I don’t think I even glimpsed the meaning of the cross until I read the Harry Potter books.
I first read the series in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. At the time I was only vaguely aware that the author was a Christian woman; I was just looking for an enjoyable story and trying to explain some of the mysterious things that were happening in my life. Not being able to find the answers in the usual places, I took refuge in fantasy.
Books one, two, and three were pretty good; but four and five were electrifying. I loved the progression of Harry’s character from an innocent, young orphan suddenly thrust into a strange and chaotic new world to an emotionally tormented, temperamental teenager who at the end of one novel narrowly escapes being tortured and murdered, and in the next one has to contend with the fact that the whole Wizarding world thinks he’s crazy (or a liar) and the Ministry of Magic’s increasingly sinister attempts to silence his voice.
Book five was and remains my favorite, partially because it’s the most vividly and beautifully rendered, the most like being at an actual school, but also, I confess, because it’s the one where Harry is beaten into a fine mess. His teacher tortures him, his classmates won’t speak to him, Dumbledore is ignoring him, people are dying all over, and he can’t play Quidditch. That final scene where he finally loses it and destroys the headmaster’s office was a triumph of devastation. “My only defense,” says Dumbledore, “is this: I have watched you struggling with more burdens than any student who has ever passed through this school, and I could not bring myself to add another—the greatest one of all.”
It was because of moments like this one, because of the inescapable aura of gloom that was slowly settling over the series and its young hero, that I felt drawn to Harry in his sufferings. I felt I could relate to him on a profound level, though I struggled for years to explain exactly how.
But over time I began to notice a pattern: the fourth movie was my favorite of all the movies, and the one that most powerfully and eerily depicted the traumas of being Harry. Likewise my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings was Frodo, and my favorite of the three movies was The Two Towers—that moment, in particular, where he stands on the terrace at Osgiliath and offers the ring to the Lord of the Nazgul, Sam rushing to help him, but almost too late.
Only later did I discover that this kind of character is an archetype in literature, “the Woobie,” that authors include them in stories to allow readers to experience vicarious relief from their own suffering by fantasizing about helping them, and that at least one of the world’s major religions is built around it. At this point my relationship with the Woobie was still subtle, only half-understood, and more literary than real, but once I knew what it was I began to see it in all my preferred forms of media: in the book of Job, which I read religiously, in the Bourne trilogy which serves mostly as a way of finding new and ever-more ingenious ways of tormenting Matt Damon’s character, in the song that played at the end of each movie that Betania* would always get up and dance to, “Extreme Ways” by Moby (the video at the top of this post, by the way, is exceptional):
“Extreme sounds that told me
They helped me down every night
I didn’t have much to say
I didn’t give up the light
I closed my eyes and closed myself and closed my world
And never opened up to anything
That could get me along
“I had to close down everything
I had to close down my mind
Too many things could cut me
Too much could make me blind
I’ve seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn’t even believe…”
Or those terrible lines from T. S. Eliot:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.
When I tried to explain my feeling to Tyler, he of course brushed it off. He said I was being melancholy, and it was a sin to be melancholy. He suggested that I was trying to turn myself into a tragic hero. Once when I accidentally filibustered a house meeting by reading the entire third chapter of Lamentations (“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath”), he asked me to hand over my Bible and forbade me from reading it again for the rest of the summer.
I hadn’t yet gotten to the point of seeing the suffering servant in the pages of the New Testament. But I would soon endure a series of events that changed my perspective.
First, Tyler’s group became flagrantly malevolent and I found myself being scapegoated not just subtly (as I had been for about a year), but openly. Second, shortly after I left the Group and just a few months into their marriage Betania* died under mysterious circumstances and one of our friends, Micah, came forward with a bizarre story about killing her under pressure from Tyler.
Intuitively, as I struggled to process that whole experience of being in the Group and the meaning of Betania’s death, I began to sense the purpose of the cross.
What I’m about to say is controversial and unpopular in some circles, especially in churches that believe they have the right answers to every question. But I worry that we may have created a system of theology around the cross that has emptied it of all meaning.
It is widely taught in legalistic churches that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to pacify the wrath of God. You see, all human beings are depraved and deserve to spend an eternity in the searing hot fires of hell. Because God is holy, He would not be righteous unless He poured out His wrath on us in our sinfulness. However, Jesus offered Himself in our place. He was tormented by God instead of us. He bore the wrath of God in our place.
This is called “penal substitutionary atonement,” or the idea that Jesus’ death was a kind of cosmic transaction in which, having undergone the full fury of God’s wrath, He was able to make atonement for our sins so that we would never see hell. All our sins were placed onto Jesus and if we believe in Him, His righteousness will be imputed to us. This doesn’t actually make us righteous, but it makes us appear righteous so that when God looks at us, He sees us covered in the blood of Jesus and no longer wants to destroy us.
Micah once explained it to a friend of ours, Veronica,* like this. “God can’t tolerate sin,” he said, “not even a little bit. God is so pure, and we are so sinful, the only way we can even go near Him is because of Jesus. Without Jesus, God can’t even look at us.”
(“I felt a little shiver of apprehension,” Veronica* would later recall. “This wasn’t a God I had ever heard of, and I wasn’t at all sure I liked him.”)
