Christians traditionally celebrate ‘Good Friday’ as the day when Jesus made the ultimate (or better still, infinite) sacrifice nearly 2000 years ago. Moreover, Sunday is the day at this time of year where Christians celebrate the fact that the death on Friday did not conclude the story for Jesus and his purpose—let alone God’s purposes. Put succinctly (something I rarely do): Sunday makes Friday make sense. But what about Saturday? More times than not, nothing really happens between that celebration and ‘Resurrection Sunday’ (or, Easter)—except maybe finishing off the plans for Easter baskets, Easter egg hunts, or maybe even catching up on a few things that need to be done around the house. Maybe for some of us, Saturday is a day for nothing at all. Basically, Saturday during the Easter season tends to be the day for… whatever.
Friday night, while I was struggling through a massive headache (one like I’ve never had before) and my lovely wife was caring for me, we watched a BBC special called, ‘The Day Jesus Died.’* The show was hosted by a historian called, Bettany Hughes who wanted to know what the early Christians thought the crucifixion meant. She wanted to know what purpose (or need) they saw in Jesus having to die the most gruesome and painful death possible. Hughes noted that the Gospels accounts do not really supply reasons for why Jesus had to be crucified; they seem to narrate the events and then move on to the next bit of the story. She then wanted to know if those who came after the time of the Gospels shed any light on why Jesus died. Before this, however, Hughes decides to meet with a few scholars to get her bearings for her investigation.
Hughes first meets with Ed Kessler, a specialist in Josephus studies, to consider how the Jews of Jesus’ day would have perceived the crucifixion. Kessler rightly explains that Josephus (and other Jews of his day) would see a crucifixion as something reserved for criminals, but the crucifixion of a man claiming to be the messiah proves the falsity of such claims. In the words of NT Wright: a crucified messiah is a failed messiah. She then meets with Islamic scholar, Musharraff Hussain, who explains(?) the cryptic references in the Qur’an about Jesus’ (non-)death on the cross. The Qur’an essentially states that Jesus only appeared to have died, for the sake of his followers, because Allah would not allow his unique prophet to die in such a horrible manner. Finally, Hughes met with the good bishop, Tom Wright to gain a perspective on Jesus’ understanding of what he was doing and how that would have resonated within the walls of the Temple. For Wright, the timing of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and subsequent crucifixion coincided with the Jewish celebration of Passover—an annual festival for remembering that God graciously liberated the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Jesus would offer himself as the Passover lamb, albeit in grander form, in order to liberate humanity from slavery to sin.
With these bits of data in hand, Hughes then sets out to explore how later thinkers dealt with the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. She does this because she remains confused over the idea that Jesus died for the sins of humanity as a whole—i.e. throughout all time. Hughes struggles to understand how a death 2000 years ago has meaning and impact today. The first thinkers considered are Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394 CE) and Gregory the Great (c. 540–604 CE). For both of these men, the answer lies in the conflict between good and evil; God and Satan. Because of sin, humanity belongs to Satan—i.e. the king of sin—and his grasp on the human soul is seemingly unbreakable. The only way to free the human soul from the clutches of Satan would be to come in through the back door with a surprise attack. Enter Jesus, the sinless soul of God covertly housed in a sinful body of humanity. As such, Satan had no real claim to the life and/or soul of Jesus. Therefore, for Gregory and Gregory, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was a baited hook onto which Satan was easily ensnared and thus defeated by God (the holy, divine trickster). Result: Satan no longer had authority and/or power over human souls.
