Reflecting on Jesus’ Cross

Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2012

I was part of a panel during Holy Week at Eastern Mennonite University on “Heaven, Hell, and the Cross of Christ.” Each of the five speakers was given five minutes. That’s right, five minutes….

A challenging assignment indeed. The point was to stimulate discussion for the audience, largely made up of college students who, by their attendance, were signaling an interest in theological reflection. It was a worthwhile evening. The five speakers, perhaps a bit surprisingly, mostly reinforced each other’s perspectives and the discussion was lively but respectful. And, for me personally, certainly the discipline of trying to say something meaningful and coherent in five minutes was useful to submit to.

However, we left one rather significant issue on the table that didn’t get addressed. The audience constructed a list of questions for further discussion following the opening presentations and some small group processing. We worked through most of the questions, but ran out of time before we could to get to them all.

The question left unaddressed had actually been addressed to me and one of the other panelists by name. When I saw the question, I began working on a response in my head. So I was a bit sorry that we didn’t get to it. The nice about having a blog, though, is that I can address the question here.

Was Jesus’ death necessary for our salvation?

This was the question: Was Jesus’ death necessary for our salvation? I think that question points to the differences that probably were present that evening but that weren’t faced. Our harmonious discussion might have become a bit more contentious had we gotten to this question.

[Actually, a big part of what stimulated the occurrence of this event was the visit to our campus of a traveling musician for “Spiritual Life Week” who presented an evangelical salvation theology assuming Jesus death as a necessary sacrifice to make salvation possible. Several students challenged him, leading to some contentious meetings. This musician wrote quite provocatively on his blog about his EMU experience. But we didn’t quite get back to these issues in our event.]

Here is what I was thinking about when I was trying to formulate a response to the question, was Jesus’ death necessary for salvation. First, I would want to resist the question a little in the sense that Jesus’ death did in fact happen, and his death is clearly linked with salvation in the Bible and Christian tradition from the very beginning. So we can’t imagine that Jesus didn’t die or that his death wasn’t linked with salvation. So it’s not really meaningful to posit that Jesus’ death wasn’t “necessary.” It simply is, as a fact of history, part of the salvation story.

But, the question of how Jesus’ death is meaningful, or (if we want to use the language) in what sense it is necessary, is important and interesting.

I see two general ways of thinking about this. Many theological thinkers want to suggest that we can and should try to hold elements of both ways together rather than polarize the discussion into an either/or debate. I tend to be suspicious of this option. I tend to think that if we allow elements of the first way I will describe into our theology, they tend to take over—even if by adding elements from the second way we try to diminish the harshness of the first way.

The first way: Jesus’ death offers satisfaction

The first way, then, would be to say that Jesus’ death was necessary in the sense that salvation actually depends upon it happening. Jesus’ death, in this view, was a sacrifice that made God able to provide saving forgiveness in a way that could not happen before. A term used for this approach is “satisfaction atonement” with the sense that there is some element of God’s character (God’s justice or holiness or honor) that needs to be “satisfied” by the kind of sacrifice only Jesus as the spotless offering could provide.

In this view, then, salvation requires some kind of change on God’s side of the human/divine divide of alienation. God needs this sacrifice in order to forgive because to try forgive without it would violate God’s justice/holiness/honor, leaving it unsatisfied. Hence, to turn to the three topics we were asked to address in our presentations, the cross of Christ makes it possible for seekers to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf as their means of finding salvation (i.e., “going to heaven” instead of “going to hell”—hell being the eternal fate of those who due to their sin have violated God’s holiness and are justly condemned unless they trust in Jesus as their savior [and the one who offers the satisfaction God needs on their behalf]).

The second way: Jesus’ death is part of the story of mercy

The other way would argue that the problem in the divine/human divide of alienation is strictly on the human side. God does offer (and always has offered) forgiveness to sinners without requiring satisfaction beforehand. Because of being blinded by the powers of sin and the impact of idolatries, because of viewing God in a fearful instead of trusting way, human beings have been unable to recognize God’s mercy for what it is (certainly some have, but many have not).

What is needed, thus, is for human beings to actually see God for who God is, to see God’s mercy as available and as a resource for healing and transformation. The Bible tells the story of God’s work to provide this sight and to break the hold of the powers and idols on humans that separate them from God. Jesus’ death on the cross comes near the end of that story and is close to the climax of the story. The most powerful and effective way that God communicates God’s love to humanity (and reveals the corrupting dynamics of the idolatrous powers) is by becoming human, loving free from idolatry, showing amazing love in concrete ways, and resisting the powers’ violence by consistent peaceable living. The powers can not accept this witness to life and conspire to put Jesus to death. Thus, the cross is a crucial (“necessary”) part of Jesus’ revelation. The climax of the story, though, is not the cross but God’s act to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

The cross, in a different sense, is “necessary” as a step to this victorious vindication. The victory, though, is not in the violence of the cross to provide a necessary sacrifice to God. The victory is in God’s nonviolent love that accept the powers’ violence without retaliation but defeated that violence through the gift of life in resurrection.

