MODERN MEN REGARD the Incarnation and the Atonement differently. They may believe in neither, but they would like to accept the Incarnation. They are attracted by the story of the little baby born in Bethlehem and the “peace on earth, good will toward men” that they link with his birth. They enjoy the traditional Christmas and would relish a historical basis for it.

But the Cross is different. They can accept this in the sense that a certain Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion early in the first century. But if this is seen as anything more than the execution of an innocent man who died heroically, they will have none of it. When Christians talk about the Atonement they are simply repelled. They do not see how the death of a man in first-century Palestine can possibly have any effect now. And they do not want to see. The thought that a modern person’s salvation depends on the blood that flowed so long ago they find simply repulsive. There is nothing beautiful about the cross as there is about the Christmas story. So people reject it. And in rejecting it they reject the heart of Christianity.

Before the modern difficulty arose, the centrality of the Cross was so widely recognized that it influenced our language. We use the noun “crux” and the adjective “crucial” without stopping to think that the former is simply the Latin word for “cross” and the latter a derivative of the same word. Whenever we say “The crux of the matter is this,” or “That is the crucial point,” what we are really saying is, “Just as the cross is central to Christianity, so this point is central to my argument.”

This is not simply a habit of speech but a reflection of the New Testament. There the Cross dominates the whole. It occupies a disproportionate ...

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