“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Friday, March 21, 2008

The ‘Foolish’ Wisdom of the Cross

I recently read a book entitled Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, by Martin Hengel. The thesis of this book is that the idea of a crucified savior was madness in the eyes of both Jews and Romans in the ancient world. In the Roman world, crucifixion was the extreme penalty, a death of the utmost humiliation and indignity, reserved primarily for criminals, slaves, and rebels. Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths” – the torture and suffering was unimaginable. The word “excruciating” has its roots in crucifixion, meaning “out of the cross.” For the “cultured literary world” it was offensive to even speak of crucifixion, and historians seem to have been hesitant to even mention it. The idea of a painful but honorable death by crucifixion did not exist – it was a despicable fate and a “horrific, disgusting business.” Rather than an honorable burial, the victim’s humiliation was made complete in the open decay and devouring of his often naked body by scavenger birds; sometimes corpses were crucified in order to heap further humiliation on the dead victims. There could be no honor in such a death. “Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock, much less passing on ‘old and full of years’ like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, he died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. Paul’s Jesus did not die just any death; he was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and contemptible way” (Hengel 90).

The shame of the cross was no less present in Jewish culture. According to Hengel, “the preaching of the earliest Christians caused particular offense in the mother country itself” (Hengel 85). This was partly because of the statement in the Jewish scriptures that “anyone who is hung on a tree [understood to refer to crucifixion] is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23). This Jesus of Nazareth was a crucified criminal and cursed by God – was it not a preposterous idea that he was the Son of God? As in the Roman world, “the theme of the crucified faithful plays no part in Jewish legends about martyrs” (Hengel 85).

In such a context, “A crucified messiah, son of God, or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman, or barbarian” (Hengel 10). In fact, a crucified God was a shameful, ridiculous, and offensive monstrosity in the eyes of the Romans, and was in extreme contrast with the theological and religious ideas of the time. This death was on a whole different level than the myths of dying and rising gods; Jesus was not only a mortal, but a condemned criminal. For this reason it was an obscene idea that he was the messiah or Son of God. It was called a “sick delusion” and a “senseless and crazy superstition.” Hengel summarizes his argument by saying that “to assert that God himself accepted death in the form of a crucified Jewish manual worker from Galilee in order to break the power of death and bring salvation to all men could only seem folly and madness to men of ancient times” (Hengel 89).

Yet this was exactly what the early Christians claimed. Some tried to blunt this scandalous claim with the idea that Jesus was merely a representation of God, an idea that became known as Docetism. The plain truth, though, could not be denied, and the apostle Paul stood by it in his speaking and writing. Paul was clearly aware of the offensiveness of his message. Hengel points out that when Paul says “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23), he is most likely speaking from missionary experience, in which Paul certainly experienced resistance from those who viewed the cross as obvious madness (cf. also Galatians 5:11).

The stunning character of the Christian message was that it claimed that Jesus was cursed – that the messiah and Son of God was also a condemned criminal and under God’s curse, and that there was no contradiction! Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13) and that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Peter says that “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). In the cross of Jesus Christ, God himself paid the price for our redemption, suffering the divine demand for justice, and paying the wages of death (Romans 6:23). At the same time, “God identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness” (Hengel 89) and revealed his great love for us by giving himself for us (Romans 5:8). “God himself took up the ‘existence of a slave’ and died the ‘slaves’ death’ on the tree of martyrdom (Philippians 2:8)…so that in the ‘death of God’ life might win victory over death” (Hengel 88-89). Justice and love come together, wrath and mercy meet, and death is turned to life. In the cross of Christ we witness the seemingly paradoxical but stunningly beautiful coming together of the diverse excellencies of God, as Jonathan Edwards would say. In Jesus of Nazareth, we see the meek and humble suffering servant and man of sorrow (Isaiah 53), and the Son of Man riding on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62) with all power and authority (Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 1:21). Death could not keep its hold on the Son of God (Acts 2:24), and although it was humiliation, the cross was also Christ’s glory and triumph over evil (Hebrews 12:2, Philippians 2:6-11). “[H]aving disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). In response to this one can only imagine Jews and Gentiles would have responded “foolishness! There is no triumph or victory on a cross!” It may seem like foolishness to man, as it did to the Jews and Romans 2000 years ago*, but listen to Paul’s response:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” – 1 Corinthians 1:20-25
God’s ways are deeper and stronger and his wisdom is higher and greater than we know (Romans 11:33). What may seem foolish to man is the wisdom and power of God, and it is shown to be so in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Through the death of the sinless Lamb of God, death was defeated and eternal life given to us who deserve death. This is the victory of God, the eucatastrophe in which evil and death are overturned by God himself.


*Christianity is often seen as foolishness in culture today just as it was foolishness in the ancient world. Today’s “wisdom” seems to be found in the naturalistic worldview, which in fact relies on unnecessary presuppositions. According to this “wisdom” the entire Story of Christianity is foolishness because it claims the existence of a reality that is greater than and transcends physical reality.

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