My summers during my teen years in the ‘fifties were highlighted by weeks at Mission Meadows Bible Camp on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in western New York State. There at camp pastors from the (then) Middle East Conference of the Evangelical Mission Covenant Church admonished us to persevere in the promises we had made to live by the gospel. They also warned us against false teaching and doctrine. In the Covenant Church, as in much of Protestantism in the mid-twentieth century, one important false kind of Christianity to avoid was Roman Catholicism.
Today Protestant evangelicals make common cause with Catholics on some matters—often social issues like gay marriage or abortion. But seventy-five or so years ago our pastors and teachers maintained that there were deep theological differences. One major problem they liked to point out was that Catholic churches and homes were full of crucifixes. The crosses in our own Protestant churches were empty: Christ had risen in victory over death. There was the suggestion that Roman Catholicism was too negative, focused overmuch on Jesus’ death and not his triumph.
It is still the case that some evangelicals make that distinction. Indeed, there are preachers who tell their flocks, often in “mega churches,” that God wants individual Christians to live triumphant lives, and that part of that triumph is to prosper; riches are nothing to eschew, but a sign of God’s favor to the faithful. That strand of thinking has a history in American Protestantism.
In the late nineteenth century, for example, a popular Philadelphia Baptist minister, Russell Conwell, delivered a sermon (and wrote a book based upon it) called “Acres of Diamonds” in which he declared that to seek wealth was to be obedient to God and that poverty might well be the fault of the poor man himself. In the light of current-day thinking about wealth and poverty—in this land where one in five children is undernourished—those ideas seem almost heretical.
We recognize that, in the simplest terms, life is not fair, that prosperity and happiness on the one hand and suffering and trouble on the other are not inevitably the result of one’s own actions and attitudes. Indeed, both good and ill may be sent by God. That idea is as old as the book of Job. And it is an idea that is symbolized by the crucifix, a symbol that has, in spite of the warnings we got at Bible camp, lasted through two millennia of Christian history.
Once at an evangelical conference grounds in Michigan, I spoke on the text from Psalm 19, “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” The idea was that in the bright day there are uplifting Christian truths that make life happier and easier for all of us, but that there is a darker knowledge that comes in the night times of our lives, the knowledge that suffering and hurt are also the Christian’s lot.
After the service a woman told me she had six months earlier lost her husband to an awful disease, and that she had still not, in spite of her faith that it was God’s will, found joy or peace. “I think of Jesus on the cross, suffering as Jim did, and then I find comfort,” she whispered. As I drove home through Gary, Indiana, I realized her short, hushed statement was clearer in thirty seconds than my (perhaps bloviated?) twenty-five minute sermon.
From its earliest years our pietistic tradition has wrestled with the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. Pietism was born into a Church where the prevailing view of the Atonement was that by it Christ had paid for humanity’s sins. He sacrificed his blood and life, taking the place that in fact the sinner him- or herself deserved. Jesus had accepted and appeased the wrath of God towards sinners.
In contrast to this idea, P. P. Waldenström, a priest in the Church of Sweden, held that God had always loved humanity and that His sense of justice did not need to be satisfied by the death of His son. Lutheran defenders of the traditional “orthodox” blood or substitutionary view of the Atonement—on both sides of the Atlantic—said that, on the contrary, before God could show His merciful side, He must have His sense of justice appeased by a bloody death, that of Jesus. There was a certain terrible logic in their theology, however dark a picture of God it advanced.
Others, in this issue and elsewhere, will on this 150th anniversary of Waldenström’s Atonement sermon refresh our memories of the controversy that ensued both in Sweden and America and perhaps debate again his view. However the reader comes down on that controversy, the thing I want to ask here is somewhat simpler: what universal meaning does Jesus’ death have for all Christians, Catholic or Protestant, State Church or Pietist?
Even our ordinary speech recognizes that at moments every life has “a cross to bear.” And our common life experience, like that of the widow who spoke to me in Michigan, can sometimes be excruciatingly difficult. Suffering lies in the middle of life as certainly as do joy and success. Jesus is quoted in the sixteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” That triumph over suffering and death lies beyond the realm of time and space.
In the present order of things there is plenty of trouble. And some of the suffering in life here and now is, so far as any of us can say, undeserved. The cross is for many of us the supreme symbol of that fact, one which no amount of triumphal and/or legalistic religion can hide. It tells us that God Himself knows such suffering.
Jesus is also quoted in the fourth gospel as saying: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And that is what he did. Whenever a Christian sees or experiences the sacrifices that others make for friends, he or she thinks of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. That sacrifice may be past our attempts to understand it theologically, as can be the suffering that life sometimes brings.
For Christians the crucifix is the ultimate symbol of these realities. God Himself accepts undeserved suffering. And as certainly as the empty cross, the cross with Jesus upon it lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It is the sign of the suffering and reconciling love that lies in the middle of human life. No wonder it has endured for two thousand years.