ESSAYS | THE CROSS AS VICTORY
During the Easter season we often reflect on the significance of the cross and its relation to the atonement. For believers brought up in the church, we often view Christ’s death on the cross as a concept that is simple to grasp. A full understanding of the atonement is actually anything but simple or straightforward and has been a source of debate among theologians dating back to the New Testament Church. Cadet Rachel Sheils presents several views of the cross as they relate to God’s atoning work for humanity, and provides illumination on one view of the cross that she explored – the cross as victory.
The cross is complete foolishness to some no matter how you explain it. The fact that God the creator of the universe, full of power and majesty, is overpowered by mere humans and crucified on a cross, to which Christians embrace the symbol of the cross proudly, does not make logical sense. “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Throughout Christianity, there have been different models that explain the atonement of the cross. Each model offers a unique characteristic of God to reflect upon. Each model in and of itself is not complete; containing both strengthens and weaknesses. In this essay I will reflect and evaluate the three models of the cross presented in class: sacrifice, love and victory. As well as how the resurrection ties them all together.
First presented was the cross as sacrifice. Jesus of Nazareth is compared to a lamb slaughtered to pay for the sins of the people. “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.”2 I see the overall model having three main strengths. Firstly, it offers hope, that we can claim this sacrifice to redeem us from our sins. “For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.”3 Secondly, it holds the Trinity in mind and helps explain Christ as fully human and fully divine. I was struck by Saint Anslem’s concept of sacrifice. That no one except God is perfect enough to offer this critically needed sacrifice. Yet no one but humans can offer the sacrifice since it is humans that have sinned. Therefore, God needs to become fully human while keeping his divinity. This makes the person of Christ more understandable for me and easier to explain to others. Finally, this model makes sense when explaining that the God of the Old Testament (OT) and the God of the New Testament (NT) are the same (even though some characteristics seem different, i.e. ordering genocide). Yahweh required blemishless sacrifices in the OT to cleanse the people of their sins and reconcile themselves to God. Jesus is the most perfect sacrifice that fulfils all requirements once and for all, thus abolishing the need for continued sacrifices. “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.”4 God has painfully completed his requirement since we were unable. With those strengths in mind, this model still has weakness. One important one that I see apart from the class presentation is the focus on our own uncleanness and unworthiness. If one only understood the cross as a sacrifice, they could possibly feel miserable and worthless; that there is nothing good within us. Yet we are made in the glorious image of God and can be make holy and blameless while still on earth. I think it is good to feel humble in the light of our infinite God but we also need to have confidence in ministry with the talents, skills and wisdom God’s has given us.
Secondly, the model of the cross as love again offers a unique perspective. God’s great love for his creation was the reason Christ had to die, so that we may be reconciled to God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”5 This popular verse sums up this model well. It is a beautiful concept especially compared to other world religions that have distanced God’s care for the world (i.e. Islam and Buddhism). One of its main strengths is that it is an easy pill to swallow or theme to preach. People are yearning for acceptance and love in our hurting, broken society. God ongoing care and desire for restoration with each of his creation gives personal hope and meaning to life. It is also easy to explain this model in a parent-child relationship; God our Father is willing to do anything, even sacrifice himself for his beloved children. However, a draw back is that John 3:16 is over used to the point where people are desensitized to its vast and rich meaning. Another weakness is that it does not explain the just judgement of God. It confuses our contemporary world when we preach that God loves us so much, yet he will judge you and possibility condemn you to eternal hell. I do not think one can fully comprehend this love if they do not understand God’s holiness as well. After writing my paper last semester on the ‘Holiness of God’, I have come to a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s love. His absolute holiness keeps Him separate from our sinfulness. This holiness is more perfect and powerful than we can imagine. Yet he is willing to go immeasurable lengths to redeem His corrupted creation because He ultimately cares and loves for us. Jesus exclaimed, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”6
My group presented the model of the cross as victory. This model can be summarized into two parts. First, recapitulation, where Christ is seen as the second Adam and reverses the effects of the fall thus defeating sin and death. Secondly as ransom, where Christ pays the ransom for humanity and thus conquers Satan. I found it interesting how the ransom model evolved. The bait and hook analogy was novel to me and evoked pondering. I understand that it is not scripturally based but it does help explain one possible reason Christ had to “descend into hell”7 and did not rise until the third day. It also helps connect C.S. Lewis’ wonderful Narnia series. Lewis was theologically advanced yet was able to explain many things in a simple, entertaining, children appropriate level. I see the strength of the Christus Victor model as twofold. Most obviously, “Christ’s victory on the cross becomes our victory.”8 This helps me be more confident in ministry. Knowing God is in control of all things. He has overcome the grave but also the evil spirits that attack against our ministry. If I trust and claim his promises I am assured that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”9 Secondly, it addresses the issue of evil in the world. Evil exists which accounts for much suffering in the world. It is important to express this fact otherwise people think God is to blame for their pain and misery. Tying into the first strength, we can have the assurance that God is more powerful than evil. Like each model, there is a down side. Sin, physical death, and evil still exist so where is the victory? It is only partly conquered today and will be fully eliminated in the future. Another weakness, some may think that if God conquers all, there is nothing they need to do. This flawed concept could make people not worried about preaching the gospel since God conquers all in the end.
The resurrection and ascension tie these models together. If Christ’s death on the cross was the end, there would be no victory or hope. The resurrection, Christ rising from the dead, has a threefold purpose. First it confirms that Christ was blameless and an acceptable sacrifice on our behalf. Second, it allows humans to become a new creation through faith Christ. Finally, it instills hope that even though our earthly bodies will die, we will be resurrected in eternal bodies. The ascension, Christ rising to heaven, also hold great significance. When Christ rose to heaven, God’s Holy Spirit could be poured out on all believers. It, along with the resurrection, gives us hope for life in the eternal kingdom where God reigns. Overall I feel the resurrection and ascension gives the glory back to God that had been stripped away on the cross for our sake, and rightfully reveals his due honour.
To conclude, each model of atonement sheds unique light on cross and ultimately God. There is not one model I prefer over the other since each model offers crucial components to a greater picture. Also if the models are taken separately their weaknesses are distracting. Our God is complicated to understand; our human language is limited in comparison to the God who created the universe and everything in it. It only makes sense that our understanding of his interaction with humanity on the cross cannot be simply explained into one model. Joel Green, a professor and theologian states that, “The death of Jesus is an event of such pivotal importance to the plan of God that its importance cannot be measured.”10 Taking the three models together along with the resurrection and ascension, we get a better handle on the significance of the cross to our personal
Green, Joel. Salvation. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003.
McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 4th Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
The Salvation Army. Salvation Story. London: The Salvation Army, 1998.