So, in this second view, we could say that Jesus’ death is a necessary part of the story that begins with creation and continues through the history of Israel and Jesus’ life and teaching. The salvation here, though, is not in a death that offers a satisfying sacrifice to allow God to forgive. Rather, the salvation is in the love of God offered from the start to all who would simply turn to God. The role of the cross is to show just how committed God is to nonviolent healing love, to show just how violent and rebellious the idolatrous powers are even as they demand loyalty from human beings as “God’s agent for good,” and to provide the context for God’s ultimate, healing love expressed in resurrection that defeats the violence of the powers.

The cross, heaven, and hell in the biblical story

The comments I made in my five minutes did not address these two alternative ways to see meaning in Jesus’ death. What I tried to do was to provide a nutshell account of the biblical salvation story that reflects the second way. I did not have time (I thought) overtly to address the contrast between my understanding of this salvation story and the way of satisfaction atonement. As it turned out, we didn’t get to discuss this crucial contrast. Apparently, though, I was clear enough to trigger the “necessity” question.

This is what I said to open the panel discussion:

I believe that God is love. God created what is out of love, including human beings—created in God’s own image. God created humanity so that God could love us and so that we could love God, and each other. Such loving relationships involve freedom. Love is free—it may be embraced or it may be denied.

That is, out of love, God created human beings with the freedom to love back (or not). The account in Genesis tells us that the first human beings did choose against loving God back. It is significant that right after Adam and Eve violate God’s command, God still goes down to the Garden to hang out with them in the same way God had been doing all along. But the human beings hid—they were afraid. What changed in this relationship came on the human side, not on God’s side.

I believe that God has continued to want human beings to be whole, to find healing from the alienation and brokenness caused by humanity’s turn away from God (notice that immediately humanity is plagued with the curse of violence when Cain murders Abel). But humans have tended to trust in things, in idols, rather than in God.

The Bible is basically the story of God seeking to restore humanity to wholeness, so that the paths of love for which God created us may be the paths we walk. Over and over again, God acts to bring wholeness. The main saving acts of God have been taken totally at God’s initiative, as acts of pure mercy—intended to bring healing and to empower human beings to respond with faith and love and to live in wholeness.

I’m thinking of the calling of Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a people who will bless all the families of the earth. They did nothing to earn or even to deserve God’s generosity. Then there is God’s intervention to bring salvation to the Hebrews who were enslaved in Egypt, then to give them the Law (or Torah) to guide their lives as saved people, and then the promised land as a place to embody this saved life shaped by Torah. And then, even as the chosen people follow Adam and Eve in turning from God’s love and suffer terrible consequences, God remains committed to God’s promises and restores them after a time in exile.

God’s people continue to struggle with being a blessing and with trusting in idols, and in time God directly enters human history in the human life of Jesus. Jesus re-emphasizes that God is love and that God seeks tirelessly to bring healing to a suffering humanity. Jesus models a life lived free from idols, dependent upon God alone.

Tragically, this embodiment of God in the flesh leads the powers-that-be in politics and religion, who had benefited from years of being idolized, to join together to kill Jesus. As it turns out, though, God vindicates Jesus and his life by raising him from the dead—in that way, as Paul wrote, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col 2:15).

The cross joins with the resurrection—and the faithful path the Jesus followed to get to the cross. They serve as the clearest and most profound statements possible of God’s continued initiative to bring healing to humanity. They also reveal the nature of the idols and powers. These powers claim to act on God’s behalf while actually serving to separate people from God when they demand loyalty that belongs only to God.

So, this is the point of Jesus’ incarnation, his faithful life, his willingness to be executed by the Roman Empire, and God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection: He reveals as nothing else could that salvation, healing, eternal life, heavenly existence, are available due to God’s mercy for all who will receive them. Jesus made this point most emphatically in his story of the Prodigal Son. The wayward son (clearly an awful sinner) finds salvation simply by turning back home. His father (representing God) does not even wait for a confession—he simply embraces the son and calls for a party.

However, the original dynamic in creation continues—humanity created in God’s image with the ability to love God back (or not). Thus, it always remains possible for human beings to say no to God’s love. That freedom is simply part of the nature of love. So hell, separation from God, the transformation of the idol worshipers themselves into the lifelessness of what they worship, remains a tragic possibility. However, the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation provides a sliver of hope that God’s love might outlast even the hardest of hearts. We are told that the gates into the New Jerusalem are never closed (21:25).

