The Cross as an Eschatological Act of God

The theological character of the Christological story is the key to its eschatological significance.” Christoph Schwöbel

The cross of Jesus Christ stands over the future and provides the key to understanding both “the end of the world and the ends of God.” I use the phrase “the cross” as Paul did, as shorthand for the whole decisive act of God by which God defeated sin and death through Jesus Christ. “The cross” used this way includes the resurrection but keeps before us the crucial truth that the Risen Christ is the crucified Jesus. The cross understood this way is our best model for viewing the future as one of discontinuity and continuity, both for personal existence and for human history. The promise of the Gospel is that the faithfulness of God as one who loves his creation transcends the discontinuities of death and futility. It is in this identity of God that hope for the future lies. And for the church this hope is not an abstraction. Already the pattern of discontinuity and continuity is experienced by Christians in their justification, where the sinner is made discontinuous with his or her own sinful actions and assured the continuity of God’s graceful relationship based on God’s steadfast love and mercy and not on the sinner’s past. The church then experiences in its own life the pattern by which it looks in hope to the future. Christoph Schwöbel is surely right when he writes, “The total dependence on God’s creative love which is the ground of liberating hope for the future is already the foundation of the church in faith.” (Schwöbel, “The Church as Cultural Space” in John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, editors, The End of the World and the Ends of God, Science and Theology on Eschatology. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000, p. 123)

Early Christology is Eschatological

The earliest church interpreted the cross and resurrection of Jesus to be an act of the God of Israel, and the fulfillment of the hoped for future described in the eschatological texts of the Old Testament. What prepared these Jews to accept a crucified God, and how did that acceptance change their understanding of the very identity of God?

Richard Bauckham has recently made the argument that the way biblical and post-biblical Israel understood the identity of Israel’s God had two key features: (1) God as the Creator of all things, and (2) God as the Sovereign ruler over all things. In addition, God is identified by his acts in Israel’s history, especially in the Exodus, and by his character description given to Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6) The acts of God and the character of God together identify God as the one who acts graciously towards his people.

This God, then, by his very identity, 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. “In the eschatological exodus he will prove to be the God of all people, Sovereign and Savior of all, in a way consistent with his identity as the gracious God of his people Israel.” (Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, p. 71)

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. “The new story is consistent with the already known identity of the God of Israel, but new as the way he now identifies himself finally and universally, the Creator and Ruler of all who in Jesus Christ has become the gracious savior of all.” (Bauckham, p. 71)

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. Nevertheless, the novelty of God crucified did not betray the identity of the God of Israel. On the contrary, as the early church examined the scriptures they could find consistency in the novelty. They find the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ to be one and the same 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. Paul Van Buren once described Christian use of the Hebrew Bible as “reading someone else’s mail.” He has recently written “that thesis needs to be qualified by the recognition that in fact the church never read the scriptures with a sense that it was reading someone else’s mail, and that is because Peter and his fellow discoverers of the gospel read them as their own Jewish mail, albeit with eyes made new by the desperate need, on that ‘first day of the week,’ to understand the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as the King of the Jews.” (Paul M. Van Buren, According to the Scriptures: The Origins of the Gospel and of the Church’s Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)

So the various writers of the New Testament made new use of familiar eschatological materials to express their belief that in the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, Israel’s hopes for an ideal future had arrived, or at least, begun. For example, in Mark, our earliest gospel, there are clearly eschatological features in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mark 15:33, see, for comparison, Jeremiah 4:23), “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 14:38). In the crucified and risen Jesus the hopes and expectations of Israel were now embodied and are accompanied by cosmic signs and wonders appropriate to the coming of God’s future.

The reversal of fortune is another common Old Testament eschatological theme taken up by New Testament writers. Donald Gowan writes that: “God’s promise to make right all that has gone wrong with this world and human life is the essence of Old Testament eschatology.” (Donald E. Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987, p. 15) The dying and rising of Christ mirrors the Old Testament eschatological hope for a restoration or a new creation. We see a good example of this when Paul speaks about “the God who calls into existence things that are not” (Romans 4:17). Another example is how the restoration texts in Second Isaiah are read by the church to refer to the cross and resurrection of Jesus rather than to the return from exile of their original context. We have only to think of the use of Isaiah 40 in the Advent portion of Handel’s Messiah to see a powerful example of how the eschatological materials were reused to refer now to Jesus and the reversal of fortune that his coming promises.

