Spinning the Cross

Spinning the Cross July 19, 2013

David Hayward's latest cartoon will probably be controversial in some circles. But on one level, it reflects a very mainstream understanding of what happened in the early church. Jesus' followers thought he was destined to be king and restore the kingdom of David. They were so persuaded that, when the Romans crucified him, their belief system found a way of adapting, rather than merely abandoning that central conviction that Jesus was the chosen one. However much else one might wish to say, or speculate, this element of things is surely at least part of the story.

What resulted is an incredibly powerful idea. The idea of a crucified messiah. The idea of being called not to conquer but to love even at the cost of our own lives.

As human beings, we engage in many sorts of spinning and of worldview maintenance in response to cognitive dissonance. I doubt that there is any worldview or viewpoint that is immune from this.

And so the more interesting question is how we spin things. Some have turned the cross into a revelation from God that it is better to give than to receive, that lives sacrificed in faithfulness are preferable to values and convictions sacrificed when it is expedient to us to do so.

Others have turned the cross into a temporary setback, an instance of God allowing people to literally get away with murder simply so that he can whack them all the harder when payback time comes. And at the same time, they have turned the cross into the centerpiece of an elaborate system in which God's hands were tied and thus forgiveness impossible except for this one event – allowing those who embrace that system to cast aside the humility required to follow a crucified messiah, and exchange it for the conviction that they alone have access to salvation. What some have interpreted as evidence of divine generosity, others have turned into a symbol of divine miserliness, as God allegedly offers a free gift, but then has wrapped in such an illogical, complicated, and incomprehensible packaging that few will ever take advantage of this special offer, even though it is proffered and promoted with all the rhetorical flourishes one might expect on the shopping channel.

Theories of the atonement are not divinely-revealed truths. They are human attempts to make sense of a human death. And just as is true of our images of God, so too our interpretations of the cross reveal important things about ourselves, our values, and what really matters to us.


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  • Jakeithus

    Lots of interesting points raised in this article, thank you for that. I do have some issue with “Theories of the atonement are not divinely-revealed truths. They are human attempts to make sense of a human death.” Not the part about the theories not being divinely-revealed truth, but that by only focusing on Jesus’ death and not his resurrection, I think the most important part of any theory of atonement is overlooked.

    Maybe that was implied and I missed it, or else it wasn’t touched on because the cartoon focuses solely on Jesus’ death, but that was just what came to mind in my reading.

    • Ian

      Isn’t the implication of the cartoon that the resurrection is just a form of spinning the crucifixion? It is an interpretation of the seeming failure of Jesus, in the way that religions very commonly spin the failure of their predictions: that the prediction did actually happen, just in the ‘spiritual realm’.

      • Jakeithus

        That’s certainly one way of looking at the cartoon, depending on what you believe about the validity of the resurrection accounts.

        I would have to say though that the resurrection, as traditionally understood, has never been simply an appeal to the “spiritual realm” as proof of Jesus’ triumph. The disciples appeal was always to an empty tomb, not merely to some spiritual reality.

        Regardless of what an individual may think of the resurrection today, early Christians weren’t simply responding to Jesus’ death when formulating theories of atonement, but a death followed by a physical, bodily and widely witnessed resurrection.

        • Ian

          If you follow the model I’m suggesting, the empty tomb becomes part of the spin too. Explanations have consequences, and events are constructed in the light of objections.

          The empty tomb was a separate and probably later tradition to the ressurrection, which was initially in the form of visions (even stalwart believers such as NT Wright and Panenbourg make this point). Perhaps arising out of apologetics against objectors “if Jesus rose, what about his body”. Certainly the Pauline material is very concerned with Jesus’s death and resurrection visions, but does not mention an empty tomb tradition.

          So the idea being that you have a motivating event, a theological innovation, spiritual visions, apologetics and then a canonicalisation of all of the above in a semi-mythological historiography. This process, incidentally is very common: we see the same general structure in the emergence of the Latter Day Saints movement, and in the forming of Seventh Day Adventist doctrine following the Great Disappointment, as well as in the foundation of more modern religious movements such as Scientology (though in the latter case, one has to be careful about vocabulary, since they don’t have a ‘spiritual’ category in their self-conception).

          So, the emergence of the early Jesus movement is consistent with how we know new religious movements come to be. And the empty tomb narrative first comes onto the scene a little later: as a post-hoc rationalization of the resurrection visions, as you’d expect.

          It could also be that, in this case, unlike the others, a miracle did actually happen.

