The Real Meanings of the Cross

My previous blog highlighted and critiqued the “payment” understanding of Jesus’s death, the notion that he died to pay for our sins. Some responses defended that understanding by referring to the role of animal sacrifice in Judaism prior to and in the time of Jesus. And at least one represented that practice accurately.

Yes, animals were sacrificed in the temple. And sacrifices involved the shedding of blood. But sacrifice in Judaism was not about payment for sin. Its root meaning is “making something sacred by giving it as a gift to God,” and it almost always involved a meal as well. Some of the sacrificed animal as gift to God went up to God in smoke. The rest was most often eaten by those offering the sacrifice. Sacrifice was about gift to God and sharing a meal with God.

Sacrifices served a number of purposes: thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation. But they were not about “payment.” Even sacrifices of reconciliation when there was a sense of having wronged God were not about payment – as if God demanded the death of the human wrong-doers, but was willing to punish a lamb or goat or calf or ox instead. Rather, sacrifices of reconciliation were about restoring the relationship. So it is with us to this day: when we have offended somebody, we often “make up” with a gift and meal, flowers and dinner. But none of this is about payment or substitution or satisfaction.

I grant that there are multiple understandings of the significance of Jesus’s death, beginning with the New Testament itself. One respondent referred to eight. I do not disagree. But I think it is pedagogically helpful to reduce them to three.

One, though not the earliest and not the most central for the first thousand years of Christianity, is the payment understanding. The other two are not only more important in the New Testament but also more important for Christian understanding today.

The order in which I present these two is a sequence of exposition, not of chronological emergence or relative importance. Both are equally early and equally central in the New Testament. For both, both Jesus’s death and resurrection matter. They are intrinsically linked, whereas the payment understanding finds the greatest significance in his death.

The first emphasizes what actually happened: the historical circumstances of Jesus’s death. He didn’t just die. He was executed by the powers that ruled his world – a combination of Roman imperial authority and collaboration by high-ranking temple authorities. Together, they were the domination system of the time.

They killed him because, in the name of the Kingdom of God, he challenged how they had put the world together – and he was beginning to attract a following. His mode of execution is unambiguous testimony to that: crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment reserved for those who systematically defied imperial authority.

To avoid misunderstanding: Jesus did not advocate violent revolt, as some books (including Reza Aslan’s current best-seller argue). Rather, he emphasized non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time.

So it killed him. Within this historical framework, his death was the domination system’s “No” to Jesus and what he was passionate about. That is the political meaning of the cross. His resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus and what Jesus was passionate about – the Kingdom of God – and God’s “No” to the powers of domination that killed Jesus. The cross has a political meaning that the payment understanding completely misses.

The second equally early and central meaning of Good Friday and Easter is that death and resurrection are an archetypal metaphor of transformation. “Archetypal” means something so deeply imprinted in the human psyche that it seems to be from the beginning. Dying and rising is one of those archetypes, found in perhaps every religion and culture that we know about.

Jesus’s death and resurrection incarnated that archetype. This is one of the meanings the cross had for Paul. About himself, he said “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.19b-20a). The old Paul had died; a new Paul had been born whose life was now “in Christ,” one of his most frequent phrases. Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ as the foundation of Christian identity and life (Romans 6). So also in the gospels: following Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection, of dying and rising, is a major theme.

Thus, in earliest Christianity, the cross of Jesus (always also including his resurrection) was utterly central. Central as revelation of God’s passion and Jesus’s passion for the transformation of this world; and as revelation of the way, the path, of personal transformation.

Concluding questions. What is lost by letting go of the payment understanding? What is gained by recovering the more ancient and central political and archetypal understandings – that Good Friday and Easter are about personal transformation and God’s and Jesus’s passion for the transformation of this world? I invite you into this conversation.

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