Removing the Scandal of the Cross: Is this an Example?

This week so far has been the most reflective of mine in recent years.  The implications of the cross of Christ are so far-reaching, no wonder Paul sought not only to proclaim it but to protect it as well (1 Cor. 1:17-25).  But some have found the proclamation of a “bloody” cross to be too scandalous.  They are offended by it.

“For the first thousand years or so of church history, the metaphor of victory in battle, Jesus conquering death, was the central, dominant understanding of the cross.  And then at other times and in other places, other explanations have been more heavily emphasized.

This is especially crucial in light of how many continue to use the sacrificial metaphor in our modern world.  There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the “Blood will never lose its power” and “Nothing but the blood will save us.”  Those are powerful metaphors.  But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods.  People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways.  But most of us don’t.  What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.”  (Rob Bell, Love Wins, pp. 128-29, bold added)

While others continue to shout, “Cosmic Child Abuse,” because they see Christ penal substitution through the shedding of his own “blood” as “a personal act of violence perpetrated by God toward human kind but borne by His Son”—it seems like Rob Bell is taking a sort of a back door approach, a sort of a subtle approach, to remove the scandal that is the cross of Christ.

But we can’t!

We dare not!

Christ death on the cross, the shedding of his blood, to take our place, must not be trifled with, must not be messed with.

Yes, in Paul’s day, to proclaim Christ crucified was a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).  And this is the case for a growing number in our own day.

But we still need to understand in vivid terms what our sins cost and what the love of God looks like.  So yes, we need to continue to sing, “There is power in the blood…”

Now back to our question, Is this an example of removing the scandal of the cross?  I say, yes.

This entry was posted in Atonement of Christ, Cross of Christ, Penal Substitution, Rob Bell and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Removing the Scandal of the Cross: Is this an Example?

  1. Iris says:

    In reality, the people of His day did not ‘… look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.” Instead the New Testament is a recording of true historical facts. So Rob Bell’s premise is wrong. Therefore his conclusions will be amiss.

  2. Todd Beal says:

    It is so good to see you take a take like this TC.

  3. T.C. R says:


    You’re right. Besides, their Hebrew scriptures shaped the events.

    Todd Beal,

    I don’t think we should try to soften this one.

  4. Mike Gantt says:

    The meaning of Christ’s cross transcends any single metaphor. Bell misses the point of that cross, assuming it would only have meaning to cultures steeped in animal sacrifice. Does he not understand that crucifixion is the ultimate form of rejection – and rejection can be understood by any culture?

    Unlike Bell, I clearly believe and state that everyone is going to heaven. But also, though again unlike Bell, I believe that the scandal of the cross is an essential element of declaring that truth. For in the crucifixion, Jesus demonstrates the ongoing relationship between humans and their Creator. That is, they reject Him who deserves nothing but acceptance…while He continues to love them while yet insisting that they repent.

    Let everything that has breath praise the One who gave Himself for us on the cross and released us from our sins by His blood!

    And let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.

  5. Scott W says:

    On this day in which many, like myself, celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, we can get sidetracked by anachronistic theological assumptions: the core of the theology of the blood of Jesus in its efficacy lies not in the associations with a penal substitutionary understanding of the “atonement” but is related to expiation. And the real “scandal of the Cross” in biblical terms had to do with the shame of the Cross, to which St. Paul and other NT writers testify and which is confirmed by a cogent historical, socio-political and biblical/theological examination of what the Cross means for a first century Jew in Palestine.

  6. T.C. R says:


    Outside of your universalism, I’m with you all the way. 😉

    Scott W,

    While I’m not willing to limit the efficacy of the cross to expiation, I quite agree with you about that larger context of the larger context of the scandal of the cross. I merely seek to be reactionary in this post, so to speak.

  7. Tim says:

    My biggest problem with Bell’s point is that it seems to assume that the Cross, which of course symbolizes (or perhaps better, depicts) God’s love for us in Christ, and his dealing with our sin and guilt, *merely* symbolizes these things. I think this springs from a dualism that sees salvation/atonement as something that God decrees from on high in some ethereal “spiritual realm,” and then chooses to symbolize in a particular, incidental historical moment in the “natural/historical realm.” In this scheme, the particularities of the Cross/blood/sacrifice notions are accidental to the substance of our redemption (“the Jesus story”), and the Cross is simply one culture-bound metaphor among many possible ones for understanding the “deeper”, “spiritual” (truer?) truth of our redemption.

