The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?

A Paper delivered at the 25th Craigville Colloquy, July 2008
by Richard L. Floyd

This evening I want to address the question of whether the cross of Jesus Christ is implicated in the violence of our world. More specifically, does the church’s theology of the cross, expressed in its various views of atonement, contribute to fostering violence?

It is a question that arises out of my own experience in the church. In 1995 when I was living in St Andrew’s, Scotland, and working on what would later become my book on the atonement, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross:” Reflections on the Atonement, I wrote an essay on some of the objections to the idea of substitutionary atonement. At the end of the chapter I made note that there were some critics who felt that the cross itself was an emblem of violence, but I didn’t really address this view in depth, because frankly, I thought it was a fringe view without much merit. I still do.

But the view that the cross is an emblem of violence has been gaining traction in the last decade or so. There have been a spate of books addressing the issue, and in recent years I am hearing ordinands and new ministers repeating these views to the effect that the cross is not good news, but bad news.

Let me share some anecdotes. The first was at an ecclesiastical council a few years ago. The candidate told us that she didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement. “Fair enough,” I replied, since there have been some dubious ideas under that banner. “ But what do you then make of the death of Christ? “Christ’s death,” she said, “was the price he paid at the hands of the powerful for his advocacy of an inclusive community.” Admitting that it is at least that, I asked, “Then does the cross have any meaning for salvation?” “No!” was the answer.

The second was in a seminar on the atonement I gave a couple years ago to United Church of Christ (USA) ministers. During the Q and A in became clear to me that many of the ministers were uncomfortable with talk of the cross, and some found it offensive. One young man, a bright newly-minted UCC minister said, with some passion, “No good thing came from the cross.”

Finally, one Sunday in a UCC congregation I attended, the pastor announced that he had considered removing one of the hymns for the day because it suggested a substitutionary atonement, and that is an idea, he said, “that I reject and the church doesn’t need.” The hymn was “What wondrous love is this?”

There have always been critics of the cross. Paul writes the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthian 1:23)

What is troubling to me is that the attacks on the cross of recent years come from within the church. It comes from seminary professors, and increasingly from pastors. This should concern us, as such teaching and preaching against the cross confuses the faithful and saps the church of the vital nerve center of the faith that is so needed to meet the challenges of our age, including the problem of violence. I am convinced that this deep alienation from the core of our tradition is a symptom of a larger historical process profoundly described by Charles Taylor in his important book A Secular Age. But that makes it no less disturbing.

That violence has been done in the name of the cross cannot be denied. But the argument hinges on the distinction between whether the cross, in and of itself, is a cause of violence, or whether when violence is done in the name of the cross, it is a betrayal of the cross’s true meaning. I will be arguing for the latter, that where the cross is used to justify or induce violence it is a betrayal of the cross, which is the very soteriological center of God’s story of redeeming love to humankind.

It is an irony that I find myself defending the cross from the critics who say it causes violence, because it was a reaction to violence that profoundly influenced me to return to the Christian faith of my childhood as a young adult in the late 1960’s. I had been in Air Force ROTC in college for two years, and had qualified for pilot training, when the US started bombing Cambodia. At the age of twenty I went through an agonizing crisis of conscience, at the end of which I withdrew from ROTC.

In December of my junior year, in 1969, I dropped out of college, moved to New York City, got a job as a copyboy at Time-Life, and soon applied for Conscientious Objector status, with the help of some sympathetic Quakers.

Those were years of great violence in America, in urban centers and on college campuses, and I was stricken by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and by the continuing violence of the Vietnam War. The summer after my first year in college I had worked and lived at a funeral home, and we hosted the young soldiers who came as escorts with the bodies of the war dead from Vietnam.

This was the context in which I rediscovered Christian faith, with a cross at its center, as the only compelling story in which I could understand these events. A few years later, while I was in seminary, Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God was published. I still remember a line from the Introduction, which asked the question, “What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee deep in blood?” (Moltmann)

Jesus’ crucifixion itself is, of course, a horrific act of violence, but Christian faith, from its early days, has interpreted it as a divine act of reconciliation. My own view, influenced by my St Andrew’s tutor Richard Bauckham, is that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death from the beginning as an atoning, sacrificial death, and that was expressed in a pre-Markan kerygma that then shaped the Gospels. This view runs counter to the received liberal line that Paul created a soteriology missing from the earliest kerygma. Bauckham claims that the earliest Christology was the highest Christology.

