The Cross is Too Beautiful for That! PS – God Isn’t Angry Either

'BBC Cross' photo (c) 2005, Ihar - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

The cross is too beautiful for that.

It’s too beautiful to be reduced to a simple explanation.  It’s too beautiful to finally “figure out.”  It’s too beautiful to capture in a simple tract.  It’s too beautiful to proclaim with a megaphone and a picket sign.  It’s too beautiful to be turned upside-down to be wielded as a sword.  It’s too beautiful to be used as the source of blood-guilt to manipulate people into cognitive beliefs to avoid hell.  It’s too beautiful to be properly imagined by viewing the Jesus Film or the Passion of the ChristIt’s too beautiful to be confined to one narrow explanation. It’s simply, too beautiful for that!

In the New Testament, an array of images express the significance of the cross.  Mark Baker, who is a personal friend, has written vastly on this subject (more to come on this topic in the near future).  In his book, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement[1], he first explains how the way the story of the cross has been told over the past several hundred years has led to some collateral damage.  For instance, imagine if the following perspective is your primary way of understanding the heavenly Father, when your earthly father was abusive.  It may lead to some problems with how you might attempt to relate to such a God.  On top of this, I’m not convinced that the way many Christians talk about the cross is truly biblical.

For many people, the cross and the atonement that took place there, is mostly about how God the Father needed to be appeased in order to grant humanity forgiveness. This is because God is holy and just.  When God sees sin in humanity, his justice burns with anger.  God cannot tolerate to even look at a person because of their depravity.  So, what is the solution?  God takes his Son Jesus who is holy and sinless, places him on the cross to appease God’s wrath. God the Father then, beats up on the Son instead of directing such holy wrath towards us sinners.

Therefore, when we accept Christ as Lord, our sinful self is not what God sees, but rather God views us through Jesus’ perfect holiness, allowing us to be in relationship with the Father.  This view, which is a distorted version of what is often called penal satisfaction, “can too easily lead to a situation in which we might conclude that Jesus came to save us from God” (22).

Needing to be saved from a God whose primary essence is love, doesn’t seem to be a healthy way of thinking about the cross.  It is unfortunate that many have accused Mark and others of denying substitutionary atonement, when exactly the opposite is true.  Jesus truly is our substitute from the consequences of sin, death, and alienation. Mark makes this clear when he states: “Although we raise a number of critical concerns about the model of penal substitutionary atonement, we do not reject the idea of substitutionary atonement” [emphasis mine] (25).

If we were to take a look at the relevant biblical passages, certainly the atonement (how/what the cross accomplishes) is described in courtroom language (which is where the term “penal” comes into play).  The problem is that instead of placing the story of the cross in the context of a Hebrew court scenario in which the goal is restorative, we often have assumed that the court should be one of retribution (demanding penalty or payback to appease the judge like courts in the modern West).  For a Hebrew mind, Jesus’ saving work has more to do with restoring shalom – right relationships with God, others, creation, and self.  His resurrection restores us back into such a harmony, freeing us from the powers of evil and self-deception that led to our alienation.  This only begins to get at the inexhaustible beauty of the cross!

The cross is too beautiful to portray it as an instrument of God’s wrath.  PS – God isn’t angry.  In fact, God is full of love.  That’s God’s essence.  And by the way, God is madly in love with you!

What are other ways in which The Cross is Too Beautiful for That?


[1] Mark D. Baker, ed., Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006).

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Side Note: Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement is THE book listed as Rob Bell’s recommendation for reading more about “the cross” in the appendix of Love Wins.

  • http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.com/2011/07/wonder-of-cross.html Admiralcreedy

    Thanks for this Kurt. Whilst I still think that the Atonement is best understood in terms of penal substitution, I am slowly learning to use and appreciate other models. The most read post on my blog - http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.com/2011/07/wonder-of-cross.html – deals with exactly that. This is an incredibly important and beautiful part of our faith – I don’t think we will ever understand it…

  • Luke

    I have always thought that the Hebrew mind being particularly about restoration is not always true.  When looking at Baker’s info this becomes a main argument.  Does not the Hebrew mind have it an “eye for an eye?”  When Jesus comes he tells of a woman who goes to an evil judge to demand justice  assume a fair payment or restoration.  
    I have no problem looking at all the angles and aspects of the cross as a noble and awesome effort.  However, I think that Baker’s analysis of penal substitution takes people away from the main problem.  My sin deserves death and needs something to appease God.  If we are going to call God just and going to have a relationship with him, there is going to have to be a penalty paid.   How do we get around that being the main problem?  

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @bbfc1e4f56ba39494491adb1be187bd0:disqus … I have a feeling that we wont be agreeing completely on this.  But, I will try to address your thoughts on this matter as they are quite valid.  Thanks for reading and engaging!

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      I challenge you to look at the actual Biblical texts around forgiveness, Luke.  Most (if not all) of the sacrifices that are offered are *not* penalties paid, and most (if not all) instances of God forgiving sins are not in the context of a penalty/sacrifice.  The complex narrative that is the theory of penal-substitutionary atonement is an extrabiblical narrative imposed on the text, not derived from the texts themselves.  The “main problem” with PSA is that however systematic the narrative might be, it’s not actually Biblical.

