Skip to content

Beyond the Nails: The Cross in the Plan of Salvation

Mount Rubidoux Cross

The following narration draws upon Ellen G. White’s depiction of Jesus’ final days in The Desire of Ages (1898) and biblical passages often connected with Jesus’ life and death. -Ed.

Prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, God the Father explained to Jesus how he would ultimately die. His death would result from them both being separated (see Psalms 22:1-2). It was the only way that forgiveness could be made available to sinners. It was that horrible, unthinkable, separation that would become the centerpiece of the gospel. Two eternal lovers, wrenched apart in order to save those who had no use for them. 

The plan of salvation actually called for two separations. The first happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was basically a trial run and was so lethal, so inwardly poisonous, that it quickly brought Christ to within an inch of death. He fell prostrate to the ground, sweat blood, cried out, and then fainted. An angel had to administer emergency first aid to revive him so he could carry on (see Desire of Ages 688, 690-91 and Matthew 26:39).

The plan of salvation called for Jesus to then experience a second separation from the father. The plan specified that two things had to happen in relation to that upcoming separation. First, unlike Gethsemane, it had to be as public as possible. Second, it needed to happen in a way that motivated people who witnessed it to ask lots of questions and hopefully understand. 

In order to get masses of people to view the separation, Jesus launched one of the great publicity campaigns in history. About six months prior to the crucifixion, Christ trained and commissioned seventy people to go into every town and village throughout the region and teach people about His ministry (Luke 10:1-2).  The idea was to create such intense interest in the Savior that the multitudes would later seek him out when they attended the upcoming Passover where upwards of a million people gathered.

That is exactly what eventually happened. Multitudes entered Jerusalem during Passover urgently inquiring, “Where can we find Jesus, the Messiah?” (Desire of Ages, 776). 

The mechanism God used to get people to ask questions about the separation was to have it take place while Christ was hanging on a cross. When the multitudes at Passover asked about the messiah, they were told, “The person you’re looking for is over there hanging on that center cross.” That answer shocked the onlookers and created a huge contradiction in people’s minds. How could the man who had done so much good and healed so many diseases, be nailed to a cross, a punishment reserved for the worst of criminals? And what did the sign above his head mean, “King of the Jews” (Desire of Ages, 745 and John 19:19)? 

At one point, as the crowd stood gazing up at the crucified Messiah, they heard him cry out, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” which greatly deepened their consternation. “Why on earth would he be abandoned by God!?” (Desire of Ages, 754, 749, Mattew 27:46).

Their astonishment created a flood of questions, which is exactly what the godhead wanted. People searched the Old Testament like never before looking for answers to those incredible contradictions. The cross cracked open tradition bound minds to wrestle with what salvation really meant (Desire of Ages, 775).

It was Jesus himself who chose to be crucified. It is a mistake to think that the Jews and the Romans were the ones who were in control of Jesus’ fate. Nothing happened in the plan of salvation by chance. I can imagine that if we could see the original plan in some museum in heaven, we would find the word “cross” underlined three times in red pen and circled.

In order to ensure that he would be crucified, Christ did things in that final week that he had previously avoided such as riding a donkey into Jerusalem as a king to the adulation of the masses. You can draw a straight line from that mind-boggling event to Calvary. 

When Christ was finally crucified, God the Father made sure that what happened on Golgotha was made much more impactful by adding terrifying pyrotechnics from the heavens, wrapping the entire area in a mysterious, suffocating, darkness, and creating an earthquake that caused everyone to fall prostrate on the ground like mortally wounded soldiers. Flashes of lightning were like neon arrows pointing people to the middle cross (Desire of Ages, 753-756).

There was a huge upside to having Jesus’ experience separation from the father while hanging bloodied and battered on a cross.  

But there was also a serious potential downside. Generations that followed could get so fixated on the physical horror that they might fail to give adequate weight to the deeper lessons that God intended. They could get so caught up in the shocking visual of crucifixion that they might miss the real cost of our salvation.

The fact is that it is not the cross itself that saves us, it is what happened on the cross that makes eternal life possible. Salvation is contained in the cry of forsakenness that caused heavenly beings to shudder and the crowds at Jesus’ feet to gasp in terrified wonder. 

The sacrifice that saves us was the savior’s willingness to enter into the unimaginable experience of potentially being separated from his heavenly father forever. The sacrifice that provides forgiveness for sinners was the Savior’s willingness to go into the grave and never come out if that’s what it took to save us. That is the centerpiece, the crown jewel, of what happened on Golgotha. The cross is the brass setting that holds the diamond. 

The problem with thinking that it was dying from crucifixion that saves us is that people begin to devalue what Christ endured. They compare the savior’s physical suffering to that of various Christian martyrs down through the ages and conclude that others have suffered more. 

Ellen White addressed this issue when she wrote on pages 43-45 of The Sufferings of Christ (1869), 

The sufferings of martyrs can bear no comparison with the sufferings of Christ. Some have limited views of the atonement…They suppose that [Christ] had, through all His painful suffering, the evidence of His Father’s love and acceptance, and that the portals of the tomb before Him were illuminated with bright hope. Here is a great mistake. Christ’s keenest anguish was a sense of His Father’s displeasure. His mental agony because of this was of such intensity that man can have but faint conception of it.

With many the history of the humiliation and sacrifice of our divine Lord does not stir the soul and affect the life any more…than to read of the death of martyrs of Jesus. Many have suffered death by slow tortures…In what way does the death of God’s dear Son differ from these? 

But bodily pain was only a small part of the agony of God’s dear Son…It was the hiding of His Father’s face, a sense that His own dear Father had forsaken Him, which brought despair…The separation that sin makes between God and man was fully realized and keenly felt by the innocent suffering Man of Calvary….He had not one ray of light to brighten the future.”

As horrifying as the pain of crucifixion was, the pain of separation between Jesus and his beloved heavenly father was exponentially more horrifying. That is the Gospel. I would vote for the symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice to be a broken heart rather than a crucifix. 

About the author

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife, Ann, live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Seventh-day Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He is also the author of eight “Life Guides” on CREATION Health. More from Kim Allan Johnson.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.