Understanding the Resurrection in Light of the Cross

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This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.

In my previous post, we explored the first side of Moltmann’s “forwards and backwards” reading of the cross from chapter 5 of CG: Understanding the Cross in Light of the Resurrection. The other side to consider is how the cross should cause us to think differently about the resurrection.

I think at some level we are already quite comfortable in general with the idea of “understanding the cross in light of the resurrection”, but we have a tendency (at least in my experience) to do so in a more or less triumphant way: the resurrection means that Jesus is victorious over suffering and death. Therefore, we don’t see the presence of Christ in our sufferings but only in our successes. But as Moltmann reminded us in his recent conversation with Miroslav Volf, the cross and the resurrection are the two sides of the presence of Christ. This means that the presence of Christ is with us in all times and all places; there is no place where the presence of Christ is absent.

Below are some selections from CG which explore the meaning of the cross for the resurrection.

The resurrection ‘does not evacuate the cross’ (I Cor. 1.17), but fills it with eschatology and saving significance. From this it follows systematically that all further interpretations of the saving significance of Christ’s death on the cross ‘for us’ must start from his resurrection. Furthermore, when it is said at length that only his death has a saving significance for us, that means that his death on the cross expresses the significance of his resurrection for us and not, vice versa, that his resurrection expresses the significance of his cross. The resurrection from the dead qualifies the person of the crucified Christ and with it the saving significance of his death on the cross for us, ‘the dead’. Thus the saving significance of his cross manifests his resurrection. It is not his resurrection that shows that his death on the cross took place for us, but on the contrary, his death on the cross ‘for us’ that makes relevant his resurrection ‘before us’.
The Crucified God, p. 182-183

When I read his above statement about how the resurrection “does not evacuate the cross”, I couldn’t help but think of our Protestant tendency to use empty crosses and not crucifixes. As this was explained to me long ago, this practice is meant to affirm that Jesus is no longer on the cross; he is risen! Surely Moltmann doesn’t mean to say that Jesus is still up on the cross?  Moltmann is of course not denying the resurrection (though we must not make the mistake of regarding it as a merely historical event). But (in keeping with the theme of CG) he is applying a cruciform hermeneutic to every area of Christian theology, and the resurrection is no exception. To say that the cross has been evacuated is to say that Christ is not present with the godforsaken and the outcast in this world. In a post-Holocaust world, this is not an acceptable option.

Moltmann continues:

Christ did not die only as that expiatory offering in which the law was restored or the original creation was reconstituted after the fall of man. He did ‘for us’, to give us, ‘the dead’, a share in his new life of resurrection and in his future of eternal life. His resurrection is the content of the significance of his death on the cross ‘for us’, because the risen Christ is himself the crucified Christ. His resurrection from the dead can be known in his death ‘for many’. It is not that his ‘resurrection’ is a dimension of his death on the cross; on the contrary, his sacrifice on the cross for the reconciliation of the world is the immanent dimension of his eschatological resurrection in the glory of the coming kingdom.  By understanding Christ’s death as having taken place ‘for many’, one can understand his resurrection from the dead as having taken place in favor of those who are still dead. If that is the case, then his death on the cross ‘for us’ can be understood as a proof of his resurrection. To understand the representative significance of his death is to understand his resurrection. In his dying for us the risen Christ looks on us and draws us into his life. In the one who became poor for our sake, God’s riches are opened up for us. In the one who became a servant for our sake, we are grasped by God’s freedom. In the one who became sin for us, sinners become the righteousness of God in the world.
The Crucified God, p. 186-187

The cross expresses the significance of the resurrection. God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead; if Jesus’ death on the cross was not for us, the resurrection has no meaning for us. Because his death was for us, we are reminded that his death has saving significance for us, the guilty, the suffering, the defeated, the godforsaken. We can experience the life and presence of Christ now, whether in our successes or in our sufferings. There is no room for triumphant Christianity here. To know the presence of the crucified Jesus, is to know hope where there is no human reason to have hope.  As Moltmann shared with Volf: “My feeling that God is present in the midst of suffering is a firm trust of my heart.”

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