The Crucified God


The Crucified God
Brian Zahnd

Here’s a big question. What is God like? I suppose this is the biggest question theology can ask. And we don’t need to be a theologian to ask this question. It’s one of the most basic questions facing anyone who attempts to worship or even just think about God. But how shall we answer the question?

Our capacity for imagining God seems virtually limitless. Is God like Zeus whose incited anger results in hurled thunderbolts? Is God like Ganesh, the lovable elephant-headed god of prosperity from the Hindu pantheon whose idol I’ve seen in hotel lobbies across India? Is God like the comic white-bearded old man sitting behind a computer from a Far Side cartoon? Does God bear any resemblance to the primitive tribal deities who lead their people in waging war on other people? Is God totalized Will-To-Power whose omnipotence controls every event in the universe? Is God the aloof and absent clockmaker of Thomas Jefferson and the eighteenth-century deists? Is God the amorphous everything and nothing of New Age spirituality? And so on.

To even venture an attempt to answer the question of what God is like seems to court idolatry. How can mere mortals possibly try to answer the question about God’s nature without being guilty of not only theological error, but outrageous hubris?

Part of the genius of the ancient Hebrew religion was its unique prohibition against graven images. The problem with idols is that they put too fine a point on what God is like. The second of the Ten Commandments — “You shall not make for yourself an idol” — prevented Israel from claiming too much precision about their knowledge of God. The image of God would not be carved in stone or cast in bronze. Refusing to make an image of God is a marvelous concession to humility.

And yet Christians do something different; for we do talk about the image of God being definitively revealed — definitively revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. This is why the church, in the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, ruled in favor of icons, arguing that since Jesus bears God’s perfect image (the Greek word is ikon), icons are therefore an acceptable part of Christian worship. The church fathers recognized that in Christ, God had given humanity, not an idol, but an icon of the divine nature. The confession of the Second Council of Nicaea was more than a ruling in support of the sacred art of Christian iconography, it was an acknowledgement that in the life of Jesus Christ we find a definitive answer to the question of what God is like. God is like Jesus!

But we should admit the strangeness of this. We Christians are a peculiar people. We worship — as incredible as it sounds! — a crucified God. All religions more or less worship some version of a powerful, glorious, triumphant God; but Christians are unique in worshiping a betrayed, tortured, crucified God. This is the original scandal of the Christian faith — the worship of a God who was nailed to a tree!

The shockingly succinct phrase “Crucified God” was coined by Jürgen Moltmann as the title to his theological masterpiece published in 1972. Jürgen Moltmann was raised as a secularist in Germany during World War II. At the age of twenty, while serving as a soldier in the German army, Moltmann was captured and placed in an English prisoner of war camp. Reading the New Testament as a prisoner of war the young secularist encountered Jesus’ cry from the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — and thought, “here is someone who understands me.” In time Jürgen Moltmann became a Christian and eventually one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century.

At the heart of the Christian faith lies the scandal of the crucified God. Over the centuries there have been attempts to soften the scandal of a crucified God by giving nice, tidy explanations of it. These “atonement theories” are attempts to reduce the scandal and mystery of the cross to rational and utilitarian formulas. But I’m suspicious of this project. For the most part I find these theories unconvincing. Some theories are merely inadequate, while others are repellent. Especially odious are those theories that ultimately portray God as sharing the petty attributes of the primitive and pagan deities who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. This simply will not do. God is not like Molech!

Unfortunately over the last thousand years the Western Church has drifted into the idea that God required the violent death of his Son in order to satisfy his honor and pay off justice. (A theory that was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church.) In an attempt to explain the cross according to the honor codes of feudalism, the character of God has been viciously maligned. The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God. Above all things the cross, as the definitive moment in Jesus’ life, is the supreme revelation of the very nature of God. At the cross Jesus does not save us from God — at the cross Jesus reveals God as savior! When we look at the cross we don’t see what God does, we see who God is!

The cross is not a picture of payment — the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath — Good Friday is about divine love. Calvary is not where we see how violent God is — Calvary is where we see how violent our civilization is. The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon — the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love.

