Death, Life, and Questions: Some Preliminary Thoughts on Jesus’ Death

Why should any person be excited about an innocent person dying? Most people would agree that such a sentiment is barbaric.

Why would anyone be thankful that their transgressions are the literal reason why someone had to be brutally executed? In most situations, we would call that person callous.

But during Holy Week, these sentiments go out of the window. Particularly on Good Friday, we rejoice in the unthinkable, and celebrate unfathomable acts.

For the past few years, Holy Week has been a struggle for me. It’s been a classic case of a theology student reconciling all of the knowledge they’ve gained while engaging in common religious traditions with other people. For so long that participation was untroubled. I parroted the same story that I was given with faith in my heart. You surely know the story yourself. Jesus came and lived a perfect, sinless life. He then died on the cross for our sins. This was the strength and wisdom of God, for humanity had incurred such a monstrous debt that no one else could ever pay it. Jesus’ death and resurrection also demonstrates the love of God, because Jesus paid a debt that we could never repay, and the fact that God chose to do it demonstrates the depth of his affection towards humanity. Oh, how he loves us. This idea of salvation should be self-explanatory…right?

Right?

Isn’t it?

Image

Or am I just overcomplicating something that doesn’t need to be that deep? I’d argue that I’m not. Understanding more about the Christian concept of God caused me to develop anxieties and questions about our celebrations of Jesus.

Before I say any more let me say that by no means am I in a place 100% assurance with what I’m discussing here. I’m still reading, reflecting, and interrogating my sources and myself. I have some hunches, and I’ve been intrigued by particular stances of folks who’ve thought about this topic far longer than me. Still, I do find myself in the place where I can share my thoughts, the footprints of my journey considering the process of salvation.

I had no reason to tamper with my view of salvation until other realities about the gospel accounts came to light. My initial exposure to the Christ account was via evangelical theology. The assumptions of this distinct theology shaped, and obscured, certain parts of the biblical stories. As such, Jesus’ earthly life didn’t matter much, save for the fact that he was a healer and worker of miracles. What remained an emphasis for me was the sin of humanity mankind (we weren’t gender inclusive). My sin, and the cumulative sins of everyone that ever lived remained in the forefront of my mind. Evangelical theology directed me to consider my own sin and my incalculable inability to pay off my divine indebtedness. The only justice that was spoken of in the churches that I attended was the justice of God that could only be satisfied by Jesus on the cross. Humanity was separated from God because of sin, not because of unjust power dynamics. Whatever problems may exist in the material world, if they are even acknowledged at all, are merely symptoms of a deeper spiritual reality: our need for a savior.

The information I was exposed to in divinity school began to trouble those waters. What came into focus was the reality of Jesus’ life. If Jesus was God in the flesh, then the actions he took while he was on Earth actually are the very actions of God. God was born poor. God intentionally associated Godself with the lowly of society, the marginalized, uneducated masses. When given other options, he routinely ignored social and religious expectations in pursuit of a greater harmony between human beings. He touched the untouchable, disregarding a need for ceremonial cleanliness. And he not only touched them, but the healings and exorcisms demonstrate another theological point: God dwells with the marginalized, takes away their shame, and brings them into community. Jesus did this by applying direct, but non-violent, action.

This caused problems for my evangelical sensibilities. The Jesus of the gospels seems to be miles away from the Jesus presented in the gospels. The former is intentionally, unequivocally committed to the oppressed and marginalized of his day, and draws on his understanding of God and divine authority to legitimize his actions. The later is more of a salvation-offering spirit, more concerned with the invisible realities of sin and holiness codes than anything that is taking place in the physical world. If Jesus is God, than Jesus’ life is what matters. The fact that God chose to ignore holiness ideas that supposedly originated from God’s mind, should give everyone pause. That he spent most of his time preaching to the outcasts and downtrodden of his day and not to the upper classes also demonstrates some staggering truths. God is partial, and readily sides with people who are on the unfair side of a power struggle.

Understanding this made me look at the cross differently. Most Christians know a fair amount about the cross, that it was a means of Roman execution and used to terrify others. What most Christians don’t know is the social and political implications that exist that impact the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. These implications matter, because they tie into the reality of Jesus’ life. But if your theology makes light of his actions, and Jesus’ earthly life is only relevant in that one has to be alive in order to die, then these contextual realities don’t matter much. For me, that was no longer an option. My understanding and commitment to truth did not allow me to pretend certain parts of the gospels didn’t exist or to conveniently place them in the background for my own comfort.

Also, my concern for God’s consistency forced me to at least revisit common salvation theories. If Jesus is against violence, and Jesus is God, then how could God intentionally draft a plan of salvation that included the death of an innocent? If this plan existed since the before the beginning of time, there was no outside force that required this sort of action. What cosmic law exists that God had to surrender to violence, that brutality became God’s only option? Is God honestly that devoid of creativity or intelligence that God ultimately decided to become a brute? Remember, if ideas about the Godhead are true, then God the parent must be just as opposed to violence as Jesus. If the death of Jesus was ordained before the beginning of time, then God is not opposed to the death of innocents. In fact, God is responsible for the creating the unbalanced conditions that caused these awful situations in the first place.

I made some very strong statements here, and I stand by what I’ve said so far, even while in the midst of reading and thinking about the topic. Some thoughts will change. Some will remain the same. But in summary, I’ll say this: I don’t think that God planned to kill Jesus. I think God planned to vindicate life and to condemn the forces that steal, kill and destroy (sin). The cross, representative of evil’s main threat, death, was rendered powerless by the resurrection. Jesus didn’t live to die, as the popular song lyrics declare. Rather, God caused Jesus to live, as the strongest rebuke and shattering of the evil realities that our world harbors to this day.

There’s still so much to unpack with all of this. I plan on addressing some of the questions I have with more blog posts. I’m not necessarily asking for agreement; I certainly don’t agree with many other people. I want to share what inside my head, in the hopes that someone else will feel comfortable sharing what is inside of theirs.

Question away.