As part of Lent, Tony Jones issued another of his ProgGod Challenges.
This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’
My first stab at Tony’s question is posted here at Patheos.
What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory (which holds that Christ dies in our place, his blood ‘satisfying’ the wrath of God towards sinners).
One of the reasons for the penal substitution theory’s staying power, I suspect, is that it ‘preaches.’
Indeed I’ve heard many a pastor worry that other understandings of the atonement- many of which are just as scriptural- lack the emotional resonance of ‘Jesus suffered God’s wrath in your place.’
Here’s an attempt to play with the traditional ‘Christus Victor’ (referencing Revelation 12) perspective in a way that’s practical and ‘preaches.’
Nearly a year ago this month, I found myself trapped on the corner of Washington and King streets in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
I was headed into Banana Republic. I don’t own many ties.
I have fewer dark ones. And that Friday I needed one, a black or a grey one. Because the night before, Jack, the little boy from our confirmation class, had been pronounced dead as I held his hand in the ER.
I was in a hurry, still feeling numb. But standing there on the corner, blocking my path, were 4 or 5 men and women. Evangelists.
A couple of them of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of a lake of fire, a 7-headed dragon and a terrible-looking lion with scars on its paws.
At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women…and children…looking terrified, looking like they were weeping.
A couple of them were passing out pamphlets.
I tried to slip by unnoticed. One of them tried to hand me a tract, so I just held up my hands and said ‘I’m a Buddhist.’
But the young man blocking my path wasn’t fooled. He pointed at my open collar and said: ‘But you’re wearing a cross around your neck.’
‘Oh, that.’ I feigned surprise.
The young man looked to be in his twenties. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us.
He handed me a slick, trifold tract, gave me a syrupy Joel Osteen smile and said: ‘Did you know Jesus Christ is coming back to Earth?’
Then he started talking, with a smile, about the end of the world.
I flipped through his brochure. It was filled with images and scripture citations from the Book of Revelation.
‘Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots’ I mumbled.
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘Oh, just thinking out loud.’
Then he asked me if I was saved. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘Jesus Christ was returning to destroy this sinful world, but that Jesus loved me and wanted me to invite him into my heart so I could be spared the tribulation.’
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm.
Sometimes, I have a tendency to be abrasive.
But that Friday, the day after Jack, what I felt rising in me was more like…anger.
‘Lemme get this straight’ I said. ‘Jesus loves me so much that before he casts me and everyone else into the lake of fire and destroys all of creation, he wants to give me the chance to accept him as my personal savior.’
The evangelist smiled and nodded his head and immediately tried to close the deal, telling me I just had to accept that I’m a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross in my place.
Because he was still standing in my way, I decided to push his buttons.
‘Why the cross?’ I asked him. ‘Why does Jesus or anyone have to die? Why can’t God just forgive us?’
He gave me a patronizing chuckle and said: ‘But God can’t do that!’
‘God can’t do that? God can create everything from nothing
but God can’t forgive?’
He just nodded like this was the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s why Jesus has to die on the cross.’
‘So what you’re saying is…my salvation hinges on how persuasive I find you- out here with your huge signs with dragons and lions on them?
Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic.
‘I’m not sure you understand how serious this is sir’ he said to me.
‘Oh, I got it. I just think its more serious that you don’t understand the cross or Jesus Christ and don’t even get me started on the Book of Revelation!’
It was right about then I became vaguely aware that I was creating something of a scene. A small crowd had stopped and were watching us like it was the scene of an accident.
And I could tell from the PO’d look on his face that this evangelist was now much less concerned about my eternal salvation, and if he could he’d probably volunteer to throw me in the lake of fire himself.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Maybe you should talk to a pastor instead’ he said.
‘Yeah I’ll think about it.’
My assumption is that for most of you the Book of Revelation is like that acid-trip, boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
I’s like those Cosby Show episodes where Cliff Huxtable sneaks a midnight hoagie and then has whacked out dreams of pregnant men who give birth to toy boats and more sandwiches.
And why not?
Revelation is filled with bizarre, crazy images: dragons and horsemen named Death, lions that look like lambs, robes dipped in blood, pregnant women and numbers pregnant with meaning and above it all this image of a boot-stomping, butt-kicking Jesus Christ.
And my assumption is that, like those evangelists on Washington and King, you assume Revelation is about the future. That it’s like a visual morse code, warning us of what’s to come.
But when we treat the Book of Revelation like a Ouija Board that predicts the future, we miss the fact that St John writes down this vision God gives him, sneaks it out of the prison Rome has locked him in, and he sends it out to his churches not not to warn them of what’s to come one day but to remind them of what has already come to pass, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.
The Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future.
It is instead in scene after scene, in image after image, in symbol after symbol, about the cross.
It’s about the cross.
And not only that- as bizarre and crazy as Revelation might seem to you, if you don’t understand what John’s trying to convey, then you don’t understand the cross.
Here in chapter 12, John describes this vision of a heavenly battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God.
On one side of this battle is the Dragon, whom John identifies as Satan.
But John doesn’t stop there. John gives the Dragon 7 heads and 7 crowns, the same number (everyone of John’s churches would’ve instantly known) as the number of Roman emperors from the regime that killed Jesus to the regime that threw John in prison and now persecutes his churches.
So John draws Satan as a dragon, as serpentine, and then costumes it as Rome to remind you that the powers that once killed Jesus and now persecute his People- this is the Evil that’s afflicted God’s creation from the very beginning.
