [1:21f; Lk 4: 33]. A man with an unclean spirit interrupts Jesus’ teaching. The ‘spirit’ identifies Jesus. Jesus silences and exorcises the evil spirit.  I know this story so well. It is a demonstration of Jesus power over the evil spirits. Then it struck me. From the very inception of Jesus’ public ministry Jesus has to deal with evil in one form or another.  He doesn’t only have to deal with the sick, the doubting, the dullness and the opposition of religious authorities, but also the demonic.  The realm of evil, the devil or whatever you may wish to call it, is always present. The Gospel accounts show Jesus confronting not only human rebellion, but also the forces of evil with respect to both evil spirits and institutional evil. 

This set me thinking.  When Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, he encounters another form of evil: the evil of institutionalism. Without wanting to get too involved with the concepts of the Devil and evil spirits, I do want to acknowledge that while such concepts are now foreign to the Western mind set they are a reality in other parts of the world. Where they are present the inexplicable happens and evil occurs. I also understand that there are forces that take place when we build up our edifices, institutions and organisations that begin to take on a life of their own and we who create them become their servants. I see this as something akin to demon possession. The demonic possession is when a person seems driven and compelled to do things over which they have no control. 

I will say a little more about evil below, but let us return to Jesus before Pilate. I do not believe this is just a little sideshow in the grand scheme of the Crucifixion. The conversation between Jesus and Pilate, that John relates, is significant [18,19]. It is a scene of a representative of the World’s greatest empire of that time and the King of heaven and earth.  Jesus speaks of his kingdom as not from (ek tou) this world, but he is not saying it is not for this world. He is saying to Pilate that his kingdom has a different base. Its power does not rest on military strength but a moral strength derived from God the creator and expressed through love and truth. Therefore Pilate has no power to do anything except what God the Creator permits him to do. 

This conversation between Jesus and Pilate contains the great themes of who is the real ruler, who has the real power and what is truth.  It is the clash between good and evil. It is a clash between two world-wide kingdoms. The forces arraigned against each other are military power and the power of truth and love. Truth will overcome the lie. All the lie can do is kill Jesus, albeit very cruelly, but it will not destroy the truth and love he embodies. What we see here is the struggle between the power of institutions and their cultures and the love and truth Christ Jesus embodies.  Both the Jewish leaders and Pilate are part of institutions and organisations that have their own dominant cultures. The spirit of those institutions and organisations dominate and demonise their agents. Jesus stands in the place of liberation where truth and love are forces that will prevail to bring well-being.  

A little excursion into the meaning of Sin will be helpful. Let’s start at the beginning. We believe that humankind is created and grounded in love and for love to exist there must be freedom. So God’s gift to humankind is loving relationships and the freedom to enter and sustain such relationships. What has happen, it seems from time immemorial, is that humankind did not fall from a perfect state into an imperfect state, but chose a lesser state. We chose not to accept the lordship of God over our lives. In the decision to be like God knowing good and evil, we chose to elevate the self above the Other [Gen 3:5]. This elevation against the Holy Other, God, also meant we elevated ourselves against others. Indeed we embrace others as equals only insofar as they serve this mutual desire for independence and a false freedom.  This freedom we have in our independence – the assertion of our wills against another – places us in the clutches of something bigger than the individual self. This makes a lie of the freedom we claim we have. We elect to be free of God and thereby enter a set of relationships based on personal or collective self-interest.  These relationships feed our greed, ambition, competitiveness, party interests, nationalism etc. They are part of the warp and woof of our culture, and the organisations and institutions that we have created. (Watching the TV adverts for MKR I gathered that this cooking competition relies on ambition, aggression and the put down of others. And they appear to be caught up in that system that denies the well-being of others!) These systems of culture, organisation and institution end up not serving us but we serving them.  They inexorably dictate to us. We appear helpless in the face of their control of us. We seem unable to disarm them. They possess us: the demonic has arrived! We need to be set free.