These new uses of old eschatological texts help us see that the gospel of Jesus’ cross and resurrection were understood eschatologically from the beginning. It can also help us to see that many of our modern problems with the idea of resurrection lie in our attempts to understand the resurrection as an individual and non-eschatological act. But to the Jews of that time the resurrection of an individual was both unprecedented and unexpected. That the crucified Jesus was resurrected could only mean to them the coming of God and with him the general resurrection of the last days (i.e., Daniel 12). Jürgen Moltmann writes:

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was never regarded as a private and isolated miracle for his authentication, but as the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead, i.e. as the beginning of the end of history in the midst of history. His resurrection was not regarded as a fortuitous miracle in an unchangeable world, but as the beginning of the eschatological transformation of the world by its creator. Thus the resurrection of Jesus stood in the framework of a universal hope of eschatological belief, which was kindled in it. (Jürgen Moltmann, “The Eschatological Trial of Jesus Christ” in The Crucified God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974, p. 163)

Among the earliest Christological titles were those with a future orientation, for example, Christ as the “first fruits of them that sleep,” “the pioneer and perfecter of our souls.” These descriptive titles looked ahead to God’s new future, now inaugurated in the rising of the crucified, but not merely as the continuation of the past. Rather God’s future was understood as a new creation, as new as the original creation was in comparison to the primordial chaos it replaced, and as new as the rising of the crucified Jesus. In referring to the various proleptic Christological titles Moltmann says:

That means that the crucified Christ was understood in the light of his resurrection and that his resurrection was understood in the light of his future in the coming God and his glory. Therefore his historical crucifixion was understood as the eschatological kingdom of glory in which the dead will be raised. The ‘future’ of which the first real anticipation was seen in his resurrection was not understood as future history and thus as part of transitoriness, but eschatologically as the future of history and thus as the pledge of the new creation. (Moltmann, p. 163)

So for the earliest church resurrection of the crucified Jesus was neither primarily an anthropological or a soteriological symbol, rather it disclosed the identity and character of God. God is the righteous one. His righteousness will ultimately be victorious over the forces of unrighteousness, over injustice and sin. That the cross should be the instrument of this victory was surely new content in their understanding of the identity of God, but did not contradict the identity of the God who had acted in the past and who they had always expected to act again.

The Identity of the Crucified

There was then great significance in the identity of the crucified one. It was not just any man who was raised. It was a man condemned by the religious law of his people and brutally executed by the civil law of Rome, the great earthly power of the time. These features are not incidental to the kerygma, as if the raising of any person would have had the same significance and the same subsequent gospel. No, the fact that the one raised was crucified as a powerless victim, abandoned by his friends and even by the one he called Father, demonstrates God’s faithfulness and solidarity with all who are powerless and abandoned in this world.

The identity of the God disclosed in the cross resonates with the identity of the God of the prophets who sought righteousness for the poor, the oppressed and the powerless. The cross discloses anew God’s righteousness in a world of unrighteousness suffering.

Moltmann writes:

The question of whether there is a God or not is a speculative question in the face of the cries for righteousness of those who are murdered or gassed, who are hungry and oppressed. If the question of theodicy can be understood as a question of the righteousness of God in the history of the suffering of the world, then all understanding and presentation of world history must be seen within the horizon of the question of theodicy. Or do the executioners ultimately triumph over the innocent victims? Even the Christian Easter faith in the last resort stands in the context of the question of the divine righteousness in history: does inhuman legalism triumph over the works of the law and of power? With this question we go beyond the formal statements about the proleptic structure of eschatological faith to the matter of Christian faith itself. We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ’ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith. (Moltmann, p. 175)

Here the biblical affirmation that God cares for the poor and oppressed is given a dramatic new emphasis in the cross. God’s steadfast love and mercy engage the suffering world as never before, and at great cost to God. If the raising of a man inaugurates the new eschatological age, then the raising of this man, the crucified one, provides new content to what sort of future it might be and what sort of God is bringing it about.

