The Cross vs. The Resurrection

art-museum-crucifix-death-pmaIn Christian theology, there is a seemingly small thing that really influences so much of one’s theological outlook and even how they think they should live as a Christian.

Are you “Team Cross” or “Team Resurrection”?

Yeah, yeah, I know that the right answer is “both”, but really, most people tend to emphasize one more than the other.

What got me thinking about this was a Facebook post I saw on Easter evening. The poster said that the Resurrection was not when Jesus conquered sin and death. Instead, Jesus did that on the Cross, and the Resurrection was “simply” the “validation” of what Jesus did.

In other words, all that Jesus came to accomplish was done on Good Friday. God the Father saw it, thought it was awesome, so he went ahead and raised Jesus on Sunday.

In other other words, if the Resurrection never happened, nothing “essential” to salvation would be lost, merely the “proof” that it had been accomplished.

It really stuck with me, and no matter how much I tried to re-articulate it in my mind, give him the benefit of the doubt, or pick apart my own presuppositions, I really couldn’t shake how strongly I disagreed with this statement.

Why does it matter?

Conservatives tend to put more emphasis on the Cross. It’s the part that involves the wrath and judgment of God, but it’s also the part that tends to woo us and move us towards “accepting Jesus”. To see the pain and violence that God Himself endured “for us” is meant to stir gratitude and emotion from us. It’s also paints the background of “bad news” against which the foreground of the “good news” can seem really good.

It also plays to conservative tendencies towards legalism. To see what Jesus had to do because of our sin emphasizes our wrong behavior that led him to the Cross, and easily encourages us to feel bad about those bad things. I grew up hearing phrases like “Jesus died for you so you could live for him”. Emphasizing Jesus’ death also can move us (or guilt us) into doing those “good things” that we don’t do.

The Cross reminds us of how depraved we are.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to focus on the Resurrection. This doesn’t have the messiness and darkness of the Cross. The Resurrection is nice. It’s encouraging. It focuses on freedom–how Jesus overcame the requirements of right behavior for our salvation. It emphasizes divine change of the tangible world and society. It gets past the whole sin and repentance stuff and focuses on actually living life right now.

This is the basis of “liberation theology” as well as “prosperity theology”. In this perspective the Resurrection is what Jesus received after suffering at the hands of systemic and societal injustice and violence. And so, the thinking goes, Jesus’ Resurrection offers liberation from all of the societal and physical ills that keep us poor, marginalized, out of power, and even sick.

The Resurrection reminds us of how much God cares for his world.

The Gospel According to the Cross & Tomb

Emphasizing the Cross emphasizes the “bad news” and really waters down any tangible “good news” we can experience. It’s almost completely devoid of societal implications and is purely about personal deliverance from God’s wrath and personal right living.

The most “good news” these folks can often offer is that Jesus has an emotional disposition of love and grace towards us that should motivate us to act differently.

Emphasizing the Resurrection, however, emphasizes a dimension of the “good news” and waters down any real “bad news” that we need saving from. It’s all too often about how mean and bad “the system” is and how God keeps us from having to experience pain.

The most “bad news” they can preach is that the world and society is still unjust and is titled against us, though Jesus still keeps us “immune” from this as long as we can participate in his liberating power by “having enough faith”.

Some History

Interestingly, the Cross didn’t become the dominant symbol of Christianity until the 3rd-century. Ironically, this also coincides to when it became the primary worldview in power. “Cross Theology”, then has usually been more popular among the colonizers, conquerors, crusaders, and those in power.

“Resurrection Theology”, on the other hand, has taken center stage when the Church has been persecuted, or a segment of its people have been marginalized or enslaved.

Even in the Old Testament, sacrifice is a much bigger deal when there’s the temple and Israel is powerful. When they are enslaved or exiled or conquered, Exodus, deliverance, and redemption are the dominant themes.

Both of these situations lend themselves to certain strengths and weaknesses. When the Church is in power, it gives space and time in which to give deep theological reflection, nuance, and clarity to otherwise abstract or easily-misunderstood ideas

So what’s a healthier perspective on Holy Weekend?

Well, I honestly don’t know.

Different books and verses in the Bible emphasizes different things. It’s too easy for each side to find prooftexts for their “side”. Church History has taken on the Cross as its primary identifying symbol, yet has taken Easter as it’s most joyous and important holiday (over and above Good Friday). Church liturgy is built around Communion, celebrating Christ’s death, and yet every ancient liturgy ends with a Benediction encouraging people to go in peace, celebrating God’s liberating commissioning of his people.

Personally, I spent the vast majority of my life soaked in a pure Cross emphasis, and only in the past few years have I experienced a “recalibration” and I now probably err on the other side of the spectrum. Not so much the “liberation” aspect of the Resurrection, but probably more the “New Creation” aspect of it.

How I see it: the Resurrection ushered in the New Creation into the world, flooding the future world of the present. The Resurrection is a picture of our future and the completion of Christ’s complete victory over darkness, sin, and death.

The way I try to look at it is that our (and the world’s) redemption–a reality that unfolds over a period of time–was also accomplished over a period time. Not only over the entire life and ministry of Jesus, but more specifically, over the whole of Holy Weekend.

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.(Rom5.10)

Our salvation was progressively accomplished just as it is progressively applied.

We need the “story” of Good Friday to Easter Sunday. In the future world being birthed into the present, the Cross is the “labor pains” of sorts, while the Resurrection is the child itself. You can’t really have one at the expense of the other, though you will probably need to devote your attention to each of those things at different times.

Different thoughts and aspects of the Gospel and the Christian life lend themselves more easily to different parts of Holy Weekend. It’s probably most healthy to know our tendencies, read widely, think deeply and mull things over from lots of different directions.

Especially during Easter season.

So, as you read this, which “side” do you tend to fall on? How do you keep a proper balance on these two truths?


One thought on “The Cross vs. The Resurrection

  1. why must we feel like we have to choose a “side” as if following Jesus were a two-dimensional effort (yes, i reread the intro… :-P)?!

    i think in different seasons the cross and empty tomb swap places: when i’m feeling more of the reality of the resurrection of my life, i try to remember that the cross preceded that. when i find myself identifying with the call to take up my cross, i try to remember that Jesus isn’t nailed to his anymore that there’s hope.

    after having lived almost a dozen years in the DC area, i moved back to my hometown of NY — on good friday. right now, i find myself navigating the saturday in between.

    i’ll admit i don’t read thoroughly every single post of yours but i have come to appreciate the provocations that arise from them, particularly when i do read them. so thanks.


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