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The Myth of the Cross

As a Jesus follower who is trying to do the kind of following that leads to God’s plan of salvation, I will take up my cross today. And follow Jesus to a place where, before you’ve finished reading this, some of you will be crying for something akin to my own crucifixion.


A very strange claim to start things out here, I realize, but you’ll understand it better when I make the following statement. The impending Holy Week messaging about Jesus dying on the cross of Calvary to save us from going to hell as punishment for our sins is a total myth.

Not bad enough to merit my own crucifixion yet? It gets worse. To the extent today’s Christian Churches are proclaiming this myth, we are preventing people from being saved by the truth of Christ’s actual Gospel. Or the truth of Christ’s actual cross.

We live in a violent world. And because we also live in a visual world and digital age, we actually see violence on whatever screens of whatever devices we choose. And when we opt to turn away from visual images of violent warfare and the suffering that entails, we turn to more benign images of a televised slap on the face by one man against another in the name of “saving” his distraught wife’s dignity.

We look for ways to explain violence in ways that we can actually justify. Ways to make violence into something okay. Or good. Or right. Something redemptive. And when we find it we then do what?

We perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence.

And no one is better at perpetuating this myth than today’s Christian preacher telling folks that God had his only begotten Son violently murdered as a substitute for the violent eternal hell we all deserved to suffer for our own personal sins.

(I think I’ve already heard at least one cry of “crucify him!” but I can’t be sure.)

I had best continue.

But let me ask a question and in a rather different tone here. Do hurt people hurt people? Do people who have been hurt and victimized find themselves tempted to get back and get even? Do we as people fear that if we don’t get retribution against those who hurt us, then they will just continue hurting us again and again? Do victims of abuse becomes abusive victimizers, if only to protect their own younger selves from being abused again?

The answer is yes to all the above. But here, then, are two important follow up questions: 1) Do we people have to be this way? And 2) Does that make God this way?

The answer is no to both of the above.

There are plenty of hurt people through the ages who didn’t hurt people. Plenty who never tried getting revenge. Plenty of victims who never became victimizers. It’s always been a human choice of our own free will. In fact, there are plenty of hurt people who have gone on to instead help people. That’s right, if the question becomes do hurt people help people, then the answer is also yes!!! That’s always been an option. I call such people Christians. And I even call them myth-busting cross-carrying followers of Jesus the Christ.

The old line about paybacks are hell is perhaps more accurate than we’re realized. Hell is what and where people decide to pay each other back for our hurts. Hell is seeking retribution. Hell is punishment. And, if I may earn yet another cry of crucifixion for myself in this space, hell is believing that we are only saved from such man-made retributive justice by the blood of Jesus on the cross dying to save us from a God of paybacks, retribution, and punishment.

To my way of thinking, the only way this man-made hell of retributive justice goes on for eternity is if we keep on proclaiming our own myth of the cross and telling the world it’s somehow the good news of God’s truth. Until we stop projecting (imposing) our retaliative impulses onto God, we will keep the fires of hell burning forever.

I believe that every time we proclaim the myth of the cross and its man-made message of retributive justice we then deny the truth of the cross and its God-made message of restorative justice. Every time we teach someone the fear of God we are helping that same someone unlearn the love of God.

And so we will again come to what the Christian Church calendar refers to as Holy Week. We come again to the cross. In most mainline Churches there will be little if any explanation of the cross one way or the other. Scriptures will be read and parishioners left on their own to decide what it all meant. In most evangelical Churches there will be the endless explanation that our own sins were crucified on the cross so Jesus could take our punishment and appease God’s angry plan to torture us for eternity in a place called Hell.

Or there is a third option, I believe.

We can proclaim within the coming Holy Week the actual truth of the cross. That hurt people can, like Jesus, turn around and help people. That justice can restore and rehabilitate and heal. That blood was designed by God to cleanse the body, not the soul. That God desires obedience, not sacrifice. That the ancient law of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth was made for an ancient people who were prior to that time taking a life for an eye and yet another life for a tooth (something God saw as being disproportional retribution in need of proportionality first and then replacement last).


Yes, the truth of the cross is that it replaced retribution with restoration. How? By replacing man-made retribution (the crucifixion) with God-made restoration (the resurrection). By replacing the myth of redemptive violence and suffering and sacrifice with the truth of redemptive love and joy and obedience. By replacing the myth of hell and fear and punishment with the truth of heaven and love and education (rehabilitation). By replacing the man-made kingdom of hell on earth with the God-made Kingdom of heaven on earth that Jesus finalized for us on Holy Week.

So maybe the Hebrew prophets had it right all along. Maybe the myth that God desired sacrifice has always robbed us of the truth that God instead desired obedience. Maybe the Easter Gospel is really all about God’s reward for Christ’s obedience, and for ours if we’re wise enough to follow the Christ. Maybe Easter had zero to do with God’s reward for Christ’s sacrifice. And maybe Easter has to do with getting heaven down into us here on earth for the world’s (God so loved) restoration before we die; not with getting us up into heaven after we die.

Well, you choose. Which cross of Christ is a myth and which is the truth? But if we choose wrong and teach others to do the same, if we make Lent and the cross more about sacrifice than it is about obedience, salvation more about hearing than doing…..believing than behaving, then we as the Church have our own woes to watch out for in the days and years to come.

And that’s as far as I can obediently follow with my own cross today. I’ve got to drop it here.

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I support your concern re: the wrong-headed underatandings of the cross for all the reasons you mention. The "hurt people" part is especially strong. What you call the "myth" of the cross as you call it began early--in the gospels, and was a way of scapegoating Jews as is so obvious and blatant in John's gospel. All of the "atonement" debates that came later weren't part of the earliest meanings attached to Jesus ' death. Anselm's was perhaps the worst, giving us the notion called the "penal substitutionary" theory, which somehow has become the one espoused by American evangelicals.

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I feel grateful for your support, Irkalajainen, and welcome your own reasoned understanding of why we are called to repentance from retribution's bad news now still being preached in theological discourse contrary to the long awaited good news of Easter restoration . If only the church can on day deliver the evangelical good news instead of bad. If only we can repent of Anselm et al and be born again into the truth of our risen Christ.

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