The Cross as Sacrifice

Another place, and in quite a different way, where we see the eschatological categories of the Old Testament brought to bear on the kerygma is the way that the cross is understood as a continuation and/or replacement of the temple, particularly in the epistle to the Hebrews (i.e., 10:14-18; 12:22, 24). The cross and resurrection can be seen as eschatological symbols of discontinuity and continuity without any sacrificial elements, and often were so seen in the early kerygma. But alongside this understanding sacrificial interpretations soon emerged. Jesus’ cross was seen as “a once and for all” atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:10), God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. This atoning sacrifice now replaced the need for temple sacrifice. Gowan addresses this point:

Because the sacrificial system was still being practiced and it was believed God’s way of offering forgiveness involved accepting the blood of a victim shed in place of the sinner, the apostolic church quickly came to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death, adding a new and even more unprecedented element to Jesus’ claim to be able to mediate divine forgiveness. (Gowan, p. 67)

Since in this view the cross has now made present the future eschatological hope, Christian eschatology became, at least in some sense, a realized eschatology. Gowan suggests that there were other ways the early church retained some eschatological hope in response to the challenge of realized eschatology:

For the first Christians that comprehensive act of forgiveness which the Old Testament promised for the last days had come to pass on the cross, and so what had been eschatological became past tense and, as one experienced it, present tense. Truly futuristic thought is not so different from Judaism, then, in its omission of a great act of forgiveness in the last days and its emphasis on the importance of repentance in the present, but in its teachings about sanctification earliest Christianity did preserve something of the Old Testament hope. A realistic assessment of the lives of forgiven Christians made it necessary to introduce some tension into their declaration that the eschatological hope had been realized, and to look forward to the day when the past would be fully overcome and what they were now experiencing in part would be perfected. (Gowan, p. 68)

Christians lived in the “already” but “not yet” of the eschatological kingdom begun in the cross and resurrection. So the role of the Holy Spirit becomes critical to understanding the cross as an eschatological act of God.

The Eschatological Spirit and the Holy Trinity

The early church clearly believed that the presence of the Holy Spirit was proof of the inauguration of God’s reign. Perhaps the most obvious example of this would be the way Luke employed the Joel material in the Pentecost story in Acts 2, but there are many others (i.e. Romans 8:18-27; Galatians 4:4-7). The promise that God would “pour out my spirit in the latter days” was being accomplished in the church who worshiped the crucified God. That same Spirit was now the power of God in the new age to “sanctify” believers, that is, to work in and through them the power of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The role of the Holy Spirit also moves us to a trinitarian understanding of the cross. 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 God intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a trinitarian act of mutual consent between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. (See Richard L. Floyd, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. San Jose: Pickwick Press, 2000, and Ingolf U. Dalferth, “The Eschatological Roots of the Doctrine of the Trinity” in Trinitarian Theology Today, edited by Christoph Schwöbel. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995)

The view of Karl Barth is helpful in understanding the work of the Holy Spirit as eschatological within the mystery of the Trinity. Barth understands the Spirit to reveal and make contemporary the reconciling work of Christ. However, the Spirit does not add anything to the perfected work of Christ accomplished by the divine act of the cross. Rather the Spirit is the eschatological form which manifests Christ’s presence until the final consummation. If for Barth the resurrection is the original form of the divine act and redemption is the final form, then the sending of the Holy Spirit is the middle form, disclosing now to faith what will universally be disclosed on the last day. (George Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 175-176)

