Robert S. Turner
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
July 24, 2016
What happened on the cross? This has been a central question that Christians have
faced from the the earliest recorded moments of the Christian faith. In the first decades
after Jesus’s death Paul and others had to address the paradox of proclaiming as Lord
and Savior one who had been executed as a criminal in a manner that the Hebrew
Scriptures said put him under God’s curse. Later generations took up the question of
precisely how the peculiar circumstances of Jesus’s death effected our salvation. We
have been debating this issue ever since.
I say we are still debating this question of what in theological terms is called the
atonement, but one could be pardoned for thinking that the issue had been settled long
ago. For the past century or longer, one theory of the atonement has been so dominant,
especially in the evangelical church, that it no longer seems like one possibility among
many, but rather the one true answer to the question.
But it’s not. There are a variety of other ways to understand the atoning work of Jesus
than this dominant one, which I will describe in a moment. The New Testament does not
offer a single, clear, systematic declaration of how the cross brings us salvation.
Instead, the biblical authors provide a number of different images and metaphors, which
ought to tell us that we are dealing with mystery. It’s not a good idea to poke, prod, and
dissect mystery. You don’t mine the events of Good Friday for propositions of orthodoxy
any more than you would diagram the sentences in a poem by e. e. cummings.
The only theory of the atonement that many people even know is what has come to be
known as substitutionary atonement. In this understanding, which originated with
Anselm a thousand years ago, humankind has sinned and run afoul of God’s law and
have been sentenced to death and damnation. A hopeless situation, because everyone
is in the same predicament, and we can’t get ourselves released. Only God can set us
free, and God is bound by God’s law and sense of honor not to do so. We’re stuck.
Enter Jesus, the perfect blend of humanity and divinity. Anselm called Jesus the Godman.
Because he was human, and could therefore represent the rest of us, but also
divine and sinless, Jesus could bridge the gap and pay the penalty that would satisfy
God’s sense of justice and set us free from our imprisonment. He did this by offering
himself in our place—as our substitute—paying the price for our sins and thereby
clearing our record and gaining our release. Because our sentence was death, Jesus
underwent the death penalty on our behalf.
If this depiction of the atoning work of Christ makes sense to you, if it rings true and
sounds familiar, if when you hear it described you say to yourself, “Of course that’s how
it happened,” then the adherents of Anselm have done their work well. It may surprise
you, then, to hear that not only is this theory of the atonement not the only one out
there, but also that it has distinct weaknesses as a way of understanding the cross and
the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
The first problem is that the substitutionary atonement theory does not really take
Jesus’s life into account. His resurrection, either, for that matter. Everything gets boiled
down to what happened those six hours on Golgotha. But that’s not really true, either.
The actual hill of Golgotha has nothing to do with it. Where the historical events took
place is immaterial. Jesus could have been crucified along the median of I-71 near the
Morse Road exit in September 2013 for all the effect it would have on the atonement.
In this view, the crucifixion of Jesus is the central event of salvation history, but ironically
it has little to do with the actual history of the world. Circumstances in first century
Palestine, such as the Roman occupation and the politics of Second Temple Judaism,
don’t matter. The cross becomes the site of an ahistorical transaction between God and
Jesus; any other circumstances that could have brought about this transaction would
have worked just as well. What Jesus said and did in his life, and even the central claim
that God raised him from the dead, are of secondary importance at best.
Another serious problem with this theory is the way it sets up an opposition between
God and Jesus, or, trinitarily speaking, between two persons of the Godhead.
Proponents of substitutionary atonement, who very often are also biblical inerrantists,
feel the need to explain Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross (“My God, My God, why
have you forsaken me?”) in terms that fit within their theological presuppositions. To do
so, they take a verse from the book of Habakkuk that says God’s eyes are too pure to
look upon evil (Hab 1:13), combine it with the idea that our sin is what has broken God’s
law and earned us our death sentence, to get one of the most perverse doctrines ever
to receive wide acceptance in the history of the church. They say that at his darkest
moment, the Son of God, who has experienced unbroken communion with his Father
throughout all eternity, suddenly feels forsaken because … well, because God has
forsaken him. In order for Jesus to forgive our sins, he has to take those sins upon
himself, so God piles on him every sin committed by every individual in the history of the
world, past, present, and future. Then, because God is too holy to look on sin, God
actually turns away from Jesus at his moment of deepest need.
This is abhorrent theology. Not only does it paint God as a cold, calculating, inflexible,
abusive parent, but it also neglects the profound truth that Paul expresses in 2
Corinthians 5:19, that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (NLT). But
abhorrent or not, it is a logical outgrowth of substitutionary atonement.
A third major problem with this atonement theory is the violence at its heart. The whole
predicament is set up as a kind of courtroom drama, with Jesus as the defense attorney
for the human race. When he realizes it’s an open-and-shut case, that we are as guilty
as sin, so to speak, he takes the extraordinary measure of offering himself in our place.
But because our offense was a capital crime, the only way he can pay our penalty is to
die. The author of the book of Hebrews declares that no one can be forgiven without the
shedding of blood. Substitutionary atonement theory therefor says that Jesus’s blood is
necessary for our salvation. If his blood is not shed, we remain under God’s judgment
and wrath. The whole scheme is inherently violent.
I believe, however, that Jesus came to reveal a nonviolent God—one who sends rain on
the just and the unjust alike, refuses to root out the evil weeds sown among the good
wheat, and commands us to love our enemies and “forgive everyone indebted to us” (v.
