As the sombre observance of Good Friday approaches it is important to reflect on the horrifying reality of the cross which stands at the centre of Christian faith.

The cross is an instrument of injustice, suffering, and death. It is a torture device, a sign of shame, rejection, and horror. It points to everything that is most painful in the human condition. But, as difficult as it is, we must not look away because the cross embodies the deepest truths about the human journey and the nature of God. The cross pushes us to the limits of our capacity for understanding, a mystery vastly beyond our capacity to encompass. So we need to ponder with caution, humility, and deep wonder.

The understanding of the cross which has formed much of Christianity was shaped by a cultural context vastly different than our own. The dominant strain of atonement theory emerged in a context of retributive justice in which someone always had to suffer and pay a price to a higher authority for any infringement upon the hard and fast rules that governed all human interaction. Earning God’s favour through sacrifice and punishment were part of the package. But this worthiness, judiciary understanding was expressly rejected by Jesus when he entered the Temple in Jerusalem and drove out those who were profiting from this punitive system. Jesus brought an end to the sacrificial system. He embodied the vision of a God who does not need to be appeased.

Jesus did not die to prevent us from being smacked by an angry God in order that God’s need to preserve some abstract concept of “justice” might be satisfied by the suffering of one who was innocent. This is a vision of the cross that is much too small and demeaning to the true nature of the God that the cross reveals.

The cross is not a sign that God needs to be paid off for human sin. God did not punish Jesus in my place because God was so offended that someone had to die in order to fulfill the demands God’s perfect justice. Punishment has no place in a story that purports to present a picture of true love. Imagine a parent who had to be placated by the sacrifice of an innocent victim in place of the truly guilty child. This is not love, nor is it a story-line likely to engender love.

No one loves someone who demands payment and requires punishment before granting love. If love is not freely given, it is not the love demonstrated on the cross by Jesus. God did not need the cross. I need the cross. I am the one who views life as a balancing act in which the scales of right and wrong have to be perfectly calibrated. I am the one who has trouble with the freely outpouring grace that is the central meaning of Jesus’ self-giving act.

The cross is a manifestation of the true nature of God. God is outpouring love flowing freely to all of creation, needing only to be received and manifest by those who seek to open to its power.

God so loved the world that he gave… (John 3:16)

What we see in the cross is the extent to which God is willing to go to demonstrate that the fundamental nature of life is love. This love is present even in the most horrific injustice and suffering. This love is stronger than death. No matter how dark life may seem, love ultimately defeats those forces that seek its destruction by pouring itself out in self-giving sacrifice. The sacrifice on the cross is not made to God, but by God. It is a sacrifice that began from the moment God gave human beings the freedom to oppose the design God had built into the universe.

The cross portrays the mess, the muddle, and the malady that we humans create by our abuse of the freedom entrusted to us as bearers of the image of the God in whose likeness we are made.  It demonstrates the terrible damage inflicted by human selfishness, self-centeredness, and abuse of power. The cross is what we do to goodness, truth, and beauty. We crush these gifts of life. The grain of truth in the retributive vision of the cross, is that it displays the price that is always paid for sin. It is not that God demands payment; it is simply the reality of the human condition. Sin is its own punishment.

When my life is dominated by my needs, wants, and desires, I always kill beauty and truth. When my personal little life-agendas are my primary concern, I create brokenness and sow the seeds of dysfunction and suffering. It is a tragic picture.