Although the act of God is a particular act that takes place on the cross in a particular man, Jesus Christ, when understood as an act of the Triune God this particular act has cosmic implications. The act of God in Christ was for all the world, for every people in every age, and indeed for the whole created order. Within the mystery of the Holy Trinity there is no contradiction between the particularism and the universality of the one act. God, the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth and the atoning Christ who saves humankind from sin and death mutually indwell one another along with the Holy Spirit who makes Christ our contemporary. Do we need to look any further than the activity of the Triune God to grasp the breadth of the church’s mission toward our fellow humans and within the whole created order? In Colossians Paul speaks of this cosmic Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of God (Col. 1:15-20). It is not too much to say that the very universality of the gospel lies in its discrete particularity: “God with us” in the human Jesus Christ. So that Martin Dibelius was able to say in his commentary on Colossians, “As Paul confirmed the cosmic significance of the faith in Christ, he maintained the exclusiveness of Christianity and saved the Christian Church from becoming just one mystery religion among others and from being submerged and overcome by syncretism.” (M. Dibelius, An die Kolosser, Epheser, an Philemon. Handbuch zum Neuen Testament 12. 3rd ed.,rev. by Heinrich Greeven (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1953, p. 39) Although the Gospel emerged out of the particularity of Jesus and his cross and resurrection, that “scandal of particularity” in no way makes the gospel a parochial or sectarian concern. The Gospel bears witness to the reality that the eschatological Spirit is working outside as well as inside the church, and the completion of that cosmic work will be nothing less than the completion of God’s creation.

A New Identity for God: Continuity and Discontinuity

How does a divine act that accepts death as the very means of redemption alter expectations for God’s future? What is new about eschatology because of the cross? As we have said, the cross provides the key to understanding the identity and character of God for the future as well as for the present and the past. It does so by providing new content about the identity of God. The early kerygma stressed the new idea that God raised the crucified Jesus, and in so doing, defined himself as the God who raises the dead. “The subject of the action was God, the object of the suffering was the executed Jesus, and the event was regarded as an eschatological event.” (Moltmann, p. 188)

So the kerygma characteristically kept in view that the Risen One was the crucified. We see this quite plainly is in the post–resurrection appearances, which display the pattern of continuity and discontinuity. For example, Jesus’ resurrection body is tangible so that Thomas can touch his wounds (John 20:19-29); he eats a fish with the disciples (Luke 24:46-43), yet Mary thinks he is the gardener at first (John 20:15); and the disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize him until he breaks bread with them (Luke 24:13-35).

The glorified body of the Risen Christ can be seen then as a symbol of the continuity and discontinuity of God’s future. He is clearly the same Jesus who was crucified, yet he is changed in that he is no longer subject to death. He has really died. His death is not a charade, nor is his risen body a ghostly apparition. Once again the focus is not on any intrinsic quality in Jesus, but on the identity of the God who raised him. As the apostle Paul said: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50).

Likewise, for the Christian death is real. It is not a charade, and Christian faith is not a denial of death. Death is “the last enemy,” as Paul rightly says. Donald Juel is correct when he writes:

There can be no denial of death. The gospel is the ‘word of the cross.’ As a word that takes the reality of finitude and death seriously, it respects the experience of contemporaries who respect the reality of death and finitude. The cross of Christ is ‘eschatological,’ however, not only because it does not evade death. It is an experience of the last things most especially because God does not allow the cross to be the last word. The testimony of the New Testament is that God raised Jesus from the dead, and in so doing opened a new possibility for the whole created order. (Donald Juel, Christian Hope and the Denial of Death, in Polkinghorne and Welker, p. 181)

To understand death in the light of the eschatological cross is to admit the reality and finality of death, while at the same time trusting in the identity of the God who raises the dead. We do not sorrow “as those who have no hope.” Likewise, to contemplate cosmic futility in the face of the eschatological cross is to accept that the created order is finite, while at the same time to trust in the identity of God as the one who loves his creation. Schwöbel writes, “The belief that the resurrection of Jesus holds the key for the answers that can be given to all eschatological questions, like the relationship between old and new, between death and everlasting life, between destruction and futility and fulfillment, is the reason why Christianity from the beginning has been an eschatological religion.” He goes on to say:

If we see the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the paradigmatic story about God it becomes clear that this story discloses the faithfulness of God to his creation which grants continuity through the discontinuity of death. The hope of creation to overcome the absolute discontinuity of death is not based on an inherent capacity of creation because death is the end of all created capacities, the disruption of all relationships that can be maintained by the creature. The hope of creation is based on God’s maintaining his unconditionally creative relationship to his creation. The continuity which transcends the discontinuity of death is grounded in the constancy of God’s love which brings to expression the unchangeable character of God’s being. (Schwöbel, p. 116)

There can be no basis in the natural order then for the Christian hope, nothing intrinsic to creation, no recourse to an immortal soul or some built–in permanence. While Christian hope holds to the promise that nothing good or true or just done in this world is done in vain, it doesn’t look to the created order itself for hope for the future but to the God who loves his creation and sustains it.