4), as today’s gospel lesson tells us. If nonviolence is a central characteristic of God, if
“God does not kill,” as Elias Chacour says adamantly, then how can we blithely accept
the violence of substitutionary atonement as the most adequate way to understand what
happened on the cross? There must be another way of looking at it that is more in line
with the character of God as revealed by Jesus.
There is. In fact, there are a variety of other ways to understand the atoning work of
Christ, but I want to focus on one in particular. One that goes all the way back to the first
century. One that we can find, in fact, in today’s reading from the letter to the
Colossians. It’s called Christus Victor, because it depicts the cross as the means and
emblem of Christ’s victory over the powers that hold the world in bondage. In verse 15
of the passage we read earlier, the writer says of Jesus, “He disarmed the rulers and
authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].”
The imagery comes from the world of first-century warfare, in which victorious generals
would march home leading a triumphal parade, sometimes called simply a triumph,
consisting of generals, soldiers, and booty they had captured. The enemy commanders
had to bear the public shame of their defeat before the eyes of the victor nation.
In Christus Victor, the predicament in which human beings find themselves is not a
sentence of death due to sin, but rather bondage to and oppression by what the New
Testament writers variously call rulers, powers, authorities, thrones, and principalities.
Some have pictured these figures as spiritual beings such as angels or demons, but
scholars such as Walter Wink offer a more nuanced view. For Wink, a combination of
factors go to constitute the powers. The actual human being holding a position of power
is involved, of course, but there is also power invested in the position itself, and there is
an inner spiritual nature that animates and finds expression in the outward form. Pontius
Pilate, for instance, was a powerful person, but his power derived not only from his own
personal attributes but from the power inherent in the position of Roman procurator of
Judea and from the spirit of Empire that he represented. In a similar way the high
priests were the outward manifestation of the power of Tradition, Religion, and Myth that
had molded the Jewish people over centuries.
When the writer says Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over
them in his cross, not only is he making the counterintuitive or even paradoxical claim
that Jesus’s death on the cross signaled the defeat of those who conspired to put him
there, but he is also saying that it wasn’t just the high priests and procurator who were
disarmed and defeated. It was the whole system of oppressive power that created the
conditions in which a good man like Jesus could be put to death. It was the domination
system, to use another of Wink’s terms. Jesus took on this system nonviolently
throughout his whole life. The system used the violence at its disposal to put him to
death, but God reversed the verdict, vindicating Jesus in the resurrection.
By raising Jesus, then, God invests the cross with its meaning and power. God did not
put Jesus there—the powers and rulers representing the domination system did that—
but God did use Jesus’s death to disarm the system and make a public example of it.
The powers exposed their true nature by condemning and killing the one who had come
to disclose God’s true nature as nonviolent love, but in remaining faithful to his vision of
God to the very end Jesus was able to absorb all their violence and hate within his own
being. When he rose up on Easter morning, he brought the powers with him … as
captive prisoners in his triumphal procession.
The Christus Victor theory of the atonement, unlike the substitutionary model, is rooted
in the real historical events of Jesus’s life. He got himself into trouble with the powers
through his subversive proclamation and enactment of the reign of God. He died not
because God needed a sinless sacrifice to take the place of sinful humanity, but
because in its sin humanity had created a system in which violence and oppression
ruled, and had become so hopelessly enmeshed in that system that they could not
recognize the incarnation of God in their midst. There is violence in the Christus Victor
scheme, to be sure, but God is not the author of it, either against the world or against
Jesus. The violence originates with the domination system, but Jesus, like a master of
jujitsu, lets the system’s own momentum cause its downfall.
So what happened on the cross? Did a vengeful God take out his wrath against
humanity on his own son so that we could walk free? Or did the nonviolent emissary of
a nonviolent God come up against a violent adversary and defeat it in the most
unexpected way imaginable? I find the latter scenario much more faithful to the
character of God that Jesus came to reveal. At the cross the justice and radically
inclusive love of God encountered the oppressive violence and hate of the domination
system … and won. Not by fighting fire with fire, but by flooding the darkness with light.
The struggle goes on, of course. Jesus has shown us the path to victory, and has in fact
won the decisive battle of the war, but the armistice has not yet come. In our own time
we see powers and rulers seeking to impose their vision and will on the world. We see a
system empowered by racism, xenophobia, deceit, and violence seeking to spread
those qualities ever wider throughout our society, the world, and even the church.
But here is another difference between the Christus Victor and substitutionary images of
atonement. In the latter, we have no role except to believe and accept the salvation
Jesus’s blood offers us. The whole transaction takes place between God and Jesus in
some otherworldly spiritual realm. In Christus Victor, on the other hand, Jesus shows us
how to win the victory, but doesn’t do it for us. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our
faith, but we must utilize our faith to emulate him if the reign of God is to come in its
fullness. We have a role to play.
So the question, “What happened on the cross of Jesus?” serves as the springboard for
other, more personal questions. What will we do when we see our own cross looming
before us? Will we remain faithful to Jesus and his vision of God, or will we knuckle
under when the chips are down? Will we rely on love, forgiveness, and peaceful
noncooperation, or will we succumb to the temptations of hatred, violence, and selfpreservation?
Will we persevere in the face of suffering and death, trusting God to bring
about the triumph in God’s unorthodox way, or will we try to wrest the triumph for
ourselves, ostensibly using the tools and tactics of the powers against them but really
playing right into their hands?
The current state of the world makes me think that these questions may not be as
academic as they appear. Many voices are calling for our allegiance, and we may not
be able to put off giving an answer for long, even if we want to. We will have to answer,
either now or later, the one question that all these other questions boil down to: whose
side are we on?