Summary: Under the Plato-Dante framework the cross is a human sacrifice to pacify an angry God. Seen through the lens of the Kingdom of God, the cross is the triumph of God and the beginning of the New Creation.
In the opening chapter, I discussed how all of the pieces my faith have to work together. I can’t modify one part without affecting all the others. This really came home to me as I reflected on the cross. I realized that the way I viewed it was a result of embracing the Plato-Dante cosmology I no longer accept. Here is how the pieces used to fit together:
I viewed the creation as three pieces: earth, heaven, and hell (my cosmology). Since only heaven and hell were eternal, earth did not matter. The only thing to concern myself with was getting into heaven when the earth was destroyed (my eschatology). The question became how to get a place in heaven (my soteriology) and what Christ had done to make this possible (my Christology).
When I shifted my cosmology to a Kingdom cosmology, it changed everything. Here is how I now put the pieces together:
I view this world as “the heavens and the earth” with God standing outside of the created realm (my cosmology). I believe that God is actively healing and restoring this fallen world, making a “new heavens and earth” (my eschatology). The question becomes how to be included in this restoration (my soteriology) and what part Jesus plays in it (my Christology).
The table below summarizes the shift in my thinking:
In this chapter, I will focus on the cross, beginning with my old way of looking at things, the Plato-Dante cosmology, and then showing how much better it is to see the cross through the lens of God’s Kingdom.
The Cross in Plato-Dante Cosmology
In the Plato-Dante cosmology, the physical realm is a temporary phenomenon. Earth, as all matter, will be destroyed and replaced by the spiritual realms of heaven and hell. Every created thing will be assigned one or the other. Where do I belong? Well, I have done some good things and some bad things. I’m certainly not good enough to deserve heaven but I also don’t feel that my life merits eternal torture in hell. My life is an mix of good and evil but the afterlife offers only a place of pure good (heaven) or pure evil (hell).
I grew up thinking I would wind up in hell since the slightest imperfection disqualified me from heaven. I heard this illustrated in a graphic way. If I had a sandwich and put just a tiny piece of shit in it would you eat it? In the same way, there may be some good pieces of me but that doesn’t matter. God doesn’t eat shit sandwiches. Whatever good I have done is irrelevant. I have sinned. God has no option but to condemn me to hell.
There is nothing I can do to fix this. Even if I lived a perfect life from here on out, I have already violated God’s standard of perfection and earned my rightful place in eternal flames. My situation is hopeless. What will I do? That’s where the cross comes in. Jesus lived a perfect life and was punished by God on the cross for every sin I have committed. Since Jesus paid the price for my sin, I am now regarded as perfect. I am now fit for heaven.
What I have just described it’s called the penal substitution theory of the cross. There is some truth in it but in many ways it is a logical necessity caused by the assumptions of Plato-Dante cosmology. When this is viewed as the only reason for the cross, it creates problems. Here are six.
Problems with The Cross in the Plato-Dante Framework
1. The gospel writers do not emphasize Jesus’ moral perfection. If the primary reason God sent Jesus to this earth was to be a perfect sacrifice, why didn’t his first followers emphasize the fact that Jesus was morally perfect? Although it is logical that if Jesus was God incarnate he lived a morally perfect life, the gospel writers do not dwell on this. Instead, they describe a man who was utterly mind-blowing, who had supernatural power, who forgave sin, whose teaching held people spellbound, who left the people in awe. But never in the gospels is there a focus on Jesus’ moral perfection. It was the Pharisees who obsessed about that sort of thing.
2. “Law” in the New Testament does not mean “moral perfection.” For years I read the word “law” in the writings of Paul as a description of living a perfectly sinless life based on the labyrinth of rules in the Old Testament. In my understanding, “law” meant “perfection.” Since no one was perfect, no one deserved heaven. We all deserved hell. (Back to the shit sandwich.)
But I was puzzled by Paul’s claim to be “blameless” with regard to keeping the law.1 I figured it was just hyperbole. But in 1983, E.P. Sanders rocked the world of Biblical studies with a book titled Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. His argument was that when first century Jews used the word “law” they did not mean moral perfection. By “keeping the law” they meant “behaving as a good Jew.” This boiled down to three main things: circumcision, kosher eating, and observing the sabbath. As you read through Paul’s letters you will see that these three issues stand at the center of controversy about “the law.”
