The Heart Of It All (Part 3): The Christ Solution & The Reason For A Cross
Christian claim #3: “For us and for our salvation he became man, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Dying to Live
In the early morning hours of September 2, 1666, fire broke out in the city of London. The source of the fire was the King’s own bakery, oddly enough, on Pudding Lane. It could not have been a worse place for the fire to start. Pudding lane was a narrow street lined with wooden homes (with straw roofs) and bakeries. One street over was the London Bridge, which also was lined with houses made of plaster and wood.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was an unusually strong east wind that morning, which pushed the fire toward Thames street and Fish Street Hill. These streets contained large storerooms filled with combustible materials such as oil, pitch, and tar. This means the fire became so intense that no one could get close enough to fight the flames.
To make matters worse, London had no central fire station. In their great wisdom, the London council leadership had earlier suggested that local residents handle any fire outbreaks with leather buckets of water. In really serious cases, they were to burn wood as a means of creating a firebreak. These genius’ of ingenuity and prevention assessed the situation and determined that the fire would probably burn itself out.
And it did—5 days later. 13,000 houses, 87 churches (including St. Paul’s Cathedral), and all the main buildings of London were destroyed. 200,000 people were left with nothing. Amazingly, only 5 deaths were reported.
Today, in the city of London, stands a monument commemorating the Great London fire of 1666. You may wonder why anyone would commemorate such a tragic moment. But according to some accounts, the story is quite possibly more salvific than tragic.
You see, on that same cool September morning, Londoners were experiencing the worst case of plague in their history. No one knew what caused this terrible disease that could ruin whole cities in a matter of weeks. The disease was actually carried by fleas which lived on the skin of black rats which by far outnumbered people in London. In their panic to stop the dreaded disease (which they assumed came through larger animals), the leaders of the city slaughtered 40,000 dogs and 80,000 cats. I can think of no better way to make the rat problem worse! And from May of 1665 to September of 1666, 1,000 Londoners were dying every week. With no apparent way to stop the disease, the people (both the sick and the healthy) simply sat in their homes and waited to die.
Until a strong East wind carried the flames of a fire in the king’s kitchen to the rest of the city. The path of the flame passed through the most combustible sections of town, making the heat so strong that no one could put it out. At the days end 5 days later, every trace of the terrible plague lay scorched in the glowing embers of the desolate city. The same fire that “robbed” 200,000 people of house and home gave 200,000 people and their ancestors a chance to live again. What appeared to be London’s greatest tragedy was, quite possibly, their greatest Savior.
Why Christianity Has A Cross
As you probably know, at the center of Christianity stands a cross. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,” writes the Apostle Paul, “but we preach Christ crucified”–a view even he admits is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22-23). In 1856, archaeologists unearthed what is perhaps the earliest depiction of the crucifixion of Christ…scratched into plaster around AD 200. There a man is pictured extending his arm toward a cross on which hangs a human body with the head of a donkey. The accompanying Greek inscription reads “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” Non-Christians held all sorts of confused ideas about Christians–that they are initiated in the blood of a slaughtered infant, ate human flesh and worshiped a God who was actually “the head of an ass.” But the shamefulness of these claims are understandable in the light of Christian language (such as the Christians “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” (John 6:53), as well as the deeply Christian truth that God–in Christ–suffered and died by a shameful form of execution (reminiscent of the electric chair, hanging, or legal injection): “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
It makes you wonder. Christianity has been around a long time, and we have had every chance to tell the story differently. We could have removed the cross and talked about a good man who taught pleasant things intended to help us think better thoughts about ourselves and others. But Christians have always–and continue–to preach Christ crucified. What appeared to be the world’s greatest tragedy was, in fact, our salvation. So…why is the cross good news, and what does it tell us about God?
