The ancient world of Greece and Rome was filled with stories of people who were sacrificed, or sacrificed themselves, to secure blessings or turn away divine wrath. As Jewish leaders were plotting Jesus’ death, the high priest Caiaphas argued that it was better that one man die for the people so the nation might be spared (John 11:49-50). This view is found all throughout pagan literature, where those who died on behalf of other people were considered to be dying an honorable sacrificial death. Combined with the pagan Gnostic belief of a disembodied soul going to heaven, by the 4th century AD the Christian understanding of what Jesus did on the cross had begun the process of becoming perverted.
Many popular theories about what happened on the cross have made the mistake of making heaven the goal of salvation, while instead, the story of Scripture points us to the renewal of heaven and earth as God’s ultimate goal. Equally problematic is that these theories misdiagnose the problem of sin, asserting that the solution to sin in the world is punishment. These are pagan ideas that lead to beliefs such as the popular Penal Substitution Theory.
The theory called Penal Substitution gets its name from the idea that God’s anger burns so fiercely that he had to vent his wrath on Jesus as a substitute for humanity. Penal Substitution portrays God as a cruel and unforgiving monster, unable to love as a decent parent should, trapped in his own rules that force him to commit an unspeakable crime. It may be said that in such a view it is really God who needs forgiveness. Essentially the theory changes John 3:16 to read, “for God so hated the world that he killed his only son.” This theory is deconstructed in another article but we are still left with the question, how does the cross work?
How does the cross actually save us?
Taking Sin Seriously
Believing that God killed his own Son instead of killing you is problematic enough, but the larger issue at hand is that the Penal Substitution Theory fails to take sin seriously. It only deals with the symptom instead of the source. It’s inventors, the Reformers, with their fixation on the afterlife, shaped their interpretation of the cross in terms of being right with God so that individuals could go to heaven and miss the punishment of hell. That mistake was compounded by the influence of the Enlightenment on Protestant churches with an exaggerated emphasis on the individual. In powerful imperial nations like Rome, England, and now the United States, the Church has understood it’s identity in light of the culture of empire. Therefore, the Penal Substitution Theory became popular because it focused on the individual’s sin and fate instead of focusing on the big systems of evil that permeate this fallen world, allowing nations to run the world as they saw fit. What Jesus did on the cross was shrunk down into a privatized religious experience that didn’t need to speak into global systemic evil and sin as it did in the first century.
Today, the most popular gospel “formula” for modern evangelicals is one that goes something like this: You have sinned. Sin separates you from God. Jesus died for your sins to bridge the gap. Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior so you can go to heaven when you die. While not being entirely untrue, this isn’t the message we see in the New Testament when read in the context of the history of the first-century Jewish and Roman worlds. This privatized religious Gospel has no power to confront true evil in the world. The true Gospel, the Gospel that Jesus taught, was that his nation where he is King has finally arrived. This Kingdom, by its very nature and goal of overtaking the world, reveals God’s solution not only for personal sins, but systemic sins energized by the idols of secularism, individualism, and nationalism.
Instead of the cross addressing the problem of breaking laws, it is addressing the problem of disease. Everyone knows you cannot punish a disease out of anyone. What we need is not a punishing judge but a great physician that can go to the root of the problem. A theory of the cross that says that the Father vents his divine rage onto his Son is a theory that doesn’t take sin seriously. The pagan-influenced sacrificial system is an entirely inadequate response to the powerful grip that sin has on the world. When we turn the cross into a payment for our personal sin debt to an offended God, we leave unchallenged the massive structures of sin that so grotesquely distort humanity. If the cross is simply Jesus purchasing our ticket to heaven then the principalities and powers are left unchallenged to run the world the way they always have. The world is left unsaved.
Return of the King
During the time of Jesus, God’s people were not looking for rescue from an angry God threatening to send them to hell. This really wasn’t a concern for them, rather, they were looking for rescue from their present world. Not rescue from the physical world but rescue from living under the boot of empire. Their belief was that God’s people were sent into exile because of their sins. The concept of “forgiveness of sins” meant that they would be able to return from exile and live in God’s Kingdom. This is what salvation meant to them.