Whether evil is an outside force or merely the spirit that is generated by the cumulative self-assertive and self-interested actions of individuals, evil is a reality. Recently we have been hearing about the cultures in various highly esteemed financial institutions in our society and how corrupt behaviour has entangled many. We see this happening to our sporting heroes. We might think back to Nazi Germany and how many ordinary, basically good people, either by actions or their silence supported the Holocaust. The same can be said about the pernicious and persistent racism of Apartheid in South Africa. Evil abounds. How can we conquer it?

When the Western world moved towards Deism in the second half of the 18th century, spurred by the tragic earthquake of Lisbon in1755, the Western world moved away from believing in a God who was involved in the world. Our theology was not keeping apace with these happenings and developments. By the 19th and 20th centuries Church and State became separated formally and informally in many Christian countries.  The Church was sidelined to a private affair with God in the distant heaven. Heaven no longer directed our daily lives and heaven morphed into our destination. Many influences led us towards an increasing secularism where Christianity became increasingly irrelevant in the face of scientific development.  We called this Modernism. We became more confident in human ability as our knowledge and understanding of the world rapidly expanded. We no longer needed God to fill in the gaps in our ignorance. By the turn of the 20th Century the prophetic voices of secularism predicted that education would set us free.  At the same time Social Darwinism contained an evil germ that encouraged genocide and racism (Herbert Spencer). Two devastating world wars closely followed each other. Our belief in God was more severely challenged. Religion became an increasingly private affair. That is what secularism wanted.  In this atheistic world where transcendent values were leached of their essence and power it is not surprising that the Holocaust took place along with the Gulag (Lenin’s Corrective Labour Camps). Tremendous cruelty took place at a level that was downright evil. What also became clear that those who were caught up in these systems were exactly that – caught up in them. The systems possessed them and drove them to inhuman practices.  We see this same trend in our culture, organisations and institutions today. Even our sporting heroes and esteemed and trusted banking and financial institutions have embarked on programmatic corruption and untruth.  There seems to be bewilderment about how this can happen. But is it surprising when the Church has failed to provide a robust theology and complied with the culture of secularism and majored on a private faith?  Is it surprising when we have exercised our interpersonal relationships and freedom to serve our own interest and reject any system of transcendent values and belief?  We have become gods of our own systems but at the cost of our humanity and the real freedom. Sin is the assertion of self against God and in the process we have become possessed by the things we have created.

How do we stop these structures of destructive self-interest, without merely stopping one set of organisations and institutions to start another set that will end up in the same place? We need a conqueror. But will the conqueror be successful if they use the same tools as those caught up in the evil? This is the good news. Christ Jesus faced this same evil force when the religious authorities and political administrators combined, driven by their respective institutions, to destroy this one who embodied love and truth.  Through love and by truth he said evil would be conquered. The battle was set and only Christ Jesus was able to stand against this evil.  He stood there as our representative. Where we should have been he was. He is our substitute because he alone is the truth and love and is able to conquer evil.   Our sense of truth and our quality of love have been corrupted. They have been corrupted from the time humankind chose to exercise their freedom and choose their self-interest. We needed a substitute.

The Gospel of Christ Jesus provides us with good news.  Christ Jesus does it for us, for he faced the full force of evil embodied in the institutional violence and wickedness of religious leaders, controlled by their own lust for power, and the Roman Empire equally jealous to keep their power. The latter two used violence to achieve their ends. Their violence was met by love and truth in its purest form. They killed Jesus of Nazareth but they were not able to destroy truth and love. The light overcame the darkness. The Resurrection of Jesus is more than a symbol of the eternal value of love and truth.  It is the authentication of Jesus as the Christ, our substitute, and it is the beginning of the new creation in which we can all participate.

In this sense Christ is our substitute. He stood where we could not stand. He faced evil with all it its power because he alone had not compromised himself before its enormous force.  He took our place, led the way, and shares his victory – God’s victory – with us through faith. When Jesus goes to the Cross one of the greatest things he is facing is not our everyday selfishness or little sins of commission and omission, but the very forces of evil which are disproportionality stronger that the individuals they represent. The religious and political institutions are arraigned against him aggregating to the level of evil in humanity, which unthinkingly calls for blood and violence. 

I understand that this sense of substitution fits better with the Christus Victor Atonement theory than the traditional understanding of the substitutionary atonement theory. I also contend that we need to highlight Christ Jesus as the one who has conquered the powers for I see we so desperately need to be set free and empowered to face the evil about us. 

