He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.
That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of Good Friday, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.
On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed.
But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.
Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:
- The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
- He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.
The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.
We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.
So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?
I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.
That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.
In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, as in Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that those who want to follow him need to “deny themselves and take up their cross.” He is not carrying the cross in their place. He is not inviting them to watch him die. He is inviting them to do what he is doing. And remarkably, they did.
Luckily for us, being a follower of Jesus is not as dangerous for us as it was for those first disciples. We are not living with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. We are not living in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted.
If we take up the cross at all, we do it symbolically. And safely. That is mostly because we live in the United States of America, but it is at least partly because we are not as faithful in proclaiming the Gospel as an alternative vision of how the world should be.
Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire.
He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a radically different vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice.
The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.
When he invited his followers to take up the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.