To some people Christianity comes across
as being a religion that is just plain ridiculous.
For example, the famous agnostic scientist, Richard Dawkins, was interviewed on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program (9 April 2012), ridiculing the concept of the Son of God dying on a cross:
“the idea that … the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus … that’s a horrible idea. It’s a horrible idea that God, this paragon of wisdom and knowledge, power, couldn’t think of a better way to forgive us our sins than to come down to earth in his alter-ego as his Son and have himself hideously tortured and executed so that he could forgive.”
For Richard Dawkins, the idea of the Son of God dying on the cross is simply absurd.
Christians should not be surprised to find people ridiculing their religion. As Paul says in 1 Cor 1:18: “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” To most of the world who do not know God, the gospel, the message of Jesus going to the cross, does not make sense. “You Christians are saying that some Jewish man who was executed on a cross by the Romans some two thousand years ago is your God? Really? And what other fairy stories do you believe?”
The word of the cross might be foolishness to those who are perishing, “but to those who are being saved, to us [the word of the cross] is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The gospel is the key means by which God’s power can be communicated to us human beings. The power of God that brings salvation to the world is Jesus, and people can encounter Jesus in the world today primarily through the message of the Christian gospel.
But why the cross?
As Richard Dawkins suggests, it does seem such a far-fetched kind of story: God, who made this universe, coming down at a certain point in human history to get beaten, whipped, spat upon, and nailed to a wooden cross. Why has God chosen to do this?
Paul’s slightly modified quotation of Isa 29:14 in 1 Cor 1:19 identifies a key reason for the idea of the Son of God dying on a cross. Through the strange but wondrous event of the cross, God is destroying the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent.
Applying Paul’s teaching to people like Richard Dawkins, we can acknowledge that Dawkins is an intelligent man in terms of human knowledge; but all his intelligence and understanding, and all of his study and degrees, become foolishness when they are used to scorn the cross of Christ.
It is important to see science and other forms of human knowledge for what they are.
The origin of the word science can help us in this regard.
The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. Science is simply human knowledge, and all human knowledge has limitations. Despite this, the history of the Western world over the last 150 years has seen the word of God replaced with human opinion. The human brain has been set up in place of the Bible. This is why the message of the cross is absurd to the majority of people in the Western world today. The fount of knowledge is no longer the church but the laboratory.
We humans might smugly think that we know a lot—the advances in science and technology since the beginning of the twentieth century have certainly been amazing—but our knowledge can never compare with the knowledge and wisdom of the God who created and controls the universe. God knows the limitations of human thinking, and he sees our arrogance when we act as if our knowledge were unlimited or necessarily correct.
In 1 Cor 1:21, Paul teaches, in effect, that God has deliberately designed the gospel to look somewhat absurd and incredible in order to render foolish the wisdom of the wise. The gospel does sound kind of foolish: the God of universe allowing himself to be picked on by Jews and crucified by Romans. It is truly a rather weird idea; but, according to Paul, God is using the weirdness of the idea that God gave up everything and died on a cross, to prove his wisdom in comparison to human foolishness.
God decided to come into the world to die, in order to prove his wisdom and power.
When a man dies, he is dead. A dead man is effectively useless and of no real value. Getting one’s self killed is ordinarily the opposite of what the wisdom of the world is used for. Wisdom and knowledge is generally used in order to keep one’s self alive in order to experience some form of prosperity. Jesus’ death on the cross challenges this belief. Furthermore, the significance of the cross is that death by crucifixion was considered to be the most painful and shameful form of official capital punishment used by the Romans at the time.
What good is a shamefully dead god?
The gospel is absurd to the world. But because the human race has used its wisdom to deny God, God in his wisdom has been pleased to turn the tables, and to show up the absurdity of human wisdom. God incarnate was dead, yes; but only for a time. Christ’s death paved the way for his resurrection. Because of Christ’s resurrection, the foolishness of God is wiser than any human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than any human strength.
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.