Growing up, I was taught that Jesus had died for my sins so I could go to heaven when I died. As for what to do once you believed and were assured your spot on the other side of the pearly gates? Well, that was a bit more hazy beyond reading the Bible and praying and trying to be a decent person. But I do remember that when it came to thinking about what to do and how to live as a Christian, the crucifixion of Jesus was not really part of the discussion.
In other words, it was as if we had used Jesus for what we needed. Now we were moving on to other things and the crucifixion was no longer relevant. We might take into consideration some of the words and teachings of Jesus, alongside laws from the Old Testament or teachings from a prophet or one of Jesus’ followers. Essentially, the Bible was a book filled with rules. We weren’t saved by following these rules, of course. We were saved by believing in Jesus. And once we had dealt with believing in Jesus, all those passages about Jesus’ dying on the cross, and the other verses that explained what that death meant, were laid aside. With them out of the way, the Bible was a book of rules again.
Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that for Christians, the crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus affects everything. To be authentically following Jesus, we need to run every ethical and theological question through Jesus. One of the many authors that helped me see this more clearly was Jurgen Moltmann. His book The Crucified God is one of the most impactful reads I’ve ever had for my understanding of who God is and what God has done. Believing in the Trinity means that Jesus is God. That means that, defying all logical explanation, on the cross we believe God died. For Christians then, it is not an abstract God we believe in, the God you would talk about in philosophy class.* Rather, our God has a face and a name – Jesus.
If Jesus is God and if we then see God as dying on the cross – our clearest picture of God is one of self-sacrificial love. That changes everything.
Moltmann’s book is filled with deep theological reflections on the crucifixion of the one we believe was God in the flesh:
“When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious then he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event.”
Its definitely worth a read for theological thinkers and others interested in reflecting on who God is in Jesus.
*I do think we can affirm a belief in an infinite Being who stands in a category alone; “That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Named” as Anselm would say. We hold this belief in common with other theists, including Muslims and Jews (and even deists). But a Christian definition of God does not settle here in the abstract “God” but moves into the personal – Lord, Jesus.