The Thief on the Cross 4

            Is the cross of Jesus Christ petty?

            Richard Dawkins during the 2009 Oxford debate with John Lennox expresses his opinion that a hypothetical creator/physicist god of the universe merits too high a quality of grandeur to stoop to the low-level of dying on a cross for sins in the pre-modern first-century.

            But this is partly based upon his projection of his own value-judgment of the high-quality of the scientific enterprise, and of the well-deserved status and acclaim that professional scientists enjoy in our modern culture.

            Richard Dawkins says during this debate that equating a creator god of this universe with Jesus Christ on the cross, is in his words petty and small.

            I think here the “shoe might be on the other foot.”

            Postulating a creator god of the universe deserving credit for the awe and grandeur of the natural world, subtly creates an unbridgeable gulf between this marginally acceptable concept of a science-savvy god to someone like Richard Dawkins, with the other alternative of a purely materialistic Mother Nature occupying this elevated role of esteemed creator.

            According to the atheism of Darwinian evolution, Mother Nature must be an impersonal, different to outcomes, blind, and mindless purveyor and arbitrator of random and undirected events that by definition merit no appeal to grandeur and awe in the slightest.

            Chance serendipity cannot rise to the level of meriting acclaim within this context, being an impersonal entity.

            In this debate, the atheist in Richard Dawkins unthinkingly places Mother Nature up into the high category of his just barely acceptable divinely creative physicist, when in fact a blind and indifferent Mother Nature acting through random and undirected processes deserves no such elevated exaltation. 

            For the scientific materialist, granting awe and grandeur to an impersonal Mother Nature acting through random and undirected processes is in some sense a philosophical contradiction.

            Because this book is about science and biblical-quality faith, at this point I would like to make the argument that the cross of Jesus Christ is not petty or small in its deliberate intention to open-up for us an experiential research program to understand truth and error, right and wrong, and detailed fact versus empty assertion.

            This was provided for us at great personal cost to the God of the Bible.

            The awe and grandeur of the cross of Jesus Christ is exhibited in the brief but colorful story of the thief on the cross recorded in Luke 23:39-43.

            The two thieves crucified on each side of Jesus were partners in crime, caught and condemned to death (Ps. 22:16; Isa. 53: 9, 12).

            One of the two thieves in this story can size-up and recognize a fellow thief, and he discerns throughout the early hours of his time being crucified next to this other man Jesus of Nazareth that He is not a criminal, but instead there is something very special about Him.

            This one thief on the cross hears what the detractors of Jesus are saying about Him (Lk. 23:35-37) and he can probably read the words on the plaque nailed to the cross above the head of Jesus that Pilate had written about Him (Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19-22).

            One brilliant takeaway from this account of the thief on the cross, is that when a person meets Jesus Christ and recognizes Him as being the King that He actually is, that this changes a person and their individual destiny forever.

            When his partner in crime joins into the mocking of Jesus along with the religious leaders and the soldiers standing around the three men being crucified, this one thief rebukes his friend and then utters words coming out of his mouth that probably surprised himself as to their origin and bold decisiveness at that particular moment:

“Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Lk. 23:42).

            Jesus immediately recognizes salvation-quality faith and responds:

“Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:43).

            Pilate could have gone in the direction of faith, like this thief of the cross boldly confessing his recognition of the true character of Jesus, but instead surrendered to the political pressure of the crowd (Jn. 18:33-38).

            What adds awe and grandeur to the cross of Jesus Christ is that not only are there zero-in-number other candidates in human history or in human literary fiction that claim perfection of character, but it is literally impossible to get a perfect person all the way to the lowest form of ignominy, of Roman execution on the cross on Calvary Hill (Isa. 53), for anyone other than God.

            Jesus Christ is the blemish-free, Passover Lamb of God fore-glimpsed in Genesis 22:7-13 and Exodus 12:21-23, yet Jesus on the cross in the middle of these two thieves has taken-on the shame of sin that belongs to us, even though He had no sin Himself.

            Jesus Christ the Creator of the universe willingly takes-on the shame of being considered a common criminal dying alongside these two thieves on their crosses, because this is the only way that a perfect person could also be the blemish-free, Passover Lamb of God substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.

            Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) yet we find Jesus being crucified in the middle of two thieves (Isa. 53:4-7, 12).

            Mark Twain in his classic book The Prince and the Pauper, describes the benefits to be acquired by the young prince going-out into the real-world incognito, that will enable him to someday rule his people with enlightened justice and a compassionate perspective based upon this first-hand interaction as a commoner-in-disguise with the common people living within his future kingdom.

            But the distinction here of Jesus Christ taking upon Himself the shame of being “numbered among the transgressors” as He is being crucified in the middle of two thieves, is that this incredible downshift in status is not directly for His benefit.

            This sacrifice is instead for the benefit of us being able to go out into the world through our imperfect yet redeemed “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7) to learn the genuine truth about good and evil, like this young prince in Mark Twain’s story, of getting outside the palace walls in the disguise of a commoner to discover the real-world.

            Jesus Christ on the cross sets us free from the bondage to sin, but He does not set us free from our imperfect moral natures (Jn. 8:36; Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16; Col. 3:1-3).

            When believers someday in the future are in heaven, Jesus will sit on His throne in all His glory.  But Jesus will also get outside of the Holy City to walk amongst His people like He did when He walked the earth, and speak with them through the same quality of a resurrected body like we will inhabit.

            Jesus can talk to this one thief alongside Him as both another common human being the thief can relate to, but also as “Lord.”

            This is the awe-inspiring, science-savvy physicist god of Richard Dawkins exhibiting the character traits of divine love and humility to a perfection unheard of in all of human history…standing alone atop all of literary fiction and non-fiction.

            The contrast between the two thieves illuminates a reality in this world, of belief and unbelief, that cannot exist in a purely material universe.

            This then begins to give us some factual evidence upon which to differentiate truth from error in the moral realm of personal relationships, which is not subjective but objective.

            Equally important, Jesus through this sacrifice on the cross enables the redemptive salvation that was in-play throughout the Old Testament, to come into clearer focus as the gospel message goes-out to the Greco-Roman world of the Gentiles in the first-century.

            Jesus Christ the Son of God on the cross between two thieves could have been legalistically dismissive and aloof, answering the one thief by saying something like: “too bad, you made your bed, now sleep in it.”

            But Jesus is humbly taking-on the persona of a criminal numbered amongst criminals, because He is taking our lowly place on the cross that we deserve as wayward rebels and criminals (Isa. 53).

            Another enormous takeaway from this account of the thief on the cross and his encounter with Jesus Christ being crucified next to him, is that God can work with faith and trust in Him.

            A perfect God being brilliant pure light and absolute goodness, and possessing divinely timeless foresight, can work with the bare minimum of people exercising faith and trust in Him.

            Redemptive salvation by grace through faith in Christ sets-up the program of investigative research through the four-wheel drive vehicle of a fallen yet redeemed imperfect character…inhabiting an “earthen vessel” (2 Cor. 4:7). 

            This gives believers the precise lens we need to be able to comprehend the subtle nuances of the broad array of moral concepts contained within the knowledge of good and evil, like the precise focusing knobs we turn to find clarity using a microscope or a telescope.

            The concept that the Creator God of the universe is the only person capable of inventing and implementing a research program where I can journey-out into a risk-filled adventure of faith in which it is guaranteed that I will make mistakes, and that the deliberate intention is that I can learn by these honest mistakes without jeopardizing my eternal salvation…is anything but petty and small.

            The concept that redemptive salvation is based around the Creator God of the universe being the only person capable of a morally perfect life to qualify as the Passover Lamb of God substitution to take our place on the cross of execution, out of a perfectly unselfish motivation that opens-up for us a genuine exploration into the knowledge of good and evil…is sublimely brilliant. 

            This is an idea that far exceeds the awe and grandeur that scientific materialists ascribe to the physical world we study through science, because the physical world and the cross of Christ both ascend to the peak and the pinnacle of awe and grandeur, because they were both imaginatively created within the mind of God.

            Scientific materialists study the natural world through the well-deserved acclaim of being investigative scholars.

