The Cross, Part 6: They Should Have Sent a Poet

Like most six-year-olds on their first day of school, I remember sitting excited and terrified.  My desk was made of grey metal and blonde wood, with a square laminate tabletop angled in such a way that your pencil rattled down if it wasn’t placed in the dark groove.  In the right corner was my name, hand-written in black ink on a narrow, white piece of paper scotch-taped to the desk.

As a class, we sat with our backs rigid in anxious silence, the girls in white blouses and plaid skirts, with knee-high socks and black, mary jane shoes; the boys in white dress shirts with navy pants, neatly pressed and creased.  I can still recall the smell of chalk dust and bleach.

The teacher sat at her desk scribbling in a notebook, waiting for the bell to ring. She was a nun in full habit, pale hands and a stern face the only flesh showing.  In my little six-grade mind she looked ancient, silver eyebrows, deep crow’s feet around her eyes and lined wrinkles on her forehead.

The bell clanged, jarring us, but not our teacher.  She gracefully put her pen down and rose, then glided to the front of the classroom.  She spoke slowly, enunciating each word in a thin voice, reciting a speech she obviously had given a thousand times before about the rules.

I don’t remember the list, but I do remember her closing remarks.  She pointed to a picture of Jesus that hung above the center of the blackboard.  It showed only his face, in agony, with sweat and blood streaming down his cheeks.  He wore a large crown of thorns on his head.

“If you break any of these rules,” the nun said.  “Or, if you are naughty in any way,” she gazed at the portrait. “Then another thorn gets pushed into the head of our Savior.”

That’s penal substitution.

Well, sort of, because we still got paddled. Which made me more afraid of the nun than hurting Jesus.

The crucifixion has multiple facets of truth.  And in my last two posts I’ve summarized the major views on atonement, and hopefully I’ve provoked some thought by demonstrating that there are some real weaknesses.

And I wonder if a part of our problem in comprehending this event stems from the fact that in our day, the vocabulary most used to describe what happened at the crucifixion comes from the legal world.

For to me, describing the cross in strictly punitive terms is a lot like letting lawyers define marriage.  Are they really the best people for the job?  Granted, at one level marriage is a legal contract between two parties.  But whenever a judge is called into the conversation it’s usually because things have broken down so badly that the law must intervene.  It’s sad.  But you can’t understand marriage by only studying what happens when you have to call 9-1-1.

When we want to learn about marriage, most of us turn to our parents, or a counselor, or Shakespeare, or Shrek 3, or that couple in your church who has been married for fifty years and who still stroll down the street at sunset holding hands.

My guess is that very few of us, if any, turn to a dusty law book.

Before there was Neil deGrasse Tyson showing us the universe, there was Carl Sagan.  As a teenager, I watched the original Cosmos series on PBS, and I still remember the wonder that Sagan conjured.  It motivated me to read his books, including a science fiction novel he wrote entitled, Contact.

You may have seen the movie, starring Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer name Ellie. The story begins with her praising the scientific method to a group of children.  And as the narrative progresses, Ellie defiantly defends science as the only legitimate way to understand truth.  And yet, her credentials as a scientist were questioned by her more serious counterparts because Ellie had devoted her career to listening for aliens. So the bad guys shut her down.

In true Hollywood fashion, Ellie is saved by an eccentric and insanely wealthy patron who gives her a second chance.  And she is soon vindicated as the aliens give us a call.  They send a message that describes how to build an enigmatic machine with a capsule seating one person.

[A bit of a spoiler alert here] Ellie fights for the job, and in the end, she gets her chance.  Turns out, the machine whisks the individual off through a wormhole.  As the capsule containing Ellie drops into the monstrous contraption, she is yanked on a journey through the cosmos.  The capsule dips and turns as if on your worst nightmare of a roller coaster ride, stopping from time to time to give Ellie an awe-inspiring view.  In short, she is shown what awaits the future of humanity.  She narrates her experience into a video recorder, hoping that at least her journal survives, even if she does not.

At the climax of her journey, Ellie sees an especially inexplicable scene.  And it’s at this point that she’s confronted with the fact that all of her training as a scientist was failing her in this moment, perhaps the most important one of all of human history.  With tears forming in her eyes and in a rare moment of humility she whispers,

“They should have sent a poet.”

Maybe one of the reasons why atonement has been so problematic to understand is because before the inexplicable image of the cross, the language of law just breaks down.

Maybe the language of literature is better suited to allow for all the nuances and complexities.  Because the cross is not found in a courtroom presided over by a judge.  It’s on a hill, surrounded by humanity, with God in the center, and it’s the most important moment in all of human history.  Like all good dramas, evil and good are on full display, and the fate of the world is at hand.