A POSTLUDE ON THE TRADITIONAL SUBSTITUTIONARY THEORY.

The most prevalent notion we have of the Crucifixion of Jesus is that Christ died for our sins.  This understanding of the Crucifixion is so prevalent in our liturgy and speech about the Cross of Christ that it dominates the theological landscape of Atonement: those theories about the meaning of the Cross of Christ. It is a shibboleth for part of the Church. One dare not critique it. It is there in our liturgy – right up front – when we confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness each Sunday. This understanding has some precedent in the priestly tradition in the Bible. People came to worship and gave their best to God acknowledging God’s goodness and their unworthiness. An elaborate sacrificial system took place. When Jesus was Crucified at Passover time and then rose from the grave it was easy to understand his death as a sacrifice, and that he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Indeed the Gospel account according to John states this [3:16]. Jesus spoke of giving himself as a ransom [Mk 10:45]. It seems so very clear that we need say no more. But wait a minute.

It is a precious truth that Christ died for our sins. This truth reminds us of God’s gracious acceptance of us. But his death is much more than that. In fact we tend to collapse a number of images into the notion of a sacrifice offered for the forgiveness of sins.  For example the Passover lamb was not the act of forgiving sins but the act that protected God’s people – and a mixed group of slaves [Ex 12:38] – from the evil forces of Pharaoh and slavery.  The Passover lamb was a sign of God’s liberation, not forgiveness. One can hardly imagine Moses saying to the slaves that their sins needed to be forgiven. He would have got very little street credit from them. Not withstanding the fact that those slaves did need forgiveness the Passover Lamb was a symbol of liberation.

Likewise we should not reduce Mark 10:45 to a simplistic statement of Jesus saying he is the ransom price for our sin.  This statement follows a discussion about the Kingdom and how the Kingdom of God will operate on a different ethical basis to that of the world. Servanthood would be the characteristic mark of God’s Kingdom. Jesus says, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. The significance of this verse lies first in its context and secondly in the terms, Son of Man and ‘service’.  Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man to indicate that his role is to establish a new order, as that is what the Son of Man signifies in Daniel 7. Therefore the notion of ‘ransom’ has to do with nature of the service Jesus and his followers will give: it will be costly – sacrificial. To reduce ‘ransom’ to some literal sense of paying something to someone (presumably the Devil) in this context of John and James’ argument about having the best seats in the coming Kingdom is to read something else into ‘ransom’. 

There are some other problems in turning this precious truth of God’s gracious forgiveness of us through Christ into the dominant meaning of the Crucifixion. If we repeat Sunday by Sunday the cycle of repentance, confession and forgiveness in our liturgy where does this take us? Crudely it means we can sin during the week and be forgiven on Sunday. Of course this is not what is intended. But that is what it seems to do. Furthermore when it is the priest / minister always leading that part of the liturgy it suggests they have a role that the layperson does not. In effect this practice domesticates the Christian Faith. Co-dependence develops with the Christian needing regular forgiveness. Implicit is the worshippers’ dependence upon the ordained worship leader. This may deal with our guilt and this is important, but it does not help us help see ourselves as agents of the Gospel bringing faith, hope and love to others. The notion of ‘Christ Jesus as our Substitute paying the price for our sins’ coupled with the repeated liturgical symbolism conveys a contrary image to the people of God as citizens of the Kingdom of God standing with Christ against evil. 

By the way the emphasis on this Substitutionary theory of Atonement was not emphasised by the first Christians. We must turn to the 11th Century and Anselm, the Bishop of Canterbury, to see the emergence of this emphasis. Not surprisingly this arises at the dawn of the Christendom. Christendom was a period that ran through the Medieval period and right up to Modernism and reaching its end in the latter part of the 19th Century. For Christendom to operate well it needed a liturgy that would encourage a more domestic approach to the faith rather than a liberating theology. That is why we need to re-think our theological understanding of the Crucifixion.

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Bibliography:

Hendrik Berkhof, Christian Faith  (1979)

Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995)

Tom Wright, God in Public (2016)

And many other writers have contributed to my thinking.