As a young man growing up in Scotland, like many others, I was exposed to Christianity and the symbol of the cross. It was a point of confusion, a mystery at best, and at worst, an object of scorn and disgust. I did not know what it meant or why religious people thought it important, but I knew I wanted nothing to do with it.
Alister McGrath, Professor of theology, ministry, and education at King’s College, London, writes: “Just as God has humbled himself in making himself known ‘in the humility and shame of the cross,’ we must humble ourselves if we are to encounter him. We must humble ourselves by being prepared to be told where to look to find God, rather than trusting in our own insights and speculative abilities. In effect, we are forced to turn our eyes from contemplation of where we would like to see God revealed, and to turn them instead upon a place which is not of our choosing, but which is given to us.”(1)
In other words, nothing in history, experience, or knowledge can prepare the world for God’s means of drawing near. At the cross, something we are not expecting is revealed, something scandalous unveiled, something we could never have articulated or asked for is given to us. Philip Yancey, the renowned author, offers more on this: “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who take his cloak, who prays for those who deceitfully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to Kingdom, nor is it even the way to the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom come.”(2)
Christian or not, I think many of us have significantly distorted ideas about the purpose and meaning of the cross. When many people think of “sin” or the human condition before God, what comes to mind is perhaps something like the image of a child caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Such an image might well be understood as disobedience or maybe even naughtiness, but is it really that important? It is certainly not bad enough to justify extreme reactions. As a result of such a metaphor, our moral reflections on sin tend to foster incredulity or disgust. The response seems totally out of proportion to the offense.
But let us shift the metaphor. Supposing one day you go for a routine medical examination, and they discover you have a deadly virus. You did not do anything. You were not necessarily responsible, but you were exposed, and infected. You feel the injustice of it all, you are afraid, you are angry, but most of all, you are seriously sick. You are dying and you need help.
Whatever the cross and the gospel are about, it is not a slap on the hands for kids refusing to heed the rules of the cookie jar. It is not mere advice to get you to clean up your life and morals. It is not mere ideas to inform you about what it takes to be nice. It is restoration and recreation, a physician’s mediation; it is about human flourishing and discovering life.
The cross may seem an extreme and offensive measure to the problem of sin and death and sickness—but what if it is the very cure that is needed? McGrath describes our options at the cross of Christ. “Either God is not present at all in this situation, or else God is present in a remarkable and paradoxical way. To affirm that God is indeed present in this situation is to close the door to one way of thinking about God and to open the way to another—for the cross marks the end of a particularwayof thinking about God.”(3) Shockingly, thoroughly, scandalously, the cross depicts a God who throws himself upon sin and sickness to bring the hope of rescue miraculously near.
Some find it shocking, some overwhelming, some almost too good to be true. It is, however, for all.
Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 104.
(2) Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 196.
(3) Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 103.