The Crucifixion has been a problem from the beginning—from devout religionists (Jews and Gentiles) who found the idea of a crucified messiah scandalous, to fans of the late Christopher Hitchens, who said, “I find something repulsive about the idea of vicarious redemption.” Whether it’s the bloody method of death or the theological meaning of the Atonement, even Christians are tempted to give the Crucifixion its due and move briskly to talk about the hope of the Resurrection. It is so much more life affirming!

Not so fast, says Fleming Rutledge. A retired Episcopal priest who spent 22 years in local church ministry, Rutledge is recognized as an outstanding preacher and a teacher of other preachers. She’s also a theologian, as her latest work attests.

The book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans), attempts to resurrect (as it were) the centrality and necessity of preaching the Cross. She argues this is especially urgent in an age of unmitigated evils, which she says only the Cross can explain and redeem. She was interviewed by Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today.

Image: Photo by Mike Marques

Why write a book about the Crucifixion today, especially in a time when many prefer to focus on the hope of the Resurrection?

Two reasons. One is that Paul says, “I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Yet the preaching on Jesus’ death on the cross seems to have been sidelined today. I have been very dismayed by this for decades.

Second, I believe, along with others, that the problem of evil and suffering is the central conundrum of Christian theology. Philip Yancey calls it “the question that will not go away.” We have just lived through a century of genocide. We have entered a new century of terrorism. And to act as though simply talking about resurrection is adequate to the horrors of our time is irresponsible. And it is untrue to what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. I believe that the Crucifixion specifically discloses what God has done and will do about radical evil.

Why is there so little preaching and teaching on the Crucifixion today?

It’s complex, but I identify two reasons. The first is an almost wholesale retreat from the penal substitution theory, which was an unfortunate development in late 18th- and early 19th-century Protestantism. It held the field for a while, especially in evangelical circles. It was overwrought and overly rationalized and taught in a way that sabotaged the unity of the Trinity [as if the Son were placating the wrath of the Father]. It is not in the spirit of the Passion narratives.

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Second, people don’t want to hear about sin, suffering, evil, or judgment. The African American church has something to teach us here. They’re not afraid to talk about judgment. People who have suffered under tyrannical, cruel, brutal regimes understand the need for judgment.

American Christianity, as Richard Niebuhr pointed out long ago, has tended to preach a gospel without judgment and a Christ without a cross. This is an old problem. We want to be happy. We want to be positive. We want to overlook the almost unbelievable problems we face today. Yet this is not the case for the poorest of the poor. They know there’s a need for judgment and for a heavenly deliverer.

You downplay penal substitution but not substitutionary atonement altogether. Why?

You’re correct about substitution. I certainly argue that the theme of Jesus substituting himself, the innocent one, for us the guilty must not be allowed to be lost.

Does judgment involve punishment? Well, maybe. We certainly think of it that way in our courtrooms. But I don’t hear much in the Old Testament about punishment. I hear a great deal about judgment. In Isaiah, we read that the chastisement was laid upon him, yes. It’s imaginative, though. We’re not asked to imagine punishment. We’re asked to imagine this miraculous thing that is happening in the gift of the Servant, who is being put to death. I argue that the horrible death envisioned for the Suffering Servant and the horrific death suffered by Jesus Christ respond to the gravity of sin. Sin must be judged by a righteous God. That is our hope.

What greater hope is there than to know that God will judge and redeem? He will judge us for all that we have done that is wrong, and he will redeem us from it. Who really wants to deny that there is something wrong with us and with the world that needs to be put right? That is the theme, not punishment per se. It’s the need for redemption out of all that is wrong.

That’s why the word justification is so important, because justification, or rectification as some prefer now, means God is setting right all that has been wrong.

You think justification is the most radical of ideas. Why?

The great biblical scholar F. F. Bruce was asked what being evangelical meant. He said it means nothing more and nothing less than the justification of the ungodly. I want to make that the centerpiece of my argument wherever I go—the justification of the ungodly.

