The cross has been romanticized to such a degree that it has completely lost its original meaning and significance. And this has really been the case ever since the time of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The story of the “Christian” Constantine begins at the battle of Milvian Bridge. He sees a vision of a cross floating in the sky and hears the words, “Conquer by this.” He immediately tells his army to adorn their shields with the sign of the cross and thus they go on to defeat Maxentius and take the Empire. Upon becoming emperor, Constantine not only legalized Christianity but claimed to be a Christian himself, thereby making it the de-facto state religion and the cross a symbol of the Empire. Virtually overnight, Christianity went from being a religion mostly of the poor and powerless to being the religion of the wealthy and powerful. It went from being a religion of peace to being a religion with an army and a lust for conquest. Thus, the cross became a symbol of empire, power, wealth, and force. And not just political power and force but theological power and force too.
Ever since the early Middle Ages, the cross has represented God’s power and strength over things like Satan, sin, and death. The most popular atonement theory of this time period was called the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Christus Victor is latin for, “Christ the Victor,” and it held that God defeated Satan at the cross the way one king or emperor defeats another on the field of battle (i.e., the way that Constantine defeated Maxentius). But the cross in its original, first-century context was not a symbol of Empire, power, strength, and victory but that of weakness, powerlessness, and defeat. This is why Christianity was originally very attractive to the poor and the slaves. The cross originally represented God’s solidarity with the suffering and those who felt abandoned by God. In a world where gods and goddesses were worshipped and revered because of their power and heroic deeds, the Christian God stood out for being worshipped because of his weakness and powerlessness.
In order to understand this you have to understand the meaning of crucifixion in the Roman world. Crucifixion was not just a nasty way of killing someone but a way of stripping them of all humanity, identity, and place within the world. Back then the religious, political, and social order was seen as divinely ordained. When someone was crucified they were literally and figuratively stripped naked, which along with the crucifixion itself, represented that this person had been stripped of all identity, humanity, and place within the divine order. Again, this was not just a nasty way of killing someone but a way of saying that they have been rejected by both God and man. You find this same sentiment in Deuteronomy 21:23 which says, “Cursed [by God] is anyone that is hung on a tree.”
This is why Paul said in 1 Corinthians that the crucified Christ is, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The cross was foolishness and offensive because it meant that God was powerless and weak, God was cursed, God was stripped of all identity and place in the world, God was rejected by God. This made early Christianity something to ridicule and we have a great example of that in a piece of Roman graffiti from the second century.
This depicts Jesus on the cross as having the head of a donkey and a man worshipping or praying to him. The inscription says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” The idea here is that this jackass of a God got himself crucified and these idiots called Christians actually worship him. This is a great example of how the cross was nonsensical, offensive, and shocking in the ancient world. It was a symbol of weakness and powerlessness that made many people want to steer clear of Christianity. I like the way Jurgen Multmann, a twentieth-century theologian put it:
Even the disciples of Jesus all fled from their master’s cross. Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way.
The question for us is – how can we understand him in a sufficiently radical way today? The answer is tied to how we understand Jesus’ words from the cross in Matt 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here we find Jesus doubting and despairing of God but unfortunately, this is not what we’ve been taught. Instead, we’ve been taught that Jesus was actually quoting a line out of Psalm 22 and therefore he was actually affirming his trust in God. So, in other words, Jesus said this while winking at us. He was just acting in order to fool Satan or those nasty Romans into thinking they really had him.
Or we’re told, even if he was really despairing and doubting, it was only the human side of Jesus. The God side of Jesus knew everything was okay. Jesus was just holding back his divine power long enough so that his human side could suffer and die. He freely chose to do this because God needed to redeem the world with his blood, we’re told. But if Jesus wanted to, he could of pushed the nails from his hands and feet, floated down off the cross, healed his wounds on the spot and then, with a simple wave of his hand, slaughtered those nasty Romans. But he didn’t because he needed to participate in this piece of divine theatre to redeem us. He needed to pretend that he was weak and powerless so that later on he could display his true power and strength at his second coming. It’s then we’re told that he will return in glory as the Son of Man and finally destroy his enemies and anyone that refused to convert.
