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|Why Was Jesus Crucified?|
Oct. 28th, 2006 at 12:33 pm
Images and descriptions of Christ’s Crucifixion dominate the Christian understanding of the atonement. Even Mormons summon the gruesome details of Roman capital punishment to buttress the emotional impact of their atonement rhetoric. Yet the accepted Mormon theology places the Grand Finale of Jesus’s mortal ministry squarely in the Garden of Gesthemane. There He bled from every pore atoning for our sins, the sins of the world. Christ did not, strictly speaking, die for our sins.
The execution narrative that follows the story of the atonement appears to be mere epilogue: being betrayed by one of His own, being dragged away to a series of show trials, being brutally beaten and mocked, and being crucified. My question is quite simple: Why?
What follows is my attempt to piece together and analyze four possible explanations (in no particular order).
First, some believe that the very ignominy of crucifixion points to Jesus’ historical legitimacy. Ed Snow has advanced this position in the bloggernacle. The idea is that if early Christians wanted to emphasize the glory of their Messiah, it’s unlikely that they’d say He was crucified unless it actually happened; it constitutes what lawyers call an “admission against interest,” which is among the most powerful kinds of testimony.
Second, Christ’s death fulfilled prophecy. As we read it, the Old Testament is loaded with references to various details of Christ’s life and death. We might surmise that a brutally savage death was necessary to fulfill these prophecies.
Third, the suffering on the cross may well have been Jesus’s final test. Enduring to the end is essential to salvation, and a final test was necessary to seal Jesus’s atoning sacrifice with His blood.
Fourth, one might argue that something brutal and final was needed to make the resurrection dramatic. If He’d have died in private, His death and resurrection could be plausibly interpreted by detractors as simply an emergence from a period of hiding.
It should hardly surprise readers that I don’t find any of these to be persuasive.
Regarding the ignominy the Crucifixion, early Christians likely cherished the story of Jesus’s brutal death as much as we do. The New Testament stories would be a bit anti-climatic if Jesus had simply surrendered His spirit right there on the spot in Gesthemane, or if He’d gone on to live to a ripe old age, died of natural causes, and arose three days later, resurrected with a perfected body.
The second argument, which appeals to prophecy, gets things the wrong way around. Did the crucifixion occur because it was prophesied? Or did men prophecy of Christ’s crucifixion because it was going to occur? Moreover, the second argument seems to beg the question. Why was it necessary to prophecy that He’d suffer a brutal death? Why not prophecy natural causes or drowning?
The third argument that the cross offered a last temptation has a certain appeal, I believe, to those whose Christology focuses on the impact that Jesus’s humanity had on His mission. It is unclear, however, what purpose such extra testing might have served. He’d been tested all His life, including a face-to-face with Satan. He’d already performed the atonement, which was more painful than anything mortals could inflict on Him — everything after the atonement would have been a drop in the bucket.
The notion that a crucifixion was somehow final in a sense that it made Jesus’s death undeniable doesn’t pan out either. The New Testament does not portray the resurrected Jesus appearing to the multitudes of people that He appeared to during his mortal ministry. When the resurrection itself is so poorly documented by modern historical standards, and when the question of whether Jesus lived at all is arguable, it strikes me as a bit silly to focus on the issue of whether He was really dead.
So what’s the answer? As with so much that relates to Christ, I just don’t know. Here’s my tentative (and rather rudimentary) opinion: Listen carefully to the way we Christians talk about Christ’s death, and you’ll begin to see that we need for Him to have died in the most brutally humiliating fashion imaginable. This validates our claim of His greatness by depicting a God who is forgiving enough to save a creation that would execute Him. It is what imbues the Christ tradition with it’s power, with its dramatic force.
I began writing this post about two weeks ago, and I held off publishing it because I’ve hoped to come up with more (and with more convincing) arguments for the necessity of Christ’s crucifixion. This represents everything that I can imagine, but no discussion of Jesus should be hampered by the poverty of my imagination. And as Bertrand Russell said, “no serious argument can be based on what one can or cannot imagine.” So what do you have to say? Is there any sense in which the Crucifixion was necessary? If so, why?