Schwöbel speaks of the constancy of God’s “character,” where Bauckham uses the term “identity.” I take the terms to mean much the same thing: that God is known by his deeds and his reputation as a God of steadfast love and mercy who provides for that which he has made. So the new creation of cross and resurrection are of a piece with the original intentions of God in creation. The cross reconciles the creator with his creatures and provides a way for the new creation to fulfill the intention of the old. Schwöbel argues that:

The reconciliation between God the creator and his estranged creatures which Christian faith understands to be the point of Jesus’ death on the cross is the means by which God carries out his original intention of establishing communion with his creation. From the human side, from the perspective of the human creatures who have cut themselves off from the ground and end of all being, this eschatological act is the beginning of the new creation. From God’s perspective, if we may express it this way on the basis of the story of Jesus, the eschaton is the fulfillment of God’s original intention actualized through the means of his reconciling act on the cross. The dis-continuity of sin and alienation from God is overcome by God’s remaining continuously faithful to his will which is rooted in his being. (Schwöbel, p. 116)

The eschatological hope then lies neither in a flight from the created order nor in possibilities inherent in it. Rather hope lies solely with God and God’s promise for creation. And the story of Jesus and what it discloses about the character or identity of God is then clearly a story not just for Christians but for the whole world. In Leslie Newbigin’s poignant phrase, the Gospel is “more news than views” and offers hope that is more than parochial. As Schwöbel puts it:

If the story of Jesus is really a story about God, and if it is the story in which God definitively discloses his relationship with creation which is rooted in God’s own being and character, the Jesus story has universal significance. As we said above: The theological character of the christological story is the key to its eschatological significance. Because Jesus’ story discloses the character of God’s relationship to his creation as one by which God maintains his relationship to creation through the discontinuity of death, this story is a promise for all. (Schwöbel, p. 117)

The Church: A Community of Hope

So the church in each generation bears witness to the God who raises the dead, and brings to the larger conversation about the future its peculiar perspective. The church witnesses to this hope in acts of justice and mercy, in service and evangelism. And it experiences the pattern or model of continuity and discontinuity through its proclamation of Word and Sacrament and through the experience of the justification of the sinner. Schwöbel reminds us that Christians are not engaged in mere wishful thinking about the future but in hopeful faith:

While taking the threat of utter futility seriously, Christian hope is nevertheless left neither to the noble resignation of tragedy nor to the joyless mirth of farce. The gospel of Christ promises a continuity that is maintained beyond the discontinuity of the death of the finite life, a continuity that is already promised in the proclamation of the gospel and in the celebration of the sacraments. For Christians this is not a claim that will only be verified or falsified in the eschaton . . . The church is the place where the experience of grace in the present can provide a basis for hope in the future, because the gift of forgiveness just as the gift of new life after death has the same foundation, the cross and resurrection of Christ, and follows the same pattern of God granting continuity where created possibilities are exhausted. Every experience of gratuitous forgiveness offers vindication of eschatological hope. This is perhaps the most the church can offer in the conversations on eschatological questions. (Schwöbel, p. 122)

This is not to say that the church has always been faithful to its character as a community that lives in eschatological hope based on its trust in the identity of God. On the contrary, the church lives in the world and is tempted by the world to be something else, a mere religion or a chapel to culture. The eschatological character of the church makes it an interim institution as it waits in hope for the final consummation of all things. It is worth remembering that there will be no temple in the New Jerusalem.

