The central motif in Christianity from its inception is the Cross of Jesus Christ. That is why each of the four Gospels in the bible culminates with this important event. Anglican preacher and theologian, Fleming Rutledge says, the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. Yet in many mainline churches the crucifixion is glaringly absence in it’s preaching. This may be why in many Protestant Churches Good Friday services are poorly attended. The lack of attention to the crucifixion was also a problem for the early Church as we see evidenced in Paul writings to the Corinthians and Galatians. The natural question to ask then is why?
For an answer let’s consider the challenges Paul faced regarding the message of the cross in the Church of Corinth. There was a group of people in this Church that claimed a particular privileged position. It believed that only they had the spiritual insights into the way of salvation because they had a sort of direct route to God’s wisdom. They were the first Gnostics (a common heresy), a group of people who claimed to know things that others do not know. Paul had a problem with this group on two fronts. One, in light of the cross, no one group or person can claim to have particular privileged insights into Christian understanding because the cross makes foolish the wisdom of the world. Second, although everyone may have access to the knowledge and understanding the gospel through Christ, there are limits to that knowledge. As Paul says in 1Cor. 8.1-3, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet known as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him’. In just three sentences, Paul does two things: (1) He shifts the emphasis in the Christian faith from knowledge to agape or love, and (2) he reverses the direction of knowing. It is God who has knowledge of us, through love. Thus we should be humbled in whatever God, by his mercy, reveals to us.
Despite Paul’s teachings Gnosticism is alive and well today. In fact virtually all religions today are Gnostic. The religiosity of North America that emphasizes individual spiritual experiences and consequently, lacks interest in human struggle for justice and dignity is a prime example. The great Eastern faiths have many Gnostic tendencies, with rigorous spiritual disciplines for the elite and popular, undemanding rituals like prayer wheels, amulets, and idols for the masses. Many versions of Buddhism so popular today in the West are actually types of Gnostic spirituality. Even yoga falls under this category!
Why are these Gnostic religions popular today? Theologian Gustav Niebuhr in an interview with the New York Times said the reason why they are popular today is because ‘we all desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering’. Furthermore, Gnosticism is in tune with today’s North American attitudes. It seems to offer greater openness and flexibility to those who experience Christian orthodoxy as rigid and more welcoming to free spirits and those who are antiestablishment. It offers a selection of spiritual paths to follow yet without restrictive dogma. As a result, many Christians, including its leaders and teachers, have drawn back from classical Christian teaching and so allow Gnostic teachings to have their way.
I’ve spent a considerable time on Gnosticism because it prevents us from understanding the biblical witness to the crucifixion, in particular its reference to suffering. Consider Paul’s description of the cruciform life he calls Church leaders to live: ‘We [apostles] are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us [apostles}, but life in you [Christians]’ (1Cor. 4.8-12).
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall speaks of the crucifixion as a conquest from within the human condition, particularly emphasizing the human condition of pain, limitation, abandonment, and despair. He calls for the church to understand itself as a community of the cross, the community that suffers with compassion that is willing to bear the stigma of the passion of service to others. He goes on to declare that ‘the basic distinction between religion and Christian faith is the propensity of religions to avoid suffering: to have light without darkness, vision without trust and risk, hope without ongoing dialogue with despair – in short, Easter without Good Friday.
But why should we want to avoid Gnostic influences on our thinking about the cross? Who wants to suffer anyways? First, only the cross can eliminate elitism. The cross of Jesus is the great equalizer. It undermines any notion that any of us has any special insights of understanding or can stand on high moral ground. All of us sin and thus all of us need God’s grace. Second, only the cross cares about our earthly existence. Because Gnosticism is focused on heightened spiritual awareness, the physical realm is inevitably insignificant, which includes the environment, the proper use of our bodies, and the need for justice and care for one another. Gnosticism is singularly individualistic whereas the cross seeks out the welfare of everyone and all of creation. Lastly, without the cross there can be no salvation. The inward search for happiness and peace cannot deal with the injustices, sin and evil committed by us all in this world. Something concrete needed to be done. Things needed to be put right and a ransom needed to be paid to do that. Only the crucifixion of the Man-God, Jesus Christ could do that. Gnosticism or today’s religions may offer us some temporary relief from our personal/world’s problems. But only the Son of God who became a man and suffered a slave’s death on a cross can save us.
 The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 44.
 Gustav Niebuhr, “For the Discontented, a Message of Hope,” New York Times, August 14, 1999.
 Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989).