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?

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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.

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

  1. I think you raise important questions regarding the populist evangelical theologies which appraise only Jesus’ death as salvific to the exclusion of his life. My conviction is that the whole course of Jesus’ life, including his life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection is efficacious for salvation. I also believe that the the NT emphasis on Jesus’ death is synecdochal. Following John Calvin, what I mean by this is that Jesus’ death is part of a larger whole, namely, the very Christ-event, the coming of the Son of God in flesh. Hence, I affirm the second article of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed where it says, “for us and our salvation, he became flesh…” The Resurrection is vindication for Jesus’ living, indeed. However, I cannot separate his death from the Resurrection because I see this as a whole. To say that his death is not salvific is to evacuate a mystery, I believe. In his death, the Son was working (here I affirm the ancient belief of the “harrowing of hell”). Indeed, Jesus “failed” in his mission due to the unjust death he incurred at the hands of sinful people. Yet, he accomplished all things, namely, he lived in total obedience to the will of God in preaching the kingdom and ministering to the marginalized, to the point of death.

    1. i agree with you 100%. I actually believe that Jesus’ death, while not ordained, was in fact, inevitable (to borrow language from Marcus Borg). Jesus’ murder was a vital part of his life, and no one should remove that fact about him, since his execution tells us much about who he was as a person, and who he was seen to be by the powers of the day. I believe his death has theological meaning BECAUSE of the resurrection, thus linking the two. First, because you can’t come back to life if you don’t die first (lol), and second because to me, it serves as God’s final word on the forces that conspired to kill Jesus: they are wrong, and God works to undermine them. In this regard, i agree with KBD, the resurrection proves that Jesus’ death was wrong. I’ll blog about more the particular thoughts in the days to come, so if some things aren’t totally fleshed out here, they will be.

  2. Also, I think the confession, “Christ died for our sins” arises fundamentally out of an experience, namely, the experience of the risen Jesus through the Spirit within the community of faith. The images found within NT to describe the mystery are first-order discourse and intelligible to first-century Christians. I think your contentions with evangelical theology in its attempt to make this mystery totally rational and intelligible to moderns to the point of nausea by playing by the rules of modernity itself. Of course, we are modern we cannot roll back the hands of time. Yet I believe this confession is, rightfully, a protest against modernity self-righteous, all-consuming tyranny of thought-forms that don’t fit its primary directives. I believe faith itself is not knowledge, yet cognitive, as theologian Roger Haight observes. Also, death in of itself, is not redemptive. However, Jesus’ death is salvific because of who is and how he lived. We as human creatures cannot set the boundaries and criteria to how God chooses to save us. God in Christ Jesus is a scandal (skandalon), a stumbling block and foolish. Yet, we believe it is the saving power of God.

    1. i’ll address this too. i have a spin on “christ dying for our sins.” in short, we all participate in the forced that ultimate conspire to steal, kill, and destroy. jesus’ resurrection proves that they are wrong…and we are wrong too.

  3. i’ll address this too. i have a spin on “christ dying for our sins.” in short, we all participate in the forced that ultimate conspire to steal, kill, and destroy. jesus’ resurrection proves that they are wrong…and we are wrong too.

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