And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.—Acts 13:48
The series of shapes we call the Canyon and the Cross is a guide to help someone understand the saving work of God in Jesus Christ from the beginning. Another way of looking at this, it is the unfolding story of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I often introduce it as “The Story of the Bible in Five Minutes.” That understanding can be helpful in a number of ways. For example, it helps people understand what it means to follow Jesus within the context of the whole of scripture and the whole of history. With an emphasis on the different types of relationships, it is a more complete depiction of the gospel than is often presented. It allows those who are invited to follow Jesus to make an informed decision and it helps those who have trusted Christ to better see their place in God’s story. It is a good teaching tool for parents who helping their kids understand the faith. Finally, it equips us to share the good news of the gospel with those who may be confused, hurting, feeling guilty, or loosing hope. It’s helpful to practice using this one with people you know and trust and ask for their feedback.
In the Beginning: Figure one: No Separation between God and People.
This is how things were in the beginning. In Genesis 1 and 2, we learn that God created the world and it was good. After all other things were created, God created human beings. Moreover, we were created so that we would have a fruitful, productive life, enjoying fellowship with one another and with himself. Everything was right. There was no shame, no corruption, and no sin. There was peace—or shalom.
The term “shalom” is a Hebrew word that means more than the absence of conflict. With shalom, things are right. As theologian Lisa Sharon Harper says, things were “forcefully right”. In Genesis, we read that God placed the man and the woman in a garden. God would walk in the garden in the cool of the evening with them. There was a right relationship between God and his people. And there was no sin and no shame. “They were naked and not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) There was no need to hide and nothing to blush about. They were light and free. Mental health was not a problem. On a personal level, things were right. They did not feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. There was no internal conflict. And things were right between the people. They got along in harmony. They had nothing to hide from one another. Things were forcefully right within themselves and between one another. Finally, God gave them work to do in the garden. Work as it was meant to be was part of God’s good creation. Their work of caring for the garden gave them a sense of purpose. It provided them with food and health, and everything they need for life. They were in right-relationship with creation. That is part of shalom. God, people, and creation were in a right relationship with one another. Nature was gentle, fruitful and productive. Work was satisfying.
Figure two: Vast Separation Caused by Sin.
In Genesis 3, sin entered creation. Adam and Eve rebelled against God by choosing to do the one thing (the only thing) that God has told them not to do. Do not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Nevertheless, when tempted, they ate the fruit. They believed that by doing so they would “become like God.” (Genesis 3:5) And though they did not become like God, they did saw everything differently. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged – they felt exposed. They felt shame for the first time. They made clothes for themselves to try to hide their shame, and then they hid from God. As a result, shalom was disrupted and broken. Things were no longer right between them, with themselves, or with God. And even the creation suffered. Work and fruitfulness became difficult and painful. A wide “canyon of sin” separated them from God and from one another. Shalom was lost.
We still participate in this. Even when we try hard to do what is right, we still get tired, lazy, self-indulgent, or worse. We hurt others. We create misunderstanding. We participate, actively or passively, in things that are unjust, harmful to God’s creation, that hurt people, and hurt the heart of God. Creation itself suffers. The Bible says all of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. (Romans 3:23) Even though we try, nothing we can do can make it right. Our best attempts at getting to God often backfire one us. We cannot build a bridge across the canyon of sin.
Figure three: God comes to us.
But in Genesis 3, the story changes. God immediately began taking action to set things right. He made Adam and Eve clothes from animal skin. Note that blood was shed to create these clothes. Life was given so that life could be restored. Covering their sin required a sacrifice. In the Old Testament, God provided the law and a system of sacrifices. But God’s ultimate plan unfolding when he gave himself for us. When God became one of us in Jesus Christ, he crossed the canyon opened by our sin in order to restore our relationships with himself. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. By becoming one of us, he showed us what human life could be like. Furthermore, he revealed who God was and what God was like. His action of paying for our sin on the cross and rising from the dead provides assurance and hope that shalom will be restored. Eventually, God will complete the undoing of the destruction that Adam and Eve started and that each of us has continued. He has assured us that all things will be made new. (Revelation 21:5) The love of God, which was demonstrated most powerfully on the cross, is greater than the sin that separates us from God. When we trust in Jesus, we are trusting in the power of God to forgive of sin and change us from the inside out. And God has offered that. “To all who received him (Jesus), even to those who believe in his name, he has given the right to be children of God.” (John 1:12)
Atonement is a theological and biblical word that refers to the way Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins and saved us. There are three prevalent theories of atonement—each is biblical and each is helpful in its own way. At times, followers of Jesus have pitted one against the other. However, it is better to recognize the saving power of God at work in all three understandings and let each shape us as we follow Jesus.
Christus Victor—Jesus is the victor. Jesus Christ has saved us by achieving a great victory over sin and death and the power of evil. He has conquered evil and given us all a new start. It reminds us that there is no other name in all of creation that is stronger than the name of Jesus. Thus, we pray from victory more than for it.
Christus Exemplar—Jesus is our example. Jesus invited his disciples to follow him and learn to live as he did. Just by following his example—even imperfectly – they find a transformed quality of life. There is no better way to live than the way Jesus lived. Jesus saves us from a meaningless empty life as we follow him.
Substitutionary Atonement – Jesus took our place on the cross. Sin requires punishment or sacrifice. Jesus chose to receive the punishment that should have been handed down to us. In so doing, he satisfied the justice of God. We are the beneficiaries with nothing to do but to receive and respond to God’s grace.
Perhaps you can see how each of the theories of atonement can be used with the Canyon and the Cross. Victor: Jesus crossed the divide we could not cross. Examplar: Jesus left heaven to come to us—and now invites us into a new life, one that emulates his example. Substitute: Jesus took our place on the cross so that sin would no longer keep us separated from God.
This Gift of God is Received By Faith.
The scriptures teach that we cannot earn our way to God. We cannot cross the canyon created by our sin. So what are to do? Believe what the Bible says about this. Let us place our faith in Jesus the Victor who is greater than our sin. Let us believe that Jesus took our place and that we are no longer condemned. Let us follow Jesus who has shown us grace and live our lives in response to his love. If we do so, we’ll find ourselves swept into God’s amazing story know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord!
Questions for Reflection:
1) How would you use this tool with someone who is already a disciple?
2) If you were sharing this with someone for the first time, what are some of the questions people might raise?
3) Which of the atonement theories resonates best with you?
4) Do you know anyone, or do you know stories of people trying to earn their way to God? How did it go?
5) Why is it comforting that in Jesus Christ, God came to us? How is it instructive in terms of mission?
6) How could you use this tool to help someone surrender to Christ? How would you help them cross the line of faith?