Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thoughts on the Cross

This was an essay written for one of my classes last semester. I'm trying to keep this blog alive, so I thought I'd post it here.

The Cross. In almost every Christian church, it occupies a central position in the worship space. It is one of the most common pieces of jewelry, adorning many devout followers, some casual believers, and even a few agnostic seekers and superstitious spiritualists. It is even cut into the doors of many of our homes, which is an easy thing to miss. It wasn't until High School that I realized the pattern on my bedroom door was more than just a configuration of four indented rectangles (two small on top, two long on the bottom), but also a symbol intended to bless the space.

The popularity of the Cross is an odd thing when we realize what it really is: an ancient Roman means of torture and execution. It's like an electric chair or a noose, although less humane than both. And yet this instrument of death has become for many a symbol of life, hope, and forgiveness. Why? When one considers all the death and suffering that has occurred throughout history, why is one man's death on a cross 2000 years ago such a big deal? And what relevance could that death possibly have for those of us alive today?

The significance and relevance of Jesus's death on the cross is very much dependent on how we view Jesus. If Jesus was simply a kind, first-century Jew who was unjustly sentenced to a cruel death, the Cross would be lamentable but not particularly unique. After all, many people have suffered and died for doing what they thought was right. Injustice existed thousands of years ago and injustice still exists today, and as such we don't have much reason to exalt Jesus's suffering (and the instrument of his execution) above anyone else's. However, if Jesus really was who Christians think he was – that is, the Creator of the world living as a human being – then his suffering and death have profound implications and enormous relevance to each one of us.

But I don't believe that Jesus was God,” you might say. Fair enough. The question of whether or not we have good reason to believe that Jesus was divine is an important one. But my goal in this essay is not to provide evidence that Jesus is God. My goal is to explain how Jesus's death on the cross might be significant to those of us living in the 21st century. If Jesus was not really God, it is not very significant. But if he was, there is no more relevant event in history. I want to talk about why this is.

If Jesus really was God, the Cross is not just another sad example of human suffering. It is an example of God suffering. God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, first cause and sustainer of all things – suffering. It's hard for me to express how profound this idea is to me. Over the last five years or so, I have struggled quite deeply, both emotionally and intellectually, with what philosophers call The Problem of Evil. The problem is essentially this: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving, then why is there evil and suffering in the world? For some people, this problem is so irresolvable that they decide to abandon the concept of God entirely. While I sympathize with them, I can't share their conclusion. As you may remember from my last essay, I am strongly convinced that moral truth can only exist if God also exists, and if there is one thing I am compelled to accept a priori, it is the idea that moral facts exist. I am simply too angered by injustice to believe that there isn't really a way things ought to be. Consequently, eliminating God to solve the Problem of Evil does not satisfy me. If there is no such thing as God then there is also no such thing as evil, and the reason The Problem of Evil is so troublesome for me is because I am utterly convinced that evil is real. Therefore, I must look for a way to solve the problem that doesn't eliminate God. Theologians offer several options. Some emphasize the idea that if God really is all-knowing then He may be aware of a good reason for allowing evil that we are not. Other theologians emphasize the concept of free will, arguing that God allows evil because it is the only way to allow for the possibility of genuine, unforced love between the Creator and the creature. I have found consolation in both of these arguments, but I think they lack emotional resonance apart from God's suffering on the Cross.

If it really was God on that Cross, we don't necessarily have a logical explanation for why God allows evil and suffering, but we do have assurance that God knows exactly what it's like to be betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, hated, disrespected, and even physically tortured. Christ's suffering on the cross indicates that God doesn't just look down on us passively from a distant throne. He understands not just intellectually, but also experientially, what it is like to be human.

But if God suffers, why does He suffer? Surely if God is all-powerful and all-knowing He could have created a world where He never suffered. Why then, did He create this one? In my experience, people only choose to suffer if there is something they desire that cannot be attained except through suffering. If a man chooses to suffer through a degree program that he does not enjoy, it is probably because he is convinced the program is necessary to secure a successful career. He chooses to suffer not because he desires to suffer, but because he desires to attain something that cannot be attained apart from the suffering. His decision to suffer, therefore, is a reflection of what he loves. He may love comfort (don't we all?), but if he is willing to suffer it is because he loves something even more than comfort. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that if God really did choose to create a world where He suffers, He must have done so because He loved something very much – something that could only be gained through the suffering.

But what is it that God could gain through suffering that He couldn't have otherwise had without suffering? If God is all-powerful, couldn't He have just created a world where He had whatever it is He wanted without having to suffer for it? I would say the answer to this question depends on what God is after. If He wants a world with taller mountains or unsalted oceans, then suffering seems unnecessary. But if He desires a loving relationship with human beings – one characterized by the things that we intuitively sense to be foundational to love – then perhaps trying to achieve such a thing apart from any suffering is like trying to create a square by drawing a triangle.

Whatever philosophical difficulties might arise from these ideas, the crux of my reasoning so far is this: If God really did choose to suffer and die on a cross, He must have thought there was something to gain by doing so, something that He valued tremendously. It appears that the only thing this could be – the only thing that makes any sense at all – is us. The implication of the cross is that God loves us. God doesn't just suffer to suffer. He suffers because in some way His suffering makes it possible for us to know and love Him.

Another reason the Cross is significant is because it suggests that God is merciful. In my last essay, I talked about the idea of moral facts. On one hand, I think all of us want moral facts to exist because we want people who treat us unjustly to be held accountable for their actions. On the other hand, the idea of moral facts scares us because we know we are imperfect beings. We know that if we will have to answer to a God for our actions – a God who is the perfect standard of goodness – then we will not be able to plead innocent. All of us have have done wrong. We might try to reassure ourselves by saying that we're no worse than the next guy, but regardless of how we compare to others we all know we have fallen short. If moral facts are real, God will have a case against us. Therefore, belief in moral facts lead us to anxiety if we do not also believe that God is merciful. But do we have any reason to believe that God is merciful? If it was God on the cross, we do. If God really does love us enough to choose to create a world where He suffers, then we have some foundation for believing that He is a merciful God. We have a reason to hope that, rather than holding our sins against us, He will absorb (or perhaps already has absorbed) the pain of them Himself.

Lastly, the Cross is significant because it is followed by a Resurrection. The Cross may have been an instrument of unjust execution and terrible pain, but it did not have the final word. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus returned from the dead several days after his crucifixion, declaring his victory over sin, evil, and death. I realize a miracle like this is difficult to believe, but consider the implications it it actually did: if the Cross really was followed by a Resurrection, we have a reason to believe that death is not the end. We have a reason to believe that the suffering we go through is not meaningless and that darkness and evil will not win. If we believe in the Cross and the Resurrection, we have hope that the Problem of Evil will not always be a problem.

These are just several ways of looking at the significance of the Cross. There are more, but the ones I have talked about are some that are the most meaningful to me. If the story of the Cross is real, God suffers, God loves, God is merciful, and God overcomes – and in all this humanity has a reason not to despair.

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