The Meaning of the Cross: The consequences of the human quest for autonomy and what has been done to set things right.

Posted: 12 December 2011 in Faith and Life
Warning: Christian Theological Stuff Ahead. Not for all tastes…

I – A Song from My Childhood (and a question)

Among my earliest memories.

I will sing of my Redeemer,

And His wondrous love to me;

On the cruel cross He suffered,

From the curse to set me free.

Sing, oh, sing of my Redeemer,

With His blood He purchased me,

On the cross He sealed my pardon,

Paid the debt, and made me free.


Question: To whom did the Redeemer pay the debt that purchased/pardoned/liberated me?


II – Scriptural Prelude

Texts that shed light on God’s dealings with humans.

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 3)

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us” And Samuel prayed to the LORD.

The LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day–in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods–so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8ff)

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9)

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He… might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2)

At that time Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize me.” (Spoken at his arrest—Matthew 26)

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor questioned Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He did not answer. Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” And He did not answer him with regard to even a single charge, so the governor was quite amazed.

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over.

While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!” And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!” When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27)

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23)

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. (I Corinthians 15)

III – Scriptural Allusions to/Images of What Happened At or as a Result of the Cross

A non-exhaustive but fairly complete set of images/allusions

  • Healing (by his stripes)
  • Bringing peace
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Triumph over death
  • Gifts given to humans
  • Rescue from darkness
  • Canceling of debt
  • Disarmed rulers and authorities
  • Made a public display over rulers
  • Taking away of sins
  • Liberation
  • Bearing of the sins of others
  • Bringing those who were far off, near
IV – The “Logic” of the Fall

The fall plunged all humanity for all time into the imperative of a world of “eye for eye” justice.

The myth of the fall provides a clear story of humankind’s desire for autonomy: its desire to throw off the constraints of “needing” God; its desire to live freely, unencumbered by the responsibility to others, to community, to family, to God. Too harsh? Jacques Ellul has argued that the development of our “technique-focused” world is based on a desire to be free. And while he acknowledges that the development of “technique” means we can plausibly argue that individuals are not “responsible” for what we collectively do, we are not “free” (personne n’est libre). Garrett Keizer[1] refers to the entire autonomy project as the “dream we no longer admit”, noting that the fact that we do not admit it does not mean that it does not remain our collective dream. And so we ate (eat) the fruit—making it clear to God that we will make our own decisions (thank you very much).

Once we had eaten from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” we knew the evil of which we were and are capable. Not being God, we were unable to provide a viable way to protect ourselves from this evil and the knowledge of it pushed us to build and accept a justice system that would—we hoped—keep it in check: a system of penalties and punishments built around the imperative of “an eye for an eye”—blood for blood.

This was the only system that would work when we became aware of the reality of the evil of which humans—apart from God—were capable. This is the logic of the fall: bloodshed is the inevitable consequence of the fall–its only logical outcome given our knowledge, given our fear of what we might do—given our knowledge of what exactly we are capable of.

And so we get a justice system, which simultaneously saves us from the worst ravages we could inflict on one another and condemns us to lives of fear. And even as it “saves” us, because the system was and is a human system, it seeks its own autonomy—its own liberation. And that leads to its eventual degradation into something destructive. The human system is not a benign thing but a great power which must eventually seek its own liberation.

V – How God Reacts to our Quest for Autonomy

We do not want to be God’s robots and apparently God does not want that either. The result: we get what we want—and, arguably, what we need, to survive given our choices.

The story in Samuel would seem to provide a lesson in how God has worked throughout history. God allows people to choose and then sets some boundaries so we do not descend into chaos. Just as God allowed the people of Israel to have a king (not what God knew was best for humans but what humans had chosen), so in the fall God allowed the people to live with the logic of the system they had chosen. And just as God laid out (for Israel) the standards by which the kings would serve, so God laid out in the system of sacrifices—a system of which they would be constantly reminded—the imperative of the system they had chosen.

VI –God’s Alternative to the Eye for Eye System (an Early Vision)

God’s calling of a people and the reality of the human system

In calling out a people (already alluded to above), God sought to establish a model for God’s plan for liberating us from the system we had chosen and with which we HAD to live. That plan had to include revealing the human system for what it was.

The story of Abraham and Isaac does not just prefigure Christ but is also about God revealing the power of the “eye for eye” system for what it really is. In this case, the “gods” of the peoples of the region from which God’s people arose had already taken the eye for eye system and turned it into a test of allegiance to themselves. They did this by requiring the sacrifice of children (among other things) to themselves.

Thus, God was reminding Abraham of the reality and ultimate direction this system would take in a fallen world. And then God showed (in providing a lamb and eschewing the shedding of human blood[2]) how different Abraham’s God was in providing an alternative.

In so doing God revealed what the powers in any system will ultimately do even with a system that is designed to provide an ordering in creation: they will twist it to make themselves objects of worship. They will become Moloch.

(Note: Whether Moloch dresses in the robes of Caesar or the uniform of a US general he is still Moloch and God was in this story—and in the crucifixion—revealing Moloch for what he was/is and how God is different.)

VII – God’s Plan for Rescuing Humanity from the Logic of the Fall: Apocalypses

God’s plan for restoration of creation lies in revealing the failure of the human system of justice.

