Does the Cross mean “No”? Further Reflections on Christians and Other Faiths

 

William Loader

 

One of the major issues facing many Christians in relation to other faiths is the claim that in the cross and resurrection something occurred which changed the relationship between God and humanity. Widely, though not universally attested in New Testament writings, this understanding of Christian faith is strongly represented in Paul’s letters and writings belonging broadly to the sphere of Paul’s influence, but, as himself notes in 1 Cor 15:3-5, belonged already to received tradition.

 

Early tradition found a diverse range of ways of identifying what happened in Christ’s death and resurrection and its effects. Thus we find: “Christ died for us” or “for our sins”, was an instrument of sacrificial expiation or atonement, a passover sacrifice, a covenant sacrifice, that his blood effected forgiveness of sins, or, moving away from cultic language, that he bought us with a price (in a context influenced by the slave market and prostitution), that the event was victory over powers, and much else. Its impact is described in terms of bringing about justification (setting us right again with God), reconciliation, redemption, sanctification, salvation, victory and liberation.

 

The diversity of these images cautions against making any one of them the measure for what actually happened. Where metaphors become explanatory models, excesses often occur which evoke valid protest because they appear to conflict with deep-rooted theological values elsewhere in the tradition. Thus punishment or commercial models which portray God as arranging for Jesus to take the punishment or pay the penalty for our sins, as though God would not willingly restore relationships without a contract, seem to have more to do with fallible human values than with love. Similarly attempts to work out models based on the image of redemption, which identify who paid the ransom and to whom (God or Jesus to the devil or Jesus to God?) overstretch the language. It is like turning love poems into textbooks. Many of the cultic images make assumptions about how sacrifices work (often misunderstood as propitiation or placation) which few people share today. Some images (such as covenant and Passover sacrifice) do not deal with sin at all, but function more as creating community and establishing relationships.

 

It is easy to mock the excesses. This does not alter the fact that there is a substantial body of material which uses such metaphors to express an underlying faith that something momentous happened and that it is fundamental to the Christian gospel. The assumption is that what happened changed reality for all human beings, is to be appropriated by all human beings and cannot therefore be reduced to an option to be set aside for the sake of good ecumenical relations among religions.

 

One obvious response to the question posed in the title of this paper is to conclude: indeed the cross means “No” – no other way! One way in which some Christians have sought to deal with the issue is to affirm a kind of literal universalism – somehow, in the long run, what Paul says is true: As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive (Rom 5:12-21). All will be made alive in Christ. Paul, himself, is so convinced of God’s goodness that he offers a model for this move when he asserts the “mystery” that despite their negative response all Israel will indeed be saved (Rom 11:25-26). A slightly more complex position argues that the achievement of the cross happened for all as an objective reality; the issue is that people need to appropriate it. It is not that God will forgive and reconcile all, but that God has already done so – and this includes all within and beyond other religions.

 

One objection to such assertions is that the alleged change in the order of reality could be seen to be an abstraction if it has no actual effect, that is, if it is not appropriated or acknowledged. Or some might object that it makes evangelism meaningless: all are guaranteed salvation anyway, so why bother? Such discussions employ assumptions about what salvation is, and what the “good news” is. Some discussions still - and often unwittingly - define salvation as going to heaven and escaping being consigned to hell at the judgement. Commonly that produces a narrow understanding of Christ’s achievement as making the forgiveness of sins possible, on the basis of which people are set right with God and so escape God’s judgement.

 

There are problems for those systems of thought which speak of the cross (and resurrection) as the event that alone made salvation possible. All four gospels assume that this is not the case. In John, which sees the cross as a revelation of God’s love and human hate, exposing evil and effectively dethroning the devil, Jesus offers eternal life (= life beginning now in relationship with God) already during his ministry. He offers the water and bread of life. He is light and life. The event of his death brings this expression of divine love to its completion (“it is finished”). His return to the Father then releases the Spirit to help spread the offer to all the world.

 

In Mark already John the Baptist offers universal forgiveness of sins (1:4). Jesus’ good news is something much bigger. The gospels draw on traditions going back to Jesus’ ministry which see the “good news” as having both individual and communal dimensions and as showing itself across a range of effects from individual forgiveness and exorcism to inclusive community and real change for the poor and hungry. The cross is central in all of them, but not as a transaction to enable God to forgive sins. The same is true in Luke’s picture of the preaching of the early church. Death and resurrection is seen there primarily as rejection and divine vindication.

 

We do not do justice to the biblical material if we reduce its understanding of the basis of the good news to a notion of the cross as effecting a transformation in relations between humanity and God. But nor do we do it justice by denying the centrality of that understanding especially in Paul and his traditions. The situation is complex, since the writer of the fourth gospel and indeed, I would argue, also the other three know such traditions, but they have not made them central. Typically in the fourth gospel Jesus is depicted as declaring that as shepherd he lays down his life for the sheep in order that he might take it up again (10:17). It seems very likely that his image of the lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (1:29) is primarily a description of Jesus’ ministry rather than his death. The writers were able to hold together diverse images and understandings which should make us hesitate about asserting the dominant Pauline model.

 

The exclusivity of the claims about the cross, which threaten to disqualify the theology of the gospels (and the historical Jesus!), needs to be seen in the context of demarcation against Judaism, including Christian Judaism. Elsewhere in the tradition we find faith in the goodness and generosity of God to forgive. Its roots are deep within the Old Testament and contemporary Judaism. Later demarcations against Judaism and anti-Semitic explanations argued that before Christ’s death no forgiveness was possible and that Jews were constantly failing because they sought to earn forgiveness by good works. This radical distortion, which partly played itself out in Catholic-Protestant conflicts, is now seen as at least ill-informed.

 

One way beyond the impasse which many Christians feel who have been brought up on the Pauline model is to learn from the rest of scripture by finding the basis for salvation and hope not in a single event, but in the ongoing event of God’s being. Then that single event can certainly be reappraised as the manifestation of God’s being, but it represents what has always been at the heart of God. The common element in most of its diverse and sometimes conflicting metaphors is the manifestation of God’s confronting goodness which reaches out to offer right relationship and produce rightness/justice/goodness in people. Paul, himself, recognizes this was so already for Abraham and implicitly also for some Gentiles.

 

The radical goodness of God which lies at the heart of all creativity, restoration and renewal, is fundamental to the Christian gospel. The best way Christians know of talking about it is to tell the story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. The light of that radical goodness knows no boundaries. We know it because we have seen it in Jesus. This helps us see it wherever it happens (wherever the Spirit is moving) within and beyond other communities of faith. We know it is good news for the poor. We can also see where people seek to snuff out that light by wrongdoing and by unhelpful clutter, religious or otherwise, within the church and beyond it.

 

See also: Other Faiths: A New Testament Perspective

 

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