The Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California was constructed in 1954 to honor Korean War veterans. The large cross atop the memorial has been the subject of controversy for 25 years. Critics claim that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from preferring one religion over another. Now the Justice Department has surprised some observers by serving notice that it will defend the cross as “an appropriate memorial to our nation’s veterans.”
The cross has been controversial for 20 centuries. What actually happened on this Good Friday at a place called Golgotha? Consider the first-century non-biblical records. We know from Roman historian Tacitus that “Christus . . . suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (Annals XV.44). We know from Jewish historian Josephus how he died: “Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross” (Antiquities 18.3.3).
We know from Josephus what happened next: “he appeared to [his followers] alive again the third day.” And we know from Roman administrator Pliny the Younger how they responded: “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god.”
Without opening a New Testament, we can confirm the facts of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But other questions remain. One reader asked recently, “When did sin leave Jesus? At what moment did the Father accept Jesus back?” Most theologians believe that the Father transferred the sin of humanity to his Son in the moment when Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus was later restored to fellowship with his Father, so that he could say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
I was also asked, “Could there have been a different way for Jesus to die for the world’s sin? Such as: hanging, or being dragged behind a chariot?” Yes and no. Jesus’ death would have paid our debt, however it occurred. But the manner of his death was predicted a thousand years before it happened and seven centuries before crucifixion was invented.
In Psalm 22, David wrote, “they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots” (vs. 16-18). None of these descriptions were true of David, but each was fulfilled precisely at the cross.
Why did God lead the psalmist to describe his Son’s death so far in advance? So we would know that Jesus’ crucifixion was no accident or coincidence. He was “the lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, NIV). While we can ask many questions about the cross, never be confused about this fact: Before time began, the Father knew he would send his Son to die for you.
I spent two hours this week in a federal courtroom at the invitation of the judge, a godly man and dear friend. It was a fascinating experience. The defendants before him were sentenced to some form of punishment for their crimes. Imagine yourself on trial before such a judge. Justice demands that he sentence you to death. Then, before you are led away, he sends his only son into the courtroom. His son takes the chains off your hands and feet, shackles himself, and shuffles away with the officer to be executed. The judge watches his son die in your place so you can be set free.
Would you ever again wonder if that judge loved you?