  • Dan Jr

    I love this post and agree with it fully.  The only thing I struggle with now is explaining sins role on the cross.

  • http://twitter.com/PuritanHedonist David Westfall

    Good post, though I’d qualify the closing statement about God’s wrath. It isn’t, I think, that the cross doesn’t express God’s wrath – it’s that it expresses his wrath against sin, evil, and death, and actually accomplishes the defeat of these forces (rather than simply being God’s chosen means of satisfying his ‘wrath quota’ based on the number of sins humans have committed, as I think much atonement theology has made it sound like). I’d say this victory happens in two primary ways: 1) God’s judgment comes upon the world in the crucifixion. It seems to me that this is implicit in Jesus’s statement in John, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” to which John adds the explanation, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (Jn. 12:31-33). The cross is an act of judgment against a sinful world ruled by evil that has rebelled against its maker even to the point of crucifying him; in this way, the cross brings sin to its fruition as the fullest expression of creaturely rebellion against God, a rebellion that will eventually receive God’s wrath if there is no repentance (Lk. 21:23; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 2:5 & 8). 2) And yet, the cross shows us at the same time the Creator’s utterly astounding way of defeating that evil: not by worldly means or power, but by the faith and self-giving love of his Son, who answers evil with forgiveness and invitation, and trusts God to the end that he will be vindicated even in death. In doing this, he bore God’s wrath against Israel’s sin as her representative, enabling us to be crucified with him and to have God’s wrath – which is really his love turned against sin, evil, and death – destroy in us everything that holds us from him and transform our character through union with the crucified and risen Messiah.

    To say that the cross “is too beautiful to portray it as an instrument of God’s wrath” sounds quite nice, but I think the reality is just a bit more complex. Part of the paradoxical beauty of the cross is the way in which it reveals God’s hatred of evil, and his glorious way of judging and defeating it.

    I wrote a bit about this topic on my blog, though my focus there was more on the second point I made, about how the cross defeats sin in the lives of believers: http://bearwithfoolishness.blogspot.com/2011/04/god-centered-atonement-theology.html

    Thanks for the post, Kurt!

    • Flexiwrists222

      I appreciate with your concern about God’s wrath. Why is it that God’s love and wrath cannot exist side by side. They certainly do in all other manifestations of love I know of. I am angry that people are not living in ways that promote peace, justice, and Gospel Shalom; but that should lead me to seek ways of restoring that situation into God’s reign. SO perhaps a better way of saying it is that anger does not have the last word, but rather love. However, anger is part of the divine story we live in.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Great post as always. It is a great tool for challenging the forensic framework that has dominated for so long since the early Latin translations. The Penal substitution is difficul to cull from passages which do not seem to want to lend themselves to this theory and you are exactly right, it can lead to good cop: Jesus, bad cop: God; as if God himself is not somehow identified with the act itself. Keep up the great work!

  • Anonymous

    I wholeheartedly agree with the point of your post, but I’m not sure if the cross is ever “beautiful”. I would rather say that God’s forgiveness of the most heinous crime in history (humans killing God’s son), through the resurrection, is beautiful.

    Jesus bearing the cross is, of course, beautiful love. But I wonder if there is a difference between saying “the cross is beautiful” and “Jesus’s love shown by bearing the cross is beautiful”.

  • David Warkentin

    Thanks Kurt – “beautiful” is a great description that propels our imagination to picture the victory of God through Christ on the cross, not simply limit redemption to abstract theological terms and concepts (read Rev. 4-5 be inspired for an imaginative vision of God’s victory through “the Lamb”).

    I’d just add one thing so often missing: the Trinitarian perspective  that Jesus’ death on the cross is in fact God’s self sacrifice. God is not on the sidelines with his wrathful-ray-gun-of-judgment. God himself through Jesus Christ experiences death on our behalf – and then let’s not forget life, resurrection – the victory over sin and death.

  • Jacqui Norman

    thank you for this, I absolutely agree, and I think the reason so many have got it so wrong for so long is because of a wrong balance of emphasis as to how God sees us… I felt God wanted me to write about this in September … I praise Him that He is prompting us to ‘wake up’ and many are beginning to ‘get it’. 

    In case you would like to see it, here is my blog url … http://jacquinorman.blogspot.com/

  • Keaton Brownstead

    You should write a book on this. Seriously.

  • http://boehadden.wordpress.com/ Erik

    Great post Kurt! Of course, you what I’m going to write before I write it: This is the same as Orthodoxy’s view, through and through! I highly recommend, to anyone interested, the book “The Life: The Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation” by Clark Carlton. He explains why the Orthodox reject the penal substitutionary atonement view.

    This idea (that God is not angry, and that the Cross can be seen differently) when I first came across it about 4 years ago, changed my faith in dramatic, good ways–indeed it changed my very view of God and his nature! It has made a world of difference to me and my faith.

