The pagan Celsus was the earliest infamous, literary critic of Jesus Christ. He blistered Jesus for suffering on the cross. He railed against Christians’ affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son – even God himself. When Jesus was on the cross, why did he receive no assistance from the Father? Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Underneath Celsus’ criticisms are assumptions humankind has shared across the ages. If God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so ignominiously? Would not God have foreseen such a tragedy and planned to avoid it? Furthermore, would the all-powerful God allow his power to be impugned and subverted by plotting priests, and his supremacy to be bested by Roman power? These questions and assumptions may be roadblocks for some in considering Jesus’ death. Let me consider them briefly.
The explanatory meaning of the Cross takes Celsus’ assumptions and turns them on their head! Scrutinizing Celsus’ criticisms gives us a singular portal into God and the cross. First, if God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so scandalously? Yes. The foreordained coming of a suffering servant-champion who would redeem humankind from the ghastly effects of the Fall begins as a thin red line in Genesis chapter three and runs through Isaiah chapter 53. The suffering and death which Adam and Eve’s sin caused has to be born. God’s coming Servant Prince takes this sin with its suffering upon himself in order to redeem humankind from it. Neither is God’s dignity offended nor is He blindsided by his Son’s cross. God knows with full intention the Serpent ‘will strike his heel’. ‘He was crushed for our iniquities’ and ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ Celsus says a god knowing this would not rush headlong into it. Oh no? Since when do champions, much less God, shrink from a noble end charged with pain and suffering? The very confrontation with suffering and victory over it is what gives champions their character. Olympic Half Pipe icon, snowboarder Shaun White, overcame a devastating, face-altering snowboarding accident last fall to win a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. This made him an even stronger champ. Contrary to weakness and cowardice, Jesus’ conquering of the cross demonstrates the very heroic redemption of suffering and shame.
Take another of Celsus’ criticisms of Jesus. If Jesus were God’s Son, why did he receive no assistance from his Father? Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Celsus deliberately echoes the chief priests’ mockery as they looked on the dying Jesus. ‘He saved others; is he unable to save himself? He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now….’ In my youth, I wondered the same thing.
Power is the ability to get something done. It may also be the ability to choose not to do something. Would not the killer by restraining himself from the impulse to gun down seventeen Stoneman Douglas’ students have shown greater power than by pulling the trigger? Choosing not to save himself on the cross enabled Jesus to demonstrate more power. Power is also the rate at which work gets done. A Corvette ZO6, going from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, gets work done faster than an Aston MartinV12 Vantage that takes 4.1 seconds. Jesus could have saved himself in three hours by coming down from the cross. In those three hours he would have saved only himself from death. He would have saved only himself from death but not conquered it. However, by waiting some thirty nine hours till Sunday morning to rise from the grave, he conquered death, saved millions, and all creation! Which is the greater display of power?
Celsus’ attacks perennially play to the lust for a momentary flash of brute muscle. The prideful lust for superiority and the diabolical wish to cut God down to size are perpetual temptations. Twenty one centuries later, what Salvation Army founder William Booth said remains true, ‘It is precisely because He would not come down that we believe in Him.’