Crucifixion was a form of state torture. It was not meant to kill quickly. Its purpose was to degrade and humiliate a person utterly, to reduce them to a non-person.
The most popular model for understanding the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion in American piety is the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Beginning when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans have arrogantly rebelled against God and broken God's laws. These evil acts alienate them from a righteous God, and for them they justly deserve the punishment of death. But in God's mercy, God takes our own place as the one who is punished. God sends the Son to earth to be a substitute for us. Though innocent, Jesus is punished vicariously, and takes our death upon himself. The glorious nature of his obedience and the depth of his suffering and death satisfy the demands of divine justice, allowing the righteous God to forgive guilty sinners and reconcile with us.
This view of God's saving work in Christ is deeply problematic, in two ways. In its portrayal of God, it mixes love with rage and violence. God is enraged at us enough to kill us. Yet God nevertheless loves us enough to send the Son to die for us. God's love is qualified, surrounded at all points by the Father's rage and threats of condemnation, violence, death, and eternal rejection.
Further, by portraying God as ambivalent and violent toward us, the model functions to support violence. For persons already shamed, it deepens it. Their "badness" as persons was the cause of the Father sending the Son to be brutalized. For victims of trauma, it prevents them from getting out of abusive relationships and blocks their healing. The traumatic experience shatters the victim's self, disempowering them. They become isolated, cut off from family and friends. They are told they deserve the suffering because they are "bad." When love and punishment are both present, the effect is worse. For such persons, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement sends these messages: The suffering of the innocent will save someone—the perpetrator, the victim, or God. God supports it. And the ultimate Christian virtue, love, is interpreted as selflessness. With this myth of redemptive violence, it finally functions to sanction human violence in the penal system and in international relations.
Many progressive Christians counter this destructive interpretation of the cross by rejecting the doctrine of atonement altogether. Jesus saves us through his life, not his death. He passes on to us what he had—his passion, moral sensibility and wisdom for how to live. On Good Friday, humans reflected their worst behavior and executed a good man. Jesus' crucifixion is not salvific at all.
This view has its own problems, however. Beyond conflicting with the tradition, it has a hard time connecting with the gospels, which place the passion narrative at the heart of the saving work Jesus accomplished. It misses the one great strength of the penal substitutionary model: The idea that Jesus does not merely point us toward a method we can use to save ourselves. Rather, he accomplishes salvation, and enables us to participate in that definitive change in the human situation.
There is a third way, one that combines the strengths of both extreme models above, while avoiding their serious weaknesses. In Part III of my recent book on atonement, I argue for this third way. In it, I concur with the sharp critics of penal substitution. God is non-ambivalent and nonviolent, loving us with an unqualified love, one not surrounded by threats of condemnation, violence, rage, and death.Yet I also concur with the tradition: Burdened underneath the weight of sin, suffering, and tragedy, we human beings need a savior. And the gospel news is that we are saved by One outside ourselves—Jesus. This third approach entails the keeping of tensions present within the gospels' stories of the cross. God is holy, but the holiness of God is present most in the mercy of God. What happens on the cross saves the world, and it ought not to have happened. The way Jesus died saved the world, but so did the way he lived. In Jesus' work, salvation is a finished act, yet it is not one that happens "over our heads." It inspires the human response of personal and social transformation. Jesus saves, and the Holy Spirit saves.
Retaining these tensions found in the gospel stories produces models of atonement that are more complex than the two models above. But they are closer to the tradition, truer to the New Testament, and resonate more fully with our human experience of human frailty and God's salvific power. Though more complicated, these "third way" models make Jesus' crucifixion, while a horrific event, understandable and hope-filled.