As I write this column, I’m also thinking about what I will say in the community Good Friday service (7:00 PM Friday at 1st Lutheran Church). I’ve been assigned to read and speak on Jesus’ suffering on the cross. When I found out, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and groan. I grew up Southern Baptist, so I have done my time with the blood of Christ. I can’t tell you the number of times I sang hymns with lyrics like “washed in theblood” or “there is a fountain filled with blood” or “nothing but theblood.” As I grew older, I realized that there was a price to pay for all this emphasis upon the suffering of Christ—namely one’s view of God. Since God is the ultimate cause of Jesus’ suffering—God’s justice demands that someone pay for the sins of humanity after all, God must be pretty sadistic (or masochistic depending on one’s view of the Trinity). In a culture addicted to violence (Have turned on primetime TV lately? It’s filled with graphic depictions of homicides on every channel), I think it is fair to ask if Christianity’s emphasis upon the suffering of Christ does more harm than good?
It’s been common for some time for Christian retailers to sell t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, etc. which “Christianize” the logos and slogans of businesses and products (think a red t-shirt with lettering that resembles a Coca-Cola can that reads “Jesus: the Real Thing”). One of the worst, in my opinion, is one that adapts Budweiser’s “This Bud’s for You” campaign by showing an iron spike being hammered into the palm of Jesus complete with blood spurting out above a caption that reads: “This Blood’s for You.” In a nutshell, as tacky as that t-shirt may be, it does express the dominant understanding of the cross held by American Christians. Human sin is bad and deserves punishment. Someone has to pay. God loves us and doesn’t want us to suffer, so God sends Jesus to suffer in our place. Yet, what if I was to tell you that this understanding of Jesus’ suffering has not been the dominant one for much of Christian history? What if I were to tell you that this is only one view among many about Jesus’ suffering in the New Testament?
Some writings in the New Testament do speak of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for our sins, most notably the letter to the Hebrews (cf. 7:27, 9:24-28, etc.), as well as some references in Paul’s letters (Romans 3:25 and the Gospels (John 1:29, etc.), . It should be no surprise that a religious movement with its roots in ancient Judaism would find a metaphor in its system of animal sacrifice to explain Jesus’ death. The ancient world was filled with sacrifices to gods for various reasons, but since we don’t often slit the throats of animals as a part of our weekly worship, this particular metaphor is a little distant from our current context. That’s right; I said metaphor. For some Christians, calling the Christ’s death for our sins (the doctrine of substitutionary atonement) a metaphor is to imply that it is somehow less than real, but It is, after all, only a means of understanding a deeper truth about what happened on the cross, one among several.
In Paul especially and also occasionally elsewhere in the letters and Gospels, Jesus death is described as a “ransom” paid to redeem humanity (Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23). Although this image isn’t fully developed in the NT, its roots lay in the concept of armies paying ransom for the release of captured soldiers and buying people out of slavery. In the succeeding centuries, Church theologians developed this idea and used it frequently to describe how Christ’s death “bought off” the powers of evil, especially Satan.
Some verses in the NT describe Jesus’ death and resurrection as a victory over evil powers, although exactly how this is accomplished is not entirely clear (Colossians 2:13-15, Philippians 2:10, Hebrews 2:14) . Later church writers would describe Christ as the “victor” over evil. Evil threw everything it had at Christ, but in the end the powers of evil could not kill him. Some even described Jesus’ suffering and death as God’s tricking the forces of evil before ultimately defeating them.
Paul also speaks at times in terms of Christ suffering for our sake but not in terms of taking our place. Christ is faithful to God even to the point of death and it is this faithfulness that accomplishes what we cannot accomplish for ourselves—reconciliation with God (Romans 5:8-10, Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 1:20). The reconciliation occurs not because Christ suffered—it is not the suffering that accomplishes anything—but rather Christ was faithful. We humans can never be fully faithful, but God in Christ can be, so somehow in Christ’s life, death and resurrection God accomplishes for our sake what we cannot do for ourselves.
I could go deeper, but I hope you get the idea. If you, like me, have had your fill of an over-emphasis upon Jesus’ suffering and blood, take heart there are other ways to understand just what Jesus’ death accomplishes for us—more ways than I’ve even discussed here. As you walk through the rest of Holy Week, may your heart and mind be open to hearing the old, old story in new, new ways.
Grace and Peace,