    Yet it’s hard for me to accept this in light of the Incarnation. Jesus died for us as the God-man, and the man side of this equation was every bit as crucial to the atonement as the God side. As Rod Rosenbladt has put it, we’re saved by particular blood from a particular body, shed on a particular cross on a particular day on a particular hill.

    As the incarnate God, Jesus offered not only his soul to God, but his whole self, including his body, and in some vital way the offering of his body was efficacious – no bodily offering, no atonement. The Incarnation was necessary for our salvation – God could not simply decree atonement from Heaven, nor could Jesus suffer only spiritually, but had to offer his entire being to God to reconcile entire Man to God. Did this have to occur on a cross? I don’t know. Did it have to involve something very much like the crucifixion? I think so.

    It seems to me that Bell has an implicit dualism here, perhaps rooted in a diminished view of the Incarnation. Thoughts?

  8. T.C. R says:


    Great thoughts. I don’t know if we can say that Bell has a diminished view of the Incarnation because at this matter indifferent. Many have without diminishing the Incarnational distinct. But I do appreciate your point about an implicit dualism.

    Of course being incarnational, the most humiliating form of death was chosen, for the times.

    • Tim says:

      And not only was it the most humiliating form of death at that time, but it specifically involved “hanging on a tree,” thus showing that he was bearing God’s curse. It seems to me there’s something redemptive-historical to the particularity of his hanging on a tree (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23), as opposed to, say, being stabbed, shot, poisoned, etc.

  9. Tom says:

    I don’t think Bell is out to remove the “scandal of the cross”–whatever that means. I think he’s simply observing (like many others have observed) something that all Christians–especially those that make penal substitution the primary atonement model–need to reckon with: the penal substitution model as we know it only goes back about 500 years; Christus Victor has a much longer historical pedigree. Wherever one lands, one needs to explain that important fact of church history.

    And I don’t think the scandal of the cross Paul refers to in the first century was its penal substitionary nature. Rather it’s the fact that Christians were proclaiming the crucified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world–each a scandalous ideas to the Jew and the Gentile, respectively.

    • Penny paige says:

      Instead of repeat what Tom says here, I’m just going to shake my head and agree. No matter what idea of atonement you resonate with, the blood, death, and sacrifice is central.
      Bell makes an obvious point, we don’t live in a blood sacrifice society. I’m not sure how bringing that up “removes the scandal.”
      I’m reading “Recovering The Scandal of The Cross” by Mark Baker and this book has been insanely good on covering ALL the ways scripture talks about the Cross and Atonement.
      I’ve heard Bell several times stress the Substitutionary and vicarious atonement of the cross. Jesus did for us what we could never do. Now how can we commicate that in fresh ways that our society can connect with? The cross should always be central, and therefore is necessarily scandalous. But just because it is scandalous, doesn’t mean we have hold on to a metaphor that doesn’t connect with people.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        I don’t think the Gospel needs to be contextualized to the culture, but that the culture needs to be contextualized to the Gospel. I don’t buy this metaphor nonsense. God spent all of salvation history setting up a liturgical/ceremonial sacrificial priestly system so that Jesus the lamb the prophet, priest, and king could come and fulfill that particularized concrete mode of God’s accommodation and provision for humanity through His Son. If the way Jesus died was just a metaphor, why does he still have the piercing scars in his hands in his glorified/resurrected body? That’s not metaphor, that’s res reality!

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Btw, Penny,

        I’m not just addressing you, but Tom and Brian too; I don’t want you to feel like I’m singling you out 😉 🙂 ! And I know “metaphor” is the word of the day, but I’m not buying that; how about sacramental? Metaphor, to me, is too structuralist, linguistically — it has the appearance of a language shell game to me; wherein there is no necessary correspondence between the language and the reality signified (the only necessary reality for metaphors is an coherentist one that finds its meaning through the structures of the language used within a particular community . . . so there’s no necessary “correspondence” between the signifier (the words) and the reality signfied — the source of “meaning” can be provided by the particular communities’ particular usage [but this just bottoms out at normative relativism] — there’s nothing universal about metaphors, per se).

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Let me be more clear. I, of course, believe that metaphors are used in the Bible; and even of Jesus himself —the “Lamb” of God (he’s obviously not a literal sheep). BUT, the cross and the blood shed are not metaphors! Jesus actually died upon a real wooden cross, and shed real physical blood (and all of this is set within the framework of meaning and ontological reality that God Himself [as the reality] instituted through the Old Cov. etc.). We can’t play with the cross as if its a “metaphor”. HOpe that’s more clear 🙂 .

