Over the past week you may have heard (unless you’ve made a point of actively avoiding them) Christians speaking more than Christians usually speak about the core belief of their faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A belief that they emphasise as the most important facet around which the rest of their faith revolves, although you wouldn’t always think this based on what they may say the rest of the year round. This is Easter, though; the anniversary of said event. And we often feel a kind of guilty need at this time of year to emphasise it, because some will feel they have not done the event justice otherwise. The belief goes something like this.
In the beginning man sinned, turning away from God in the process (Genesis, chapter 3). From that time his fate was sealed, although over time, due to the nature of sin, man only found himself becoming worse. God answered this by sending a flood (Genesis chapters 6 – 8), inspiring a film that would come out Easter 2014 and which will be the subject of my next review, partly in judgment, partly for justice and partly for other reasons known only to God. Needless to say this didn’t really solve any issues – from our point of view at least – and one could ultimately argue its main point was to highlight just how deep a problem we’d gotten ourselves into. You may then retort that it’s an unnecessary overreaction if its main purpose was only to prove a point, but bear in mind that if it is indeed true, then whether or not it was an overreaction should probably be the least of your concerns.
Regardless, it didn’t solve the problem of man’s sin. Conversely, it seemed to be a curious story of grace over justice. After the flood, according to the story, God relaxed his laws on man eating meat (Genesis 9: 3-4) and even made a covenant with Noah never to send another natural disaster to destroy the world (Genesis 9: 11-17). You would think, if you were Noah, that surely this meant things could only get better from that point forward. The fact that, if anything, they actually became worse shows again how differently God must think in comparison to us. Our limited minds boggle. How the story continues then serves to boggle them further.
Many years later God sent something else, not in judgment over man’s sin this time, but to save them from the effects of it. This was a man, not a normal everyday man but fully man nonetheless, calling himself Jesus and claiming to have the authority to heal sickness, cast out demons and forgive sins, actions otherwise attributed only to God Himself. It seems that Jesus not only claimed these things, as anyone could do, but actually put them into action, to the extent that this initially unknown 30 year old carpenter rose to public prominence in the space of the next three years, long before the existence of any sort of national press to help spread the story.
You’ll hear people claim that most historians agree about there being a man named Jesus who really existed, who was really killed in a seemingly similar fashion as is described in the Bible, and you may rightly argue that this doesn’t prove anything even if it is true. If a historical Jesus existed, then all it might mean is our version of his story is a highly romanticised, exaggerated version of it; granted. Yet should this be the case, it still stands that the vaguest version of the story, which still has Jesus being killed within three years of his emergence, presents the same natural questions that we should ask even without considering the intricate details of the biblical narrative.
Questions such as; why would the Jewish Elders or Roman soldiers have had any reason to feel threatened by this man, the son of a carpenter who had only recently emerged on the scene, if he had not been showing the signs and wonders we read about? It would make little sense for them to react in such a way if he had merely been making claims and not following through; equally, it would make little sense that Jesus would have gained such a following as he did if he had not been showing evidence of his claims.
You could argue that he was a charismatic trickster, knew how to hold a crowd and pull people under his influence – and this explanation would work, if miracles were the only reason people chose to follow Him. But in fact, Jesus thought of miracles rather as a distraction to the real matter at hand (in Matthew 9: 6-8, Jesus physically heals a paralytic only so he may know that He had authority to forgive sins). He came to love, as God loves, and teach others how to do the same. To show grace and forgive sins, setting up the pattern by which His disciples would later follow. Miracles were never painted as the main event, and don’t let any Christian tell you otherwise – in most cases Jesus himself approached them rather flippantly (when approached by his mother about the lack of wine at a wedding in John 2: 3-4, Jesus responds with ‘My hour has not yet come’… He then goes ahead and turns water into wine anyway; his first miracle).
The so-called signs and wonders shown by Christ were merely an overflow of the thing that was already there, in Christ all along. They were, I would say, like an almost unnecessary show that was needed to attract the audience who would bring Jesus to His final end; His ultimate purpose for coming into the world. It is at this point where many people’s understanding starts to truly break down. But it is true what they say. An understanding of Jesus’ death helps to highlight everything else in an entirely different light.
Jesus not only claimed authority to do things otherwise attributed to God – itself reason enough to be accused of blasphemy. He went a whole astronomical step further, according to our version of events, actually claiming to be God himself. This, I would argue, is what pushed the authorities over the edge. Here was this guy garnering a massive following, putting Himself in the place of their God; something quite different from a mere mimic practising some form of witchcraft. It is the only version of the story, I would argue, that makes Jesus’ public humiliation and crucifixion look absolutely necessary. If he claims to be God and people seem to believe him, why not show them all how wrong they are?
The fact that this was supposedly God’s plan all along is where some will say the real problem comes. Where is the justice in sending an innocent man to die? Why not bring him down from the cross when he was clearly in so much agony, rather than sit and watch as it happens? These very questions were what inspired the mockers’ unbelief as Jesus hung there. They would have thought; surely if this man is who he says he is, He would be able to bring himself down from the cross and prevent himself from dying (Luke 23: 35). So let’s not kid ourselves into believing this kind of thinking is anything new. I grant that it can be a hard thing to comprehend for a perfectly reasonable, sensible mind. But there is a certain way in which it makes complete sense.
You see, even when man sinned and willingly turned away from God, turning instead to something that had no place in paradise, He still loved us. He loves us even “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5: 8). If you’re not the sentimental type (nor am I), you may cringe at this point, wondering why God would need to love us at all and thinking this is just Christianity’s way of appealing to the lonely, needy type of person who buys into the religion because ‘there must surely be more to this otherwise depressing life’. Well, yes, to be honest Christianity does intentionally appeal to those people. In part this was Christ’s mandate – to heal the sick, help the poor and provide hope for those who have none. So the fact that Christianity appeals to people in this way is not manipulative, but missional.
However, God’s love for us is not, I would argue, as simple as the emotional love that we have for each other as humans. That kind of love comes, goes, comes again and even expires. It is, at best, a brief imitation of some deeper mystery. God’s love for us is a creator’s love for His creation, but not just any creation. This was a creation closer to God in image than anything else He has made.
He could continue to love us even when we made it clear that we wanted nothing to do with Him, and even when we didn’t learn from His judgement. He perhaps feels a loyal affiliation with us that one only really feels regarding family and close friends whom we desire to be reconciled with after a long period of estrangement. Jesus’ death on the cross represents that reconciliation. In a sense it was God taking the big step on our behalf, willingly giving up something important to Him (His Son) in order to show us how important it is that we accept the offer and come back home. We are under no obligation to do so. It is a free offer.
There are many who would of course disagree with how I have portrayed the story here. They may say I have not emphasised Christ’s suffering enough, or the true consequences of sin, or the promise of eternal life given by Jesus’ resurrection after three days in the tomb. They would prefer that I appeal to your emotions and win you into the church building by making you feel bad, or fearful, or promising that you’ll live forever. I am less inclined to lead people to Christianity through these methods, because I do not want anyone to believe simply out of wishful thinking. If Christianity was not true, then no doctrine or way of looking at it would matter. No amount of wanting eternal life means that you should jump at whatever offers it.
What I have hoped to show instead is that even when we approach the event of Jesus’ death on the cross without the emotional baggage that comes with it, it still makes sense. It has meaning. His resurrection three days later is arguably a more vital part of the equation, but I have been approaching the topic in the assumption that, should the rest of this story be true, then that part should naturally follow. If you’re convinced that Jesus was God before He went to the cross, you’re less likely to be surprised by the story that He soon walked away from the tomb.