Why the cross?
I’m sure this will prove to be an interesting discussion, as the cross and all of the different atonement theories often prove to be fodder for some rather intense conversation…so, let’s see where all of this takes us. But first, let’s take a look at some images of the cross – some of these may be familiar, and some may be new. Take a look through these, and share any thoughts you have on specific images. What do you think each artist is trying to say about the cross in a specific image?
Atonement was described to me in a college theology course as “at-one-ment.” It was the way in which God allowed Godself to become “one” with us. As you read in the article, there are a host of different ideas when it comes to atonement theories. The theory initially proposed by Anselm was highlighted first, which has become known as the substitutionary atonement theory – and is probably one of the most common (especially among more conservative Christians). This idea that God paid a debt that we, ourselves sinners, could not pay otherwise. The article then went on to highlight a few other theories:
The Cross as Forgiveness: Jesus’ death on the cross somehow “enacts” forgiveness for the sins of humanity. Jesus only speaks about this idea a little bit, but it’s what many of us hear often during Communion liturgy, when we quote Jesus in saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
The Cross as Inspiration: Abelard was one theologian connected to this theory of the atonement, because he thought it was “cruel and wicked” that God should need to kill God’s son to bring about forgiveness. This idea is essentially that Jesus gave his life for us in such a way that it would be a moral example to us, an inspiration that we too should find ways to live lives that are so focused on self-sacrifice, love and thinking of others.
The Cross as Revelation: Through the cross, the heart of God is revealed. Both that God’s love for us is so great that God would come and do such a thing for humanity, and that God has truly experienced anguish and suffering, so we too know that God’s presence is with us when we are going through a traumatic event and suffering ourselves.
The author of the study summarizes the work of the cross in the following way:
“The death of Jesus might just have been another installment in the sorry human epic of torture, injustice, and death too soon. But by the resurrection, it is transformed into a death with profound meaning. First, somehow this death bears forgiveness. Second, somehow this death brings inspiration. Third, somehow this death brings revelation.”
What are your responses to the different ways of understanding the cross? Does one of them sit better with you than others? Do you find yourself really not connecting with one of them?
Probably the best known version of the substitutionary atonement theory is a more specific version called the penal substitutionary atonement theory, which is essentially the version that Anselm came up with. A short description straight from Wikipedia is:
It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.
Tony Jones, a theologian, author and good friend of mine, is blogging about alternatives to the penal substitutionary atonement theory all during Lent. You might want to follow him at his blog here. But you can already read two of his posts below:
So – after seeing some different images of Christ on the cross (one that I didn’t use was a screenshot from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” because it is so graphic, but that’s another image that has made it into the mainstream), and after hearing about some different ideas of atonement and understandings of what happened on the cross…what are you thinking about? What additional questions does this raise for you?