When the cross is viewed through the theological lens of punishment, God is seen as an inherently violent being who can only be appeased by a violent ritual sacrifice. Those who are formed by this kind of theology harbor a deep-seated fear that God is a menacing deity from which they need to be saved. But is it true?! Is God a vengeful giant whose essential nature requires him to vent his wrath upon sinners with omnipotent fury? Or is God co-suffering love whose very nature is to offer unconditional forgiveness?

A forgiveness-centered view of the cross saves us from a pathological anxiety about God which is so detrimental to the soul. We can now understand that the monster god is our own creation — a monster born of our projected issues of anxiety, anger, and shame. We are the Dr. Frankenstein who created the monster god. The image of a terrifying god is created in the hearts of anxious people. The image of a raging god is born in the hearts of angry people. The image of a condemning god is created in the hearts of ashamed people. Because we are such anxious, angry, and ashamed people, we imagine horrors where we should be seeing salvation. If we persist in looking at the cross through the distorted lens of fear, anger, and shame, we will imagine that the cross is what God does in order to forgive, instead of perceiving the cross as what God endures as he forgives.

Jesus’ entire life was a demonstration of the true nature of God. As Jesus heals the sick, forgives the sinner, receives the outcast, restores the fallen, and supremely as he dies on a cross forgiving his killers, he reveals what God is like. To see Jesus is to see the Father. At last we know that God is not like the thunderbolt-hurling Zeus or any of the other angry gods in the pantheon of terrorized religious imagination. God is like Jesus, nailed to a tree, offering forgiveness.


(The artwork is Red Christ by Lovis Corinth)

  • Elizabeth Jones

    Brian, thank you for putting into words thoughts I have been thinking. With this Holy Week and the concentration on Passion and Crucifixion, I kneel again before the Cross.

    Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

    Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!

    ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;

    I crucified thee.

  • Matthew

    BZ said:

    “Those who are formed by this kind of theology harbor a deep-seated fear
    that God is a menacing deity from which they need to be saved.”

    As a believer in penal substitution as PART of the overall atonement package, although I do think need we need to be saved, I never harbored a deep-seated fear that God is some menacing diety. I always believed what scripture says:

    God IS love.

    Also … without penal substitution, how is this forgiveness credited to the believing human?

  • Bryce Hunt

    Matthew: I think of salvation as God’s rescue and restoration of his creation. By his death, Jesus conquers death, thus lancing our fear, rage, and shame. We who die to self as we renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, then turn to Jesus as our Savior, place our whole trust in his grace and mercy, and vow to obey him as Lord of our lives, are buried with him in baptism, then raised with him to new life. Jesus’ “payment” for our sins is to obliterate Sin, to conquer death which is the wages of Sin, and raise us to new life. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is passing away, behold the new is appearing. All this is from God, who in Christ reconciled us to himself, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-18

  • Matthew


    So do you believe since Jesus obliterated sin this means the believer can be entirely without sin?

    I can gently wrap my head around what you are saying — and I agree with most of it — however penal substitution, for all its problems that BZ clearly points out in his articles, seems to offer a justified and imputed righteousness that no other atonement theory does. As I said in a previous post, PSA seems to me to be the “how” of atonement. Even Greg Boyd (I´m pretty sure) admits that Christus Victor, for all its power, leaves the “how” question wide open. Without the “how”, I fear we are left with a works based religion … something I left behind years ago.

    Thanks so much for engaging with me on this topic Bryce. I think it´s an important one.

  • Skeptical Christian

    Salvation isn’t a legal transaction. A forensic aspect of it is forgiveness, which is pronounced. It is forensic because sin is not assumed and healed by Christ, it is forgiven and washed away in baptism. But our main problem is death. Christ tramples down death by his death, because he assumes and heals our human nature and dies with that humanity united to his divinity which results in resurrection of all flesh.

  • Matthew

    Thanks Darrin.

    Do you think your view of atonement and salvation accomplishes what penal substitution does without all the negative “stuff” that BZ points out in his articles and that is typically associated with PSA?

