This post is not really about the visual difference between the Maltese Cross (left) and the shape with a longer lower part, the Latin Cross (right), which is more standard at least in western churches. I could argue that equal-armed crosses like the Maltese Cross are originally pagan, and that only unequal ones like the Latin version are truly Christian. But that is not my point here. Nor is this at all about the modern country of Malta or its inhabitants. But I am using the difference in cross shape as a symbol of a difference between two fundamental theological outlooks which affects the theology of the cross and the atonement.
I don’t know much about Malta, so I looked at the infamous Wikipedia. Here I found such interesting points as
In January 2007, International Living chose Malta as the country with the best climate in the world.
But, while the article describes how the island was settled by Phoenicians and then conquered by Rome, it says nothing about the ancient religion of Malta; nor does this one; whereas this one and several others refer only to the prehistoric period. So, for the Roman period, I can argue by analogy on the basis of what is written in the Acts of the Apostles without too much interference from the facts!
It is in Acts 28 that we find a fascinating short account of the religious expectations of the common people of Malta, which comes just after Paul is shipwrecked on the island:
3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Acts 28:3-7, TNIV
The word translated “the goddess Justice” is simply the Greek word δίκη dikē “justice”, but this is also the name of the Greek goddess of justice. It was the Romans who imagined this goddess, their Iustitia, to be blind, or blindfolded, as in the famous statue on the Old Bailey Central Criminal Courts in London. It is not clear whether for the islanders this “justice” was a goddess or simply an impersonal force. But what is clear is that they believed that “justice” was inescapable. As they clearly believed in many gods and later wanted to accept Paul as one, very likely they would have attributed Paul surviving the shipwreck to the intervention of some divinity. But for them “justice” was more powerful than that divinity and could not be cheated.
It seems to me that Christians who insist on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, especially those who express it in terms like “the Father punished the Son”, are in fact presupposing the same kind of theology as the people of Malta held. Well, they don’t believe in many gods as the islanders did. But these Christians seem to believe that their one God is not sovereign over all but is subject to a greater force, an impersonal “justice” which cannot be cheated. So, for them, God cannot simply forgive sinners, because “justice” does not allow it, and would presumably find some other way to punish the sinners, just as on the Maltese world view she found another way to punish Paul. The only way for sins to be forgiven, in this supposedly Christian view, is for God to provide some other victim to satisfy the demands of “justice”. Apparently, perhaps because she is blind, “justice” is able prepared to accept the punishment being meted out on innocent Jesus rather than on the guilty parties, but she cannot accept it simply being overlooked.
In case anyone thinks I am portraying a straw man or a caricature here, consider the following quote:
The Cross is a satisfaction for sin in so far as the moral order of the universe makes it impossible that human souls should be redeemed from sin except at a cost.
What is this “moral order of the universe” if not some concept of “justice” supposed to be make something impossible for God? But this quote is not from a fundamentalist source, nor from a Puritan divine, but from the 1938 report Doctrine in the Church of England, as quoted by Bishop NT Wright.
Let us contrast the biblical picture of God. For him, according to the Bible, nothing is impossible, except that he should deny himself (Luke 1:37, 2 Timothy 2:13). There is nothing which he is obliged to do because there is no higher person or force to oblige him. He can do as he wills. He will not of course do anything contradicted by his character, but that character, as expressed definitively in Exodus 34:6-7, is to be compassionate, gracious and forgiving, as well as not leaving the guilty unpunished. “The LORD will vindicate his people”; he says “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, and “There is no god besides me” (Deuteronomy 32:36,35,39, see also Hebrews 10:30, TNIV), no separate “justice” to whom he is answerable. These Old Testament quotations do not tell the whole story, but they underline that God is a free agent.
But what God wills is not to execute justice, as becomes clear in the New Testament, and especially on the cross. There is no sword in his hand, and no scales, but only nails which portray God not as the agent of punishment but as the victim. The Old Testament tension between God as merciful and forgiving and God as not leaving the guilty unpunished is resolved at the cross. We don’t know how God is able to forgive and not punish our sins, and why for this it was necessary for Jesus to die. For some reason we don’t understand, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22, TNIV), and for the forgiveness of our sins the blood which could avail was that of the Son of God. But we can rejoice that our fellowship with God, broken by our sin, has been restored, because Jesus has paid the price, not so much the penalty as the restitution or compensation, shedding his blood which was necessary to rebuild the way for us into God’s presence. We cannot explain this fully, but only gaze in wonder:
‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies:
Who can explore his strange design? …
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.