The Strange Math of the Cross
During my time in the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, one of the issues that generated a fair amount of interest and controversy was that of the nature of the atonement. I have devoted a number of posts to this topic over the last few years (see the”Atonement” category at the bottom of this page), and have found the atonement debates simultaneously stimulating (it’s just a flat-out interesting theological issue) and frustrating (we have not always been able to talk about this matter as civilly as we ought to). It is an issue that continues to generate considerable conversation, whether within Mennonite circles or in the larger church body.
Despite the fact that I am currently part of a different conference within the Anabaptist family, I have been following the MB Study Conference on “The Mystery of the Cross” in Kitchener, ON with great interest over the past few days. I have appreciated the opportunity to listen to lectures and read the reflections posted online. It’s been great to hear some familiar voices and some very lively and engaging presentations.
One of these was a lecture by CMU professor Pierre Gilbert called “He Never Meant For Us to Die.” It was what you would expect from Gilbert—theologically robust, thoroughly researched, and highly engaging. Gilbert focused on Genesis 1-3 and the problem of sin as a way of getting at why Jesus had to die. In the broadest terms, the story was a familiar one: the sin of the first humans introduced a rupture of cosmic proportions into God’s good world, subsequent humans inherited this sinful disposition and the condemnation it deserves, and the cross is how God dealt with this problem.
But as I listened to Gilbert’s lecture, I couldn’t help but think that despite the impressive theological language and the passionate presentation, Gilbert left his listeners with a conundrum that has quite likely occurred to most thoughtful children at some point along the way: how is it good or just for God to condemn many for the sins of a few?
This probably sounds simplistic, I know, but Gilbert insisted on numerous occasions that the decision of Adam and Eve—what he called an infinite moment of choice—“locked” human beings into the “curse” side of life. From that point on, our choices as human beings have operated within fixed parameters influenced by our “infection” of sin. There is no going back, for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are living under the curse, objects of wrath by virtue of our lineage.
And yet, despite the fact that we are “locked” into sin by virtue of being human, our salvation requires that we choose to accept the remedy God offers. The asymmetry is plain enough: we do not choose the disease, but we must choose the cure. Further, we must choose the cure from a position of deficit, handicapped as we are by our “infected” nature. We are not in the “neutral” state that Adam and Eve presumably were. Further still, failure to choose the correct cure is said to have the permanent consequence of being eternally separated from God.
This is not really anything new, I know. This presentation of the biblical diagnosis and cure of the human condition enjoys considerable biblical support. Some version of this story is preached around the world every Sunday. However we calibrate our understanding of what happened on the cross, surely an important part of the picture involves Jesus absorbing the penalty for sin and dealing with the human legacy of Genesis 3. And yet, at times the big picture still seems as awkward as it did to me when, as a child, I grumbled about why Adam and Eve had to ruin things for the rest of us.
I appreciated Gilbert’s lecture, and found myself reflecting upon it throughout the day. I appreciated his attempt to link the cross to the creation narrative, to do justice to the pervasiveness of sin, both individually and structurally. There was much to admire about his understanding of the necessity of the “Christ event” at Calvary.
But I am growing increasingly suspicious of attempts to fit the cross of Christ within a precise rational package where the death of an “infinite” God-man perfectly cancels out the “infinite” sin debt of the first humans in some kind of divine mathematical equation. What does “infinite” sin even mean? How could a human being ever commit such a thing? The math is hard to fathom.
Do I believe that the cross deals with human sin? Yes. Do I believe it is, in some mysterious way, the manner in which God deals with death and evil? Yes. Do I believe that Christ’s self-donation is an example for us to follow? Yes, yes, yes.
But I also think the cross is scandalously irrational, bewildering, and offensive. The math doesn’t work, much as I might wish that it did. And, increasingly, I am finding that I don’t need it to. However the math may or may not work, however sin was/is transmitted, whatever the penalty for this sin does/does not entail, whatever our “infection” does/does not make necessary, I am convinced that the cross and empty tomb are the means through which God is reconciling all things to himself, making peace with and for our weary, sin-soaked world.