What’s Wrong with the World

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The scandal of the cross

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

I Corinthians 1:22-24

Several months ago, my Irish friend David Glass drew my attention to an additional argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which I had not previously given sufficient consideration--the argument from the scandal of the cross.

'Twould be time-consuming to relate all the verses in which the Apostle Paul glorifies, glories in, and declares salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. The above is only one. Galatians 6:14 is another.

This is really rather remarkable, when you think of it. In Jewish thought, based on Deut. 21:23, being crucified indicated that one was cursed of God. The Romans and pagans thought of crucifixion as a shameful thing as well. These were not, it must be emphasized, cultures that revered the underdog or the anti-hero (more about that below). Yet the Christians identified with the cross of Christ. Baptism itself was a symbol of the believer's death (followed by resurrection) with Christ.

It simply will not do as an explanation for this to say that the early believers venerated and revered Jesus and made up some cockamamy story about salvation from sin through his death and the glory of his cross because they thought so highly of him. That isn't the kind of thing they would normally be expected to do at all. Venerating and praying at his tomb, very plausibly. Distancing themselves from him out of fear for their own skins, even moreso. (See St. Peter's denials.) But glorying in the cross? Not a chance.

The cross was a scandal, a stumblingblock. In fact, we find in the dialogue between Justin Martyr and Trypho that the curse on anyone who hangs on a tree was a sticking point in Christian witness to the Jews in the second century.

It's interesting to realize how anachronistically people approach the Christian attitude toward Jesus' death. Skeptics do it, and we Christians let them get away with it. In our own time, all sorts of causes, secular as well as religious, make vigorous use of martyrs (or "martyrs"). Anyone who is killed and whose death can be appropriated for a cause becomes a kind of posthumous hero, so that assassinating a politician is usually a sure way of making sure that he is venerated and that his name is used as a talisman. Anti-heroes and noble victims are all the rage for modern and postmodern man.

When skeptics talk about the disciples immediately after Jesus' death, they may refer to them as "revering their dead rabbi" or words to that effect. To the modern mind there is nothing particularly strange in the theory that Jesus' followers should have dreamed up out of whole cloth the idea that their crucified rabbi was God or at least was in heaven with God and could save them from their sins by belief in his name and by the power of his death. But this is projecting our own attitudes onto the first century.

And in fact, based just on the sober account in, say, Luke followed by Acts of the disciples' actions, Jesus' death did not motivate the disciples in any such way. The cross was not, all by itself, some sort of glorious symbol to them of the significance of Jesus. On the contrary, they themselves indicated that it was because of his resurrection that they preached forgiveness of sins through his name. It was because, on their view, God the Father had vindicated Jesus of Nazareth by raising him from the dead that Jesus of Nazareth was to be worshipped and that his death had saving significance. It was only because of this belief that Paul gloried in the cross. The belief that Jesus was vindicated by a resurrection miracle performed by God the Father is a much better explanation for the disciples' embracing and glorying in the cross than any alternative explanation that involves their not believing that he was raised up from the dead. Hence, if there is no plausible way that they could have come to believe this as firmly as they did without Jesus' actually being raised from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the fact that Christians, following the example and teaching of the Apostles, are not ashamed of the cross of Christ.

Comments (8)

Bishop N.T. Wright in the third published volume of his People of God series where he argues for the resurrection of Jesus as the most plausible explanation for the historical facts makes mention several times of the "scandal of the cross" to buttress his argument. In fact, the entire series seeks to re-establish the context of Second Temple Judaism so that us moderns can better understand Jesus's ministry, His life and His death.

St. Athanasius, in his treatise on the incarnation argued for the divinity of Christ because compared to all the heroes in Greco-Roman consciousness (there was no shortage of them for the Greeks) it is only Christ who, after suffering an ignominious death, came back to life of his own power. And that no other hero had power over death.

This is kind of your argument in reverse, but I guess back then people were more accepting of the supernatural (and even then, Christ's resurrection was thought to be impossible).

I just finished listening to a debate between William Lane Craig and Stephen Law on the existence of God, in which Craig uses the Resurrection as one of his proofs for God. He doesn't go into total detail, as it was only one element of his presentation and he didn't have sufficient time. One point struck me, though: Law came back at this argument as the Resurrection being one more of the oddities, puzzlements, and wonders that we rightly don't think we can explain fully, and our proper attitude with respect to 99.99% of these "we don't know how to explain these" events is not "so it must have been a miracle" but rather when we understand the world better we will have a better shot at explaining this - a kind of explanative humility about our current abilities.

What Craig might have responded was that this attitude is suitable with respect to some, most, nearly all of the oddities that we see and can't explain, but not all of them. Law's desired approach would preclude accepting ANY miracles, as being impossible for us to accept as miracles, it would formally preclude such acceptance but not on grounds that we cannot come up with an explanation, rather on the grounds that we haven't waited long enough for a naturalist explanation. It is a formal presumption that natural explanations, including ones that haven't yet been discovered, are to be preferred over supernatural ones. But for some events, given the totality of the circumstances, the explanation "God intervened" is actually more reasonable, more defensible as explanation, than "some series of unrecognized incidental causes brought this about which, if we wait long enough, may eventually come to light".

Not all unexplainable things are unexplainable in the same sense, are begging for explanation with the same imposition. For example, when you have a prediction of a unique, un-heard-of event, before the event, and it comes to pass in just the manner the prediction says, you cannot dismiss the situation as just another oddity, it has a qualitative difference. Even if the miraculous wonder on its own seems qualitatively similar to the unexplained flying object that zoomed back and forth across the sky 2 weeks ago, the prediction of it puts it in another class. God buttresses his biggest miracles with a full basket of proofs: the wonder-worker's life is a model of selflessness who gains nothing (worldly) by the event, there are prophecies beforehand, there are multiple attestors, and so on.

Thank you for this excellent post. One more arrow for my apologetics quiver.

Tony, I completely agree. The Laws of the world try to force the Christian argument into a mere "god of the gaps" form because that strawman makes them more comfortable. They pretend that they don't understand that what is going on is an inference to the best explanation, and not all "surprising" or "unusual" things are best explained as purely natural events that just happened for some odd and anomalous, pointless reason. By using the fuzzy reference class of "odd events" they deliberately obscure evidence that confirms the explanation of an intelligent divine intervention--such as, as you say, prophecy.

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