The second thinker was the philosopher-theologian, Anselm (c. 1033–1109 CE). Hughes investigates how Anselm disapproved of the idea that God would lure Satan onto a baited hook in such a sneaky way; it just did not sit well with Anselm’s view of God (and rightfully so). Essentially, Anselm read the feudal system of honor and justice of his day on the structure and operation of God’s creation. Thus, humanity, as servants, owe allegiance to God, the master or Lord. If an offence is made by a servant toward the master, a penalty must be paid. Logically, and by the nature of the relationship, the offence of humanity (i.e. sin) has infinite consequences or repercussions. In dialogue with Rowan Williams, Hughes discovers Anselm’s solution to this plight: God deserves infinite love, justice and honour, but humanity is unable to produce such things. Accordingly, God himself comes in (finite) human form in order to offer infinitely what God deserves. Thus, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the infinite act of divine justice in order to restore humanity to a right relationship with God. Result: the debt owed to God was paid (by himself).
The third thinker is one that comes as a bit of a surprise: the French philosopher-theologian, Peter Aberlard (1079–1142 CE). After being banned (and castrated) because of his love affair with Héloïse, Aberlard decided to join a monastery where he devoted himself to the Scriptures and service to God. Due to his own experiences, Aberlard sought to understand the nature of the cross as an act of suffering-love and not necessarily as one of justice. Hughes notes that Aberlard perceived the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the greatest act of love toward humanity. Aberlard believed that this view of the cross would elicit a more profound response from humanity than seeing the cross as a defeat of evil or an exercise in divine justice. Hughes then meets with Vincent Nichols in order to tease out the implications of Jesus’ sacrifice as suffering-love. Nichols rightly notes that faith is at its core a relationship, one shared between the Creator and creation (or, creature). Thus, as a relationship, expressions of faith are (or, should be) saturated with love. And, as Jesus says: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13).
The final thinker is the German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann (1928–present). Moltmann was a German solider captured during WW2 and taken as a prisoner of war to camp in Nottingham (England). Hughes points out that Moltmann’s experiences in the war played a significant role in his decision to become a pastor. Moltmann saw first-hand the amount of suffering and evil that could be dispensed on the world by the hands of humanity. The usual response in such times would be: where is God in all of this? How can a good God allow such suffering on such a massive scale? Moltmann wrestled with this usual response and would later come to a dramatic realisation, one prompted by his first-time reading of Mark 15.33-37. The realisation was that God, in Jesus, was right in the middle of human suffering—i.e. Jesus suffers with and alongside humanity. This makes the limits and impact of Jesus’ sacrifice historically unrestrained. Hughes then consults John Sentamu to understand better the meaning and relevance of Moltmann’s claim. Sentamu highlights the fact that God is always with his people, throughout all time, in the midst of their suffering, assuring them of his enduring compassionate presence.
After all of this investigation, and after considering all of the various perspectives provided through the centuries, Hughes offers her final (rather anticlimactic) thoughts:
Over the centuries, the crucifixion has been interpreted as a sacrifice for sins, a defeat of the devil, an act of love, and a moment when God shares in the suffering of humanity. They’re all attempts to explain something that may forever remain a mystery. But what’s clear is that all of them have had elements of truth for the age to which they spoke.
I say ‘anticlimactic’ for two reason. One, I think it would be safe to say that all of these interpretations are true at the same time: Jesus’ death on the cross is a sacrifice for sins, it is a defeat of Satan, it is an act of divine justice, it is an expression of eternal love and it is God suffering with and alongside his people. The moment we say it is one or the other, or more of a combination of some than others; that is the moment when the full relevance of the cross is lost. And two, Hughes set out to understand what the early Christians thought about the meaning of the crucifixion but she does not return to that concern. Her conclusion, while certainly apropos, does not address this original intent in the way it should have. Hughes only focuses on how the meaning of the cross has been interpreted and/or understood since the early Christians. However, I would hope that Hughes would see–or at least allow me to say–that the thoughts of those she considered in her investigation were not revolutionary or infinitely removed from the early followers of Jesus. I would bet the early followers of Jesus—especially those who were with him throughout his life—wrestled with the meaning of the cross and that they understood it in similar ways—if not others. I am sure they wrestled with how to make sense of what happened to their Lord. After all, Saturday was a long and arduous day for them.
* If you’re outside the UK, I’m sorry if you are unable to see this episode. Accordingly, I will give a summary of its contents.