It’s Good Friday today. A day like any other, looked at one way. A day when injustice triumphs, when the weak and poor are trampled by the strong and rich; when the freedom-preaching dissidents and troublemakers are crushed by the vested interests and the powers-that-be.
So what is Good Friday about? Why did Jesus have to die? In what way are we ‘saved’ by his sacrifice?
In some ways I think these questions miss the point, like asking what a great work of art means or is worth, when it primarily means itself and is worth itself. The cross is not, I suspect, something that can be analysed and fully understood by means of the intellect, or at least not of the intellect alone. Theological theories and models of the atonement have some usefulness but all fall short, and ultimately the cross is perhaps best understood by the heart.
Above all, the cross is about love – love rejected and love vindicated; love crushed and love triumphant.
For me, one of the most important things about the cross is that it makes everything suddenly concrete, real and personal. From sin being an abstract offence against the apparently arbitrary law of an unseen, even absent, God, it becomes a very real offence against a very present and personal one. The hands of humanity – our hands by proxy – nail the perfect Lord to a cross of wood; the voice of humanity is lifted up in mockery against him. Even if we were not there, our race, our species stands collectively convicted of deicide, of highest treason against the King of all kings. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? asks an old spiritual. Yes, I was; I was nailing him to the cross, spitting on him, taunting him.
The greatest law in the universe and in the Bible is the law of love. Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength… love one another. In different ways all our small and great sins are sins against love, but at the cross humanity sinned against love in the greatest way imaginable. We turned our faces against love; we violated, we killed Love itself; we destroyed the source and sum and sign of all love. We broke the divine law so completely that no amount of good deeds could ever repair it. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
Of course, in a sense, the cross only showed up to the full what we do in small every day; what we’re really like. What you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me. But what most of us do most days – what I do – is ignore the least of Jesus’ brothers, or exclude them, or collude with systems that exploit them and tread on them because they keep me relatively well off.
So the cross levels us all, kings and beggars, saints and sinners. None of us can lift our heads and call ourselves guiltless. Even Jesus’ own closest friends and followers deserted, denied or betrayed him. We’re all in this together.
But, thank God, that’s only one side of the story. The glory of the cross – what makes it Good Friday – is that at the exact same time that Love was being utterly rejected and violated by humanity, Love was also being utterly fulfilled by humanity’s true and perfect representative. Jesus – he who is Love incarnate – took love to its extent and extreme by dying for those who deserted, denied, betrayed, scorned, mocked, wounded, and ultimately killed him. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends… except perhaps that he lay it down for his enemies.
So as we threw the worst of ourselves at Christ, he bore to the fullest extent our own suffering, shame and sorrow, and in doing so he redeemed it all. As we subjected him to the deepest horror and torment humans can devise, he bore the utmost depths of our evil and overcame it. Nothing others can do to us, and nothing we can do to others, is now beyond the power of Christ’s healing and redemption. This is real love; this is love tested to the limit and proved beyond doubt.
So the cross not only makes sin up close and personal; it makes salvation up close and personal too. If Christ died in some sense because of me and you, he also died by the same token to forgive, heal, redeem and restore me and you. We all stand equal before the cross: equally guilty, yet equally freed and forgiven. The cross is the total triumph of love over all that would reject, betray, mock and destroy love, and Easter is the proof of that triumph.
Frederick Buechner calls love both the strongest and weakest power in the universe. Weakest, because it cannot coerce; it can use no force of strength or cleverness or manipulation to achieve its end. Strongest because it alone can break into the stronghold of the human heart. To save us, God shows both the full weakness and the full strength of love. This is what Good Friday means. It means that – as Rob Bell puts it – Love Wins. But it only wins by losing first. Perhaps that’s the only way that love can win.
The cross is not only something that happened 2000 years ago. It’s not only for Good Friday, something to be remembered once a year. It’s a daily reality. We reject, deny and betray love every day; love bears it, suffers and is vindicated every day. In Christ, love is defeated only to win out – even today, even now.
Postscript: penal substitution
There are of course many ways of viewing the cross; the evangelical favourite is Penal Substitution, whereby Jesus is thought to have borne in our place the punishment due for our sins and so satisfied God’s just anger against us. I do not deny the truth of this, but in my view it has to be placed firmly in the context of love, for God is love and love is God’s highest law. God’s anger is simply the result of the violation and betrayal of love, and his solution is the full outworking of love.
So though it may be true to say that God’s wrath is satisfied on the cross, it is also true – and in my view far more importantly true – that God’s love is satisfied, is fully expressed and fulfilled, on the cross.
- Rob Bell – Love Wins
- Jürgen Moltmann and universalism
- Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright
- Justice, mercy and the love of God
- Walking in darkness – Reflections on Holy Saturday