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This differentiates Christian faith from religion in general, because religion in general has as its purpose to create godly people. Godliness is the goal. But twice, Paul refers to the justification of the ungodly, which is the most irreligious thing that’s ever been said. It cuts against religion. We cannot achieve our own godliness. It must be given to us, and it has been given to us in this unrepeatable, world-overturning act of invasion of this satanic-occupied territory by the Son of God himself.

So you don’t believe the Cross is just a declaration of our righteousness.

It’s not an amnesty. This is why I talk about the inadequacy of forgiveness as a theme. God is not going to just forgive sin; he is going to do something about it. The sin, the error, the evil is to be wiped out and erased from memory. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. This calls for a much stronger word than forgiveness. Reginald Fuller, an important New Testament scholar from England, said more than once in my hearing, “Forgiveness is too weak a word.”

Are we mistaken to think that New Testament writers, when they sum up the gospel, often use the word forgiveness to do so?

We have to be careful about that. Luke does that, but Paul does not.

The Gospel of Luke is justifiably beloved. We would be terribly impoverished without it. But at the same time, Paul needs to be the lens through which we read Luke and not the other way around, because Paul is more radical. Luke has, essentially, a gospel of repentance and forgiveness, but Paul conspicuously does not construe the gospel that way.

The horrible death envisioned for the Suffering Servant and the horrific death suffered by Jesus Christ respond to the gravity of sin.

It is not accidental that Paul does not speak of forgiveness or repentance in any significant way. He chooses this other word—justification—which includes within it forgiveness as a Christian quality, a Christian act. It is a Christian act to forgive. That’s clear. But the word repentance, which is definitely missing from Paul, is even more striking. The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us. The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace. I love the word prevenient, “going before.”

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Paul interprets the four Gospels for us in a way that we would not have been able to do for ourselves.

You also call for more emphasis on the blood of Christ, as well as the brutal method of his death. Why?

Isn’t it curious that the Son of God would die in this particular way? Even Paul was permitted a nice, neat slice of the sword. Why did the Son of God die in the worst possible way? That’s the point here. Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the worst of the worst. It was so bad, good Roman citizens didn’t discuss it in public. It’s very much like the way we avoid talking about death and sin. The Romans avoided talking about crucifixion because it was so horrible, so disgusting, so obscene—they used that word to describe it.

Why this method and not another? Because it corresponds to the depth of depravity caused by human rebellion against God. It shows us just how bad things really are with us. No wonder we don’t want to look at it. Yet again, the African American church has never been afraid to look at it. It gives them hope. It gives them strength. It gives them comfort.

As for the blood: It is important because it’s mentioned so much in Scripture. It’s a synecdoche, a word that stands for the whole thing. When you say “the blood of Christ,” you mean his self-offering, his death, the horror of it, the pouring out of it. It sums up the whole thing.

And it’s not just a metaphor; he really did shed blood when he was scourged. He was a bloody mess. I remember one line from an article by a secular journalist. Concerning the crucifixion of Jesus, he wrote, “He must have been ghastly to behold.” That’s a great sentence.

And note his use of the word behold, which in Scripture is a word of revelation. We should ponder this ghastly spectacle. We see the Creator of the world, by whom all things were made, giving up not only his life but also his position as ruler of the universe and Lord of all that exists, suffering something degrading, dehumanizing, and shameful—“despising the shame,” Hebrews says—for our redemption.

The other day I heard about a woman who said, “My pastor says that preaching the Cross is not a good tool for church growth.” That sums up what’s wrong—we believe preaching the gospel is a tool. The object is church growth, and we’re supposed to find tools to grow our churches, as if the death of our Lord were a tool. It really is too ridiculous.

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You argue that the judgment should have a more prominent place in our preaching and teaching. How do we do that without sounding like hellfire and brimstone Christians?

Judgment in the Scriptures is always embraced by the Good News. People might point to this or that passage where judgment seems to be the last word, but it’s never the last word. The first word and the last word are always the goodness, graciousness, and righteousness of God. Judgment is always closed by, preceded by, accompanied by, and followed by the grace of God. That’s how preaching should be done.

