The crucifixion of Jesus has had incredible staying power. It’s been a central symbol in the christian tradition for millennia. But what exactly does it mean? And, how is it relevant for us, today?
To begin answering this question, I’d like to contextualize crucifixion. Crucifixion was a political and military punishment among the Romans that was inflicted above all, on the lower classes: slaves, criminals, and the unruly. With rare exception, Roman citizens and those in the upper classes were spared crucifixion, which is why it came to be known as “the slave’s punishment.” Therefore, more often than not, the crucified were people who, on the whole, had few to no rights in the empire.
Scholarship agrees that Roman crucifixion had two primary functions in society. First, it was a means to safeguard law and order in the state. In other words, crucifixion was a means to keep cultural, social, political, and economic structures and systems in place. And second, by the public display of naked victims on crosses at prominent places, crucifixion served as a deterrent, which communicated: don’t mess with these systems and structures or this will happen to you.
With this in mind, Jesus’ crucifixion was first and foremost a sign of solidarity with those who had no rights inside of the empire. And so, whatever else crucifixion may mean, at the very least, it means this: the divine, as reflected through Jesus, reveals solidarity with those who have few to no rights in empire.
Here’s another thought. Depending on the christian tradition that you grew up in, you may understand the crucifixion in terms of “satisfaction atonement.” That is to say, Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied God’s requirement of sacrifice so that our sins might be forgiven. About that, I’d like to say, no. In fact, I think the crucifixion actually subverts that kind of thinking.
Now, before you begin throwing tomatoes at the heretic, I’d like to give you three reasons for why I don’t think of crucifixion in terms of satisfaction atonement: First, it is not the most historical; second, it is not the most logical; third, it is not the most biblical. Let me explain.
Satisfaction atonement is not the most historical perspective on Jesus’ crucifixion. As you can imagine, there’s more to what I’m about to write than I can get into in a reflection, but if you’d like to do a deep dive, I’d encourage reading a book by Gustaf Aulén titled, Christus Victor, an historical study of the three main types of the idea of atonement. It was written in 1931 by a Swedish theologian, so it’s heavy reading, but it’s good reading.
In the book, Aulén makes it abundantly clear that there are at least three ancient theories of atonement. One theory of atonement is satisfaction theory, which I’ve already mentioned. It explains that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied God’s requirement of sacrifice so that our sins might be forgiven. But Aulén argues convincingly that there are at least two other ancient theories for atonement: Moral Exemplar theory and Christus Victor theory.
“Moral Exemplar” theory explains that Jesus’ crucifixion was not meant to change God’s mind about us. Instead, Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to change how we think about God, thereby winning our hearts and turning us toward the divine.
The other theory, which is the most ancient theory, is called “Christus Victor.” This theory explains that Jesus’ crucifixion is a divine fight against and triumph over evil powers in the world. Thus, the crucifixion is the divine’s entrance into and victory over systemic evil, suffering, and death.
I can’t get into all the nuance of these theories in this post, but to be clear, there are other, more ancient perspectives on what Jesus’ crucifixion means theologically, than the theory of satisfaction. And so, the theory of satisfaction is not the most historical.
Nor do I think that the theory of satisfaction is the most logical. Just for a moment, think about it with me. Satisfaction theory explains that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied God’s requirement of sacrifice so that our sins might be forgiven. And to be clear, when we say “sacrifice," we’re thinking of the son of God, Jesus. Hold that thought.
My neighbor’s seventeen year old son got home late one night, a little inebriated, and became indignant that my garbage can was blocking his parking spot along the curb. So, he took a rock and threw it through my front window. A couple days later he felt really bad about his actions and so he came over to my house with his dad to confess his sin and to ask for my forgiveness. I wanted to forgive him. And so, I went into my son’s room and killed him in place of my neighbor’s son. I then went back to my front door and told my neighbor’s son, “You are forgiven.”
Question: does this make any sense outside of a human consciousness that believed that the gods needed to be satiated with blood and that sacrificing a child was the utmost sacrifice? No. That is not logical. It is ancient, barbaric, and violent thinking.
