What is the significance of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus?
By Marcus Borg
First of all, I see the cross of Jesus as having a political meaning. Jesus was executed by the authorities, and if we ask why, the most persuasive historical explanation is because of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God, which involved him in radical criticism of the domination system of his day. The domination system killed him. On the one hand, the cross tells us what domination systems oftentimes do to those who oppose them. It tells us about the typical behavior of empires.
The cross in the New Testament also has a more personal and individual meaning as a symbol or an image for the path of transformation, for what it means to follow Jesus. It means to die and rise with Christ. We find this in Paul. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." The cross there is an image for that path of spiritual and psychological transformation that leads to a new identity and way of being.
Then there's the cross as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. If we literalize that language, as … much of conventional Christianity has done, the only way God can forgive sins is if adequate sacrifice is offered: Somebody has got to be punished, and that person is Jesus. Also only those people who know and believe in that story can be saved. Thus, literalizing that language is a slur on the character of God. If you see Jesus' death as part of the divine plan, as part of the will of God, that suggests that God required the suffering of this immeasurably great man. It is never the will of God that an innocent person be crucified, and to suggest that is to suggest something horrible about God.
If, on the other hand, we understand the language of Jesus’s being the sacrifice for sin as a post-Easter interpretation of his death that emerges within the early Christian community, we can then see that, metaphorically, it's a proclamation of radical grace. The connection is this: If Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice for sin, understood metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God's already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.