11 thoughts on “Reflecting on Jesus’ Cross

  1. Hi Ted,

    I found your post helpful to my own thinking at present. I have for my entire Christian life subscribed to the ‘satisfaction atonement’ view and only recently stopped to question it. It was recently while listening to a speaker, discussing the criminal justice system and questioning the issue of the ‘redemptive power of violence’, that I began to have serious doubts about this interpretation of what happened to Jesus and why. Your interpretation of the role of the resurrection does help to shed light on my present search for an answer. I am all to familiar with the explanations to a question, ‘Why blood?’, but have never been entirely comfortable with the view of God that they inevitably portray. – Thanks again for your helpful thoughts – Tony

  2. Thank you for this. It seems to fit with the overall impression of Jesus that we get from the New Testament, a person filled with love, mercy, sincerity, and a desire for people to find wholeness, or healing. I love your last two sentences, especially the “sliver of hope that God’s love might outlast even the hardest of hearts”. It is our only hope.

  3. The belief that someone must die runs through many cultures and primitive religions. In the Hebrew scriptures this was moderated, in that they were told they didn’t have to kill children like cultures around them did, but it was still very much present in animal sacrifice. Today we may regard this as barbaric and not making much sense, but it was integral to the priestly tradition. But in the Hebrew scriptures, that view was challenged very strongly in the prophetic tradition and sometimes in Psalms.

    Jesus generally follows the prophetic tradition. But there are echoes of the priestly tradition in the New Testament sometimes when talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. He is shown as being essentially condemned to death by the bearers of the priestly tradition, the Sanhedrin, and you do have the statement by the high priest (John 11:50) that it is better that one man dies than the whole nation (which here means the Hebrew people) perish. That statement implies that it is irrelevant whether Jesus was “guilty” of charges against him or not.

    I don’t think a reading of scripture which assumes everything that is said is God’s view unless it is specifically indicated otherwise makes sense in view of the clear presentation of inconsistent points of view, including most importantly for this discussion, the need for sacrifice of blood. I think it makes more sense to read scripture as the story of God’s actions in the world and the way people view that and act. It is a story which progresses, but not always in a straight line fashion. We need to look at the great themes throughout scripture about God’s greatness and love in our interpretive lens, rather than get mired in a literalist approach which can never really provide a satisfactory explanation.

    I might note that the idea of human sacrifice remains in our society, albeit not described in quite that manner. It is interesting to note the number of death penalty cases where a person whom those prosecuting have ample reason to know did not commit the crime, but nevertheless insist on trying to bring to conclusion in an execution. I think the only reasonable explanation for this phenomenon is this sense that the important thing is that someone die. There are instances where the prosecutors have some vendetta against the victim or a particular ethnic group from which most victims come, but in many cases this is not evident, so I think the human sacrifice explanation makes much more sense.

    The Good News is so good that our tendency is to doubt it because it seems too good to be true. I think sometimes the reaction is to try to mitigate its goodness so it better fits our perspective rather than God’s. The idea that God had Jesus killed because blood had to be shed is, I think, part of that reaction.

  4. Ted, while I find your argument illuminating, largely persuasive, and a helpful corrective to much traditional salvation theology (here, and in your previous posts), I do wonder whether “satisfaction theology” is trying to preserve something critical–namely, the seriousness of human sinfulness (idolatry/rebellion/captivity to the Powers), the costliness of God’s self-giving in order to break sin’s grip, and the importance of human response to God’s even-unto-death loving initiatives.

    Within the biblical salvation story, quite a few times God does appear to allow humans to reap the consequences of their choices to distrust divine love and to idolize the Powers. To be sure, God always keeps the door open, is steadfast in love, and reaches out again and again to create new possibilities without demanding a payment. But God’s people must accept these divine initiatives. “How can I give you up!” (Hos. 11:8) co-exists alongside “Choose you this day who you will serve” (Josh. 24:15–the way of life, or death—it’s up to you) and “take up your cross and follow me [if you call me Christ]” (Mk.8:34).

    Many Christians at some level seem to worry that diminishing or abandoning penal substitution will invite a sloppy agape that ignores the depth and chameleon-like complexity of human sin, cut the nerve of human response, and fails to take human choice seriously. (Kind of like the university here in China where I teach—students always seem to pass and get their degrees, even if they do no work, fail their exams, and permanently skip class.) To the Pharisees, the Loving Father of Luke 15 could probably be accused of sloppy agape. Still, he did let his Prodigal Son go off and make a mess of his life. And while the son did not have to pay a penalty to receive his father’s welcome, he still had to stumble back home.