First, the cross acknowledges the reality of evil, pain, and suffering. David Hume famously claimed that evil is a problem for believers; but the plain fact is that it is a problem for everybody. If you find revolting atrocities conducted during the Holocaust, the Crusades, or the Rwandan massacre, you are acknowledging a real problem that cries out for a solution. If there is something wrong in the world, it stands to reason that one should offer a legitimate solution to the problem. For some eastern religions, there is no such thing as pail, evil, or suffering. We are only experiencing a figment of our imagination. For many nonbelievers, this world comes to us “as is” without any inherent moral categories. Bertrand Russell, for example, claimed this life of pain and sorrow is all we can expect or even hope for; the proper philosophy of life, writes Russell, can be built “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”
The wonderful truth is that while pain, evil, and suffering remains a problem for everyone, Christianity both acknowledges this fact and offers a solution. The solution is a story–about God and the world–that centers on a cross. Far from denying suffering, Christianity majors in it. Rather than deflecting any attention to the consequences of evil, Christians claims our God felt the blow of evil firsthand. Evil, pain, and suffering are acknowledged in the cross.
Second, the cross proclaims the fullness of the incarnation, as God shares in our humanity. Alvin Plantinga and others have offered (to my mind) convincing reasons to believe a God who desires for his creatures to be free would create a world in which the good and bad that results from those free choices are allowed to remain, at least for the meantime. Christians believe God will eventually wipe every tear from our eyes as he defeats death, heals all pain, and ends all suffering. But while it is intellectually possible for a good, loving God to allow suffering in the world in the present, it is difficult to bear. This is where the story moves from the head to the heart. God enters into the story to bear our suffering with us. He suffers along with us–a point made repeatedly in the book of Hebrews. In a world where suffering, while temporary, is part of the story, God stands in solidarity with us.
Third, the cross reminds us that Jesus died “for” us. Christians affirm that Jesus died “for us and for our salvation,” or in simpler terms “for our sins.” Atonement theories are numerous–and each one attempts to explain some facet of Christian reflection on what it means for Jesus to offer himself “for” you and me. While the in-house debate is fascinating, this one fundamental truth flows from them all, and we have good reason to rejoice! “He loved me and gave Himself for me,” writes the Apostle Paul (Gal 2:20). He continues: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8). “Christ suffered once for sins,” writes Peter, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).
Fourth, the cross puts on display the united, freely-given love of God. In 1427, the young Italian artist Masaccio completed a beautiful fresco in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In this moving crucifixion scene, the limp body of Christ does not appear alone. behind his head sits the heavenly dove–an image for the Holy Spirit. And towering both above and behind the cross stands the figure of God the Father, with piercing eyes and a somber look; His hands outstretched, bearing up the cross in his own arms.
Fifth, the cross provides a way of life. “To this to have been called,” writes Peter, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps” (1 Pet 2:21). It would be thought strange for a large number of people to carry around their necks a small emblem of an electric chair; yet today many Christians continue to wear a cross. One reason is because the cross not only reminds us of one important day in the past, but a self-surrender that has come to define our way of life. The 19th century Christian theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “Christians are asked to live, not in the shadow of the Cross, but in the fire of its creative action.” Christians follow a self-surrendering God who chooses the way of death in order to bring about life for the world. The same spirit that led Jesus to the cross leads us to self-denial as we take up the cross ourselves.
The conclusion to the London fire story is ironic, don’t you think? With no available means to trace the source of the plague (and every effort to fix the problem only made it worse), the only chance for salvation had to come from the outside. But it came with a price. It demanded everything they had. But that is the real irony; they couldn’t go on living with plague-infested parts of their lives. By giving up everything they had, they experienced the transforming power of the fire, offering hope to those willing to start all over again.
How can Paul claim to “boast in the cross”? How can Christians sing “in the cross, in the cross, be my GLORY ever?” To have the power over death and allow yourself to die is anything but glorious; its an act of insanity to himself and treachery to his followers (who left everything to join him in this crusade). He must be mad, or delusional…or he must know something we don’t know. It’s for the same reason Londoners take pride in the fire of London. How can I glory in the cross? Because his cruel death is my glorious salvation, allowing everything that is decaying in me to die, so that I might—with transformed vision and a transformed life—begin to truly live.
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.