First century Jews were not stressed out because they were morally imperfect. They knew this. Their understand was that the important thing was being part of God’s people. You become a Jew by being born Jewish (or converting). You continued in this blessed state by behaving like a Jew: you circumcised your boys, ate kosher, and obeyed the sabbath. This is what is mean by “keeping the law.” Of course you tried to understand the meaning of the Old Testament and did your best to live by it. But no one claimed to do so perfectly. When Paul claims to have been perfect with regard to the law, he was not claiming moral perfection. He was saying that he behaved as a model Jew.
Paul’s highly controversial view was that he now regarded his model Jewish behavior to be rubbish.2 There was now one human family and anyone from any nation could be a part, simply by trusting in Christ. It was not necessary to eat kosher, circumcise your boys, or keep the sabbath.
So to say that the cross was the “fulfillment of “the law” was not primarily to say that it solved the problem of moral imperfection. It was to say that it solved the problem of how people from all nations could eat around the same table as one blessed family. This was possible because of the grace of God and the faithfulness of his servant, Jesus.3
3. Plato-Dante produces bad behavior. Since the only thing I needed to do was “receive Jesus” go to heaven when I die, there was very little motivation to be a good person. Of course I ought to follow Jesus’ example of being good. Also, the way I learned it, every time I sinned, I added to Christ’s agony on the cross. But no matter what I did, I would wind up in heaven. As far as sin went, I was bulletproof.
This idea created a strange creature: the holy asshole. That fact that this guy was a jerk didn’t bother him. He considered himself morally perfect since Jesus had him covered. No one in church sang louder or lifted his hand higher than him. How do I know this guy so well? I’ll let you guess.
4. Nothing says our journey is over when we die. I used to assume that when I die, I will be either morally perfect, like God, or morally bankrupt, like the Devil. This makes sense if I am bound for an “eternal state” in heaven or hell, where everything has achieved its final end. But descriptions of the coming judgment in the New Testament all involve an evaluation of my life based on what I truly am, resulting in rewards and punishment. If I anticipate a new age, new adventures seem inevitable. It is not necessary to assume that the coming age precludes further development.
5. The emphasis of the cross is not the wrath of God. In Biblical descriptions of the cross, the emphasis falls on the love of God, not wrath. Never are we told that God poured out his wrath on Jesus. In the sacrificial system, the point was not that an innocent animal died in the place of a sinner.4 The animal was not killed on an altar to appease an angry God as in pagan religions. Instead the animal’s blood, which was a symbol of life, was poured on the altar. Life confers life.
Of course, God’s attitude toward sin is wrath.5 God hates sin. It destroys all that is good. On the cross, God met death with life, like a soldier who gives his life so that other may live. This is righty celebrated and sung about. But the Bible never portrays God as a pagan deity, demanding a human sacrifice to quench the fires of his wrath. This idea has become so much a part of Christian culture that it was very hard for me to erase it.6
6. Lifeboat soteriology turns God into a devil. The fact that God would torture the vast majority of human beings in hell forever is troubling to say the least. How could I possibly not concluded that this god was a monster? It seemed arbitrary and unfair. This question has produced two answers, neither of which is satisfactory to me.
One answer is that God doesn’t send me to hell. I choose to go there (Arminianism).7 God makes me an offer of heaven. If I refuse, what’s God supposed to do? Force me? He can’t do that since he gave me free will.
The other answer is that God decides if I am saved or not (Calvinism). Even my choosing to follow Jesus is God’s doing. Why doesn’t God choose everyone? Because he wants to show how much he hates sin by allowing some people to suffer eternally in hell. Hell is a horrific object lesson.
This rancorous debate disappeared when I abandoned Plato-Dante cosmology and spoke instead of the Kingdom of God. No longer was it necessary to assume that God was unfair since he permanently assigned me to a static existence in heaven or hell. Instead, pain, and suffering are not a final destination. They are stops on the way to new creation.
These are just six of the frustration I had trying to understand the cross under the Plato-Dante cosmology. These were greatly relieved when I began to see the cross through the lens of the Kingdom of God.
The Cross in Kingdom Cosmology
I hope you will love what you are about to read. I have found thinking of the cross through the lens of new creation to be one of the most energizing things I have done for a long time.
If the cross is not to satisfy the wrath of an angry God so we can go to heaven instead of hell when we die, what is it? Put simply, the cross is the establishment of the Kingdom of God in this world in the most surprising way possible: a crucified Messiah.
