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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Must Our Image of the Cross Go?

Published Monday, July 25, 2022 By Joshua Schendel

The image of the cross as self-sacrificing love has come under much scrutiny over the past half century. This is because, as James Cone remarked, “The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted.”[1] So, how, according to some, has the cross been problematically interpreted over the centuries?

A Problematic Image?

According to the standard version of the critique, the interpretation of the cross in the dominant strands of Christian theological history has God enacting a violent vindication on a submissive and innocent son. Thus, on this interpretation, the cross becomes an image of violence and oppression. One finds this in J. Denney Weaver, for example, who argues that all “classical atonement doctrines…portray an image of God as either divine avenger or punisher and/or as a child abuser, a Father who arranges the death of one child for the benefit of the others.”[2]

Weaver at this point is following Rita Nakashima Brock’s famous insinuation that “such doctrines of salvation reflect by analogy… images of the neglect of children or, even worse, child abuse, making it acceptable as divine behavior—cosmic child abuse, as it were.”[3]

In Beyond God the Father Mary Daley asserts a critique of traditional ‘models’ of the atonement that is as sweeping as it is pregnant:

The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of the victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus, ‘who died for our sins’ his function as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.[4]

In her Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams likens the notion of the vicarious suffering of Christ to the particular kind of “surrogacy” oppression experienced by many African-American slave women.[5] Traditional understandings of atonement, Williams says, teach that Jesus is “the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind.”[6] “Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory of sin and/or evil.”[7]

Gemma Cruz sums up this reading of the Christian history of the interpretation of the cross:

The problem is that much of Christian theology overemphasizes the suffering body. Fixation with the cross and the crucified Jesus accounts for…romanticizing and glorification of suffering.[8]

Critiques of this kind could be multiplied many times over. What might be said in response?


In 1963, C. S. Lewis was asked to respond to Bishop A. T. Robinson’s controversial article entitled, “Our Image of God Must Go.” [9] In this article the Bishop argued that the popular Christian view of God as ‘up there’ in a localized heaven, removed and distant from this created order, is not only poorly thought out, but dangerous.

Lewis’ response was brief but deeply significant. “We have long abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven,” he wryly noted.[10] Indeed, one would search in vain in the writings of Christian theologians down through the ages for this view of God critiqued by Robinson.

Yet, Lewis continued, if Robinson failed to communicate exactly the importance of his thought on this matter, it was largely a literary failure and not because there was nothing important to say about how we envision God’s relation to the created order. Of course, Christians who anthropomorphize God as ‘up there’ and so removed from the world need to be reminded that God is as much ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ as ‘up there.’

This is important, says Lewis. A case can be made for this kind of corrective. “I shouldn’t believe it very strongly, but some sort of case could be made out.” His point is that it is not the traditional Christian view of God that must go, it is the traditional Christian view of God that must be more carefully attended to. To believe “very strongly” the corrective that Bishop Robinson offers would be to distort what that traditional Christian doctrine of God is, and thus to miss out on all the fullness of its proper proportion.

Those holding to the classic Christian understanding of Christ’s work will find much with which to disagree in the critiques noted above. Indeed, responses have been as many as the critiques. In a forum of this sort, rather than focusing my response on misunderstandings of historical theology, misconstruals of the historical narrative, liberation theological methodology, appropriation of critical theory, or logical leaps and stumbles, perhaps the best response is to take the line of Lewis.

We have long abandoned the justification of violence by appeal to the suffering of Christ on the cross (or, rather, Christianity never held such a justification in the first place; and when Christians have done so, it was only by way of very serious distortion). Going all the way back to at least the apostle Peter, we have been so instructed:

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Might a case be made that Christians ought not to understand this text (and others similar) as a way violently to domineer over others? Might a case be made that Christians are not called by this text (or any other) to order others to suffer submissively and quietly at the Christian’s own hands? Yes, of course. And that case has been made by Christians down through the generations.

But if that is the only thing said about this text (and others), if that is the only case made, then one misses out on all the fullness of the cross of Christ and its rich implications for those who by it follow him. So, can that case be made? Sure. I shouldn’t believe it very strongly, but some sort of case could be made out.

Perhaps a line from John Donne best concludes:

Be covetous of crosses; let none fall

Cross no man else, but cross thyself in all.

Then doth the cross of Christ work faithfully

Within our hearts, when we love harmlessly…[11]

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He is also a regular contributor at Conciliar Post.

This article was originally published on April 8, 2020.

[1] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), xix.

[2] J. Denney Weaver, “Narrative Christus Victor: The Answer to Anselmian Atonement Violence,” in Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation, ed. John Sanders (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2006), 1-46, cited 7.

[3] Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart : A Christology of Erotic Power (New York : Crossroad, 1988), 56.

[4] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Revised edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 77. The idea that the Christology and atonement theories of the Christian theological tradition has been ‘patriarchalized’ is a popular one. See, for example, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Reminism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 99-100. See also idem, Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 116-138; idem, “The Western Religious Tradition and Violence Against Women in the Home,” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (Pilgrim Press, 1989), 31-41. As James Poling put it: “For many centuries, the cross has been symbolic of the church’s authority as a patriarchal institution…One can see the cross as a symbol of a natural patriarchal order that must be supported by the interactions of men and women.” “The Cross and Male Violence,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books, 2006), 50-62, cited 51.

[5] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness:The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1993), 178-199.

[6] Ibid, 162.

[7] Ibid, 165.

[8] Gemma Tulud Cruz, “Em-body-ing Theology: Theological Reflections on the Experiences of Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong,” in Body and Sexuality: Theological-Pastoral Perspectives of Women in Asia, eds. Agnes M. Brazal, and Andrea Lizares Si (Ateneo University Press, 2007), 60-73, cited 69.

[9] In The Observer (17 March 1963). This article was a summary of Robinson’s book published in London of that same year, Honest to God.

[10] Lewis, “Must Our Image of God Go?” originally published in The Observer (24 March 1963).

[11] John Donne, “The Cross,” in John Donne Poems, ed. Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 361-363, cited 363.

  • Joshua Schendel

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