“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18
We, the people of planet earth, disagree about many things and we spend a lot of our time trying to discover truth and to convince other people about a grand diversity of different subjects. I find this to be a rather noble quality of humanity but sometimes we do it poorly. We resort to methods and tactics that muddy discursive waters rather than clarify them and one of the worst examples of that is misrepresentation.
When we misrepresent an ideology, constructing a straw man of it, we can simply laugh at the misrepresentation without considering the potential merits of the real thing. Whether or not you agree with a position, I hope you at least agree that we ought not to misrepresent it.
To that end, I need to talk about one such misrepresentation of a position that has been floating around the internet lately that personally concerns me a great deal.
Haha, yes, laugh. Aren’t those Christians a bunch of backwards nutjobs? No. They aren’t. And whether or not you believe the gospel, you at least ought to understand what it is and what it isn’t. To that end, listen up.
1. The Incarnation
Before we address his death, let’s talk first about his life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that Jesus…
“Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
That word ‘grasped’ can be understood as ‘taken advantage of’ or ‘selfishly exploited.’ Before the cross we have the incarnation in which an omnipotent God lays aside all the exploits of his divinity and becomes a lowly man. That is a profound act of humility. Jesus didn’t surrender a mere weekend. He forfeited his divine status for several years so that he could be born where animals poop and wash people’s smelly feet. That’s more than you or I would give up.
Now about the death. So, Jesus died peacefully in his sleep and woke up three days later right? Wrong. Excruciatingly wrong. Jesus’ death was not a clean injection or a quick shot to the head. It was hours and hours of arduous excruciating torture. The Romans had perfected the art of pain to such an extreme that our word for the worst pain imaginable comes from their practice of crucifixion – Excruciating. Ex Crucis. Out of the cross.
Nabeel Qureshi, a Christian apologist and M.D., explains the details of crucifixion in several of his talks available online. Here’s the first one I came across. There are others. You can find them yourself.
“Gave up his weekend.”
3. The Resurrection
Then we come to the matter of the resurrection and ascension. Yes, Jesus did not stay dead. Why this is a subject of mockery and not admiration is a mystery to me. But it does seem that in the end Jesus was no lesser for his sacrifice and thus it may seem odd to call it a sacrifice when it doesn’t seem to have diminished him.
Except that’s the whole point! He could take it!
The message of the Christian faith is that we have all turned away from God (Isa 53:6) and the punishment for doing so is death (Rom 6:23) but God himself paid that price (Gen 22:8, Isa 53 again). Without Christ, we would all die and stay dead. If Christ died but did not rise, then big whoop – people do that every day. But if an infinite God pays the price of death for us and overcomes death by rising from the grave, that might just get someone’s attention! That might just be a cause for hope!
1 Corinthians 15 teaches us that in Christ’s resurrection we can also have life after death. Yes, Jesus was, in the end, not diminished by his humiliation and torture. We should be grateful that he could overcome where we would have perished, not mock him for being stronger than death. And if he hadn’t paid our price (he didn’t have to, I remind you) we would be forever dead.
So Jesus did not “give up his weekend for your sins.” Jesus was willing to set aside his divine status to enter the world, suffer and be humiliated, be tortured and crucified, paying the price that we could not, so that through his resurrection all human kind could be free from the debt of death and have eternal life. The fact that he didn’t stay dead does not trivialize the cross, rather it should make it seem all the more wonderful that we don’t have to stay dead either.
One more note. Some versions of this image attribute the quote to Michael Shermer. I haven’t confirmed that he is the original source of this quote, but in case he is I want to say something brief about him. I am familiar with his work. I listen to his debates and lectures and I read his articles. He is not terribly bright. He is an irresponsible thinker who suggests that it is epistemically impossible to differentiate a deity from a sufficiently advanced alien (“Shermer’s Last Law”, which makes it impossible to have any reasonable discussion about the possible existence of God) and whose flagrant lack of understanding on the doctrine of the Trinity reduces his interpretation of the cross and atonement to “it’s barking mad” (which it would be if we were unitarians and not trinitarians, but that’s a matter for another time.)
In conclusion, I want to reiterate this issue of misrepresentation. I understand that an atheist may look at the language of ‘sacrifice’ and then look at the resurrection and have some questions. Unfortunately I don’t hear questions. I hear mockery. An effective refutation of Christianity will have to refute what Christianity is, not what it isn’t, and the cross is plainly far more significant than that Jesus just took a weekend off. To the detractors of Christianity: you will be able to offer a much better refutation of Christianity the more you study and understand it, and understand it from christian theologians, not just lay people or, worse yet, non-christians.
You may feel better about yourself for joking about the crucifixion but for those of us who are trying to have serious conversations you just look childish.
P.S. Let me suggest, as a Christian, some more fruitful topics of conversation: the transmission and preservation of the New Testament text, the problem of the unevangelized, and the feasibility of secular morality. I’ve also heard some interesting dialogues on whether an un-designed universe could produce creatures capable of reason so maybe there’s something in there for you to use.