The cross cannot be understood apart from Israel’s story. This story is long and complicated but it can be summarized by six chapters with a repeating theme: Kingdom, Rebellion, & Exile.
Chapter 1: The Garden
The Bible begins with the Kingdom of God. God created a mind-blowing universe and gave human beings the keys. For a while, it was magnificent. We admired the heavens and cared for the earth. But all too soon, human beings made the fateful decision to reject God and usurp his place. We were exiled from the garden and the world was officially screwed up.
Chapter 2: Abraham
God, who by all rights should have ended the story right here, approached a man named Abraham with a promise to heal the world and restore the Kingdom. Abraham trusted God and followed him. But rather than entering quickly into the promised Kingdom, Abraham and his descendants continued to reject God.Through a series of misadventures, they ended up in exiled in Egypt.
Chapter 3: Egypt
After four hundred years of slavery, God approached Moses with the promise to restore the Kingdom. God led Moses through a series of showdowns with the Pharaoh, climaxing in the Passover and the exodus through the Red Sea. The nation of Israel was born. But following this great rescue, rather than moving on to the Promised Land, Israel rejected God. At the same time that God was revealing himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai, Israel was dancing around a golden calf at the foot of the mountain. For forty years they wandered aimlessly in exile in the wilderness.
Chapter 4: Promised Land
God again offered the Kingdom to Israel. Under Joshua’s leadership they entered the Promised Land. There, they entered into another cycle of rebellion. They enjoyed a few glory days under King David but after David’s death Israel again rejected God and turned back to idol worship. Soon they are embroiled in civil war. Assyria and Babylon capitalized on their weakness and Israel again was exiled, now in Babylon.
Chapter 5: Return to the Promised Land
The edict of Cyrus allowed Israel to return to the Promised Land, rebuild the temple and reenter the Kingdom promised to Abraham. But the second temple was a pale shadow of its glory under Solomon. The people continued to reject God and worship idols. Israel enjoyed a brief period of independence under the Maccabees, but in 63 B.C., Rome conquered Israel. The people lived under the power of Rome, exiled in their own country. They longed for a Messiah to restore the promise to Abraham and the glory years of David. Several people stepped up, claiming to be this Messiah. They wound up on a Roman crosses, grisly object lessons to show the foolishness of defying the power of Rome.
Chapter 6: Jesus Christ
Jesus began his ministry by announcing that the Kingdom of God was imminent. This was the news everyone wanted to hear. The question was, who would be the Messiah-King to lead the miraculous defeat of Rome and re-establish Israel as a world power? Jesus taught that the Kingdom was very different than what they were looking for. Among other things, he said it would be established by the meek. He demonstrated this by embracing the outcasts, loving his enemies, healing the sick and defeating the devil. Toward the end of his life, Jesus revealed that he was the Messiah-King. Many believed him. But when he refused to behave as they expected, they rejected him and gave him up to Rome. Jesus wound up like every other failed Messiah—an object of mockery, exiled on a Roman cross.
Chapter 7: New Creation
No one expected what happened next. God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his right hand where he was crowned the King of kings and Lord of lords. How did Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfill the promise to Abraham and established the Kingdom of God? Over the next few decades, Jesus’ first followers spelled this out in the writings we now know as the New Testament. These show how Jesus fulfilled the promise to Abraham and established the Kingdom of God once and for all.
The most difficult piece of this puzzle was the cross. A crucified Messiah was an oxymoron— nonsense to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. But through the eye of faith, the cross came to be understood as God’s greatest triumph and the establishment of the Kingdom.
How the Cross Established the KOG
1. The cross looked like the continuation of the exile. Instead it was the end of the exile.
As we have seen, Israel’s pattern was to turn from God to worship idols. When the did so they wound up in exile, excluded from the life God intended for them. Jesus joined Israel in this exile and fulfilled it, once and for all.
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the Lord’s hand
Double for all her sins.”
The exile is over. There is no need to wander far from God anymore. The prodigal child is welcome home.
2. The cross looked like the triumph of death. Instead it was the beginning of life.
Jesus chose the time of the Passover to give his life and celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples before his death. He pointed to himself as the Lamb, of which all previous lambs had been a foreshadow.