I argued in my atonement book that ideas of sacrifice and substitution are both biblical and necessary to fully express the radical nature of this divine act of love. Now in the Evangelical camp this is widely accepted, and when I give my dog and pony show on the atonement in those circles, during the Q and A someone invariably says something like, “Yes! So!” Now there are various nuanced and sophisticated discussions in that world about the precise nature of the atonement. But I don’t have a horse in that race, because my more focused mission has been as a witness to the cross to the mainline, where the soteriological center of the Christian story is in danger of being lost. Gabe Fackre has taught us that we need to keep the whole story in view when we look at any part of it, and I think that is one of the problems that some of the critics of the cross have, in that they focus on the cross wrenched out of its larger narrative.

So while I am interested in theories of atonement, and want stronger rather than weaker arguments around the “what” of the cross, I want always to view it within the larger Christian story. So Jesus Christ who died on the cross “for us and for all humanity,” must be seen as the One who is “the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and who, as the divine Word, was at the beginning of creation, and will be at the end, on the Day he comes to judge the living and the dead.

But let us be clear that the cross is not just any part of the Christian story, but the very center and climax. And by the cross I mean more than just Golgotha, but, like Paul, I use “the cross” as a kind of theological shorthand to describe the whole soteriological center of the story as shown in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In that story I see an act of God, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death. Therefore, my view is that the work of Christ on the cross is constitutive for salvation and not merely illustrative of it. And it is this high view, with its lineage back to St. Anselm, which is particularly under attack from the critics of the cross.

So the shape of my paper will be to look at the views of those who consider the cross bad news, to tell you why they are wrong, and then to tell you why the word of the cross is good news indeed.


The chief criticism is that the cross is an act of violence against Jesus by God. Professor Dolores Williams of Union Theological Seminary, for example, wants to replace the cross with the mustard seed as the primary Christian symbol, because she views the cross as a symbol of violence, especially against woman and children.

Anabaptist theologian Denny Weaver sums it up it like this: “The motif of Jesus as the substitute object of punishment, which assumes the principle of retribution, is the particular image that feminists and womanists have found very offensive. It portrays God as the chief exacter of retribution. God punishes — abuses — one of God’s children for the sake of the others. And the Jesus of this motif models passive submission to innocent and unjust suffering for the sake of others.” (Weaver, Violence)

Some feminist and womanist writers also object to the passivity and submission of Jesus as encouraging the acceptance of violence to women by men.

Again Weaver says: “It is an unhealthy model for a woman abused by her husband or a child violated by her father, and constitutes double jeopardy when attached to hierarchical theology that asserts male headship. A model of passive, innocent suffering poses an obstacle for people who encounter conditions of systemic injustice, or an unjust status quo produced by the power structure. Examples might be the legally segregated south prior to the civil rights movement, or de facto housing segregation that still exists in many places; military-backed occupation, under which land is confiscated and indigenous residents crowded into enclosed territories, called “reservations” in North America and “bantustans” in South Africa and “autonomous areas” in Palestine. For people in such situations of an unjust status quo, the idea of “being like Jesus” as modeled by satisfaction atonement means to submit passively and to endure that systemic
injustice. ”

“James Cone linked substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression. Delores Williams calls the Jesus of substitutionary atonement, the “ultimate surrogate figure.” After depicting numerous ways in which black women were forced into a variety of surrogacy roles for white men and women and black men, Williams says that to accept satisfaction or substitutionary atonement and the image of Jesus that it supplies is to validate all the unjust surrogacy to which black women have been and still are submitted. ”

Weaver concludes “Such examples show that atonement theology that models innocent, passive suffering does have specific negative impact in the contemporary context.” (Weaver, Violence)


These views seem to me to say more about the hermeneutic of suspicion of the writers than the actual biblical narrative and the atonement theories that are their conceptual representations. After all, if you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope everything will look small.

I have come to believe that the church’s communal language in creed, doctrine and liturgy, and especially Scripture, from which the others are derived, is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms. Hans Frei was describing Karl Barth’s position when he said: “There can be no systematic ‘pre–understanding,’ no single, specific, consistently used conceptual scheme, no independent or semi–independent anthropology, hermeneutic, ontology or whatever, in terms of which Christian language and Christian claims must be cast to be meaningful.” (Frei, p 156). Which is to say that in the end it is the texts that judge us rather than the other way around.

So what is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the thickness of the scriptures. To do that there are some features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross.

1. Many of the critics do not have what George Hunsinger called “a robust view of sin.” It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree.”

So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of civilization, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best, which is a reminder of the pernicious nature of sin. So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens in our fallen sinful world. So when the fingers get pointed at who killed Jesus, the Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”

Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.” Toward the end of my ministry I started replying, well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have. Likewise, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but not the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.

2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I think it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”

But as Reinhold Neibuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. For example, in 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the so called “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Sometimes non-violence can be complicit with evil.

3. Many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver puts non-violence in such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.

This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The New York Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.

