The Necessity of the Scandal of the Cross to Bridge Heaven and Earth

From opposite starting points Jews and Greeks converged on the notion of a nearly unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth. As Paul describes (I Cor. 1:22-24), Jews would look for signs but would not presume to encounter the essence of God, and Greeks search for wisdom but this wisdom would transcend the world in its source and end. To appreciate what Christ is doing in closing the gap, bridging heaven and earth, it may be necessary to feel both the immensity of the separation and its peculiar connection to death for both Jews and Greeks. In this first blog, I will address the “scandal” the cross poses for Jews and why the scandalous nature of the cross makes it central to understanding its glory.

As the writer of Hebrews describes, angels or messengers delivered the law, and not God directly (Heb. 2:2 and also Gal.3:19; Acts 7:38, 53). God appearing, and certainly appearing in the flesh, contradicted the Jewish understanding that no one has seen God directly, not even Moses, who may have seen a residue of his glory. God might make an appearance in fire and cloud and burning bush, but it was understood that these were mediating signs and not God himself.

To then associate God, who does not actually make his appearance in the world, with the cross posed a double impossibility. A crucified and dead Messiah represented for Judaism an impossibility in the face of the conviction that Sheol (“the pit”), the realm of the dead, was a place of no return. This pit of death and destruction (Abaddon) is a shadowy realm of utter silence where “life is no more.” Though God is not entirely absent (Ps. 139:8), for the creature it is a place from which there is no return (Ps. 39:13). As King Hezekiah laments on his sick-bed: “In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (Is 38:10).[1]

Though there are intimations of being remembered or escaping, the pervasive perception was that God does not seem to remember the dead and they are mostly beyond help. He does no wonders for them, and they can no longer praise him: “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5). “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon (the place of destruction)?” (Ps. 88:10-11). The implied answer is no. “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17). “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness” (Is. 38:18).

Sheol, Hades, the realm of the dead make God inaccessible to the creature; it is a realm from which no one returns. Of his dead child born to Bathsheba, David says, “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). As Job cries: “When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). “So man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no longer, He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep” (Job 14:12).

The seemingly unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth is marked by Sheol or the pit. It is the condition of death, connected with the flesh, that poses a barrier between the creature and God. The God of Israel was conceived as removed from death, as it is a form of uncleanness which the Temple accentuated. As far removed as the “goat for the Lord” (the spotless one representing life dedicated to God) is from the “goat for Azazel” (the sin bearing goat sent into the wilderness and oblivion and meant to remove sin, death and impurity as far as possible from God) so is the Lord separated from death.

The purity laws were all about the battle and distinction between life and death. (To imagine that God requires death to gain access to his presence is a reversal of the meaning of the Temple and its sacrifices.) Death is a pollution to the presence of God, represented by the holy of holies. The bodily impurities require the cleansing rites connected to the outward parts of the temple and moral impurity requires the sacrifice of atonement, but every impurity is connected to death.  Dead bodies, blood, semen, skin disease, and moral rebellion have death as their common denominator.  Life dedicated to God – the point of the atonement – and not death, is the means of access.

Death was acknowledged, and thus was meant to turn Israel to YHWH, the source of life. This central theme of the Hebrew Bible, is expressed in Deuteronomy when God says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if your offspring would live—by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” (Deut. 30:19-20). The point of Scripture is to choose life and God rather than death.

Yet it is not entirely clear in much of the Old Testament that there is a final saving from death. Existence beyond the grave can be secured only through God’s remembrance, through the memory of the clan or tribe, or through the memory of the community of those true to the Torah, but this was only vaguely connected with the survival of the individual. According to Roy Harrisville, only at the edge of the Old Testament or in the Greco-Roman period do apocalyptic ideas appear of God’s swallowing up death and decay.[2]

In addition, the idea of a suffering Messiah is nearly as inconceivable as one who dies. Though there is a clear picture (at least from a Christian perspective) of a suffering Messiah in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which was interpreted messianically, Harrisville points out, this messianic interpretation excluded those verses that deal with the Servant’s sufferings and death. In examples from the fifth century, which point to a much earlier time – everything suited to a kingly messiah is allowed to stand but the Servant’s humiliation and suffering are altered to their opposite. The “reference to the Servant as despised and rejected is changed to apply to heathen kings and kingdoms; the reference to the Servant in verse 7 as led like a lamb to the slaughter is taken to refer to the mighty who will be delivered to slaughter; and the reference to the Servant in verse 12 as pouring himself out to death is altered to read that he subjected himself to deadly danger.”[3] According to Wilhelm Bousett, it may not have been possible, in view of Jewish messianic belief to interpret Isaiah 53 in terms of a suffering Messiah.[4]

The contemporaries of Isaiah could not accept the idea that God’s beloved would die, let alone die the ignominious death of crucifixion. After all, one of the greatest villains of the Old Testament is associated with crucifixion. Participants at the feast of Purim, which commemorated the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman, with the reading of the Book of Esther, would cry out each time Haman’s name was read, “Let his name be blotted out,” or “The name of the wicked shall rot.” In the Septuagint, the term for crucifixion is used twice to describe Haman’s execution.[5] It was inconceivable that the Messiah should suffer the same fate as this accursed enemy of God’s people. While Trypho, the second century rabbi, was able to concede, after argument with Christians, the possibility of a suffering messiah, “that he was to be crucified. . . it [is] impossible to think that this could be so.”[6] For most Jews this was a “scandal” beyond belief.

To be truly incarnate, in this understanding, is to take on the way of the flesh, including death. The corruption of death was a bridge too far, which simultaneously explains the scandal of the cross for Jews but points to the chasm which Christ bridged. The cross is the pinnacle of glory for the same reason it is a scandal, as it is a shining forth of God’s incorruptible presence in the place of final corruption. At the most corruptible and contemptible of moments the incorruption of God shines forth in that place that closed off the divine presence. This is why the hour of glory, the hour of full revelation, the hour for which Christ came is assigned to the cross. From the cross the incarnation is complete. The labor is finished at the cross in Jesus’ depiction (John 16:20), as the ultimate barrier between God and humans has been bridged.

[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Sheol. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1948). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] Roy A. Harrisville,  Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Eerdmans, 4/12/2006), 19. As Isaiah describes point blank: “He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth” (Is. 25:8). “Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Is. 26: 19).  Thank you Tim for your great generosity, including the gift of this book.

[3] Ibid, 23.

[4] Ibid, 19-20.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] Saint Justin Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc. 1949) 208, 291. Cited in Harrisville, 22.