Thus, the cross was a kind of “Clarke Kent” moment for Jesus. He was feigning weakness and powerless in order to cover up the fact that he was really superman. But to turn the cross into a Clarke Kent act is to completely rob it of any real depth and meaning, it is to rob Jesus’ suffering and death of any real meaning. But we Christians have been willing to do that over the centuries in order to protect ourselves from the horror of the cross, from the terrifying idea that God was weak and powerless in the world. We want to protect ourselves from this terrifying idea because we don’t want Clarke Kent, we want superman. We’re like Louis Lane in that regard. We want a God that can guarantee happy endings and always sweep in at the last moment to save the day. But instead what we find in the gospels is this strange God who says to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The place we are following Jesus to with our cross is the place where we too will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
If Christianity is about sharing in Christ’s sufferings and participating with him in his crucifixion, then the central Christian experience is the experience of the absence and abandonment of God. Christianity is ultimately a message of hope, but it is first and foremost a message of embracing death and despair. Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are actually a kind of prayer. In a weird way they are actually an acknowledgment of God’s presence in his absence. To pray, “God, where the hell are you?” is to at least hope that someone is listening. And so here we find the crux of the issue: the cross represents not the death of all Gods, but the death of this classic God of religion.
Consider that at the death of Jesus the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. This was the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple and thereby the rest of the world. The Holy of Holies was the inner sanctuary of the temple, a special room where supposedly God’s spirit resided and only certain priests could enter. The tearing of this curtain represented the tearing down of this sacred space and thereby the tearing down of a particular religious understanding of God.
Jesus’ death represented the death of this God who needs temples, priests, rituals, and sacrifices. Jesus’ death meant the death of this God who is obsessed with rules and has people stoned or thrown in hell for breaking them. Jesus’ death represented the death of this all powerful God up there who guarantees happy endings. Not only was Jesus not the messiah Israel expected because he was crucified but because he didn’t liberate them from the Romans. This seemed out of character for the God of their scriptures who always seemed to save the day, who supposedly liberated them from the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Greeks. Where was this God now? Well, he’s dead. He was crucified.
Jesus’ death represents the death of the classic God of religion and the resurrection or the birth of a God who is found not in a temple but out here among us. This is a God who identifies with the Godless and those abandoned by God. This is a God who identifies with us in our suffering. Only a weak and powerless God can do that and therein lies his power.
Simone Weil, a philosopher and Jewish mystic of the early twentieth century, describes our situation with God being like two prisoners locked in solitary confinement. Each prisoner is alone in their own cell with a concrete wall separating them. The only way they have to communicate with each other is by tapping and scratching on the wall. Thus, the wall is both the means of their separation and the means of their communication. I love that! Simone writes, “Every separation is also a link.” In other words, our separation from God is also our link to God. In a way, his absence is his presence. In a way, Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a beautiful prayer, a beautiful affirmation that God is present with us in our sufferings.
The cross represents both our separation from and link to God. If we listen carefully we can hear a scratching and tapping that affirms life and love at their deepest levels. Consider that Jesus died because he refused to look the other way while people were being abused and oppressed. He was killed because he refused to not protest while the religious and political powers harmed people. The crucifixion is therefore an affirmation of love and life. We are only willing to die for things that we highly value. Jesus thought that human life, love, and justice were highly valuable. Thus, the cross, in all of its horror and grotesqueness, is perhaps the deepest affirmation of life and love. This is what I mean when I talk about the power of a powerless God. Only a God who is weak and powerless can suffer and only a suffering God can help us. This is not unlike what the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
I don’t know where this leaves you with the way you think about God. I think we’ve been taught to think of God solely as this super being who lives somewhere up there–a being who can save the day anytime he wants but strangely chooses often not to. I prefer to think of God in the way the fourteenth-century church mystics thought of him–a being without being, or as the ground of being, or the event of being, a God we find in the midst of life and love, a God that we experience most when we are enraptured by a sense of awe and wonder. I wanted to end with this because again, the cross is not about the death of all Gods to me, just the classic God of religion. But another God has been resurrected in his place. This is a God of life and love that shares in our sufferings and weaknesses, a truly powerful God.