Now, having grown up under this teaching I understand what a radical departure it can seem from the true faith when someone comes along and contests its orthodoxy. But while I believe that in some mysterious way the death of Jesus has made a way for broken humanity to be reconciled with God, while I believe that the events of the last week of His life initiated the redemption of the whole cosmos, I feel equally confident in saying that Jesus did not quench the wrath of the Father, that such an idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible, and that the practical implications of such teaching on the character of God are abusive and destructive.
For one thing, given that these doctrines are usually framed in terms of “the Father” taking out His wrath “on His only Son” (notice there are only men in this relationship!), it’s no wonder that many Protestant churches are islands of patriarchal, woman-hating, child-abusing oppression. Statistical evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that child abuse is endemic in fundamentalist Protestantism, and this is one of the reasons: because we believe in a God who is Himself a child abuser.
But ironically, the second major problem with this “theology of wrath” is that it shields us from having to look at the cross.
When I believe that the central event of the Christian faith was a cosmic transaction “offering up a weak, poor lamb to appease an angry God,” I don’t feel an obligation to think much about it. I’ve heard multiple preachers and teachers say, within the last couple of weeks, “The cross is important to us because it saved us from the wrath, we’re grateful for it, it paid for our sins, but it’s the resurrection that we need to be focused on because that’s where we become conquerors who walk in victory over sin.”
And I’m sorry, I love the resurrection as much as the next person, but given all that I’ve been through in the last couple of years, I just can’t buy this anymore.
The death of Jesus is inexpressibly important and comforting because it means that a horrible, incomprehensible event like Betania’s death hasn’t been passed over lightly by God. It means that I and her best friends and her family aren’t alone in being shocked and appalled by the brutal ways she was systematically dehumanized, alienated from anyone who might have been able to help her, shunned by the rest of her group in the weeks after her marriage, and ultimately murdered. It means that when one of us asks, “Where was God in this?” He can truthfully say He was right there beside us. It means I can place my trust in a God who “offered up prayers . . . with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death,” a God who was terrified, a God who was beaten, a God who was dragged through the streets.
It means that God is not finally a punisher, but a sufferer. It means that I have, in the cross, the ultimate self-revelation of God’s character as one who was willing to be human, willing to die, willing to share with us in the most tortuous aspects of the human experience by being a criminal and dying a miserable, lonely death.
It means that when I read those frightening passages where God orders the slaughter of whole nations, I can recognize that they were “shadows” of what was to come, but the fullness is Christ (Col. 2:17). It means that I don’t have to view the Holocaust as entirely or primarily a punishment for the Jews’ unbelief, but as a mystical participation in the suffering of someone whose own suffering knew no limits.
It means my faith is in a God who “felt the worst of death’s destroying wound,” and “lay full low, grav’d in the hollow ground.”
I’ll be honest: I get worried when I hear people going on about the depravity of all unbelievers, the evils of this world, and the hope of Jesus’ soon return to annihilate the nations with a literal sword in His hand if the cross is not central to their life and teaching. Because when they paint Him in those terms He doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus who refused to take up arms against His enemies and spent His final hours bleeding to death in public view. He sounds like the opposite of that Jesus. He sounds like an anti-Jesus.
But it wasn’t until, last night at a friend’s birthday party, I came across a copy of Jurgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God that I finally found words to express why it bothers me so much.
Moltmann was a German fighter pilot during World War II and spent the last months of the war in an Allied prison camp. After being confronted with the atrocities the Germans were inflicting on the Jews, he found himself drawn to the Christian faith—though he claimed his remorse was so great, he would rather have died than have to live and face up to what his country had done. After the war, he became prominent among a new wave of theologians who were seeking to make sense of their faith in light of the Holocaust because, as he put it, a theology that does not speak from the perspective of the afflicted and crucified no longer has anything to say to us.
Moltmann, like Luther before him, distinguishes between the “theology of glory” and the “theology of the cross.” This is how he explains the difference between the two:
“‘[Luther said], ‘The theologian of glory calls the bad good and the good bad; the theologian of the cross calls things by their right name.’
“The theologian of glory, and that is the natural man, who is incurably religious, hates the cross with a passion. He seeks works and success and therefore regards the knowledge of an almighty God who is always at work as being glorious and uplifting. But the theologian of the cross, and that is the believer, comes to knowledge of himself where he knows God in his despised humanity, and calls human things by their real names . . . as they are accepted by the boundless suffering love of God.”
And after I had read that, I realized, “I think I know more Christians who are offended by the cross than unbelievers.”
Not many people are converted to the love of this person and His ways in a moment. For me it was a very gradual process. In the same way God had permitted the snake to be raised up on a pole in the wilderness for the healing of the Israelites, I moved through a long succession of fascinations with characters like Jason Bourne, Harry, and especially Frodo who always seemed to be suffering terrible things with no explanation. I couldn’t have realized, until after it was too late to do anything about it, that I knew a real person whose misfortunes would rival and come to surpass even theirs.
“God lived as fully human,” said Veronica, “even dying a cruel death the way some humans are forced to. You’d been seeing Jesus as Tyler in your life theology, but Jesus actually played the role of Betania.”
 Hebrews 5:7
 St. Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who perished in the fires of Auschwitz, had this to say: “I understood the Cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf . . . Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s people.”