Or, What Happened When Jesus Died On the Cross?
These are the themes of the chapter, the first is the title, the second is the key question.
The book is about heaven and hell and the fate of every who ever lived. What happened to Jesus on the cross, and what we believe about Jesus and what happened on the cross often become the key components of whether we end up in heaven or hell. So it's kind of important for us to examine what did happen on the cross, according to the Scriptures - and consider what we ought to believe about it. And how we ought to live in light of it.
In this chapter, Rob first explores how the New Testament described what happened to Jesus on the cross. Or, what Jesus did for us, or what God did for us, through the cross. Then Rob talks about resurrection, and then connects it to crucifixion. This leads to a summary of what it means for us today.
Rob opens with a story of seeing a cross hanging around Eminem's neck at a concert. What did this mean? It was a comeback concert of sorts. Was the cross a symbol - representing the death of the old Eminem and the arrival of the new? Rob is pointing out that the cross has come to mean many things - thus we gotta go back to the Scriptures to see what the original writers insisted happened on the cross.
The first idea he explores is that of animal sacrifice. The Hebrews, along with almost all of the other religions in the world, included animal sacrifice as part of their worship. God gave specific instructions to the Hebrews for their animal sacrifices which set them a part from the other nations. But the Jewish Christians saw in Jesus the end of animal sacrifice. In the Hebrews, a letter in the Bible to Jewish Christians, the writer says: Jesus "has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." (123)
I think Rob highlights this example of what happened on the cross because it is central to our understanding of atonement. It's how many religions viewed atonement - through animal sacrifice. It's how the Hebrew people understood it. And most of the early Christians were Hebrews. But this isn't the only way that people talked about atonement, of how Jesus covered over our sins. They use other language - language that is connected to this sacrificial event, but it also points in new directions.
Rob points out what Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians: "that through the cross God was reconciling 'to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.'" (125). So now we have two metaphors to describe what happened on the cross - Jesus is the end of the sacrificial system, and he is the one who reconciles us to God.
Rob then takes us to another one of Paul's letters where we hear language about justification. We learn that what happened on the cross resulted in being "justified by grace through faith in Jesus." (126) It's courtroom language to describe the effects of Jesus's sacrificial death on the cross and his reconciling us to God.
"So, back to the question: What happened on the cross?"
Obviously Rob is pointing out that different metaphors and terms were used to describe one event. All the ideas mentioned in Scripture inter-relate. Rob is wanting us to become familiar with all the terms. Why? Because in some Christian circles there is what he thinks is over-emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement. This emphasizes that on the cross Jesus was a substitutionary sacrifce for us, paying our penalty of death so that we might live with God for eternity. Of course this is true, and it is an important theory of atonement, but it's not the only way to describe what happened on the cross.
So why are there different explanations of what happened on the cross? Rob is going to insist that those first Christians, as they preached about Jesus, about his death and resurrection, that they used different metaphors to try and help people understand what happened. They used metaphors from the sacrificial system, for the economic system, from the legal system, from the military system, etc.
Rob says that different ages and cultures of Christianity have emphasized different metaphors. The early church, being mostly Hebrews, used the sacrificial metaphors heavily for obvious reasons. The author of Hebrews is able to go all the way back to Torah to connect how Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system God set up long ago. But then, according to Rob, the church shifted to the "victory in battle" (128) metaphor, emphasizing that Jesus had conquered death.
So now, in our age, when we don't do animal sacrifices anymore, and through medicine have conquered death in ways, is there another metaphor from Scriptures that we can highlight that will resonate with our culture today? Well all of them can still relate in some way, and that is the point. Actually, Rob goes on to say that Jesus is the point.
Rob transitions from his summary of what happened on the cross to teach us about what happened because of resurrection. He will argue that resurrection is "a symbol of elemental reality." (131) This is not a commonly held perspective. In fact, Rob declares that for those first Christians, it wasn't the miracle of resurrection that amazed them, but what resurrection represented. Rob insists that resurrection is "not a new idea." (130). That'll make some Christians gasp!
He points to nature, the turning of leaves, the changing of the seasons. "Death gives way to life. A seed has to be buried in the ground before it can rise up from out of the earth as new life" (130). As Rob explains it, the resurrection of Jesus wasn't a stumbling block to most people. Most people, so it seems, had no problem believing in resurrection because that is "how the world works." (131). So, then, what is the value in resurrection, for Rob?
Rob uses the storytelling of the author of John's Gospel to help explain the meaning behind resurrection. We know that in John's Gospel different events are marked as a sign. Rob takes us through the different signs that make up the storyline of John's Gospel. The seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The way John tells the story, it is very compelling. Each of the stories associated with the signs is fascinating. But then there is one more sign, an eighth sign - Jesus being raised from the dead. What does this mean?
Rob connects the seven signs of John's Gospel to the seven days of creation. If there is an eighth sign, what day is that then? It's "the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation." (133) Resurrection itself wasn't the point - it was to point to something bigger - something God was doing in the world through Jesus. The stumbling block wasn't about whether you believed in resurrection or not - the stumbling block was whether you believed that "God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus's resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything 'on earth or in heaven' just as God originally intended it." (134)
Part of the point Rob wants to make is that cross and resurrection is not just about people, it's not just about us having a relationship with God. It is that, but it is more than that - it's a God centered movement for all creation. We are saved from sin and death, but the story is bigger and grander than that. The cross and resurrection are about what God is doing in the world - and people who respond in love are part of that work - but it is not only about people.
When Rob referred to the resurrection as a symbol of elemental reality, this is part of what he's trying to get at:
...the cross and resurrection are personal. This cosmic event has everything to do with how every single one of us lives every single day. It is a pattern, a rhythm, a practice, a reality rooted in the elemental realities of creation, extending to the very vitality of our soul. (135)
When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus' living, giving act on the cross, we enter into a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires. (136)
Cross and resurrection as a pattern for life. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him. To repent of our sins, to "leave behind the old ways." (136). We die to our self so that Jesus can pour new life into us. Our letting go of pride, the need to be right, rebellion, stubbornness makes room for what Jesus has to give.
"When we cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we're like a tree that won't let its leaves go. There can't be a spring if we're still stuck in the fall." (136)
Rob seeks to connect the spiritual realities of the cross and resurrection together, and then to connect them to the elemental realities of life: "Lose your life and find it, he says. That's how the world works. That's how the soul works. That's how life works when you're dying to live." (136)
The theologian in me wants to summarize Rob's chapter using clearly defined theological categories. What is Rob's theology of atonement? Salvation? Sin? It should be obvious at this point that Rob is not writing to scholarly theologians.
He is writing to cynical individuals who have deep questions about reality, about how God and Jesus fit into our post-modern world of technology, science, medicine, and violence. Rob is seeking to connect these skeptics and searchers with compelling elements of the Gospel, bypassing the oft contentious arguments about science vs. religion, are miracles real, and is the Bible a piece of propaganda?
Is this chapter highly controversial? Yes. Does it leave many theological questions unanswered? Yes. Does it cause conservative Christians to squirm at Rob's explanation of the elemental realities of the cross and resurrection? Yes. Does it cause liberal Christians to squirm at his insistence of the reality of the cross and resurrection? Yes. Does Rob create a compelling bridge for cynics with profound questions? Yes.