The Folly of the Cross
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most significant event in the history of the world. By dying in our place, the Son of God accomplished all that is necessary for the reconciliation of sinners and the renewal of creation. But how could the death of a fairly unknown Jewish carpenter alter the course of history? Why would the crucifixion of this man—when Rome crucified tens of thousands—bring healing and hope to the lives of others? How could a gruesome execution by the state be considered good news? To ponder these questions is to stumble into the doctrine of atonement.
People today do not gasp at the idea of a crucifixion. We should. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment invented to slowly torture and publicly shame criminals. As opposed to beheading, which was a quick death, crucifixion intentionally kept the victims alive long enough to plunge them into the depths of human suffering. Beyond the pain of the nails through the main arteries near the hands and feet, those hanging on the cross would spend hours or even days pulling themselves up in order to breathe, scraping their already-scourged skin on the wood of a rugged cross. So agonizing was this form of punishment that a word was later invented based on its severity: excruciating, which literally means “from the cross.”1
When the Bible talks about crucifixion, however, it emphasizes not physical pain but rather social shame. Reserved for the scum of society (rebels, slaves, and outcasts), crucifixion was a public spectacle meant to humiliate and dehumanize the victim. Crucifixion usually happened along busy Roman roads, with those crucified placed in the most vulnerable position— naked, arms stretched out, and alone—in order to be taunted and mocked as they struggled for breath. Those being crucified were stripped not only of their clothes but also of their dignity. A century before Jesus, for example, a slave revolt in Rome led to six thousand people being crucified along a 130-mile stretch of a road leaving Rome.2 The near-lifeless bodies, along with those already being eaten by vultures and vermin, served as a billboard to the world declaring the power of Rome.3
Since the cross was a monstrous symbol of death and defeat in the first century, it is no wonder that early Christians were mocked for worshiping a crucified Savior. The cross of Christ was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). The Jews were looking for a conquering Messiah who would overthrow Rome and establish a political rule. The notion of a suffering Messiah would have been scandalous to their ears. They wanted someone who would triumph over their enemies, not be executed by them. The Gentiles (particularly the Greeks) sought salvation through philosophy and wisdom. The thought of a king being crucified was foolishness to them, something only a madman would believe. The picture of the good life was a contemplative philosopher, not a dying criminal.
The mainstream view after the crucifixion was that Jesus was a failure, his followers were fools, and the cross was a defeat. That is certainly what an early graffiti drawing reveals about the way Romans thought about Christians. The drawing depicts a worshiper looking up at Christ dying on the cross. However, in place of Christ’s head is the head of a donkey. Below the drawing reads the Greek inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God.” This second-century graffiti represents the foolishness of a gospel proclaiming a crucified Messiah.4
While early Christians were mocked for their belief in the cross, Christians today have often domesticated the cross to make it more palatable for a modern society. Whether placed on a calendar in a Christian bookstore, tattooed on an arm, or elevated above a city skyline, we have tamed the cross and turned it into a decorative pleasantry. But only when we see the horror of the cross will we be ready to understand the glory of the cross.
Only when we see the horror of the cross will we be ready to understand the glory of the cross.
The Glory of Christ Crucified
When Jesus was crucified, it appeared that his mission had been brought to a devastating halt. From an earthly perspective, the cross was weakness and foolishness. But through the lens of faith, the glory of God shines from the cross like a thousand suns compared to the candle of this world’s glory. The love of God through the cross of Christ subverts the wisdom and power of this world, revealing a kingdom that is different than people would expect but greater than they could imagine. The cross is not weakness but rather power controlled by love. The death of Jesus is not foolishness but rather God’s wise way of saving the unjust while upholding his justice. This is the awful beauty of the cross.
Herein lies the paradox of the gospel. The self-giving love of God transformed an instrument of death into an instrument of life. The cross is the great reversal, where exaltation comes through humiliation, glory is revealed in shame, victory is accomplished through surrender, and the triumph of the kingdom comes through the suffering of the servant. As Lesslie Newbigin says, “The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross.”5 The cross is good news because it is God’s way of rescuing sinners and restoring the world.
- Cicero claimed that crucifixion was the “most cruel and disgusting penalty.” M. Tullius Cicero, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, trans. C. D. Yonge (London: George Bell and Sons, 1903), 2.5.165. Josephus referred to it as “a most miserable death.” Flavius Josephus, "The Jewish War", in The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian, trans. William Whiston (London: W. Boyer, 1737), 7.6.4. For the Jewish people, crucifixion represented the curse of God: “A hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23). For background on crucifixion, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); Tom Holland, Dominion (New York City: Basic Books, 2019), 1–17. 3.
- Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World, 55.
- Perhaps the closest modern parallel to crucifixion is lynching. James Cone observes that Christ’s enemies killed him “by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 10:39), and he discusses the similarities between lynching and crucifixion: “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society.” James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013), 31. Such a comparison highlights the scandalous nature of the cross and the shame endured by Jesus.
- The graffiti was discovered in a building in Rome annexed to the imperial palace on the Palatine. It is now displayed in the Palatine Museum. An image of the graffiti can be viewed at “Scratched Graffito with Blasphemous Crucifix,” Palatine Museum, Parco archeologico del Colosseo, https://parcocolosseo.it/en/opere/scratched-graffito -with-blasphemous-crucifix/.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 127.
This article is adapted from The Atonement: An Introduction by Jeremy Treat.
In our sin, we—who were created to know, love, and obey the God of all glory—stand guilty and condemned before him; we cannot save ourselves.
Through his death on the cross Jesus accomplishes reconciliation, victory, removal of shame, justification, adoption, propitiation, glorification, healing—and much more!
Death often brings reality to light. When individuals are thrown onto their last resources, they show where their true hopes lay.
How can thinking and being really honest about the reality of death paradoxically free us to find hope and joy in God like never before?