On the other side of the battle that John sees is the archangel Michael, who in the Hebrew Scriptures personifies the power and might of God.
And in the middle, in Satan’s sights here in chapter 12, is a woman crowned with 12 stars- that’s Mother Israel, with her twelve tribes, from whom comes the Messiah.
Now notice- it’s the archangel Michael, the power of heaven, that throws the Dragon down, but notice what John says: it’s the blood of the Lamb that conquers and defeats the Dragon.
You see what he’s doing?
St John’s telling you the same story the Gospels tell you.
He’s telling you the Passion story- only not from the perspective of those gathered near Jesus’ cross but from the perspective of heaven.
What John wants you to see is that if you could sit down in Heaven’s throne and look down upon the cross and see it as the angels see it, then what you would see is a battle, a cosmic battle.
That when Jesus collides with the powers of Rome and the religious authorities and the mobs who scapegoat him and the friends who betray him, what’s really going on is that God, in Christ, is colliding, once and for all, with the Powers of Sin and Evil and Death. Satan.
It’s not that the cross is about placating an angry God who demands blood.
It’s not that there’s something in you, something about you, called sin that keeps God from loving you until someone dies for it.
It’s that there’s something called Sin-with a capital S- in the world, outside us, all around us, that transcends us and victimizes us and dupes us and seduces us and enslaves us.
And God loves us so much that he takes flesh in Jesus Christ in order to throw the Dragon down once and for all.
John wants you to see that’s what’s really going on in the Passion story is that the Powers of Sin and Evil do their worst to Jesus:
He’s betrayed by one of his closest friends.
Peter, who’d sworn to always be there for him, to be with him till the end, swears Jesus off not once, not twice, but three times.
In the Garden, when Jesus is afraid for maybe the first time in his life, his friends aren’t there for him.
He’s spit on, struck and ridiculed.
He’s accused and lied about.
He’s stripped and mocked and beaten down and then he’s condemned.
To be nailed to the cross:
Where he’s stared at: naked and shamed.
And abandoned by everyone, including- it seems- God. Everyone but his mother and a friend.
The Powers of Sin and Evil and Death do their worst to Jesus.
And how does Jesus respond?
Jesus never retaliates.
He never says a word in anger.
He never curses those who curse him.
He never raises a fist and strikes back.
He never prays for God to avenge him for what they’ve done to him. He never gives in.
Sin and Evil and Death do the worst they can do to him. And then three days later…guess what?…he comes back.
Jesus lives God’s love and forgiveness till his dying breath, and three days later his grave…is empty.
He wins. He conquers. He throws the Dragon down.
John wants you to see that from the foot of the cross Jesus might look like a suffering servant. But from the front row of heaven he looks like a boot-stomping, butt- kicking warrior.
Who wins with love.
What’s Good News about the cross is not Jesus’ death.
What’s Good News about the cross is that the cross is where the Powers of Death go to die once and for all.
What it means to be a Christian is to be believe that in Jesus Christ on the cross something cosmic and objective occurs.
Evil has been defeated and all that’s left of it in our world is like the last gasp of a dying enemy.
If you miss this…
The cross is not about individuals getting forgiven so that they can be with God in heaven when they die.
The cross and the empty tomb are God’s way of vindicating the life of Jesus; they’re God’s way of saying that love and forgiveness triumphs. Period.
And if that’s true, then it’s true not just on Good Friday, not just on Easter.
It’s true today and tomorrow and in our everyday lives: that the way we conquer and overcome and triumph over the sin and evil done to us is with love.
If I’m honest, I think what angered me most about those evangelists on the street corner- especially on the day after Jack- is how they made John’s Revelation seem so other-worldly.
And I know that for most of you any scripture about Dragons and Armed Angels and Women Crowned with Stars sounds very unrealistic.
It doesn’t seem to have much to do with this world, with this life, with your life.
I know that most of you have always assumed that any scripture with Dragons and Angels and Women Clothed with the Sun must be about some Future, not the Here and Now.
Then again, for many of you, I know something about your Here and Now. What’s it like.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now who’ve been betrayed, who’ve been sworn off by someone who promised to be with you always.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, for whom those closest to you weren’t there for you when you needed them the most.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, who know what it’s like:
To be struck
And ridiculed. Insulted and rejected. Lied about.
And I know there’s plenty of you in the Here and Now caught with someone else in an endless tit-for-tat, someone with whom you can’t resist returning every insult with a dig of your own, someone for whom you save one or two outstanding, unforgiven memories just to hang over their head and keep the upper hand.
I know there are plenty of you in the Here and Now who believe in Jesus Christ, who say you have faith in him, but still have someone in your life for whom you insist it’s impossible to forgive, someone in your life with whom no accusation can go unanswered, someone with whom you can’t put away the sword, turn the other cheek or show compassion or pray for the opposite of what they’ve done to you.
I know plenty about your Here and Nows.
So maybe, despite all your assumptions to contrary, you need John’s Revelation to tell you that the Battle’s over, that the Enemy’s lost, that the sin and evil in your life only have their dying breaths left.
Maybe you need St John to paint his pictures of the cross to remind you that you don’t need to give in to what’s going on in your life.
You don‘t have to become what was done to you.
You can overcome. You can conquer. You can triumph.
But only with Love.
Because the love of Jesus Christ has already won.
Maybe you need St John to challenge you: to have more faith in the power of Christ’s love than you do in the power of Sin.
Maybe in the Here and Now, as bizarre and strange as it might sound, you need someone to tell you that the Dragon’s been thrown down.