4. The critics don’t take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously enough. When we look at the cross theologically we must keep before us that it is Christ who died for our sins, not just any man, but the Jewish messiah. The pre-Markan kerygma behind the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why the New Testament has so many echoes from the Old Testament.

Crucifixions were a commonplace in the ancient Roman world, but the significance of this particular cross was the claim that it was God’s anointed who suffered and died. It was their own traditions that allowed these Jews to understand Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrificial death. For example, one of our earliest pericopes is 1 Cor. 15: 3ff where Paul rehearses the gospel that had been handed down to him that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” And the reason it could be understood thus was because the scriptures contained stories such as the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22, the description of a suffering servant in the Servant Psalms in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, and passages like Psalm 22, which has Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Without this Jewish context the cross is hard to understand properly.

5. The critics don’t take the Trinity seriously. Hans Frei’s definition of doctrines as “conceptual redescriptions of the biblical narrative” well describes the later Trinitarian understanding of the whole Christ event and its emphasis on the inter–dependence of the divine persons. Jesus’ experience of being abandoned by God, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act to which the Father intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a Trinitarian act of mutual consent in love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

This goes a long way to countering the charge that the cross is a symbol of violence, exploitation or even child abuse. A unitarian God who requires the sacrifice of the human Jesus is problematic, to say the least, but if we understand the obedient death of the Son as in some real sense a loving act in which it is God who dies for us, we move away from many problems.

The critics also say that substitutionary atonement means God is punishing Jesus. P. T. Forsyth made an important distinction here. He says the cross is penal, in that Jesus, though innocent, voluntarily takes on the sentence that we deserve. But though the cross is penal, it is not punishment, since Jesus is innocent. For what would the Father punish him? And how could the Father punish the Son, with whom he is always well pleased.”? (Forsyth)

Princeton theologian George Hunsinger, whose commitment to non-violence is well known, said this about the critics of the cross in an interview: “They’re bringing an alien framework of judgment to bear upon this. No one in the patristic period ever understood the cross as sanctioning violence and abuse. Nor did poor Anselm in the middle ages, who often has to take it in the neck for these things. I think that there are some fundamental problems in the way Anselm went about this question in Why God Became Human, but they’re not at this level. You actually put the question a bit wrongly, I think, as far as these recent critics are concerned. It’s an innocent human being that is tortured to death by a vindictive father in heaven. There is no Trinitarian frame for this, but there is certainly a Trinitarian frame in Anselm. This whole transaction occurs for him with inner Trinitarian consent. This is divine suffering for the sake of a larger good. The Father suffers as much as the Son in the power of the Spirit in Anselm, if we read him fairly and in the spirit of what he is offering. God’s redemptive suffering is undergone in love for the sake of the world.”(PTR Interview)

6. The critics have too limited a canon. Like Marcion, the second century heretic who made up his own canon, Luke is their favorite Gospel. Marcion had one Gospel and ten letters of Paul and no Old Testament. The critics of the cross share his love for Luke, but not for Paul, who (after God the Father) is their chief villain, for his cross-centered Gospel. We all have favorite Gospels, and I love Luke as much as the next person, but the thickness of the biblical story is partly a result of the richness and complexity of the canon.

7. Finally, the critics have an inadequate eschatology of the cross. Again we must understand the cross within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism, with its energetic eschatological expectations. The God of Israel was expected to act in the future. Second Isaiah, for example, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. The first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” (Bauckham, p 71.) The God who acted in the Exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When the church included Jesus, a human being, humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about the identity of God. In the dying and rising of Jesus, God had done a new thing that could only be adequately described in the language of Old Testament eschatology. It was the restoration from exile, the new creation, the healing of the rift between God and Israel and more. The titulus that Pilate put over Jesus’ head on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” Who could the king of the Jews be other than the messiah of God? Meant by Pilate as irony, the church could see the truth of it in light of their new faith that in Jesus Christ God had once again acted decisively as expected.


1. The cross is the death of ideology. The cross provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It calls into question any ideology that would use the Gospel to further its own ends. Anthony Thiselton has written: “The cross is a scandalous reversal of human expectations and values . . .. In the theology of the Fathers, as in that of Paul, the message of the cross challenged the corporate constructs, expectations, and wish fulfillments of communities or of individuals as a scandalous reversal of human expectations and values. Far from reflecting pre–existing social horizons, the cross and the resurrection gave birth to new horizons, which in turn effected a cross–contextual liberating critique and individual and social transformation. This is a far cry from the notion that communities can only project their own images onto texts, thereby to construct their meanings.” (Thiselton, p. 7)

The cross provides the church with a anti-ideological bias that protects the Gospel from being blown about by any number of contemporary cultural winds or co–opted by any number of alternative faiths, religious and secular. The cross also protects the church from both utopianism and cynicism, because it keeps in view that the resurrected one remains the crucified one.

