I have this feeling that I’ve posted on this before at the old blog, but I was flipping through Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope this weekend, and found him to have some illuminating things to say about the mystery of the Cross.
The book is written in a kind of Q&A format with the questions offered by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. In response to a question about the problem of suffering, the Pope gives an interpretation of the meaning of the Cross that is in some ways the reverse of the view that Jesus’s death is a way of satisfying God:
In the preceding questions you addressed the problem precisely: Was putting His Son to death on the Cross necessary for the salvation of humanity?
Given our present discussion, we must ask ourselves: Could it have been different? Could God have justified Himself before human history, so full of suffering, without placing Christ’s Cross at the center of that history? Obviously, one response could be that God does not need to justify Himself to man. It is enough that He is omnipotent. From this perspective everything He does or allows must be accepted. This is the position of the biblical Job. But God, who besides being Omnipotence is Wisdom and-to repeat once again-Love, desires to justify Himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God who shares man’s lot and participates in his destiny. This brings to light another inadequacy, the completely false image of God which the Enlightenment accepted uncritically. With regard to the Gospel, this image certainly represented a step backward, not in the direction of a better knowledge of God and the world, but in the direction of misunderstanding them.
No, absolutely not! God is not someone who remains only outside of the world, content to be in Himself all-knowing and omnipotent. His wisdom and omnipotence are placed, by free choice, at the service of creation. If suffering is present in the history of humanity, one understands why His omnipotence was manifested in the omnipotence of humiliation on the Cross. The scandal of the Cross remains the key to the interpretation of the great mystery of suffering, which is so much a part of the history of mankind.
Even contemporary critics of Christianity are in agreement on this point. Even they see that the crucified Christ is proof of God’s solidarity with man in his suffering. God places Himself on the side of man. He does so in a radical way: “He emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / coming in human likeness; / and found human in appearance, / he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Everything is contained in this statement. All individual and collective suffering caused by the forces of nature and unleashed by man’s free will-the wars, the gulags, and the holocausts: the Holocaust of the Jews but also, for example, the holocaust of the black slaves from Africa.
I say this reverses the common understanding of the Cross because, instead of seeing the Crucifixion as the means by which humanity is able to satisfy God’s justice or wrath, it portrays God as, in a sense, seeking to justify himself before humanity, by demonstrating that he is a God of love.
The Pope goes on to say:
God is always on the side of the suffering. His omnipotence is manifested precisely in the fact that He freely accepted suffering. He could have chosen not to do so. He could have chosen to demonstrate His omnipotence even at the moment of the Crucifixion. In fact, it was proposed to Him: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not accept that challenge. The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross He could say, as do all who suffer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34), has remained in human history the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.
Yes! God is Love and precisely for this He gave His Son, to reveal Himself completely as Love. Christ is the One who “loved to the end” (Jn 13:1). “To the end” means to the last breath. “To the end” means accepting all the consequences of man’s sin, taking it upon Himself. This happened exactly as prophet Isaiah affirmed: “It was our infirmities that he bore, /We had all gone astray like sheep, / each following his own way; / But the Lord laid upon him / the guilt of us all” (Is 53:4-6).
The Man of Suffering is the revelation of that Love which “endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7), of that Love which is the “greatest” (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). It is the revelation not only that God is Love but also the One who “pours out love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (cf. Rom 5:5). In the end, before Christ Crucified, the man who shares in redemption will have the advantage over the man who sets himself up as an unbending judge of God’s actions in his own life as well as in that of all humanity.
Thus we find ourselves at the center of the history of salvation. The judgment of God becomes a judgment of man. The divine realm and the human realm of this event meet, cross, and overlap. Here we must stop. From the Mount of the Beatitudes, the road of the Good News leads to Calvary, and passes through Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. The difficulty and the challenge of understanding the meaning of Calvary is so great that God Himself wanted to warn the apostles of all that would have to happen between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
This is the definitive meaning of Good Friday: Man, you who judge God, who order Him to justify Himself before your tribunal, think about yourself, if you are not responsible for the death of this condemned man, if the judgment of God is not actually a judgment upon yourself. Consider if this judgment and its result-the Cross and then the Resurrection-are not your only way to salvation. (all emphasis mine)
I see a certain similarity between what John Paul says here and what the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde has written about the work of Christ. God’s “problem,” says Forde, is how to be a God of love for us when we won’t have it. We are the problem, the ones who need to be reconciled to God.
Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. (Forde, Caught in the Act)
Both John Paul and Forde see the rvelation of God as love simultaneously as a judgment upon humanity. Perfect love enters our world and is caught in the net of human perfidy, beaten, mocked, tortured, and ultimately killed. And yet, in the Resurrection Love has the last word. The Cross is the inevitable outcome of God’s determination to be a God of Love, a determination that our sin is unable to defeat.