During Easter there are a few questions that are worth pondering, whatever your take on life:
1) who ate those Easter eggs that were left out?
2) did Jesus actually die, as an historical, for real, event?
3) if he did die, why did it happen?
One of these is likely to remain an eternal mystery in the absence of direct revelation, but that leaves two.
The historical evidence for the crucifixion is substantive. Josephus, Tacitus, and the gospels should be enough to show it probably happened.
So, the question becomes: how to justify or make sense of the brutal death of Jesus? Many books have been written on this, and I am no theologian, but it’s so important to get a grasp of this, and some people will read what I write, so I’ll give it a shot. In order to answer the main question, I want to ask four more: who was Jesus? How did he die? How could we possibly benefit from that? And, finally, why should we believe this abstract theology stuff?
Who was Jesus?
If Jesus of Nazareth was just some wandering apocalyptic preacher with a penchant for psychosomatic healing, or else a fraud, a nutcase, or an overblown myth, then his death is inconsequential. But does the first part of this conditional statement hold? You probably haven’t studied this question in depth – how confident are you that the world’s largest (and arguably most historically-focussed) religion is based on a total misunderstanding? It is widely believed that it took a long time for Jesus to become god-like in people’s minds, and that originally for his early friends and followers he was just some dude who talked about loving people and maybe mentioned God a bit. A careful reading of any of the gospels – the early written accounts of Jesus’ life and death – however, destroys this belief (in the same kind of way that a nuclear bomb detonated inside a small glasshouse might do some damage, or in the way that David Glass destroys the central arguments of ‘the God Delusion’ in his brilliant book ‘Atheism’s New Clothes’, available for loan from me on request). In other words, there’s a reason why the gospels don’t start with the cross, and it’s not just so Sunday schools have something to put in their Christmas plays. Before we can understand his death, it seems we need to know something of his life.
Let’s look at some case-studies from the shortest and earliest-written gospel which support the idea that the core of Jesus’s ethical teaching was uniquely self-centred. As I see it, over and over again he says something like this: “you know what’s really important, and who really has the authority around here? I am, and I do.” As I just put it, perhaps that’s offensive; but sometimes the truth hurts.
-Mark’s gospel. Flicking through it now, this is what I see:
The first sentence calls Jesus ‘the son of God’. The second sentence uses an Old Testament quotation to directly identify Jesus with ‘the Lord’ – the God of the Old Testament.
Chapter 2: Jesus forgives sins, while people around him say he’s claiming to be God, which they find preposterous.
Chapter 3: Jesus appoints 12 apostles, quite clearly implying the formation of a new Israel (12 tribes). It’s a big call.
Chapter 4: Waking up from a nap in a boat, Jesus tells a storm to shut up and let him sleep. The lake goes still.
Chapter 5: Jesus wakes up a dead girl.
Chapter 6: Jesus goes for an evening stroll. On the same lake. The fish must be quite confused by now.
Chapter 7: Jesus casually overturns the Jewish food laws.
Chapter 8: Jesus ties eternal life to himself and his message. He claims to be THE dividing line.
Chapter 9: Whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes God the Father.
Chapter 10: Jesus says he came to die, and that his death would be “a ransom for many”
Chapter 11: Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree and visits the temple – a powerful picture of him looking for fruit from the religious establishment and finding it lacking. This is God’s role.
Chapter 12: In the parable of the tenants he sharply distinguishes himself from earlier prophets – they were mere servants of God, but he is the Son.
Chapter 13: Identifies himself with the Son of Man, a figure with ultimate authority found in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
Chapter 14: Jesus sees his impending death as the fulfilment of Scripture. Not a small claim.
Chapter 15: At Jesus’s death, the curtain of the temple, separating the most holy place from the rest of the temple, is reportedly split in two, from top to bottom – it’s hard to think of a more dramatic piece of imagery for those who believed the centre of religious life, of relationship with God, was found in that place, only accessible by the high priest once per year.
Chapter 16: Nek minnut, Jesus defeats death. [Edit: this kind of sentence is what happens when I blog while winding down for the day – sorry]
How did Jesus die?
Jesus was mocked, scourged, stripped naked, spat at, made to carry a large wooden cross (or possibly cross beam), and then nailed to it between two thieves on similar crosses either side of him. Compared to some who went through the crucifixion process (perhaps not usually preceded by as much abuse as it was in his case) he died quite quickly – within a matter of hours – likely through suffocation.
How could we possibly benefit from that?
The death of an ordinary person, even say a prophet, can be of no direct value to us. But if Jesus had a unique place before God, if he was in fact the fullness of God in a human life, then we might expect something different regarding his death. The New Testament claims that the death of Jesus was in the place of those who trust him – he, who had never sinned, became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (1 Cor 5). This was not a pleasant process, but it was taken on willingly.
Here’s a couple of really bad graphs to prove my point. Please pray that data visualisation for my research project is better.
There is a general principle that may be helpful – forgiveness always implies a cost on the part of the one forgiving. If you’ve ever forgiven someone when you feel you really were wronged, you probably understand this to some extent. One of the amazing aspects of the cross is that God took on the cost of forgiving us, in Jesus.
The cross says that God is entirely just and fair and doesn’t act arbitrarily, and also that God cares enough to take the pain of the world, which is real, upon himself.
As you consider this, note that the Christian worldview loudly and clearly affirms that evil and pain and suffering are real, and in fact have much more metaphysical significance than, e.g. a naturalist can give them – but also that they are in a sense subsidiary, and there is an adequate response. The cross was a horrendous situation. The righteous personal offence resulting from human beings turning away from the God who is a consuming fire is absorbed by one man hanging gasping for breath on a Roman instrument of torture. God in human form takes on the torturous consequences of sin. But, insofar as it is a final answer to death, it is also a tremendous and awe-inspiring situation.
I think the main intuition we have which challenges the justice of the cross is that God should be able to forgive without violence, without pain or suffering; can’t he just let it go? Perhaps God could just let our sin go; God is, after all, the only truly autonomous agent – God is truly free. God (to use our terms) chooses to be constant and faithful and just, and does not simply let the real evils of the world go unanswered. Compared with the perfectly righteous God, our evils and those of the most anti-social offenders are on a similar level, and none of them are simply ‘let go’ – instead, they are all paid for in one stupendous universe-flipping transaction. The transaction is followed by a question for us – will we let it count for us? Will we let our fine be paid, our burden lifted, and our enemy of deadly self-rule be defeated, or will we just keep on walking down our own path?
So, why believe these abstract moral and religious claims then?
“At the end of the day, Zach, for all the pontificating about morality and evil and sin and self-rule, it’s all just a story in an old book and I’d rather just run my own life and ignore any irony in this sentence, thank you very much.”
If Jesus rose from the dead, reality looks very different than most people around us will tell you.
There are good reasons to believe that he did in fact rise. That Jesus died is a bedrock of history. It is also clear that his disciples, soon after his death, had the strong belief that Jesus was in fact divine, worthy of the worship which had previously only been directed towards the God of Israel, who would stand no rivals. Yet they preached about his shameful death, death of a kind that suggested he was cursed by God. The best way to deal with the tension between shameful death and high status is the belief that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, as the early documents claim.
Then the question becomes: were the early disciples in the right position to know whether Jesus had in fact risen from the grave? I leave that to you to consider – if you’d like to follow up on anything I’ve said, books, further evidence, and discussion over coffee are on offer.