In his defense of Christianity as a mystery religion, C. S. Lewis has told us that we must deal with the facts, and as John Adams has said, facts are stubborn things. Among the facts at hand, we have the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and His subsequent Resurrection.
The Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth are historical facts. The evidence for them, both sacred and secular, is so strong that it takes an act of willful rejection to dismiss the episode as “just a myth.” Jesus’s Resurrection – the key miracle upon which the Christian faith is founded – is almost as strongly supported by the available evidence. The recent movie The Case for Christ, which is based on investigative journalist Lee Strobel’s book of the same name, lays out these points in a simple and persuasive fashion.
(Yes, yes, yes: it is still intellectually defensible to say “I reject the evidence” and remain an atheist. The episode, after all, cannot be repeated, nor is it possible to go back to 33 A.D. and witness it for oneself. It will always be that way. It’s in the nature of a supernatural event. End of digression.)
But the evidence of the events leaves us with questions about the reasons for them. In particular, people – believers and skeptics both – have always asked “Why were the Passion and Crucifixion necessary?”
It’s a good question, one of the best of those relevant to Christian theology. God, after all, is omnipotent. He has no needs, as men understand the concept. Specifically, He had no need to allow His Son to be tortured to death. What’s that? He allowed it because it was necessary for the remission of our sins? He could have remitted them with a single act of His divine will. Chattering about “needs” and “necessities” when speaking of God is inherently self-deluding.
From the accounts of the Passion, it was plainly about as intense a period of agony as a human body can experience. One of the visions of the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich depicts the earliest part of it – the scourging of Jesus prior to His walk to Golgotha – in vivid fashion:
These cruel men had many times scourged poor criminals to death at this pillar. They resembled wild beasts or demons, and appeared to be half drunk. They struck our Lord with their fists, and dragged him by the cords with which he was pinioned, although he followed them without offering the least resistance, and, finally, they barbarously knocked him down against the pillar. This pillar, placed in the centre of the court, stood alone, and did not serve to sustain any part of the building; it was not very high, for a tall man could touch the summit by stretching out his arm; there was a large iron ring at the top, and both rings and hooks a little lower down. It is quite impossible to describe the cruelty shown by these ruffians towards Jesus: they tore off the mantle with which he had ‘been clothed in derision at the court of Herod, and almost threw him prostrate again.
Jesus trembled and shuddered as he stood before the pillar, and took off his garments as quickly as he could, but his hands were bloody and swollen. The only return he made when his brutal executioners struck and abused him was, to pray for them in the most touching manner: he turned his face once towards his Mother, who was standing overcome with grief; this look quite unnerved her: she fainted, and would have fallen, had not the holy women who were there supported her. Jesus put his arms round the pillar, and when his hands were thus raised, the archers fastened them to the iron ring which was at the top of the pillar; they then dragged his arms to such a height that his feet, which were tightly bound to the base of the pillar, scarcely touched the ground. Thus was the Holy of holies violently stretched, without a particle of clothing, on a pillar used for the punishment of the greatest criminals; and then did two furious ruffians who were thirsting for his blood begin in the most barbarous manner to scourge his sacred body from head to foot. The whips or scourges which they first made use of appeared to me to be made of a species of flexible white wood, but perhaps they were composed of the sinews of the ox, or of strips of leather.
This was plainly torture of the most intense variety, designed not just to inflict pain but to shorten the Victim’s time on the cross as greatly as possible, so His executioners wouldn’t have to keep watch over Him for more than a few hours. So why did He allow it?
A brief segment of the aforementioned movie comes to mind:
But that answer stimulates a fresh question: “What did love have to do with it?” And it is upon the only plausible answer to this question that a Christian’s faith must be founded.
The religious and social conditions that applied in first Century Judea constitute a critical context. First, Jesus’s message – His proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the requirements for admission to it – was a radical departure from the doctrines of the Jews. The Judaic faith incorporated a huge list of commands and demands; 613 discrete ones, by one enumeration. That made being a perfectly observant Jew a supremely difficult undertaking. It also made doctrinal compliance something of a competitive matter. Jesus’s prescriptions and proscriptions were blessedly few and brief. Consider the Gospel According to Matthew 19:16-19, and this famous statement from G. K. Chesterton:
“The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.”
Second, when the requirements for compliance are so many and so various, it can become a matter of argument which of the requirements “really matter.” Now, you’d think that the original Ten Commandments, handed by God to Moses during the Jews’ desert wanderings, would take precedence, but it appears that Judaic priests’ promulgation of ever more commands and demands, beginning with those in the book of Leviticus, muddled matters sufficiently to throw that notion into doubt. In consequence, acts explicitly forbidden by the Ten Commandments were placed on an equal footing with trivia such as the halakhic proscription against lighting a candle on the Sabbath.
Third, the ancient, pre-Christian religions, including that of the Jews of first Century Judea, all insisted that there can be no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. The blood shed for that dubious purpose was seldom that of the sinner. It was far more often that of a sacrificial animal, sort of a stand-in for the sinner himself. That was the pervasive belief of the era in which Jesus entered the world as flesh and blood.
It was within that context that the Redeemer sought to establish His New Covenant and persuade men to adopt it. To countervail the weight of the Judaic priesthood and the power of a millennium of tradition, He had to do something so dramatic, and so filled with certainty, that there could be no doubting His sincerity. His acceptance of death by the era’s cruelest forms of torture fit the need so perfectly that no other gesture could compare to it – especially when on the third day He returned from the dead, certifying His Divinity and authority irrefutably.
Yes: the answer to “Why?” is love – Jesus’s divine love for Mankind. He came as a liberator of several kinds. First, He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God and announce that the sins of Mankind would be remitted. Second, He came to replace the old, Levitical Covenant with His New Covenant, a simpler and far more easily comprehended set of rules. Third, He came to set at naught the authority of the Judaic priesthood, an important component in the matrix of oppression of that time and place.
Jesus had to perform His ministry among the Jews for many practical reasons. That requirement, and the conditions it imposed, made His Sacrifice of Himself unavoidable – but not because the sins of Mankind could be remitted in no other fashion! It was a demonstration of His sincerity, His authority, and His love that could never be improved upon. The contrast that it made with the demands of other, current and prior religious “authorities” drove the point home with irresistible force.
Meditation on the intensity of Jesus’s sufferings during His Passion should not evoke a desire to experience them personally – horrible thought! Rather, it should remind us of how great a price the Son of God was willing to pay to make it irrefutably clear not only that He meant what He said, but that He loved us enough to demonstrate it in so extreme a fashion.
He is not content, even Himself, to be a sheer arithmetical unity; He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]
May God bless and keep you all.