    Can a mercy-based salvation still talk seriously about human responsibility and consequences?

    1. Thanks once again, Philip, for your challenging thoughts and questions. You touch on several crucial issues that I would like to address at more length than I can here, hopefully in another blog post in the near future. Let me just mention a few points that I will want to delve into.

      It could be that “satisfaction theology” is trying to preserve the three items you mention—but these are precisely points that I think it proves inadequate in accounting for. That is because that theology has a legalistic view of sin that actually does not take the actual dynamics of human sin seriously enough, especially the role of the Powers and idols in enslaving humanity. And that theology has it almost exactly backwards in its account of how God “breaks sin’s grip”—positing more, “necessary,” violence rather than a total rejection of violence. And that theology focuses on faith-as-belief as the appropriate human response to God’s initiatives rather than a total change of orientation in this life that leads to embodied shalom here and now.

      I agree that these three items are crucial, but I think the “second way” I sketch in my original post does a much better job in addressing them.

      Central to this second way, as I state in the 5-minute talk I gave, is the significance of human free will. And God indeed does respect this enough to allow for the “reaping of consequences.” But God is passive in this process. It’s actually a defeat for God when this happens. For satisfaction theology, God is active in punishing and God’s justice, et al, receives positive vindication when such punishment happens.

      It seems clear to me that satisfaction theology is trying to protect God’s justice/honor/holiness, not human freedom. The focus is on the “objective work of Christ” that occurs totally outside of our choices, responses, and practices. The mercy-based salvation I am advocated is much, much more concerned with human responsibility. There is no salvation without our active participation and allowing God’s love to transform our lives and empower us to faithful living.

      More to come….

  5. Ted,

    Given my close relationship with the Weather Vane staff, I’ve been following the events on campus with great interest and have (of course) read Shaun’s blog posts and the WV articles that prompted them. I find your treatment of the issue of atonement, as ever, very helpful and well-articulated, especially, when so many people are flustered and off-put when others challenge their particular theologies. This post gives me fond memories of class, too. 🙂 Keep up the good work!

    1. Jason! 1:38 am—I thought being a married man would encourage you to keep more humane hours….

      Great to hear from you and I appreciate your encouraging words. I meant to include a link to Shawn Groves’ blog in my blog post to people could get a better sense of the discussion. I’ll do that now—albeit way too late.

      I have fond memories of class as well.

  6. Ted
    Yes, Yes, Yes it is/was that man has/had to change, not the God had to change, because God loves us, the people he called to tell his Gospel, and all of the rest of us that got grafted in the light of their unbelief.

    But it is also true that again and again, the message is given that sin causes death. That the wickedness of a nation, causes great punishment to that nation. And sometimes it is said that God is active in that process, just as The Father isends the rain to the just and the unjust.

    I agree that too often, we take the judgmental position, assuming that we must punish evildoers, and if we must, than certainly that is what God does. Often in the Bible, God is described as involved in some mysterious way in the consequences that men and nations suffer for their sins. I think that: sacrifice for sin is somehow a deep part of our conscience. The sacrifices of lambs and other animals were somehow looking forward to God’s sacrifice of His Son, a sacrifice from Love not God’s anger or God’s need for satisfaction of a required penalty. For me this is mysterious, I don’t and probably can’t completely understand all of the connections, but then I don’t need to rule the universe.

    Man/I needs a change, a new birth, a new heart, and somehow that is tied up with Jesus death and Resurrection. For me to know God loved us, loved me that much is an deep part of my faith in God.

    Praise to God and to the crucified Lamb of God

  7. Hi Ted! I’m new to your blog but I am really enjoying your take on theological issues. My comment is not in regards to your main topic but in something which you perhaps inadvertently presented.

    First I should say that I come from (maybe soon out of) the Evangelical Bible Church tradition. One of the main aspects of this tradition which currently has me quite distraught is that everything can be explained and understood – and therefore believed as a requirement for fellowship, and, to some, for salvation. The path of a good Christian journey becomes one of learning more and more “truths.” My current position is that this journey has the sad tendency of causing us to miss the main, essential, truths of God.

    One of the things you presented in this post was a five minute articulation of the entire Bible, to include God’s plan of salvation. Brilliant! Every single believer ought to be able to do this – in five minutes give a complete presentation of the Bible, including all which you believe to be essential.

    I will be traveling to Africa for three weeks in May/June and this is really my main message I will be taking to local pastors. Christianity does not need more study on particular traditions/interpretations of each book/passage of the Bible. We need to be able to articulate the main themes – those which are clear – and then live out these truths in our communities while teaching others to pass on the message.

    Sorry to soapbox ramble on your blog but you inspired me and gave me confirmation that this is the correct path.


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