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Actually as I re-read Tom and Brian’s sentiment it’s nothing I object to at all (sorry guys); it is what you said after all, Penny. Instead of knee-jerking I should’ve asked you to clarify first — so strike most of what I said previously from the record 🙂 . Let me ask: you’re not saying that the cross and sacrificial bloody death that Christ provided in our stead should be taken or can be communicated metaphorically, are you?

      • Penny paige says:

        Bobby, my area of education is in Human Communication Theory, so that background may help explain my comment.
        I definitely believe in Substitutionary atonement, but not nessecarily “penal.” especially penal in the way it is often communicated.
        While I believe in S.A., I also believe the Bible describes other ideas of the atonement and I value them all and would like to see us get a little more broad and present all the awesome facets of atonement.
        In order to communicate the idea of atonement I think metaphors are helpful. It seems to me all Aronement theories pull on an idea that society of the time to connect with. But Jesus’s death for us is always central. I like to see atonement explained in a way that emphasizes that Jesus lived for us, died for us, and was resurrected for us.
        Bobby, don’t worry, I want to wrestle with these things in community. I value your thoughts and want to think these topics out, not get a pat on the head.

      • Bobby Grow says:


        I have no problem with realizing and forwarding an idea that Scripture offers “multifarious” or “multiple-co-inhering” theories of the atonement. I like to see them all framed through an overarching “ontological theory”, emphasizing the vicarious humanity of Christ for us in the atonement (meaning that atonement begins at Incarnation and crescendos at the cross/resurrection).

        I was just apparently misunderstood you, and assumed that you were saying that the cross itself could be seen as a metaphor; I now realize you weren’t saying that 🙂 !

        He is risen!!!

      • Penny paige says:

        He is risen indeed!
        I think no matter what atonement theory we connect with, I know we are all worshiping at the feet and trusting in the resurrected Christ.
        That is good enough for me . 🙂

    • Brian MacArevey says:


      I was going to comment, but you said everything that I was going to.

    • T.C. R says:

      |And I don’t think the scandal of the cross Paul refers to in the first century was its penal substitionary nature. Rather it’s the fact that Christians were proclaiming the crucified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world–each a scandalous ideas to the Jew and the Gentile, respectively.|


      To an extent, I do agree with you. But keep in mind, the rest of the NT when it comes to the meaning of the cross. What was actually accomplished?

  10. DaveAlan says:

    Penal substitution only goes back 500 yrs? Hmmm. Interested in seeing evidence for that. Penal substitution not being the primary atonement model? Yet it’s prominence( Eph 5:2, Gal 3:13, Isa 53, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, et al) would indicate different. When John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world,” the lamb alluded to was never seen as anything but a penal substitute.

  11. Bobby Grow says:

    I think we need a multifarious atonement model, but I do see penal substitute as part of that still! Substitution goes as far back as the Garden of Eden, and most obviously to Lev 16–17 and the Scapegoat.

  12. Tom says:

    I’m speaking of penal substitution as a model, as a theory of atonement. Yes, we can find verses that speak to the notion of substitution, but the Bible is not asking and answering the question, “How does the cross save?” That’s why church history has been offering theories of the atonement ever since. Penal substitution as a model of atonement is a post-biblical, theological category–yes, rooted in Scripture like all models of the atonement are and like all theological categories are.

    If I were to say the doctrine of the Trinity is only 1600 years, would you then quote Matt 28:20 to say otherwise? I hope not.

  13. Bobby Grow says:

    I actually believe the ontological atonement theory is THE biblical one.

  14. Jack Wellman says:

    I totally agree. When we try to soften the hard core, naked truth of such torture and suffering, we diminish the supreme sacrifice that Jesus AND the Father endured so that we can value the enormous cost of such redemption of sinners (like me). As I read out of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52 and 53 last week, I see that the Old Testament writers looked ahead at such a torturous event with no rose colored glasses but displayed it for all it was in reality. Great blog.

  15. Pingback: T.C. Robinson on the Scandal of the Cross | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

  16. Mike Gantt says:

    My favorite line in these comments so far:

    I like to see atonement explained in a way that emphasizes that Jesus lived for us, died for us, and was resurrected for us.

    • Penny paige says:

      Mike, coming to this realization saved my faith. I grew up with a Very nasty version of PSA, where the only thing that mattered was that Jeaus died. His life and resurrection had really nothing to do with atonement. I think that is why this post made me feel a bit ruffled. I respect T.C., and I understand that we should not glaze over Jesus’s sacrificial death, but let’s be careful that we do not emphasize it at the expense of His life and resurrection as part of atonement.

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