Both the communal and the eschatological character are at risk in many contemporary understandings of church, where the church is seen as a voluntary association of like–minded individuals in pursuit of private spiritual goals. This relegation of faith to the private sphere threatens the church’s integrity as a community of eschatological hope. Schwöbel sees this as one of the church’s chief temptations in our time:

On the one hand, it is the eschatological character of the gospel of Christ that shapes the being of the church as an institution of the interim. The church could only abstain from contributing to the cultural conversation on ultimate questions if it denies its own character as existing in tension between the coming of Christ and the full actualization of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the message that is entrusted to the church claims universal significance because of its eschatological character. If it would withdraw from cultural conversations on eschatological questions the church would betray the universal impact of its message and turn Christianity into a tribal religion for Christians. This is not to deny that this often happens. Sometimes the churches present themselves as organizations for the pursuit of private religious interests. The inevitable trivialization of the Christian message as an individual path to salvation understood as psychological well-being often accompanies the withdrawal from the public sphere. Consenting to the Enlightenment’s creed that all religion must be essentially private is perhaps one of the most serious temptations of the church in the modern situation. (Schwöbel, p. 120)

To avoid that temptation the church needs to keep ever before it what P. T. Forsyth called “the cruciality of the cross.” The cross provides us with the primary model for understanding the church as the community that trusts the God who raises the dead. The church takes its identity from the crucified and Risen Christ who is its Lord.

The Cross as Critical Principle

This has radical implications for the way the church views both its own life and its relationship to the world. The eschatological understanding of the cross provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It also 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 thatcommunities can only project their own images onto texts, thereby to construct their meanings. (Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 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. Thiselton points out how the resurrection appearances function first of all to establish continuity of identity between the crucified Jesus and the transformed, exalted, Lord Christ. That continuity of identity is an important principle for the church as well, the community that rises with Christ also dies with him.

“If the Christian kerygma announces that the new humanity shares in this resurrection, continuity–contrast–transformation, we need not be surprised if the earliest texts also trace the same pattern of transformation and continuity in the experience of the earliest witnesses who proclaim it.” (Thiselton, p. 446)

So Peter denies Jesus, and in so doing, shares in the “failure” of the cross. Apostleship then entails both weakness and suffering, and resurrection, the restoration of a broken relationship.

Thiselton contrasts this understanding to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s construal of apostleship which stresses that “while all the texts point up the repeated failures of men, the women remain models of unfailing discipleship.” (Thiselton, p. 447) She wants to read the Lukan Easter text, “these words seem to be an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11) as an anti–feminist text when most people would read them as a rebuke to the unbelief of the male apostles. Fiorenza is intent on explanations which depend on gender differences, but such interpretations cut the theological nerve center of New Testament theologies of resurrection which is “continuity of identity in the context of transformation and change.” (Thiselton, p. 446) Gender differences are not decisive for apostleship, then or now. What is decisive is a community that recognizes its identity in Jesus Christ, so that in its struggles no less than in its victories it knows that it is sharing in the life of the crucified and Risen Lord.

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. William Sloane Coffin once told a group of ministers that “if you didn’t have so many illusions, you wouldn’t be so disillusioned!” 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 which separates illusory hopes from the true hope that rests in trust in the God who raises the dead. Hans Weder speaks of the necessity of a process of critical disappointment:

. . . the Gospel of Luke can speak of hopes being disappointed as a positive event. Herod’s hope to see a sign done by the Messiah is disappointed by Jesus (Luke 23:8ff.). This is a necessary disappointment belonging to the positive work of Christ. It means being saved, so to speak, from the power of futile hope. In a similar way the disciples at Emmaus tell of their hope for Israel’s political ‘redemption’; this hope has been disappointed bitterly by the crucified (Luke 24:21). This sort of hope must be disappointed, because it prevents the disciples from perceiving the Risen One (Luke 24:25-26, 33-35) who is the true living Savior, who brings a redemption from the political play of power as such and not only from the hostile powers. It is not by accident that both pieces of evidence mentioned are cited in the context of the cross. Jesus’ way to the cross brings all kinds of hope into a fundamental crisis, and since then only that kind of hope is valid that proves true in view of the cross, the cross as a sign of finitude, even for the Son of God. By narrative means Luke shows the way from illusion to hope in the face of thereality to which death and finitude essentially belong. (Hans Weder, “Hope and Creation,” in Polkinghorne and Welker, p. 186)

Weder’s insight suggests that 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 work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, they know that their 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.


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I prepared this paper for the Pastor-Theologian Program at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, New Jersey in 2001. A version of this paper appeared in Hope for your Future: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2002.

One thought on “The Cross as an Eschatological Act of God

  1. Pingback: “What’s the Point?” Reflections on a Christian Eschatology | When I Survey . . .

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