  • Skeptical Christian

    Well, I haven’t read many of Brian’s articles but follow him on Twitter, but I know there can never be separation or division in the Trinity, as they share one will in their one Nature, so the Father isn’t being placated as the Son is accomplishing the Trinity’s shared love and rescue operation, nor is Christ rejected by the Father. Christ is also recapitulating Adam, Israel, human nature and the whole cosmos, bringing back together the created and uncreated, for this is not merely the salvation of persons.

  • Gerald Lewis

    I still struggle with the “desire” to carry out my own brand of justice. Especially when the offense to myself or others is blatantly obvious. “God is like Jesus, nailed to a tree, offering forgiveness,” remains my only constant. My north pointing arrow, so to speak. Nothing has helped me love my enemies more than Christ Crucified, absorbing violence and offering forgiveness.

  • charlesburchfield

    I heard it said on another blog I follow that Jesus is first not instead of.

  • John Glass

    Hi, Brian…thanks for this post and many others. I would like to read more about the Eastern Church’s theory of the crucifiction. Might you point me to some resources or sources I could read? Thanks much!

  • Bruce

    Zechariah 12:10 They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn him as one mourns for an only child.
    Speaking of ‘me” (must be God the Father) and mourning for “him” (must be Jesus). The Father and Holy Spirit were on the cross with Jesus and they all loved us.

  • I wonder if some of the issue with PSA is that God becomes subservient to something else. He wants to forgive but cannot, he wants to show grace but cannot, at least not until a price is paid. It diminishes and removes his power. Despite all his wants, loves and grace he wishes to share he cannot. While He may be loving, he cannot share his love until payment is rendered in PSA. At least it’s hard to see past it.

  • Matthew

    I really have no problem dumping PSA into the rubbish bin IF without it believers still receive its promises through the work of the cross in other
    ways — i.e. Christus Victor

    Can we receive the righteousness without articulating the actual transaction?

  • The transaction as you put it seems clear. We repent, God forgives. The question for me of PSA is did God need to blood to be able to forgive? It’s like my kids and many before them have asked “why do I need to forgive but God couldn’t?” He could always forgive and didn’t need his son to die to allow him to.

  • Here is a healthy and theologically sound way of viewing the cross—a way that doesn’t do violence to the Trinity by imagining the Father as punishing the Son.

    “The Father supports the cross and the crucified, bends lovingly over him and the two are, as it were, together on the cross. So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God’s mercy means, what the participation of God in man’s suffering means. It is not a matter of a cruel justice, not a matter of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love.”
    –Pope Benedict XVI

  • Matthew

    Good question Philip.

    I suppose even without PSA Christ’s blood was still shed (even if at the hands of humans). If God didn’t need blood to forgive, then why did God allow Calvary to take place? God could have allowed Jesus to die in a much more humane way … no?

  • “The Father supports the cross and the crucified, bends lovingly over him and the two are, as it were, together on the cross.”

    Yes, beautiful, but at some point the two are not together: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    I agree with the heart of your post, but it almost reads like the forgiveness on the cross is only in response to the cruelty that is being inflicted on Him by man (which it was, I definitely don’t believe it was inflicted on Him by His Father) at that moment. Rather than according to a divine plan that was first spoken of in Genesis 3 and which was fleshed out by the prophets. An ages old plan, the culmination of which caused Jesus to plead, “Father if there is any other way..”

    It was their plan… their joint project to redeem mankind… The Father was not punishing the Son, the Father and Son were working together to defeat death…

  • I think that gets are more the point the Pastor Zahnd is trying to make in this post. Calvary is not what PSA has shown it to be.

    There are loads of theories about what it meant and why it was how it was. No one knows for sure, I just know that I will leave those that paint God as anything other than loving. When he is shown as some kind of monster or worse not powerful enough to make a choice, like to forgive, I tend to leave those theories.

    It could be to display power over death, it could be to show the depth of of our own brokenness, the power of love and sacrifice over violence, to show what grace and love truly look like, to show forgiveness, it could be all those and more.

    I just struggle with the idea that it ALLOWS God to forgive, that he was impotent to do what he wanted until he killed his own son.