The cross brought salvation, but not as Evangelical Christians view it. True Biblical salvation includes three things, all surrounding the restoration and participation in the Kingdom of God: freedom from the oppression of empire, Israel’s God becoming King of the world, and God dwelling once again with his people. Modern Western readers tend to connect the Kingdom of God with the second coming of Jesus, while the New Testament authors describe it as a present reality. The Kingdom of God is the Gospel and is salvation.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
1 Corinthians 2:6-8
The cross represents salvation for the entire world. On the cross, Jesus was being enthroned as King. His death is what it looks like when God becomes King of the nations. This enthronement doesn’t look like what conventional, imperial, power looks like. The power of the cross is co-suffering, self-giving love. The Kingdom of God is not launched by the rich and powerful elites of society but by the poor, the meek, the mourning, and the peacemakers. The Kingdom of God did not come through military might but rather through the way of nonviolence, enemy love, and prayers for persecutors. The hope and salvation do not come from escape, it comes from renewal and transformation as the Kingdom overtakes the world. Salvation is the defeat of God’s enemies, who are never flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). At the cross we see Jesus taking his place as King, which is the most revolutionary act of all history and is the singular turning point for the world’s salvation.
Victory Over Death
God created humanity in his own image to reflect his love for the world. The problem is, humanity has sinned by worshipping things of the world, thus enslaving themselves, to the point where they reflect a broken image of God. Scripture says that Satan is the god of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; 1 John 5:19, Luke 4:5-7, Ephesians 2:2). To the degree that we fail to obey Christ’s commands, we don’t reflect God’s image and we empower the dark spiritual and physical forces in the world that end up enslaving us and all of creation (John 8:34). The solution needed to correct this problem is not that we need to be punished, but that these enslaving powers need to be defeated. Humanity needs to be freed, healed, and transformed back into God’s image-bearing creatures (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
1 John 3:8
When Jesus exorcised demons, he demonstrated that through him the Kingdom of God was advancing against the kingdom of darkness (Luke 11:20). Similarly, when Jesus healed people, he and his disciples understood that he was setting people free from Satan’s oppression (Mark 9:25; Luke 11:14, 13:11-16). This is why Peter summarized Jesus’ healing ministry by noting that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). The New Testament as a whole regards sickness and disease as the direct or indirect results of satanic oppression. In healing people, therefore, Jesus was gaining ground against his cosmic archenemy. The cross, however, would be the decisive blow.
Satan is God’s chief enemy and Satan’s main tool against God’s creation is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). It isn’t just death itself but more importantly, Satan has enslaved humanity with the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). This bondage creates all sorts of evils, from greed to war. On the cross Jesus has disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them, and in doing so has set humanity free from Satan’s power (Colossians 2:15). These ruling powers are both the earthly rulers of empires like Rome, as well as the invisible rulers, the dark forces that manipulate earthly power structures. Jesus in his death triumphs over them, putting them to shame because their system of power and domination results in putting to death not just an innocent man but God in human flesh.
Jesus didn’t just triumph over the fear of death, but death itself. Satan no longer holds the keys to death, now Jesus does (Revelation 1:18). But while Satan used the power of death as a way to keep humanity in bondage, Jesus does the opposite by offering us new life. Death could not hold Jesus because the perfect bond of love between the Father and his Son could not be broken (Acts 2:24). Death was not able to have the final word, it was impossible. The same love that the Father has for the Son is the love that God has for us (John 17:26). Because we are in Christ and made in God’s image, we too cannot be held by death (1 Corinthians 15:16-20). The cross is proof of the promise of our resurrection and because of it, we are free to love in ways we weren’t able to when the fear of death held us in bondage. We no longer cling to life in fear, but rather give up our lives freely in self-sacrificial love (Matthew 16:24-25). We model the type of love Jesus showed us on the cross: enemy love (1 John 3:16; Romans 5:8; John 20:19-20). It is through this freedom that we show off the most powerful force in the universe (1 John 3:14). This is one of the most important ways that the cross saves us.
Expanding God’s Domain
The cross is not simply a mechanism by which salvation occurs. The cross reveals to us what God is like and, as followers of Jesus, the cross shapes our lives. Christ’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God through his generous self-giving love to overthrow all the power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power. The cross is the means by which our sins are dealt with and the cross becomes the way we live as image-bearers of God. When we live out our role as new humans, born-again as new creations, we participate in the expansion of God’s Kingdom—his nation.
For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:11
Over the last couple of hundred years, churches and denominations with an evangelical thrust have drifted from an emphasis on cultural and social reform to a mission of “saving souls for heaven.” The rise of pop-culture pastors exacerbated this problem with the invention of the “sinners prayer.” The Christian mission became less about the expansion of God’s Kingdom here on earth and more about saving “souls” from hell so they can go to the “Kingdom of God in heaven.” Moving the Kingdom of God to an immaterial future has had devastating effects and has distorted the meaning of the cross.
