Monday, July 06, 2020

The scandal of the cross

The scandal of the cross

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.I Corinthians 1:22-24

Several months ago, my Irish friend David Glass drew my attention to an additional argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which I had not previously given sufficient consideration--the argument from the scandal of the cross.

'Twould be time-consuming to relate all the verses in which the Apostle Paul glorifies, glories in, and declares salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. The above is only one. Galatians 6:14 is another.

This is really rather remarkable, when you think of it. In Jewish thought, based on Deut. 21:23, being crucified indicated that one was cursed of God. The Romans and pagans thought of crucifixion as a shameful thing as well. These were not, it must be emphasized, cultures that revered the underdog or the anti-hero (more about that below). Yet the Christians identified with the cross of Christ. Baptism itself was a symbol of the believer's death (followed by resurrection) with Christ.

It simply will not do as an explanation for this to say that the early believers venerated and revered Jesus and made up some cockamamy story about salvation from sin through his death and the glory of his cross because they thought so highly of him. That isn't the kind of thing they would normally be expected to do at all. Venerating and praying at his tomb, very plausibly. Distancing themselves from him out of fear for their own skins, even moreso. (See St. Peter's denials.) But glorying in the cross? Not a chance.

The cross was a scandal, a stumblingblock. In fact, we find in the dialogue between Justin Martyr and Trypho that the curse on anyone who hangs on a tree was a sticking point in Christian witness to the Jews in the second century.

It's interesting to realize how anachronistically people approach the Christian attitude toward Jesus' death. Skeptics do it, and we Christians let them get away with it. In our own time, all sorts of causes, secular as well as religious, make vigorous use of martyrs (or "martyrs"). Anyone who is killed and whose death can be appropriated for a cause becomes a kind of posthumous hero, so that assassinating a politician is usually a sure way of making sure that he is venerated and that his name is used as a talisman. Anti-heroes and noble victims are all the rage for modern and postmodern man.

When skeptics talk about the disciples immediately after Jesus' death, they may refer to them as "revering their dead rabbi" or words to that effect. To the modern mind there is nothing particularly strange in the theory that Jesus' followers should have dreamed up out of whole cloth the idea that their crucified rabbi was God or at least was in heaven with God and could save them from their sins by belief in his name and by the power of his death. But this is projecting our own attitudes onto the first century.

And in fact, based just on the sober account in, say, Luke followed by Acts of the disciples' actions, Jesus' death did not motivate the disciples in any such way. The cross was not, all by itself, some sort of glorious symbol to them of the significance of Jesus. On the contrary, they themselves indicated that it was because of his resurrection that they preached forgiveness of sins through his name. It was because, on their view, God the Father had vindicated Jesus of Nazareth by raising him from the dead that Jesus of Nazareth was to be worshipped and that his death had saving significance. It was only because of this belief that Paul gloried in the cross. The belief that Jesus was vindicated by a resurrection miracle performed by God the Father is a much better explanation for the disciples' embracing and glorying in the cross than any alternative explanation that involves their not believing that he was raised up from the dead. Hence, if there is no plausible way that they could have come to believe this as firmly as they did without Jesus' actually being raised from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the fact that Christians, following the example and teaching of the Apostles, are not ashamed of the cross of Christ.

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