Nor do I think that the theory of satisfaction is the most biblical. Two brief thoughts here. First, a reading from Jeremiah chapter 7:
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the LORD; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.
According to Jeremiah, child sacrifice is an abomination to God, so hideous that God could not even fathom it, let alone require it. And, according to Jeremiah, child sacrifice is part of the reason for Judah’s exile to Babylon. In other words, human sacrifice was not redemptive, it was destructive.
One more thought. We very often blitz from the gospels to the epistles, which at times attempt to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospels don’t provide much theological reasoning for it. Instead, the gospels simply tell us a story. And in their storytelling, Jesus’ crucifixion has nothing to do with an enraged Father-God who requires his son’s blood in order to forgive the world. Instead, Jesus’ crucifixion reveals divine solidarity with the marginalized who are crucified by the privileged. And so, if Jesus’ crucifixion was at the hands of religious and political leaders, and if killing a child has forever been anathema to God, then whatever else crucifixion may mean, it also means that the divine is not behind torture and murder as a means to control and save the world.
A few years ago the daughter of a friend passed away. When she was born, she had many defects and disabilities, and her parents were told that she wouldn’t live beyond a couple years. But then, through the love and tender care of her family, friends, physical therapists, nurses, and doctors, she lived late into her teens.
As I drove to the memorial service I was thinking about this precious life that was an extraordinary light in the world, and I was looking forward to hearing some beautiful stories. I was also thinking about the many people who sacrificed time, money, and ease to extend her life as long as possible, and I was looking forward to honoring those people. And certainly, some beautiful stories were told and some thanks were expressed. However, overall, the service had two main points. First, this young woman is in a better place now, with no pain and no sorrow. Second, the unbelieving family, friends, physical therapists, nurses, and doctors who helped sustain her life were told: if you’d like to one day see this precious child, if you’d prefer heaven over an eternity in hell, then you need to believe these particular and very specific ideas.
Now, I don’t share this story to somehow shame or ridicule what was done. I get it. I grew up in a tradition like that. It’s a tradition that emphasizes words like Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 15:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
And so, we christians think of the future, we put on a smile, and we demonstrate faith. Oh! But in doing so, we very often miss celebrating the eighteen, thirty, fifty, or eighty years of life that mysteriously and spectacularly lived among us. In doing so, we very often miss grieving and feeling the anguish and sorrow of a mysterious and spectacular life that no longer is.
I’m not convinced that this is the way of the divine. In fact, I’m not even sure that this is the way of Paul. I mean, just for a moment, imagine Jesus crying out with a loud voice and breathing his last. The women who supported him with their lives are watching from a distance while his mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved are standing at his feet. The centurion cries out, “Surely he was the son of God.” Then Paul comes running up the hill. He has a huge smile on his face and he proclaims, “Cheer up, people! He is going to rise from the dead!” And sure, in the story Jesus does rise. But it’s three days later. Three days of dank dark and death.
Can we christians, slow down?
Can we christians, stop skipping ahead?
Can we christians, pause to break, to weep, to question?
Can we christians, exist in the darkness, in the loss, and in the hopelessness?
Can we christians, cry out with the human-one, Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I think we ought to. In fact, I think it would be very christian to. Because, in Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the divine present with and participant in, death.
These conceptions of Jesus’ crucifixion have important implications for how we think about death and divinity because, whatever else crucifixion may mean, the crucifixion of Jesus especially reveals divine solidarity with the marginalized who are crucified by the privileged. Whatever else crucifixion may mean, the crucifixion of Jesus especially reveals that the divine is not behind torture and murder as a means to control and save the world. Whatever else crucifixion may mean, the crucifixion of Jesus especially reveals divine presence with and in, death.
And so, like this God, revealed through Jesus, let us christians use our privilege to stand in solidarity with the marginalized. Let us christians move beyond theologies and notions of torture and murder as a means to control and save the world. Let us christians be present with and participatory in the breaking, weeping, and grieving that results from the loss of life in this world.