This focus on the individual’s “spiritual” destination has had very harmful effects on the mission of the Kingdom. The Church in America has largely abandoned its emphasis on loving others, social concerns, and care for the poor and the stranger, instead, allowing these needs to be met by a function of the government. We must learn again that Jesus started a revolution. Our mission, in part, is to declare the victory of God over the powers of evil, sickness, sin, and death, a victory that has the forgiveness of sins at its heart. This victory includes a revolutionary message that challenges the powers ruling our world, making our message inherently political. The launch of the Kingdom is a declaration of war against all worldly nations which are under the power of Satan.
Our Ugliness, God’s Beauty
The cross is the ultimate object lesson. The God of the universe became man and was murdered by his creation. The cross shows us what we are like and it shows us what God is like. The barbaric torture and depraved violence of the cross is a reflection of our sin (Acts 2:23-24, 3:15, 4:10, 5:30, 7:52). The self-giving, self-sacrificial love for enemies and forgiveness on the cross is a reflection of God’s character revealed in Jesus (Romans 5:8-10).
The cross is where all the great crimes of humanity—pride, blame, domination, rivalry, war, and empire—are dragged into the light of divine judgment. It was not God who required the violent death of Jesus but our murderous human civilization. At the cross, we see our satanic and misguided systems of power displayed in government and corporate greed for what they are: the of hubris of violence so corrupt that it is capable of murdering the God of the universe in the name of what we claim is truth, justice, freedom, and liberty. Jesus was nailed to the quintessential symbol of violent empire—the perfect expression of mankind’s potential for evil.
He bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
1 Peter 2:24
The cross is where the love of God is shown to us in it’s most pure expression. Jesus suffers the worst of what our sin is able to produce as he is tortured and murdered in the name of God and country. And while we sin our worst onto Jesus, he suffers with nothing but forgiveness on his lips towards the very soldiers that are murdering him. At the cross, we discover that the God revealed in Jesus would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom.
The cross reveals God’s heart: one of non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy-love. It is the very nature of God to forgive sinners—he didn’t need the cross to forgive but the cross does show us what true forgiveness is. The cross is the heart we are called in imitate so we can continue the work that Jesus started. The ugliness of the cross exposes our sin so we can break free from it and share in the life of Christ. If the culmination of satanic systems of government, religion, and empire can result in murdering God, we know we have reached the breaking point. The cross is our wake-up call.
The Consistency of the Cross
The arrival of Jesus started a powerful new chapter in our understanding of what God is like. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is the exact representation of who God is (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus says that if you’ve seen him then you’ve seen the Father (John 14:9). John is bold enough to claim that no one has ever seen God in comparison to Jesus (John 1:18). If the appearance of Jesus was the starting line for humanity having an accurate and full picture of God’s character then we shouldn’t expect to see that devolve when it comes to the cross—but that is exactly what happens with the Penal Substitution Theory. Instead, we should expect to see the cross, as the apex of God’s work, be a reflection of Christ’s character.
If you believe that the Father is wrathful and needs to kill someone to be satisfied, you literally have to separate everything Jesus lived, demonstrated, and taught from what you view the cross to be—because the two are completely different. With Penal Substitution Theory, God is angry and wants to kill everyone. With Jesus, God is loving and wants to save everyone (John 3:16). This is why so many Evangelicals (especially Reformed ones) teach a completely different gospel than Jesus taught. They can never tell you what Jesus said or did and still teach their version of the gospel because their gospel is just Penal Substitution Theory. By placing this horrible theory at the center of the gospel you can leave out everything Jesus did or said before his death—you don’t need his life or teachings. The gospel gets shrunk down to just being about “going to heaven” because God killed Jesus instead of you.
But thankfully this isn’t the true Gospel.
Jesus was able to preach his Gospel without the cross. Does the Gospel include the cross? Yes, but only in connection and coherence with the rest of Christ’s life and teachings. The true Gospel includes the cross as the culmination of what Jesus taught—the Kingdom of God. The good news of the cross is that it is speaking the same message that Jesus lived and taught: the non-violent enemy-love of Kingdom participation. The cross is the exclamation point to Christ’s message, not an entirely different story like PST serves up. The blood of Jesus doesn’t cry out for vengeance but for peace, even directly after being viciously murdered by the greatest sin ever committed (John 20:19). The cross is where the fullest expression of non-violent enemy-love—the apex of Christ’s teachings—is displayed most perfectly.