You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
The Passover did not emphasize God’s wrath being poured out on an innocent lamb. The emphasis was on the lifeblood which caused the death angel to pass over the house. In the same way, Jesus’s death did not emphasize the wrath of God being poured out on an innocent. The emphasis is the lifeblood which conquers over death. Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb was God’s gift of life.
3. The cross looked like condemnation. Instead, it was forgiveness.
Throughout the terrible ordeal of the cross human beings proved unfaithful. Jesus’ people delivered him to be crucified. The Romans proceeded with the execution. Even Peter, one of his truest friends, denied him. Yet in the face of human betrayal Jesus kept saying,8
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Loving sinful people always involves suffering. You have to be willing to take a hit and not hit back. The cross is God receiving the blow of our unfaithfulness, paying the price of love. Israel was welcomed back. The door was open wide for Rome to enter God’s Kingdom. Peter was forgiven. Even I am invited.
4. It looked as though God had forsaken us. Instead God was profoundly with us.
The most haunting words on the cross are,
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34)
When I was a kid, I had a poster in my room that said, “You can’t look at the cross and ask, ‘Who cares?’” For some reason that really hit home. It still does. The cross is God with me in my confusing, despair, and suffering. God knows what it feels like to feel abandoned by God. In Christ I find a friend who understands show cruel and absurd life seems. The cross reveals God to be the friend of sinners, losers and the lost causes. There is hope for everyone, even me.
5. The cross looked like yet another defeat of the Kingdom of God. Instead, it was God’s ultimate triumph and the beginning of a revolution.
In this world, dreamers like Jesus who believe in the power of love are crushed. The cross looks just just one more example of this. Jesus’ followers came to believe that this was an illusion. Human cruelty is not the final word. God did. Love will trump hate. Light will trumps darkness. Joy will trump sadness. Peace will trump violence.
The powers of this world cannot defeat the powers of this world. The defeat our twisted world must come from another realm. When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate was amazed that he didn’t put up a fight.9 What Pilate did not understand is that by refusing to fight, Jesus was fighting. The Kingdom of man was being defeated by the Kingdom of God. The Maker of heaven and earth was not on the side of Rome nor was he impressed with her power.
When Jesus said, “The meek will inherit the earth,”10 it was not hyperbole. In the end, all dictators and despots will wind up with nothing. Their kingdom is a passing illusion.
Paul put it this way:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
On the cross, Jesus began a revolution that will turn the world upside down. Of course, we must wait to see this. Sometimes it appears that Egypt, Rome, and Babylon are still holding the trump cards. That’s where faith comes in. We know this is not true. We do not understand how this will all work out but we have taken sides with our crucified Messiah. We believe that,
Though the wrong seem oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.11
What Must I Do?
Under the Plato-Dante cosmology, the cross was a lever I pulled to get me into heaven when I died. I did this by “asking Jesus into my heart.” Once I had my conversion experience I was in. The only thing left to do is to try to get others to pull the lever so they would go to heaven too.
In the Kingdom of God, the cross has far reaching implications. I begin by doing what Jesus demanded: I repent.12 I switch sides. I abandon the kingdom of this world with its illusion of power. I side with the crucified Messiah, believing that the Maker of heaven and earth is on the side of mercy, that the meek will inherit the earth.
The result is a not a ticket to heaven but a new way of life, one that shines like a city on a hill. I follow the Master, trusting God and knowing I must face a cross of my own. I experience God’s Spirit, filling me with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self control and making my heart cry out to God, “Abba! Father!”
I do not understand all the mysteries of the coming age or how God will work all things for good. I do know that if I follow Jesus I will wind up in his Kingdom.
- Philippians 3:6
- Philippians 3:7-9
- Ephesians 2:8-9. Notice that what follows these famous verses is a discussion of how Jews and Gentiles are now one people.
- The one exception to this is the scapegoat, which was not killed.
- Romans 1:18
For example the modern hymn, In Christ Alone:
“’til on the cross, as Jesus died
the wrath of God was satisfied.”
N.T. Wright addresses this misunderstanding of the cross in great detail in his book, The Day the Revolution Began.
- Lewis’ Great Divorce is one of the best and most nuanced descriptions of this idea.
- The Greek imperfect tense is used to describe repetition.
- John 18:36
- Matthew 5:5
- From the old hymn, “This Is My Fathers World,” a wonderful Kingdom song.
- Mark 1:15