And so, from the outset it seems God had (and has) a plan for restoring humanity to its fullness, to liberate humanity from the “eye for eye” system it HAD to follow. His plan was to reveal the system for what it was and to provide a way of liberation from it in Christ. In this sense the entire sweep of scripture is a set of apocalypses—revelations to human kind about the reality of the system they had chosen; revelations about its enslaving power; revelations about God’s way of healing and reconciling all things to God.

To question a point alluded to earlier: what was/is the human system? What has it become?

While the imperative of the system is “merely” to punish, and thereby keep in check, the evil of which humans are capable, the system oversteps these limits, these bounds and demands blood, not just to check evil but, in fact, to further the ends of the evil of which men are capable. Thus, in the name of justice the “powers” of the world system demand blood at every turn and increasingly the shedding of blood is no longer to “atone” for, or pay for, or make amends for transgressing the law, but rather to build its own power, to build allegiance towards itself, to set itself up as “the end” to become God.

VIII – The Revelation of the Cross

God is in Christ first and foremost revealing the eye for eye system for what it is.

Jesus, the only good man (truly good, tested in ways familiar to all of us yet without sin), stands before his judge. This judge represents all the judges of all the kingdoms that have or ever will rule this world.

This judge (all judges) “ordered” (ordered as in “lined up” or “put in place”) by God to provide justice and parameters that will protect the least—allowed by God to constrain the evil of which humans know we are capable using eye for eye justice—this judge (and the kingdom, the system of which he is part) oversteps its bounds and aspires to God-status—omnipotence, omniscience, the object of worship and allegiance.

And so the judge, fearful of what he does not understand, releases a violent man and in his stead kills the only good man.

IX – The Importance of the Resurrection

The resurrection is important because it moves beyond revelation of the system to showing its impotence to bind humankind forever. The resurrection marks the defeat of the human system.

But the system that unjustly condemned him could not defeat Jesus. The only good man came back to life and showed the empire for what it was, showed the judge for who he was, showed all the kingdoms of this world for what they are:

  • Dispensers of violence rather than justice (not able even to dispense the clearest forms of eye for eye justice);
  • Oh so willing to carry out evil rather than risk losing their place;
  • Happy to go along with those who whisper in their ear or cry in the streets “we have no king but Caesar” to maintain their grip, their Lordship, their rule;
  • Ready to enslave in order to retain autonomy of action.
This is how the kingdoms of this world (that we, in our rush to autonomy, have created) act and they will call upon all of us to pay them tribute. They will promise us anything—security, all the goods of the world, happiness and endless growth—to maintain our allegiance. They will use any pretext and our well meaning attempts to navigate our way through our lives to protect and project their power—the aspiration to eternality. If they will kill the only good man…

And Jesus made a public spectacle of all of this.

X – The Meaning of the Cross

Who demanded the blood and what was the result?

And this, to me, answers the question “To whom did the Redeemer pay the debt that purchased/pardoned/liberated me?”

To an angry God?

To a hostile Father?

To the “devil”?

Clearly unsatisfactory answers all. No the perfect human came on the scene—fully man, tested in all ways as a human and yet without sin—to challenge the extant justice system. His life and words stood in judgment over it because he proclaimed a way of humanizing, restoring and recovering the sinner (the autonomy seeker) that would render the blood justice system obsolete. He challenged the survival of a “power”: the human justice system.

And so this system killed him. It shed his blood. It exacted the price. Jesus paid that unjust system with his life and, in doing so, revealed it for what it was and is—an unjust beast that will even kill the only holy man. But in paying the price Jesus revealed the bankruptcy of the system. In the resurrection he revealed its absolute limits. Going back to the song of my childhood:

He paid my (spurious) debt (to an unjust and dehumanizing) system and set me free (from its blood-lust driven demands).

In this sense the cross stands as the ultimate political statement: a statement against a political system, a justice system, embodied in all human states that have gone awry. This can only be understood if one accepts that God HAS ordered the state to play a role in the logic of the fall. In a fallen world it must mete out justice in a way that can constrain the evil of which humans are capable—what all people know to be true because we have the knowledge of good and evil. But, what we also know to be true in all the stories of the people of Israel—both their own and the story of nations around them, in the story of Rome, and in the story of every human government, (as told in Revelation 13) is that they will overstep the bounds that God has set and they will seek to become God. These are (among others) the powers that Christ disarmed and made a public display of.

The cross stands, then, as a symbol of liberation from a bloody dictatorship in that Christ paid the debt it demanded—not as a guilty man but as a just one—a debt he did not owe, and in this way revealed the utter bankruptcy of this way of salvation from evil.

So what is “salvation?”

What does it mean to “follow Jesus?”

It can only be in accepting and living into the narrative of God’s redeeming work. It must mean yielding our quest of the “dream we no longer admit” to God and aligning our lives with what God seeks to do in the cosmos.

Of course, God’s project is larger than an act of sacrifice. It is nothing less than the reconciliation of all things that were damaged, broken and distorted at the fall. The brokenness we see all around us. The cross liberated us to participate in God’s reconciliation plan by freeing us from the fear of the eye for eye system and by giving us the power live out an alternative in the world.

[1] Help: The Original Human Dilemma

[2] But! You will argue, blood was still shed. Of course it was. God was calling out a people who HAD to operate within the system they had chosen. It was a blood system. God was merely prefiguring a way through it to liberation.
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