Proclaiming Christ Crucified
Why are Christians obsessed with Jesus' death? The answer lies in the very heart of what makes Jesus-followers unique.
The Cross: The Center of It All
In the late 90s I was a brash young Lutheran seminarian attending Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Looking back, I remember having plenty of questions. The faculty encouraged its students to ask questions, but more importantly they wanted us to realize that there weren't necessarily set answers. With some things, yes; there were answers, but not everything. And even with the theological foundations most believers consider non-negotiable, they were more centered in faith, not facts or definitive answers.
A pronounced line many pastors-in-training eventually need to cross often pops up after the first fall semester. It comes in the form of these big questions: Why Christianity? What makes it unique? Why follow the teachings of Jesus when many—if not most—other world religions contain similar beliefs?
I've never been a shy person. I love to ask questions, especially to academics. So I made a student-faculty appointment with Dr. Duane Priebe, Professor of Systematic Theology and the Kent S. Knutson Fellow in Theology. I chose Dr. Priebe specifically because his approach to theology was similar to mine—intellectual, science-based, and critical.
We chatted pleasantries for five minutes and I told him the reason why I had come to him to ask for his advice.
"With all the work we've done in comparative religions, I'm really beginning to wonder what Christianity has to offer that's any different than any other belief system," I said.
Professor Priebe at first listened politely, but didn't answer directly or interject. (Reflecting on his response now, I can more appreciate his hands-off, inductive approach to pedagogy; back in the day, though, the tactic just annoyed me.)
"Why Christianity?" I asked.
"Well, why not? What do you think?" he shot back.
After rephrasing the question multiple times, I think he simply grew tired of me asking and relented out of mercy.
"What makes the Jesus-way unique?!" I asked.
He sat silently for a moment, then uttered two simple words: "The cross."
I've never forgotten that discussion. Today, I believe the cross is the sole unique theological characteristic of Christianity. I also believe that it's more relevant to today's world than ever.
What Makes a Religion Distinct?
Many world religions have a central, authoritative founder-figure around which their belief systems are built. Buddhism has the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who sought the answer to life and rebirth only to eventually discover the "middle way" as the Buddha, the enlightened one. Judaism has several key figures, including Abraham, Sarah, Moses and David. Islam's got its last, authoritative prophet, Muhammad. Even the myriad—and sometimes especially confusing, at least to a westerner like me—traditions behind Hinduism have their core stories and key personalties.
Christianity, of course, has Jesus. Yet virtually for every one of Jesus' teachings, a simple Google search will quickly affirm that another world religion has a similar, if not identical precept.
Just look at one of Jesus' more famous sayings, the Golden Rule:
Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets. - Matthew 7:12
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. - Luke 10:27 (Jesus' affirmation of the young man's response, in context)
But the surprising thing is this ethical concept already had existed for ages in other religions, not least of which within Judaism itself. (See, for example, Leviticus 19:34, or the deutero-canonical Old Testament books Tobit and Sirach.)
When we look at other world or historical religions (some long-gone) we realize that Jesus hadn't come up with this idea himself.
Islam: "Pay, Oh Children of Adam, as you would love to be paid, and be just as you would love to have justice!" (Prior to Islam's acceptance on the Arabian Peninsula, the tribes generally practiced blood vengeance; Islam changed that.)
Buddhism: The Buddha made the Golden Rule a cornerstone of his ethic. "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." – Udanavarga 5:18
Baha'i Faith: "And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself." – Bahá'u'lláh
Hinduism: "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires." – Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8)
Sikhism: "Precious like jewels are the minds of all. To hurt them is not at all good. If thou desirest thy Beloved, then hurt thou not anyone's heart." – Guru Arjan Dev Ji 259, Guru Granth Sahib
Confucianism: "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."
Ancient Rome: "Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you." – Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BC–65 AD)
Even when you look to newer religious sayings or modern secular beliefs, the similarity is striking.
Wicca: "Here ye these words and heed them well, the words of Dea, thy Mother Goddess, 'I command thee thus, O children of the Earth, that that which ye deem harmful unto thyself, the very same shall ye be forbidden from doing unto another, for violence and hatred give rise to the same.'" – The Book of Ways, Devotional Wicca
Humanism: "Trying to live according to the Golden Rule means trying to empathise with other people, including those who may be very different from us. Empathy is at the root of kindness, compassion, understanding and respect – qualities that we all appreciate being shown, whoever we are, whatever we think and wherever we come from." – Maria MacLachlan, Think Humanism
Global Ethic: "We must treat others as we wish others to treat us." – the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Many of these belief systems have commonalities with each other. However, there are just as many differences. But the hard fact is that you can generally find a near duplicate with the main point of any aspect of Jesus' aphorisms or parables somewhere apart from the witness of scripture as is stands in the New Testament.
If you're reading this, I hope you get the gist of what I'm trying to convey: many world religions have more points in common with each other than dissimilarities. So what makes the Jesus-way different? How does the story of Christ stand out over-against any other religious or spiritual framework?
In a word, the cross.
No other major world religion has its central figure of authority dying in shameful defeat other than Christianity. While other religions have their own distinct characteristics, only the story of Jesus of Nazareth ends (penultimately, at least) with the bewildering stumbling block of the cross. The cross is the story's distinguishable feature.