If you look back to the ancient creeds, ancient statements of Christian belief developed by the co-oped Church, they talk about Christ’s virgin birth and then skip straight to the cross—leaving out his entire life. No wonder why the Church often fails to preach the true Gospel. Even the creeds leave out every aspect of Christ’s Gospel: his teachings, his example, and the Kingdom of God. But they had to because for Christianity to survive in the lives of the rich and powerful and political elite of empire, it had to stop speaking into how the world should be run. It can’t speak into that. Rome already has a way of running the world. Rome doesn’t need Jesus to inform us on how to live. Jesus just needs to give us our ticket to heaven. This is why even today in America, Christians fight to have the Ten Commandments put up in courthouses and not the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount. American Christians, just like Roman Christians before them, don’t want Jesus to rule their life. They are fine living in the Old Covenant even though Jesus destroyed it and gave us something new. Penal Substitution Theory has created a powerless Gospel message that cannot truly change the world. Thankfully what really happened on the cross can.
Jesus Knew Why He Would Be Killed
God didn’t kill Jesus—but God did know Jesus would be killed. Jesus knew that he would be killed, he knew why he would be killed, and he knew who would do it. Jesus states that is for the same reason that the prophets in the past were killed, from Abel to Zechariah (Luke 11:50-51). The prophets were killed because they spoke out against violent empire. The satanic glue that holds empires together is the accusation, scapegoating, and sacrifice of the “other.” The first city that Cain built, civilization, what Jesus calls “the foundation of the world”, was built through violence (Genesis 4:10-11, 13-14, 17). Jesus said that all of this violence and bloodshed throughout the ages would be charged against the generation that killed him.
The execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable. Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability—this is what domination systems like empires did to people who challenged them. It has happened to countless people throughout history. Before Jesus it happened to John the Baptist, arrested and executed by Herod (Matthew 14:9-12). Of course, it happened to Jesus (Mark 15:12-13). Within a few more decades, it would happen to Paul, Peter, and James (2 Timothy 4:6-8, Acts 12:1-3). We should wonder what it was about Jesus and his movement that so provoked the rulers and authorities of empire. The answer is that he challenged the politics of empire with his own. The empire would not suffer the upside-down structure to society that Jesus preached.
According to the Gospels, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world in the way it is often taught in Evangelicalism. The language of substitutionary sacrifice for sin is absent from the Gospel story. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. When Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed, Peter snapped at him, yelling “never, Lord!” (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus rebuked him, comparing him to Satan, because he still didn’t understand where non-violence and enemy-love lead people—to their death. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed Jesus, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization. Though sin isn’t confined to just this, it is the ultimate embodiment of it. The cross shows us that Jesus is in solidarity with the Abel-like victims, not with the Cain-like conquerors. At the cross, we see that our violent system of blame and ritual killing is so evil that it is capable of the murder of God. And thus Jesus was crucified because of the sin of the world. And once we see it, we can repent of it, be forgiven for it, and be freed from it. This is how the cross saves the world.
From For The World
The cross saves the world by saving us for the world, not saving us from the world. Though, when we don’t have the mind of Christ, we can often rationally justify our violence against others, there is no way to rationally justify the murder of God. The cross exposes our sin so that we can know that it is sin. Jesus died willingly to reveal to us that just as we unjustly killed him, so also, we have unjustly killed every victim in human history and that such violence in pursuit of patriotism or in God’s name must stop. The cross is our wake-up call and also the path we are called to walk.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”
1 John 2:2 says that Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs the culmination of human sin and recycles it into forgiveness. At the cross, all of humanity violently sinned its sins into Jesus—from the foundations of the world (Luke 11:50). He bore our sins, felt all the pain and anguish that our sinfulness could muster, but he never cried out for vengeance. Instead, the first words he spoke to all his disciples after his resurrection were “peace be with you” (John 20:19-21). The cross is God breaking the cycle of sin.
The death of Jesus does not save us from God, or save us from the world by taking us to heaven; rather, the death of Jesus saves us for the world, a powerful revolution within the world. The cross shows us what God is like and show us what we are like—and in doing so saves us by setting us free to live out God’s character as beings created in his image.