The Reckless Cross

This post contains excerpts from chapters 2 and 3 of my book Completely Reckless. Like it? Buy the book here!

Because we know that God is complete in and of himself, we can know that the cross is not the act of a spurned lover making one last dramatic gesture to capture their beloved’s attention. But this is often the way that it is perceived. The thought goes something like this: the sacrificial system of Judaism wasn’t working and so God stepped in with a new system, a new “covenant.” This idea implies that God was making things up as he went along, like a quarterback calling an audible because he saw that the defense was expecting his pass play. God tried Judaism, and it didn’t work, so he decided to go to plan B.

What if the cross was part of the plan from the beginning?  What if the Bible, the story of God’s interaction with humankind, the story of redemption and renewal was a narrative that was planned before it was begun? Any good author knows where they are going with a story before they begin to write the text. Should we assume that God is any different? The cross is a planned part of this redemptive narrative.

In his book The Original Jesus, Tom Wright makes the case for this kind of narrative view of scripture: “When we read the gospels, then, we are reading the books which tell the story of Jesus as the story of how the long drama between Israel and the covenant-God came to fulfillment and fruition. They only make sense as the completion, the final chapter, of a great drama that had been running for two millennia.”  Jesus coming to this earth was part of the plan before God said “let there be light.”

The Apostle Paul wrote it this way: “God decided in advance to adopt us into his family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.” (Ephesians 1:5)

God created man in his image, not for companionship, but out of love. He knew full well that all of us at some time in our lives would reject that image within us and choose to go our own way. And he knew that Jesus would eventually come to this earth and be crucified. When we begin to understand this, the cross is now a planned act of love rather than an act of desperation. The depth and beauty of God voluntarily dying for humanity when he did not need to is staggering. God did not need the cross.  We did.

We have established that the cross was the plan from the beginning, which means that when God acted to create the universe, the need for Jesus to die as he did was created alongside of the birds and fish and tigers. He acted, not unaware of what would happen, but in spite of what would happen. He acted without care for the consequence.

In his book More Than Ordinary, Doug Sherman helps us see the depth of this act: “Because He knows all things past, present, and future, God wasn’t surprised when Adam and Eve fell. He knew the corruption, havoc, and destruction that they would choose. Yet He created us, knowing what it would cost Him because He wanted to share His life and joy with us.”

Think about that. Either God is all-knowing, and as a result knew about the cross before he said “let there be light,” or the cross took him by surprise and he is therefore not all-knowing.

Within the act of creation itself is an inherent Recklessness. This creation will result in the death of Jesus. And God has no need to create us in the first place. This is why God’s completeness is so important to understand. It transforms our view of everything from creation to the cross and beyond.

The safe thing for God to do would have been to live within the relational bliss of the trinity for eternity, without the nuisance of dealing with imperfect humanity, and certainly without the need for the horrors of the cross.

If you are a Christ follower, you have heard many times of the brutality of the cross. The whip embedded with glass and bone that would have torn the flesh and muscle from Jesus’ back. We are aware of the crown of thorns that was jammed into his head and the nails that were driven bodily through his wrists and feet. The pain would have been unimaginable.

Death would have come slowly through asphyxiation. In order to breathe, a person being crucified would have to push against the nail in their feet, raising their body enough to take in a breath but causing enormous pain. Eventually the condemned wouldn’t have the strength to do this and would succumb.

There was more to the cross than physical pain. To the first century Jew, the pain would have been almost secondary to the humiliation. So much so that a contemporary historian writing not long after Jesus’ death called it “the most pitiable of deaths.”  It is a difficult thing for those of us who do not live in an honor-based culture to understand the mental and emotional anguish that would have accompanied the physical torment. It was the combination of the two that made crucifixion the horror that it was.

Jesus was marched publicly through the streets of Jerusalem in a procession with two common criminals. He was mocked and ridiculed. When they arrived at the place of execution, Jesus was stripped naked. Very few paintings portray this, because it doesn’t look good on the wall, and out of respect for Christ. The fact that our modern day sensibilities react poorly to the idea of a naked Jesus should give us a slight understanding of the humiliation. His feet would have been nailed not so that his legs were together, but so that he was spread eagle, unable to cover himself.

In his wonderful spiritual journal A Traveler Toward the Dawn, John Eagan narrated the humiliation of the passion of

We see a peasant trapped by religious authorities, pushed and shoved from one tribunal to another through a sham trial, beaten like a dog, crowned with insults, led like a bleeding animal to the Calvary rock, nailed to beams, stretched against the sky naked, and dying like an animal.

Once he is nailed in place and the cross raised, the taunting would have continued. It was a degrading way to die, shamed not only by your executioners, but also by your fellow countrymen.

This is how Jesus died.

Not because he had to. But because of God’s love for us.

Eagan remarks: “What Jesus reveals is the Father’s love for us humans: a self-giving love unto death, an unconditional love accepting our flawed condition.” God created humanity, knowing that the cross would be the consequence. God acted without care for the consequence.

God is Reckless.