The cross cannot be understood apart from the resurrection, just as the resurrection can never be understood apart from the cross. They are two sides of the same coin.
If you consider the cross apart from the resurrection, then the crucified Christ becomes nothing more than one of the many thousands of people who were tortured and executed by the Romans.
If we do not keep the resurrection closely connected to the cross, it can easily become a triumphant explosion of supernatural power that not only lacks the enemy-loving, self-sacrificial character of the cross; it actually subverts it!
There is a strand in theology that implies that God merely used the humble, self-sacrificial approach reflected through Jesus’s life leading up to the cross because it was necessary to get Jesus crucified to atone for human sin. Once this was accomplished, this misguided line of thinking goes, God could return to using his superior brute force to get his will accomplished on earth and to defeat evil, which in this view, is what the resurrection signifies.
This line of thinking allowed theologians to assure Christian rulers, soldiers, and others that God didn’t intend all Christians to follow the enemy-loving, nonviolent example and teachings of Jesus. It was a line of thinking that was unfortunately very convenient whenever Christians felt the need to set Jesus’s teaching and example aside to torture heretics, massacre enemies, or take over countries.
Though it was never openly acknowledged, this perspective implies that Jesus’s humble, servant lifestyle, his instructions to love and bless enemies, and especially his self-sacrificial death conceal rather than reveal God’s true character! If we’re totally honest about it, it implies that God was only pretending when he assumed a humble posture in Christ. His true character is displayed when he acts more like a cosmic Caesar than the crucified Christ, accomplishing his plans and achieving his purposes by flexing his omnipotent muscle rather than by picking up the cross.
If we accept this line of thinking, it has the effect of making Jesus into a liar when he said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
Against this view, I contend that the cross and resurrection must be considered as two sides of one event. The resurrection confirms not only that the Son of God was victorious over sin, death, and the powers of hell, it also confirms that the way the Son defeated evil is God’s way of defeating evil.
It confirms that Jesus’s humble, servant lifestyle, his instructions to love and bless enemies, and especially his self-sacrificial death reveal rather than conceal God’s true, eternal character. The humble character of Christ wasn’t something God adopted for utilitarian purposes, as though it were foreign to him. Christ rather displayed this character because this is “the exact representation of [God’s] being (Heb 1:3).
The power that raised Jesus from the dead and that is at work in all who have been raised with him (Eph 1:17-23) isn’t a power that contrasts with the cross; it’s the power that leads to the cross and that confirms the cross as God’s way of responding to evil, even as it confirms that the cross reflects the kind of God that the true God is.
—adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 242-244