Likewise, the cross helps the church to understand its life and discipleship in other ways than by the canons of success and power that the world so values. It teaches the church to recognize its true hope in the God who raised the dead from the illusory hopes the world holds out for both individuals in the face of death and for human history in the face of futility. I once heard William Sloane Coffin tell a group of pastors, “If you don’t want to be so disillusioned, don’t have so many illusions.” Christian faith which deemphasizes the cross is prone to just such disillusionment about its projects and hopes. But the cross functions as the critical principle that separates illusory hopes from the true hope that rests in trust in the God who raises the dead.

So the church is able to live in real hope only because the cross has taught it where properly to look for hope. Christian hope lies beyond all human endeavors and accomplishments and beyond all possibilities inherent in the natural world. Christians love the world God made and for which his Son gave his life, and we work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, we know that our true hope lies only in the God who raised the crucified, who is the God who raises the dead. Such hope transcends both personal death and cosmic futility. From the cross the crucified God reigns over the future, and his suffering love will overcome all things.

2. The cross shows God’s solidarity with all human suffering including suffering caused by human violence. On the cross Jesus suffers an agonizing death, but perhaps more than his physical suffering was the anguish he experienced by the total abandonment of the One he called Father, which he expresses when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46))

In this experience of abandonment Jesus knows solidarity with all human suffering, and if we take his divine nature seriously then God knows this, too, and in some sense experienced it on our behalf, and by doing so redeemed it, which we can only see in Easter hindsight. So not only did Jesus suffer (which is what passion means) but his suffering and death are not incidental to the glorious story of divine atonement and human redemption but quite literally crucial.

Now some of the critics charge that the cross exalts human suffering, and encourages people to accept it. We must admit that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive, and so we should be careful not to romanticize suffering. But suffering is such a universal feature of the human condition that surely it must be good news to know that our God understands our suffering, and in Jesus, was himself “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53)

3. The cross models forgiveness. From the cross Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” and in doing so embodies the loving mercy of God. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, “Without that (the cross of Jesus), we cannot begin to understand the forgiveness of sins. Jesus crucified is God crucified, so we believe. Jesus is the total and final embodiment in history of God’s loving mercy; and so this cross is a unique, terrible, extreme act of violence—a summary of all sin. It represents the human rejection of love. And not even that can destroy God: with the wounds of the cross still disfiguring his body, he returns out of hell to his disciples and wishes them peace.” (Jersak, p 216.)

This radical forgiveness is the only power that can break the cycles of revenge and retribution that fuel so much of our world’s violence. One of the most powerful moments of Christian witness in my lifetime was when Pope John Paul the Second forgave the man who had shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In 1983 he visited his assailant in prison and spoke privately with him for about 20 minutes. He later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”

How ironic it seems to me that the word of the cross is being accused of causing violence, when its message judges and condemns violence. Graham Toulmin has written, “The word of the cross is unique in the modern or postmodern world, as a discourse or metanarrative unlike any other. It will not allow Christians to impose their faith forcibly on others, instead waiting patiently for its truth to be recognized, suffering misunderstanding and disdain before it will retaliate or compel. It is a metanarrative, a Truth with a capital “T/’ but a humble, patient one. In a world justifiably nervous that absolute truths are inherently violent and oppressive, a cross-centered Christianity offers an absolute Truth which by its very nature denies coercion as a way to assert itself. Instead, it offers and forms a community dedicated to learning ways of love for enemies, forgiveness and hospitality to the “other” which promises a way forward for a fragmented and frightened world. ” (Toulmin)

4. The cross is all about God’s love. When I began I mentioned the hymn “What wondrous love is this?” That rhetorical question gets to the heart of the matter. Pope Benedict XVI first encyclical is called God is Love, which comes from 1 John 4:8. In it the Pope describes God’s love as an active love. He writes: “When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.”

When we look at the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, they more often than not reference the cross as the chief evidence. For example, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Or Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or Romans 8:31, 32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

And not just in Scripture, but in our traditions, too, we see a cross-centered understanding of God’s love. So the Heidelberg Catechisms beloved first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is answered thus: “That I belong– body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins…so that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation… he also assures me of eternal life….”

“What wondrous love is this?” Far from being the cause of violence the word of the cross is God’s love at work, and only that love offers healing and wholeness to our broken world.

It is true that the word of the cross is not a word everyone will hear. As Paul wrote the Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23ff)


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2 thoughts on “The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?

  1. >I thought you might be interested in learning about OUR Jewish traditions which embrace the real Christ. We are the Frankist Association of America. One of our members has a new book out: are our teachings passed on through generations. If you can’t afford the book you can see the website of one of our teachers – El Jacob Frank

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