The Cross as Victory

The Cross as Victory November 18, 2018

I was going to write the words below when sharing a link to Bob Cornwall’s post about forgiveness as a theological construct. But as I developed my thoughts, I decided it might be better as a post on my own blog. Here is what I was (and of course still am) inclined to share:

The meaning of the cross is not that Jesus somehow makes it possible for God to forgive us, or persuades God to do so. The meaning of the cross is that the one being mangled and killed by unjust social structures doesn’t merely forgive, but does so in a way that overcomes those doing it to him both personally (not simply playing the role of passive victim) and socially (beginning a process that undermines and transforms them).

Whether or not one believes in an afterlife, and if so in what form, turns out not to matter to this particular subject as much as one might expect. There are individuals who conquered their would-be conquerors in and beyond death even if they do not persist consciously as a soul or rise again in a new body. This is not to say that one should not believe such things – just that it isn’t essential to viewing Jesus as victorious in and beyond death. This is important, however, because of a tendency many have to focus on rewards in an afterlife as what really matters, as an end in themselves rather than a solution to a terrestrial problem of injustice. Often, in doing so, the end result is to prop up and maintain injustice rather than combat it – whether in life or in death. Jesus’ death is not a victory because this life doesn’t matter. It is a victory because he chooses to love his enemies to the end of his life, and then beyond it has an impact on his followers and ultimately the world that transforms it in powerful ways.

On that topic, see also Emma Higgs’ post about whether belief in an afterlife is good for humanity, and Jonathan Jong’s article about religion as a means of managing the terror of death, in which he writes:

On my more cynical days, I interpret the Church’s reminding us that we must die as a ploy, a means to sell to the faithful their opiates. But this runs contrary to my own experience of Christianity. The Bible is much less interested in what happens to us after we die than in what Christ’s defeat of death means for us here and now. It is clear, for example, that baptism — our rite of initiation — is meant to be a kind of death: it is a symbolic drowning. The point is not that we will one day die but that we are already dead, men and women walking unencumbered by the trappings of life in an often cruel and vicious world, red in self-protective self-destruction. The famous ethical injunctions — to turn the other cheek, to sell our possessions to give to the poor, to love our enemies — flow from this basic premise that we are no longer our own but have given ourselves up for the sake of a world in desperate need of love.

Of related interest, Keith Giles wrote (having been accused of “heresy” for not holding “the right view” of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished:

Everyone is someone’s heretic. At least, that’s my opinion these days. Whenever someone calls you a false teacher or a heretic, what they really mean to say is: “Your theology isn’t the same as mine. I can’t be wrong about anything, therefore you must be a heretic.”

What these people don’t realize is that, to someone else, they are the heretic.

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  • John MacDonald

    James said:

    It is a victory because he chooses to love his enemies to the end of his life, and then beyond it has an impact on his followers and ultimately the world that transforms it in powerful ways.

    Two questions I would have is if the concern was transforming the world, (1) Why Paul would say people’s faith (and, perhaps by extension, religion in general), is “in vain” if Christ is not resurrected (1 Cor 15:17)?, and (2) Why Paul thinks that if the dead are not raised people should just do whatever they want because soon they would die (1 Cor 15:32)?

    • Neil Brown

      I think James was writing about the forgiving power of the sacrifice on the Cross, and you are asking about the life-giving power of the resurrection.

      I think they are distinct, though related, topics.

      • John MacDonald

        It is certainly a complex question, and I am only guessing at it here because I probably have less biblical hermeneutics background than anyone here – lol (I was not brought up with religion and never took a course on it). What I was trying to do with my above comment was contrast “faith” with “unfaith” in Paul to phenomenologically coax out of hiding part of the Being of what Paul understood by faith (physis kryptesthai philei -> a-letheia). Perhaps the deficient forms, (i) Faith that is “in Vain” if Christ is not raised (1 Cor 15:17), and (ii) An approach to life of gluttony and drunkedness people have when the don’t believe the dead are raised because they are just going to die anyway (1 Cor 15:32), brings to the stage that for Paul faith is not really about ethical social reform, but rather preparing people for the imminent apocalypse and what their behavior will have to be like when the Kingdom of God on Earth is realized (Christ being raised as the first fruits of the harvest -1 Cor 15:23, and the rest of the harvest soon to follow).

