What really happened on the cross? Was the death of Jesus a human tragedy whereby a good man was brutally and unfairly slain? Was His death an example of faith, obedience, and self-sacrifice? Was it a ransom paid to the Devil? A victory over the Devil? A manifestation of moral influence?
Was the cross an atonement? Did it involve expiation and propitiation for sin? Was it a supernatural act done to satisfy the wrath and justice of God? Each of these individually and several in combination have been set forth as the real meaning of Christ’s death.
How we understand the cross of Jesus in large part is determined by our view of the Bible. If we view the Bible as a primitive, pre-scientific expression of human religion, we will be inclined toward a purely natural view of the death of Jesus. It will represent at best an example of a heroic human act of self-sacrifice. Jesus is the existential hero of self-giving.
If we take the popular so-called neoorthodox view of Scripture, we will take a different approach to the cross. The neoorthodox view of the Bible denies that the Bible gives us propositional revelation. Rather, the Bible is seen as a witness to revelation that takes place in events.
To divide event revelation from propositional revelation is to leave us with a story without an interpretation. The Bible teaches that there was a crucial event, the event of the cross. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. The significance of that death was not agreed upon by those who were a party to it or spectators of it. For the Sanhedrin, it was an act of expediency. It was necessary for Jesus to die, lest the Jews experience the wrath of the Romans. Likewise from Pilate’s vantage point, it was a matter of expediency for him to satisfy the demand of a raging mob. The thief on the cross saw it as an expression of injustice.