Not a Death-Cult
However, followers of Jesus aren't obsessed with morbid fascination of Jesus' death. Instead, the mortality of God, the Infinite One, they see as God's willing participation in all that makes us human.
Something I didn't mention above is that God-becoming-human was, in fact, a theme found in other ancient religions. The Greek cult of Dionysus (please realize, I'm not using cult as a pejorative term, but denoting a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object—Christianity is similarly a Jesus cult) is strikingly similar to the origin story of Jesus.
Dionysus was the son of the God Zeus and the mortal woman Semele. He was considered fully divine and fully human. Dionysus (also known as Bacchus by the Romans) was the god of wine and—surprise—could turn water into wine.
Dionysus even by one account (and there are lots of them) died and was raised to new life—evidently the Titans didn't like his claim to divinity and ripped him apart and devoured him, but his heart was left over and was "restored to new life."
Other ancient religions such as the sect of Mithras and the veneration of the Egyptian gods Horus and Osiris have similar claims to God becoming a human being to bring about a new era of peace.
So why is Jesus unique?
It's not because followers are preoccupied with death. Rather, it's because Jesus' death was so utterly common and, well, human.
The Grand Reversal
The real key, I believe, to Jesus' death on the cross with respect to its relevance to our cultural today is that the cross is so radically counter-cultural.
Within American society, we don't look at a criminal was just had been executed by the state and think, "Yeah. There's a real success story."
Jesus was executed and executed as a common criminal. An injustice? For sure. But do we deify—or at least venerate—anyone for that matter who's had the pleasure of sitting in an electric chair or had a needle stuck in his arm?
The reformer Martin Luther particularly considered the cross the most radical aspect of Christianity. In the Heidelberg Disputation, he ended his argument by stating that, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."
The cross is nothing pretty. Death is never pretty, for that matter; but that's exactly why following Jesus is never easy, but is precisely the most realistic response we can offer the world that only sees success in the achievements, fame, or wealth of the beloved, beautiful, and popular.
Let me briefly relate personally how I experienced the cross in my own life.
I was raised to be a success story. In today's world, I had everything going for me; I was smart, good-looking, white, male, cisgendered and came from a family who was caring, upstanding, and loving. Note that I don't make these claims because I inherently believe I'm better than black, gay, female, or differently-gifted people. I'm simply stating that in the world I grew up in and where I went to college in the late 80s and early 90s in suburban America, every unfair advantage was stacked in my favor.
I was a triple major in my undergraduate, married a knockout blonde, and went to graduate school with the belief that I could do or be anything I wanted.
I thought I wanted to be a pastor, a spiritual leader of a congregation. What I soon discovered is that my selfishness and belief that I was a golden boy didn't carry me as far as I thought they would have. I suffered from depression and dealt with it by drinking and taking pills, mostly opioids I was prescribed for a chronic health condition.
Short story . . . I fell. And I fell hard. I had to rethink where my belief system actually led me, rather than where I thought it would lead me.
The cross for me came in the basement cell of a western North Dakota jailhouse. The death of the conviction that I could control my life turned out to be one of the greatest blessings I had ever received.
It placed the death—and resurrection—of Jesus into a new light for me.
The curse was reversed.
For me, following Jesus isn't a death obsession. It's the belief that new life often comes through death. And for that I'm very grateful.
The Resurrection Isn't Real Without a Real Death
Probably this last point bears the most relevance to Jesus' story. Easter is considered by many as the true locus around which the church revolves. Still, without Jesus' death—a real, gruesome, horrifying death—the resurrection is meaningless.
An early heresy in the church was known as docetism. I always hate bringing up early Christian heresies, because it makes me sound like I'm a witch hunter or a high-ranking official in the Spanish Inquisition. I'm anything but those things. Still, I remember fondly learning about the early heresies, because they so helped clarify what my own beliefs were.
Docetism was the belief that Jesus' body and physical self only appeared to be like you or me. Instead, Jesus was real only insofar as his physical self was phantasmal or spiritual—he wasn't really a human being, but only appeared as such. (The term docetic actually comes from its Greek root δοκεῖν/δόκησις, which means "to seem.") So any of his suffering he experienced on the cross only seemed to be as such. It was for our benefit, but didn't really happen.
It's not because followers are preoccupied with death. Rather, it's because Jesus' death was so utterly common and, well, human.
Docetism didn't catch on for very long, and not because it wasn't hip or intellectually sound. The early Church crunched down on the belief pretty hard, and probably rightfully so—who wants a God who's supposed to be in solidarity with you, but only fakes you out?
The Radical Nature of the Good News
Proclaiming Christ crucified is as radical today as it was back then because it's so counter-intuitive. Gods are supposed to be all-powerful and untouchable. They aren't in the business of losing, and certainly aren't the recipients of unjust rulings that end in a bloody, very public mess on a hill reserved for thieves, traitors and murderers.
Personally, I choose to follow Jesus because Jesus was a loser. He was on the opposite side of where the world says you need to go for success, to win. And still, he did end up winning, and through his own death ended up destroying death once and for all.
That, if anything, shows me that Jesus' story is like no other, and worth looking into.