        • Neil Brown

          I’m always a bit wary when the NT talks about “life” and “death” – the writers seem to blur the line between life in the sense of “having breath” and life in the sense of “having the Spirit” – the linguistic difference in Hebrew and Greek is non-existent, so you have to depend on context. And when Jesus said “Let the dead bury their own dead” he was apparently using both senses in the one sentence – he was such a joker!

          My thought is that Paul’s point here is that the faith that he and his readers have in Christ is a faith that they will attain whatever it is that he (Christ) has attained. This “whatever” is sometimes called “eternal life”, though whether the Greek is referring to a “quantity” of life or a “quality” is apparently uncertain.

          In any case, it is a long-term goal, and if Christ didn’t actually achieve it, then there isn’t much hope for us, so we may as well attend to the pleasures of the flesh as nothing else matters. I suspect Paul is being a bit hyperbolic, A key point (that he makes elsewhere) is that next to whatever it is that Christ offers us, anything else seems worthless.

          I think Paul certainly focused his teaching on personal gain for his readers – as did Jesus. Whether they were promising eternal life, a full life, rest for the weary, to “never thirst”, a new kingdom or whatever, the immediate focus of the teaching was to benefit the individual (it makes sense to play to our selfish side).
          But when we look to the long term and the big picture, we see something much more. The particular way that Jesus appealed to our selfishness appears chosen to engineer a much bigger change in society. This is, I think, what James was getting at.

          Jesus did (it seems) intend massive social reform, but he didn’t set about doing it by changing the social contract or the law of the land. He set about doing it by changing individuals, and by appealing to their innate selfishness.

          Dying on a cross might not seem very selfish, but it is important to remember that our western individualistic world view is quite different to the world view in first century Palestine. Still today, the middle-east has a much stronger sense of community than we are used to, and a strong sense of family pride and family shame. To an individualist, death might seem pointless. To someone whose first priority is the honour and strength of the family and the community, it might seem quite different.

  • Al Cruise

    ” ultimately he world transforms that into more powerful ways.” Why would this matter if there were no afterlife? We know by studying the earths history through science many different forms of life were on this planet and then completely wiped away. Science is again showing that life threating changes are taking place, ( global warming ) for one. Most scientists now say it is irreversible. If in a thousand years humans were exterminated from the earth and evolution began to create some different life form, our lack of social justice would have no relevance to anything. Why should it matter now when scientific evidence is rock solid ( pun intended ) that life in many different forms has appeared and disappeared on this planet. Does anyone today care about the value system of Neanderthals? Is their behaviours used today to make changes to our legal and political systems?

    • Neil Brown

      I think that in this context, “world” does not refer to the planet, but to the totality of human culture. This is who the word greek word “Kosmos” – often translated “world” (for God so loved the world) tends to mean in the NT.

      • Al Cruise

        It still wouldn’t matter if there is no afterlife. Culture is only culture when observed by conscious awareness. If all that awarness disappears into nothingness, the values of the culture would be irrelevant. Nothingness would be an absolute, exempt from a need to “transform”.

        • Neil Brown

          As long as there are any members of the culture still alive, there is conscious awareness. Yes, when the sun explodes this will all be irrelevant, but a single death – even mine – doesn’t make it irrelevant.

          • Al Cruise

            If there is no afterlife and everything is just a fluke chance then your life is irrelevant. It’s only revelant to your conscious awareness because you’re deciding to believe that. As far as eternity/Universe goes it is irrelevant with no afterlife. If you died today or 10 years from now it would make no difference to nothingness. Nor would how you lived matter.