          [edited for clarity]

          • Jakeithus

            Thank you for your response Ian. What one thinks about the empty tomb certainly has a great influence on the debate.

            I have one objection to raise, surrounding your assertion that it is generally accepted that the empty tomb was a later addition to the Christian testimony. I’m regrettably slacking in reading much of NT Wright, but a quick Google search shows me that he believes a bodily resurrection and empty tomb are both early and central to Christian thought. Perhaps you are privy to some of NT Wright’s work that I am not aware of. As well, that same search had a different website site a bibliographical survey showing 75% of scholarly works since 1975 speak to the historicity of the empty tomb.

            In the end, it just struck me as slightly off to speak of the theories of atonement as flowing simply from the death of Jesus, and not the more important half (in my opinion).

          • Ian

            Yes, there was a break there which I didn’t make clear at all.

            Wright and Panenbourg (who I use as examples because they do believe in the resurrection as historical) both state that the resurrection vision tradition is distinct from the empty tomb tradition. – BREAK -. So perhaps the empty tomb tradition arose out of objections, given that it appears in the record later (a view which has broad scholarly support, I can see books on my shelf by Crossan, Casey, Ludemann, and Ehrman. But one what many do not hold, such as James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus).

            I didn’t make the change clear enough, sorry.

            I’m not sure how you get the 75% figure. Its been perhaps closer to 50% in stuff I’ve read, but I confess I could be heavily biased because the arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb don’t convince me, not even James’s! But, having said that, I’m not at all dogmatic about it. It seems highly plausible to me that an empty tomb could motivate the resurrection story, rather than the other way around.

            On your last point. There’s a very important sense in which you’re right, even on my model. The idea of the resurrection is early, even if it is initially spiritual and mediated through visions, as I suggested. And, after that point, once accepted by the community it becomes a fact to be interpreted. So any atonement theory has to take account of not only the crucifixion but also the resurrection. That process continues as more theology is added: as we have a more divine Jesus over the 1st century, atonement theory has to incorporate the divinity of Christ. So, in a sense, me nitpicking on the ’empty tomb’ was just pedantry. You’re right, but you being right does not imply that what I was saying was wrong, I think (though I may well be wrong, of course).

          • Jakeithus

            Thank you for your clarification. I think it is more just us approaching approaching the topic from different perspectives than either being wrong.

            Perhaps youre right about the empty tomb being a later developed tradition. Although at least in Wrights case, even if it was recorded later, he holds to there being an understanding of bodily resurrection from the very beginning rather than spiiritual or in visions, as there was no concept in Judiasm for a non-bodily one. If your model was correct, the language might be of exaltation instead, which would have a similar spiritual effect without the baggage of bodily resurrection.

            I can’t speak to the methodology or accuracy of the statistics I provided, just found it interesting. Im sure we can agree that a sizeable minority of scholars may doubt an empty tomb, even if we disagree about how convincing their case might be.

          • Nick Gotts

            This article:The Shame of Jesus’ Burial by Byron R. McCane (a Christian NT scholar) looks relevant here. Look for yourself, but the basic idea is that Joseph of Arimathaea was a member of the Sanhedrin, who would have wanted Jesus taken down and buried before nightfall in accordance with Jewish law, but that he was “buried in shame”, without the usual mourning, probably in a tomb reserved for offenders against Jewish law, and that Jesus’s followers did later “spin” this, but tell-tale signs of it remain in the gospel accounts. Also: “Certainly few–if any–of Jesus’ followers directly witnessed his death and burial, and the glamorized Christian stories of his interment cannot be trusted to describe wie es eigentlich war”: if any of his followers witnessed the burial, it was probably from a distance. Which provides a very simple explanation for an empty tomb: whoever went to try and dress the body next day, went to the wrong tomb (being strangers to Jerusalem, and having witnessed the burial, if at all, from a distance and in a highly emotional state), which was empty for the simple reason that no-one had been buried in it. Obviously a lot of the details in the gospels would have to have been added later, but can anyone see an obvious refutation of this possibility?

  • Gary

    It would have more impact (but stir more ire) if the business suits (I assume are either lawyers or political consultants), were bishops, priests, and monks. Underline “boys”. Or have “then” and “now”.

  • newenglandsun

    The inverted crucifix. Used as a symbol of Satanists, Luciferians, and to some extent Pagans but by all who show strong hatred toward Christianity. It is used because it is found to be agreed upon, the most offensive symbol by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians alike.



    Often times shows an emaciated Christ figure on it.