Lately I’ve been confused by the cross, and confused about why I’m confused. As I went through Easter this year I still was moved by the idea that God somehow loved us enough to die – but I couldn’t explain what it all means, and I couldn’t verbalise what it was about the traditional explanation that made me so uneasy.
So I watched a few lectures online, including this one by Tom Wright, and have picked up a copy of his book “The Day The Revolution Began” and started reading it, hoping to learn more.
I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet, but by setting apart time to think about this, I think I finally (subconsciously?) was able to piece together what I want to believe, in a way that draws contrast to my understanding growing up.
My understanding growing up:
God is love, and he loves you, but he’s also “just”, “righteous” or “perfect”, and can’t stomach your disobedience (sin), it’s because he’s perfect, and that perfection just doesn’t mix with sinfulness, and a blood sacrifice was needed to make things right for some reason. Animals weren’t enough. Jesus died so it didn’t have to be you. That was enough for God the Father. Now when he looks at you he doesn’t see sin, he’s just full of love again.
What I don’t like:
If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then we should get a good idea of what God is like by looking at what Jesus is like. A person with uncontrollable anger problems that needs satiating when people don’t do what they want… is not at all the type of person we see in Jesus.
Most (admittedly not all) of the anger I see the bible describe God as having, is the same kind of thing you see Jesus get angry over: injustice, caused by some humans, that crushes other humans. This pattern seems to be well in place by the time you get to the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. The “lash out” kind of anger is admittedly seems to be more present in earlier books like Joshua, and occasionally in later places like Ananias and Sapphira… but it seems the overall thrust is that God’s anger / anguish is about humans hurting each other, rather than about us offending his righteousness.
What I finally realised I want to believe:
Jesus was killed by humans. It wasn’t God’s anger that put him there, it was ours. We have the human condition, a tendency to lash out, to scapegoat, to viciously attack anything that exposes our frailty, futility or hollowness. Jesus exposed how hollow the power structures of the day were, and showed very clearly how the actions of the religious powers and the actions of the political powers were not the actions of God – these people did not represent God. He exposed the leaders, and like most humans, they lashed out.
But rather than fighting back and perpetuating the sinful violence of humanity, he took it and did not return it, in fact, while they were still killing him, expressed forgiveness and love. To apply MLK’s famous truth: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
On a physical level, the power-structures of Rome and of 1st century religious leaders killed him, because he threatened them. On a sociological level, his non-violent response changed the game in a way where his followers continued to subvert the brutal power of Rome despite intense persecution.
What about theologically or spiritually? Is there any meaning to it?
If Jesus really is God-incarnate, God-as-a-regular-human-being, (which I should clarify I want to believe), then him suffering the same wrath of humans as the rest of us shows that that wrath is from humans, not from God. The angry and violent human condition that causes us to crush each other (which I feel sums up most of the concept of sin) is actually from us, not from an angry God.
In other words, what I want to believe: God was never angry that we’re not perfect. That anger was always ours, that violence was always ours. It took God himself suffering under that violence, as Jesus on the cross, for us to understand that the violence wasn’t coming from God. The anger was never his.
So in a bizarre way, the cross is a sign that God is not angry: it shows me that he always loved and was not the one who was angrily lashing out. And it is a sign that God is not leaving us to suffer alone: that God himself would suffer under our angry violence, it shows he knows our suffering and is not keeping his distance. And it is a sign that God is working at a rescue plan: that he overcame hatred with love, darkness with light. This is the butterfly effect – where one small act of love overcoming hatred is cascading and rippling outwards until hatred, violence and even death is overcome by love, and that the God of the universe is putting his full weight and power behind this plan.
And so, when I look at the cross, I do realise that God loves me and is not angry. And I do realise that he loves me enough to enter into that suffering. And I do realise that he has a plan for salvation, the rescue of the world – to transform this suffering through redemptive love.
Just because I want it doesn’t mean it’s true.
So that’s what I want to believe, I can finally articulate it.
But I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tom Wright’s book, because admittedly: this is just the worldview that sits well with me, given what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned and the cultural leanings that go with that.
Tom’s book looks like it will go through it in a more rigorous, systematic way: examining early evidence and early texts, examining the changing understanding of the crucifixion event by two millennia of theologians, and generally being a little more grounded than my “this is what I want to believe” write-up.
But, it’s good to be able to write down, as a product of my life and culture and upbringing and current understanding, what it is that I most want to believe about a loving God who had to die.
I’m looking forward to seeing where I land. If you’re wondering any of the same things, asking the same questions, or exploring the same topics – I would love to hear about it in the comments!