          • This is only true if one takes an extremely egotistical and self-centered (if admittedly extremely common) view of meaning. It is the eternal version of saying that it doesn’t matter who survives a disaster if I personally don’t survive. It takes a view of afterlife created based on the conviction that God would reward those who sacrificed themselves even beyond death, and turns it into something that says that no self-sacrifice is possible because there is no real death. And it makes the focus of meaning the individual human ego(s) rather than God. If God persists, and if our lives have an impact on that which (or one who) persists forever, why could that not be enough? And if one insists that one must live forever as an individual, in what sense could that future entity be “you”? Either you would have to be transformed to a radically different kind of existence that makes it unclear what continuity there could be with who you are now, or you would forget over time things in the distant past until eventually every moment that you currently think it is crucial to have continue forever would no longer be within your recall.

          • Al Cruise

            I have heard this argument before , it’s your personal assumptions and ambiguous at best , no facts or logic. It is a philosophical view which like many others will be blown out of the water in a few years when a new group takes over. We do not believe God rewards, God is much deeper than that. As one who has worked with the dying, and with others who do also, we see clear evidence of an afterlife. Especially with the least amongst , people dying who have no one but us because the are rejected by society, homeless, vets with ptsd, improvised people and the like. The question “Why could that be not enough ” is very telling that you would ask that. That suggests what “you” want things to be like, and you cleverly present it as an absolute, the same as fundamentalist evangelicals present their arguments. Also interesting that you began your reply to me with words ” egotistical and self centred”.

          • Why does my asking you why X is not enough for you, imply that I am either inclined to prefer X (as opposed to thinking it is all we have), and what on earth makes you think that asking a question means I am presenting it as an absolute? You seem to be allowing defensiveness to cloud the clarity of your response.

          • Al Cruise

            I apologize, I did over react. My position of belief in life after death, comes from experiences with comforting/love of the dying. Especially with those whom are the least among-st us and would otherwise die alone. Discussing these events with many others who do the same, we find that these experiences are universal around the world, and do not follow any theologies or philosophies. The point I am trying to make is there is a huge gulf between looking at death through the lens of academia [Theology and philosophy] and experiencing it take place on the front line in the real world among-st all cultures and situations around the world.

  • Joris Heise

    At 82, after a lifetime in the ministry in the first part, an education from special ed students,,, daily readings of both Scripture and commentaries, friendships with reflective Jewish thinkers, and prayer–I have found a realization for myself that echoes much of what you write. Jesus (and you and I) are the children of God, a Father. Now God is also pure Mystery, and gender needs to be set aside..But at the Baptism of Jesus (or thereabouts–we take the scripture more as inspiration than history)–he appreciated–and that is a key word–that He is a Beloved Child of God–as we all Are (or we would not exist!). The next step in him and us is to see that the world is God’s not ours–and that it is all a gift (and challenge and “portfolio/talent” to be invested), with its complexities, contradictions, death, life, cancer and Alzheimer’s, crusades and some Chinese woman in the 12th century–it is ALL God’s beloved world.

    Fath in that insight gets us or at least me past unreflective obedience and into family. love, a different thing altogether–and law becomes the guidelines directed at adult children, not rules for mechanical behavior. Jesus realized as he went out healing the sins (in their world–but ultimately in the Egyptian world of ma-at, and our world) of blindness,, possession/addictions, and other deep flaws in our universe unrelated to morality. and then He died, destroyed by that same Sinfulness–which, like the holocaust of old, transformed nature into the ruah (attitude/spirit/insight/view), the ethereal, the super-nature, the realm of God which is no longer time. Jesus was raised to that other sphere by dying as he did. His person was raised–and they knew that far better than we later generations who got entangled into body-soul problems.

    I agree with the writer that, like Jews then and now, Jesus probably had little interest–and probably no belief–in an “after-life” such as is held by so many, many Christians today. This is a conclusion here at the end of my life….