The cross is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. Jesus’ horrific death on a Roman cross in the Judean province of the Roman Empire some 2,000 years ago is, without exaggeration, the watershed event of human history. While the sophisticated snobbery of some modern critics may scoff at such a notion, Christians judge history before and after from the momentous death of a first-century Galilean Jew. In light of the cataclysmic shift that occurred the day Jesus died, the Apostle Paul makes his desire known:
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2, my emphasis).
To be followers of Jesus is to be a Jesus-people. And to be Jesus-people is to be a cross-people.
And yet there are many misunderstandings about the cross.
4 Popular Misunderstandings of the Cross
I asked around for some of the popular-level misplaced statements people make when they reflect on the cross. Each of these misunderstandings of the cross are rooted in one atonement theory or another. The historical debates over atonement theories have been well-documented. My goal isn’t to offer a substantive critique of atonement theories at an academic level, but to offer a subtle correction on a popular level.
For more on atonement, read: Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary? By Derek Vreeland
These misunderstandings are mistaken in that they each, in their own way, obscure the full beauty of the cross, and in doing so they drain the life-changing power from it. They strip the cross of its revolutionary nature and political implications, preventing the cross from having the power to change the world. If we search our sacred scriptures with enough diligence, we can find whispers and images which seem to give validity to these ideas. But picking a verse here and there from the Bible to justify our view of the cross is a classic case of missing the point.
When we confess, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” we do not mean “Jesus died on the cross according to the handful of Bible verses that best prop up my preferred theory of atonement.” Rather, the death of Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Spirit-inspired story of Israel. Jesus came as the embodiment of Israel’s God to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to the covenant to bless all the families of the earth through the people of Abraham. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets, to push the story of the people of God forward. We find the best understanding of the cross within the context of that story.
But let’s start with some of the popular misunderstandings, phrased below in the form of questions.
1. Did Jesus die so I could go to heaven?
Regrettably the most popular misunderstanding is that Jesus died so we could go to heaven when we die. This kind of heaven-only eschatology leads us astray.
While it’s true that those who die in Christ are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), a disembodied heaven is not our final stop. As we fast forward to the end of our story, we discover God’s dwelling place, pictured as the new Jerusalem, is coming from heaven to earth (Revelation 21:2). The end isn’t heaven, but a renewed intermingling of heaven and earth where God dwells with God’s people on earth.
Jesus’ death takes away our sins and cleans us up from the effects of sin so we might be a spotless bride prepared for Jesus our groom.
In this way, it would be better to say that Jesus died so we could be citizens of God’s kingdom which is among us now and which will come.
2. Did Jesus die to appease an angry God?
A literal understanding of God’s anger drives this misunderstanding of the cross, so that some Christians conclude, in the words of N.T. Wright:
God so hated the world, that he killed his one son. 
While this caricature sounds ridiculous, it highlights the key mistake. The problem by which the cross becomes the solution is not God’s anger, but humanity’s sin. Biblical writers use the language of anger or “wrath” as a human metaphor. Paul explains parenthetically “I speak in a human way” when using the imagery of wrath (Romans 3:5). God’s metaphorical anger serves as a signpost warning us of coming judgment.
God doesn’t literally have eyes, but God sees all.
God doesn’t literally have wings, but God is a safe place for all.
God doesn’t literally have anger, but God is a righteous judge.
With sin removed by the death of Jesus, judgment, particularly death, has been defeated. God didn’t need Jesus to die; we did! We were the ones with the problem, not God. Jesus’ death didn’t turn God towards us, because God’s moral objection to sin did not cause him to turn his face away from us. Instead, God’s objection to sin caused him to come and rescue us.God's objection to sin didn't cause him to turn away from us. It caused him to come and rescue us. Click To Tweet
3. Did Jesus die because someone had to be punished?
The misplaced thought here is that with punishment looming over all peoples at all times in all places, Jesus is punished in the place of sinners so God doesn’t need to punish us. As is often repeated, “Jesus died to pay the price for our sins.”
But here’s the issue: this explanation of the cross would have made no sense to first century Jewish people. Their hope wasn’t for someone to come and be punished in their place. Instead, their hope was for God to come, forgive them of their sins, and liberate them from both sin and exile. Why? Because first century Jews understood that even though they were in their ancestral homeland, they still were not free. They were still experiencing exile as punishment for their idolatry and injustice. And their hope was this: that one day God would come and set things right by forgiving and freeing them.
On the Day of Atonement, the sacrificial animal wasn’t being punished. Rather, sins were confessed over a goat and that goat was driven out of the camp and the blood from the sacrificial animal that was killed was sprinkled over the mercy seat to “cleanse and consecrate” the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:19). From a Levitical perspective, atonement wasn’t so much about lawbreakers needing to be punished, but rather pollution that needed to be cleansed.
4. Was Jesus born merely so he could die?
This misunderstanding is often seen in the “bridge” diagram where Jesus on the cross serves as a bridge between “holy” God and sinful man. Missing from this unfortunate diagram is the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Indeed Jesus is the mediator between God and people, but Jesus mediated divinity and humanity in his own flesh. In the Incarnation, divinity and humanity come together in a saving union.Jesus mediated divinity and humanity in his own flesh. In the Incarnation divinity and humanity come together in a saving union. Click To Tweet
Jesus wasn’t born just to die, as if the death of Jesus alone saves us. The entire birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of King Jesus rescues the world from sin and death. According to the venerable Athanasius, Jesus took on our humanity so as God he could ultimately conquer death, so that if Jesus pays a debt, it is debt owed to death. He writes:
“Having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.” —Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
Jesus’ death was predicated upon his incarnation. Jesus couldn’t defeat death and bring immortality to mortals without becoming one of us, making his birth as essential to Jesus’ saving work as his death. For Athanasius:
[Jesus died a] death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it. 
This union of divinity with humanity defeated death for us through the death of Jesus.
A Better View of the Cross
If these ideas about the cross miss the mark, what is a better way to understand the death of Jesus?
I humbly submit an understanding that broadens the scope of Jesus’ death on the cross where we can see the cross is both rescuing and revealing:
- Rescuing: Jesus saves us from sin and death by removing sin and destroying death.
- Revealing: At the cross, Jesus shows us the kingdom of God, who God is, and who we can be.
Going to the cross is how Jesus became king. Taking up the cross is how we live in Christ's Kingdom. Click To Tweet
Going to the cross is how Jesus became King. Taking up the cross is how we live in that kingdom. The cross shows us what God is like and the cross shows us who we can be. God is cruciform and by faith so are we. King Jesus takes our sin into the grave so we can live free in God’s good world. With sin and death defeated, we are drawn into a new world, where we live in imitation of the one who loved us and gave up his life for us. We are called, as Jesus taught us, to take up our cross as an act of self-denial and follow him (Mark 8:34). We are called to be the cruciform people of God in the broken-down world where the new creation has begun to blossom.
As we reflect on the power of cross, let’s allow the cross to rescue us from sin and the fear of death. And may we also see the cruciform God showing us and the world the true picture of self-giving and co-suffering love. And may that love empower us to take up our cross as kingdom citizens that we may become more and more like Jesus.
 N.T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016), 43.
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation 4:20.