And YOU, my dear reader, are there with your recorder.

The question is: What are you going to say?

Read Part IIIIIIIV and V of Kelly Pigott’s Lenten series on The Cross at Patheos.

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott

  • Marcion

    “And YOU, my dear reader, are there with your recorder. The question is: What are you going to say?”

    This story is poorly written and filled with plot holes. Sorry if that comes across as rude, but the story of the crucifixion makes no sense no matter how you slice it. The basic problem is a combination two things:

    1. Jesus dying doesn’t actually accomplish anything. This is the big one. Did Jesus conquer death? No, because people still die. Did he save us from our sins? No, because people still sin, and those sins still have horrible consequences. Did he liberate the oppressed of Judea? No, the Romans would rule palestine for another 600 years. All Jesus does is die.

    2. An all-powerful god is burdened with arbitrary restrictions. God doesn’t need Jesus to die to accomplish his ends since he’s omnipotent. He doesn’t even need it to send a message, since he could just beam the knowledge directly into people’s heads.

    Maybe the reason the atonement has been so problematic to understand isn’t because the language of law just breaks down, but because the crucifixion makes no sense.

    • Funsize

      I’m guessing you didn’t read the story. Check it out: We look at defeating death as a spiritual thing. Hence why Hell if referred to as “the second death,” why we talk about our ETERNAL souls. Again, sins are looked at in the spiritual realm, beyond this period in life. I don’t recall him ever having needed to have had to liberate Judea .-.

      God said that in order for sins to be forgiven, blood must be spilled. How did people atone for their sins in the OT? With blood sacrifice. Hence Jesus as our Passover lamb. It’s just the way he choses to do things. He gave us free will to chose him or reject him, what he’s doing now is rooting out those who don’t worship him. How would you feel if someone forced you to love them? It wouldn’t be genuine.

      • Marcion

        Why does god need blood to be spilled to forgive? He’s omnipotent, so forgiving should be trivial for him. It sounds suspiciously like a tradition from a primitive, brutal culture awkwardly grafted onto a modern religion.

        For that matter, why wouldn’t god just create beings who would freely choose to always worship him? He’s omnipotent, so he can do that. And free-willed beings who always choose the good are totally possible according to christian theology, since that’s what heaven is like.

        EDIT: I think I’ being a bit unfair to you, so I’d like to ask: How, exactly does the death of Jesus defeat death and sin in a spiritual sense?

        • Funsize

          Not at all! You’re just asking questions, and that’s perfectly okay. Questions lead us closer to the truth, where would we be without them? I don’t have all the answers, but I would like to try and answer the the best of my ability ^_^

          I would presume it would be tied to part of the punishment after the Fall, but really it’s just the method he chose.

          He did create them in the beginning. “Adam” and “Eve” desired to please God, but were tempted and sinned, leaving this desire to sin to their ancestors. We liken this ancestral sin to a disease that is passed down from generation to generation. Of course, most Progressives don’t believe this story, so you’ll have to have someone from their end of things to explain it to you ^_^’

          In the spiritual sense for death, Hell is considered the “second death.” Therefore, by defeating death, we have “eternal life,” this being heaven. Sin in the spiritual sense in that we are now forgiven of our sins, we being “dead to sin but alive in Christ.”

          • Marcion

            Why did god make sin hereditary? It seems like god could solve the whole problem if he just changed our DNA to remove the sin genes. For that matter, he could make it even easier by just creating everyone in heaven. That way, nobody would ever go to hell and Jesus’ sacrifice would be unnecessary.

            Also, I’m still not sure why god needs blood sacrifice to forgive. I’ve forgiven people without blood sacrifice, why can’t god?

  • LornaBethS

    ” it’s the most important moment in all of human history”. . . no, that would be the Resurrection which is what makes Jesus’s death more than just another death. (Other than that God died.)

    • Kelly Pigott

      The journey to the resurrection began at the crucifixion….

  • Sterling Robertson

    I would disagree with most people by saying that the most important moment in human history is when Judas kisses Jesus’s cheek, betraying him to Roman guards. Had that not happened, Jesus’s mission for salvation of the entire human race would not have occurred.
    Then, we have that cursed tree which we nailed an innocent man to. The one, truly perfect human being, divine by rights, was treated so inhumanely that even the strongest among us cringe. My only moment of relief is when he utters, “It is done.”
    At that point we are forgiven our sins in the eyes of God. I still carry some guilt for being part of the people who cried out for his crucifixion. But, it had to happen, no? And Judas had to be there, no?
    Maybe I’m just looking at it all wrong. I don’t know.

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