            But this creates the artificial gap between experts and non-experts, which results in the projection by Richard Dawkins of a hypothetical divine physicist as creator of the universe, deserving the same high-status in character like himself.

            But this story of the thief on the cross exhibits a broad range of character for the God of the Bible that portrays in action the amazing ability to combine absolute goodness with a level of divine humility that can share equally the shame of the cross alongside two thieves, while at the same time inaugurating the most love-filled research programs into the knowledge of good and evil.

            This program of redemptive salvation closely mirrors the deliberate intention underlying the orderly and intelligible openness of the natural world for human scientific investigation.

            I would posit here that this concept of Jesus Christ living a perfect life as recorded in the four New Testament gospels, and confirmed afterwards by His broad and exhaustive impact upon mankind ever since, that He could make it all the way to Calvary for our sakes is as deeply profound as any mystery we investigate in the natural world through science.

            The origin and experiential functionality of this concept is incomprehensible within the open marketplace of ideas in a purely material universe devoid of purpose and meaning.

            Like the need for detailed evidentiary facts to explain the origin of DNA in living cells in the 2009 Oxford debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, the explanation underlying the cross of Jesus Christ must dig deeper than the generalized assertion that the creator of the universe cannot be so petty and small as to humble Himself as the Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for sin, in a pre-modern, first-century Israel.

            Finally, in every essay in this book I am making the case that the God of the Bible meets all of the qualification standards of being Designer, Creator, and Ruler of heaven and earth.

            Peter mistakenly thought according to the general tenets of manhood and character that he should stand beside Jesus at His night trial, and argue all night for His innocence if need be.

            But it was not the intention of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make the compelling case to acquit Jesus of all charges that night.

            Jesus was supposed to be the substitutionary sacrifice on the cross so that we could have the opportunity through a new and living way to go out into human life and discover through first-hand experience the subtle nuances of good and evil.

            The brilliance of the program of redemptive salvation is that this allows believers to learn by their mistakes and failures through a methodology very similar to that of scientific investigations, of aiming for good character but often falling short.

            Redemptive salvation provides the impunity needed within the risk of failure as we embark upon God-composed journey of faith life-scripts designed to actualize some portion of God’s virtue into our lives…a quality and desirability of virtue that was incomprehensible to me before I met Jesus Christ.

            This is anything but small and petty.

            The cross of Jesus Christ is deeper than quantum mechanics, the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, the information content in DNA, the origin of life on earth, and the capacity of human beings for intellectual and moral reasoning. 

            In one sense Richard Dawkins was right.

            The cross of Jesus Christ was small and petty, because it had to be small and petty to achieve its goal.

            An adventure of faith in pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil is open to me today, because the Creator of the universe Jesus Christ was willing to be small and petty according to the standards of this world, for a short period of time on earth (Isa. 9:6-7, 53:1-12, 61:1-3), for my sake.  For this I will be eternally grateful.

            If scientific investigation of the natural living and non-living world culminates in the conclusion that the universe has a Creator God as the intelligent agent behind it all, then the next remaining question to resolve is what defines good and evil.

            What character traits demonstrate a good king, good president, good CEO of a business enterprise, and a good father of a family unit?

            Is a good leader an autocratic tyrant like Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, or Putin?

            Or is a good leader demonstrated by the God of the Bible who can embrace the lowest humility of the cross at Calvary with the divine love and determined resolution to open-up the way of redemptive salvation by grace through faith, for believers to venture-out into the research program into the knowledge of good and evil that we can experience through the joint-venture of a journey of faith with God? 

            All of this has enormous implications for how the upcoming years play-out for mankind.

Author: Barton Jahn

I worked in building construction as a field superintendent and project manager. I have four books published by McGraw-Hill on housing construction (1995-98) under Bart Jahn, and have eight Christian books self-published through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I have a bachelor of science degree in construction management from California State University Long Beach. I grew up in Southern California, was an avid surfer, and am fortunate enough to have always lived within one mile of the ocean. I discovered writing at the age of 30, and it is now one of my favorite activities. I am currently working on more books on building construction.

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