When I was a child, we said the general confession, which had the lines “There is no health in us” and “We are miserable offenders.” I never felt oppressed by that. The prayer was clearly oriented in a direction of hope and redemption. That’s why we were saying it. We were saying it in the context of utter and complete safety. Only the person who is completely safe can understand that judgment is good news.

You talk about oppressed people looking forward to the judgment. But one senses that they look forward to it because those who oppress them will be judged.

That’s an important point. [Civil rights activist] Will Campbell reminded us that those who wish to be judges will also be the judged. During the civil rights era, he was the only prominent person who went back and forth between the black community and the Ku Klux Klan, showing in a very radical way the justification of the ungodly, the God who makes no distinctions. The God who is able to redeem even such a person as you or me.

I was walking down the street with Campbell once. I was young then, and I said in this lofty way, “My father was a racist.” And Will said, “Fleming, we’re all racists.”

His way of ministering to the Ku Klux Klan was to be alongside them. He sat with Sam Bowers during his trial. If there was an evil person, Sam Bowers was an evil person. He admitted that he had a great deal of difficulty sitting by Sam Bowers, but he did it as a witness to the justification of the ungodly.

If God justifies the ungodly, doesn’t that mean we should be nice to evil people and assume they are justified?

It depends on what you mean by nice. I believe evil should be denounced wherever it occurs, particularly in myself. But it should be denounced in the knowledge that the denunciation is penultimate and that there is a real promise of ultimate redemption.

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Now does that lead to universalism? I don’t think we can do that, because the Bible does not do that. There are hints in a few places—in Isaiah, particularly in Paul, a couple of places in Revelation—that God has the power and the will to extend his redemption to people whom we would not consider worthy. But to say God’s going to redeem everybody in the end is much too wishy-washy.

Theologians agree that we see a variety of metaphors for the Atonement in Scripture, but each tends to emphasize one or another. What is your view?

If I were pushed, I would want to combine ChristusVictor [the emphasis on Christ defeating Satan] with recapitulation. The idea in Romans 5 that Christ recapitulated in himself the entire life of the human race (Adam)—that sums up all of the different images. In doing so, he won the victory over everything that would destroy us. Still, I do not want to let go of substitution. I want to emphasize that Christ was victorious in our place and on our behalf.

You also call for a return to the apocalyptic interpretation of the Atonement. What do you mean by that, and why is it important?

Judgment is always closed by, preceded by, accompanied by, and followed by the grace of God.

Those in the apocalyptic school of biblical interpretation, if you want to call it that, share a common commitment to a worldview, which Jesus apparently had, in which there are three active agencies—God, human beings, and the Enemy. Most preachers in the mainline talk as if there are only two agents—God and human beings. In parts of the conservative evangelical world, the Enemy is construed in a rather simplistic way, often having very little to do with world movements but only with individual human temptation.

Jesus comes knowing the entire world is in the grip of a demonic power, an enemy of God’s purposes. He knows that this Enemy will oppose him at every turn. He knows he will have to come to an apocalyptic confrontation with this Enemy, that he will have to grapple with it, suffer from it, die under its power, and then conquer it.

It’s important mainly because it’s in the New Testament. But it also gives us language to talk about the world. In my book, I quote secular scholars who admit that we are at a bit of a loss about how to talk about radical evil if we do not have a concept of an active, personal intelligence set against God.

An apocalyptic interpretation is exactly what we need, because it takes so seriously the situation we find ourselves in—wars and rumors of wars. If I believe my personal struggles are part of a great and mighty cosmic work of God, that gives me hope and courage and strength. My little contribution to the battle against Satan and all his works means something. It’s part of my discipleship. Writing or saying something to combat the dreadful mood in our country right now, the demonizing of everybody and everything—even the smallest statement or action taken against that is the work of the end time.

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We have seen the end time in Jesus Christ. The love of God cannot be defeated. That’s what we see in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. If you just have the Resurrection, then you have no sense of anything being defeated. You have no sense of Jesus having taken anything on. In the Crucifixion, Jesus has taken on everything satanic, everything evil, everything demonic, everything sinful, everything wrong. In the Resurrection we see that he has been vindicated and that his victory is complete.

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