    Thanks for sharing this very important message!

  • Anonymous

    I just finished this book last night. It’s a great book and one I plan to pass onto others. I loved the Tanzania image where a person who was outside their Father’s tribe could humble themselves and be cleansed in the blood of a lamb and reenter into the community of the tribe. I think that our salvation comes not individually, but corporately, but this image, found in their own culture before Jesus, is a powerful image to remember that the Penal Sub. does not even come close to.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      That sounds awesome! Glad you read it!

  • http://www.rekindle.co.za James Cuénod

    Seems to me that the beauty of the cross is that it’s where God’s love triumphs as sin and death are defeated by Christ becoming a curse for us and bearing God’s wrath on our behalf.
    It’s beautiful because of that.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Nice work, Kurt, though as you know well, I *do* “reject the idea of substitutionary atonement” for the simple reason that the Bible doesn’t teach it.  Whatever the significance of the cross, the idea that Jesus either (1) took on God’s wrath on the cross, or (2) died so we didn’t have to, just isn’t said in the Bible, and it takes some rather convoluted stringing together of passages taken out of context, to make that case.  Paul teaches that Jesus’ resurrection, not his death, was the final limiting factor to deal with our sins.

    I haven’t gotten around to writing it up, and I need to, but it’s very interesting to go back into the Pentateuch and look at the sacrifices that are prescribed there.  They aren’t a quid pro quo for the atonement or forgiveness of sin.  They are really better characterized–even the “sin offerings”–as an expression of thankfulness for sins already forgiven.  Plus, there are multiple references throughout Old and New Testaments where God forgives sin (and Jesus in person while on earth does the same) with no sacrifice at all.  These events must be taken as a contrast or tension to the oft-quoted Hebrews 9:22 (without blood there is no forgiveness) because in fact the Bible is full of forgiveness without blood.

    Penal-satisfaction or penal-substitution doesn’t stand up well to a really open-minded examination of the Biblical accounts.  It’s about time we finally acknowledge that.  The cross is *not* beautiful…in fact it’s the ugly, depraved worst the Enemy tried to throw at the Prince of Peace.  The beauty is in how he took, and then defeated, the Enemy’s worst.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @dwmtractor:disqus … tomorrow morning I will have a new post that gets at how I think substitution functions in atonement theology.  I think you are on to something here, but I don’t think your thoughts negate substitution out right.  You really need to read “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Baker and Green.  Its right up your alley bro!

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        Can’t wait, bro!

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewF

    Hi Kurt,

    I can’t help but feel that you’re trying to draw a false dichotomy:  either we have love or we have wrath (though I may have misunderstood you).I’m also not sure about how you seem to have elevated ‘love’ as the defining essence of God – yes God is love, but he is also just, and indeed, the only attribute of God that is emphasised by triple repetition is his Holiness, which has huge ramifications about his attitude towards sin and sinners. You tell us that God is not angry with anyone, yet the scriptures seem to say very much otherwise – that sin makes him rightfully angry. That does not preclude love, indeed, I would argue it is warranted by it! The NT seems pretty clear to me that Jesus made propitiation for our sin – that he satisified the holy, just, wrath of God in our place in the most amazing act of grace and love. God showed us his love in propitiating his own holy anger at our rebellion. In that sense then, yes, God saved us from himself (for himself). It is both retributive AND restorative. Love and wrath.


    imagine if the following perspective is your primary way of understanding the heavenly Father, when your earthly father was abusive.  It may lead to some problems with how you might attempt to relate to such a God.

    I also think there’s a fundamental problem in looking to flawed humans to understand what God is like – it ought to go the other way: we ought to look to God to see what true fatherhood is like. In his grace, we do sometimes see humans reflecting the fatherhood of God, and yes, we see terrible distortions of it too, but I think we need to get the direction right. If God is love, then we understand love by looking at God, not God by looking through the lens of our culture’s definition of love.

  • Peter G.

    “Although we raise a number of critical concerns about the model of penal substitutionary atonement, we do not reject the idea of substitutionary atonement.” This doesn’t really help the discussion move forward. The debate is over penal substitutionary atonement, not simply substitutionary atonement. Baker may comfort the ill-informed with that statement, but that’s not really beneficial to anyone.

    Kurt, where might one look in the OT to see that Hebrew courts were not concerned with retribution? And how does one read the lex talionis in a non-retributive sense? Isn’t the whole point that wrongs should be righted as they deserve to be rather than arbitrarily? Without some basic retributive principle, how does a society (Hebrew or otherwise) decide when a wrong has truly been righted? Moses certainly seems to appeal to God’s retributive justice in Gen. 18:25, does he not?

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Actually, the focus of Gen. 18:25 is exactly the opposite…appealing to the justice of God in that he will *not* demand or even tolerate the death (or otherwise punishment) of the innocent on the same scale as the wicked.  And there is implied in the passage the notion that not all are equally-deserving of punishment, which of course runs counter to the penal-substitution narrative as well.


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