- The Significance of the Cross of Christ, updated (published )
When my daughter was three years old, I realized that it was time to start explaining the gospel to her. But how does one explain the gospel well to a child that young in a way that will actually make sense to them? It isn’t easy! But I recognized that if I, with all my years of studying theology, could not explain the gospel to a preschooler, then I didn’t really understand myself. So I set my mind to it and thought a long time about how I could express it in a way that made sense to her. In the end, I came up with this formulation, which I like to call “the gospel for the preschooler”: Jesus died and came alive again, so that one day he can make everyone who dies come alive again. He is going to make the whole world good, and he wants us to help! That’s what the gospel really is, once you get right down to it. Everything else is elaboration, implication, and details. And the gospel for the preschooler seems to have worked. When I told my daughter the gospel this way, she understood it. It took hold in her and has continued to grip her soul to this day. She gets it. But let’s look a little more closely at the gospel here, and take notice of what its foundation is. “Jesus died and came alive again so that…” The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are the basis for all the gospel. Everything depends on them. This is a holy night. It is a strange and terrible holy night. On Easter Sunday we will gather here again to celebrate the holiest day of the year, the day of Resurrection, the day when hope and joy arise victorious. But it is not yet Sunday. This is Good Friday. And it is indeed Good. But not Good like we usually think of good. This is a Good whose goodness runs too deep and too strangely for any of us to grasp fully even after a lifetime of contemplation. For the goodness of Good Friday is the goodness of the Cross. When I was a young Christian, I was presented with two ways of thinking about the Cross and what it meant that didn’t always seem to fit well together. Sometimes the focus would be on the awfulness of the Cross. This might involve concentration on the physical agony, or on the profound irony that this was happening to the Son of God. Other times the focus was on how the Cross was good news for us, because it was done in order to make our salvation possible. So far, so good; all of this is true. But where things went off the rails was when people treated the Cross as happy news, joyful news, straight-up reason to smile and laugh, like the Resurrection. In fact, it often seemed like the Cross was the whole gospel, that the sum of the gospel was “Jesus died for me, therefore I’ve been set free.” You’ll notice how something has dropped out in that version of the gospel. There is no Resurrection in it. And because of that, the Cross has been forced to do the job that belongs to the Resurrection. And when that happens, we can no longer understand the Cross for what it really means. “Jesus died and came alive again,” is the foundation of the gospel, and when we remember all of that, we will begin to be able to understand the true, full, terrible, and wonderous meaning of the Cross. Let’s take a moment and imagine two alternative possibilities. First, imagine the Cross without the Resurrection. Imagine if Jesus had died and had not been raised. Then the Cross would have been nothing more than one more example of meaningless suffering, just some bad thing that happened. It would have been the death of the Son of God, true enough, but it would only mean that God had lost and death had won. And we wouldn’t even know about it, anyway. Jesus would have been forgotten, except maybe in some footnote in some massive dusty tome on the history of the Roman Empire. God would have failed, and we wouldn’t even notice. Now imagine the Resurrection without the Cross. Suppose Jesus had lived to a ripe old age and then died reclining on a couch, talking and drinking wine with his disciples until he slipped off into sleep, and had then been resurrected. That would still be a source of hope, because it would still be God overcoming death with life. But it would be a very different hope. That would mean nothing more than that life goes on, and sure, sometimes some bad things happen, but it’ll all work out okay in the end. There would be no hope in that for the restoration of the broken. “It’ll all work out okay in the end,” is not much of a gospel. “Jesus died and came alive again” is the foundation of the gospel, and we need both parts to understand the gospel properly. The Resurrection is the source of the hope, while the Cross is what shapes and forms that hope. The Cross is what gives the Resurrection hope its character. The Cross tells us how the Resurrection hope works. The Cross is why we can trust that the Resurrection really will be a hope for the healing and transformation of even the worst. So then, if we want to understand the Cross, we need to see in it the ultimate expression of how God deals with evil, with suffering, with pain and violence and fear and cruelty and hate. We often ask ourselves, when faced with some evil thing, “Why?” We try to deal with evil by explaining it. If we can just make sense of it, we think, then it’ll be okay. We try to turn evil into a philosophical problem, because philosophical problems are abstract and take our minds away from the concrete. This doesn’t really help, of course, but it is what we keep trying to do. But God does not treat evil like a philosophical problem to figure out. God treats evil as a practical problem to solve. The Cross is the ultimate demonstration how God deals with all that is wrong in this world. The Cross shows us the answer to the question: “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” You see, the Cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void, the chaos, the darkness has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Resurrection life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. This is why the Cross is good news. Suffering begins as meaningless. It has no ultimate reason behind it. It doesn’t belong in this world. But the Cross shows us that God will take our suffering and make sense out of it, literally make sense where there was none before, by creating good out of it. The Cross, that unspeakable horror that we ourselves inflicted on the Son of God, is, thanks to the Resurrection, now the sign to us that all the suffering, evil, fear, hate, cruelty and pain that afflict us in this world will be changed and transformed. Your suffering will become a wellspring of new life. Nothing is beyond hope. Our pains will not be washed away as if they had never happened. The Cross signifies that we, in all our brokenness, will be made whole.