As a child, I grew up both terrified and fascinated by the sculpture of a dying man that hung on the wall of my grandmother’s church. As the priest evenly intoned through the mass, my gaze would slide up to the statue, darting back down when I saw the nails in the statue’s wrists. A few moments later, my eyes would inch their way up again. Invariably, I would end up having nightmares that night, related to the wrongly-accused Jesus hanging on the cross. After a few years, this image of the cross became somewhat sanitized in my mind; it gained the somewhat more dignified title of “crucifix.” Overall, the genre of statue seemed more artistic, somehow more tragically romantic, than frightening. There may, however, be some wisdom in my childhood fear. In fact, the biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ actually has more in common with a horror movie than a romance. That said, in the midst of the cross’ darkness, God’s justice and love for humanity becomes clearer than ever before, and the object of horror becomes a beacon of hope.
According to philosopher Noel Carroll, an object must contain a “compound of threat and impurity” in order to be dubbed truly “horrific.” The crucifixion of Jesus Christ contains both elements. It is hard to understate the undercurrent of threat present in the historical Roman practice of crucifixion. The governors of first-century Roman provinces specifically used this form of execution as an intimidation tactic to put down potential insurrection. A number of forensic texts speak on the medical nature of their methods, and, without putting too fine a point on it, there were about a dozen ways that a subject of crucifixion could die throughout the process; the top killers seem to have been shock from blood loss, suffocation, and exposure. The process may have been slow, but it was effective, and it was extremely painful. There is good reason why full Roman citizens were legally exempt from the practice.
Apart from the physical pain, which any of the tens of thousands of people who were killed on Roman crosses may have faced, there is a certain sense of impurity attached to this particular instance. A bloody, public execution is a humiliating way for anyone to die—especially a death under false accusation (Matthew 27). This form of death held particular weight in not only Roman culture—it echoes the Old-Testament principle that anyone whose body is “hanged on a tree is cursed by God” due to the desiccation that accompanies the exposure of a corpse (Deuteronomy 21:23, Galatians 3:13). Yet Christianity takes this several steps further. The Bible states that Jesus was not only innocent of his supposed crimes, but that he never did anything wrong whatsoever (1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15) and, furthermore that he was God in human form (John 1:1, Colossians 2:9). The doctrine of the Christian cross is an inherently offensive doctrine because it asserts that at one point in history, humans took hold of God himself—the perfect creator of the entire universe—and executed him in this torturous manner. Far from a heroic-looking or romantic death narrative, the account of Jesus’ crucifixion smacks of a sick cosmic anarchy. So why, exactly, has Christianity embraced the narrative of the crucifixion so fully for 2,000 years?
In order to understand why Christians are not just a bunch of sadists, it helps to consider why Jesus had to die in the first place. It centers around sin, which can be most simply defined as “every human’s fundamental tendency to screw good things up.” It doesn’t take much effort to observe this tendency in our world today—selfishness, oppression, and violence splash themselves across our headlines, through our actions, and through our minds on a constant basis. If this sin makes us, as people, justly angry, it is only logical that it would make God, the perfectly sinless creator of humanity, justly angry, as well. In fact, the Bible explains that God, by virtue of his goodness, destroys and punishes these imperfections—somewhat like the way a fire naturally consumes dead leaves (Psalm 5:4). Tragically, every member of humanity has committed sin against God and each other. To put it succinctly: everyone screwed up, and everyone has to pay for it. More unfortunately, in the words of Paul in the epistle to the Romans, “the wages of sin is death”—the experience of living in a dying world, temporary death at the end of life, and eternal death in the anger of a just and righteous God.
“‘I am the living one! I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys to death and the grave!’”
Or maybe not. Enter Jesus, a man seemingly very aware and assertive of the fact that he is literally God in human form (John 8:58). Apart from his status as the Creator and Sustainer of everything, this would make Him the primary offended party when it comes to sin. And yet, He seems equally assertive of the fact that His life’s mission is to somehow reconcile the world and its people to Himself. This, however, would involve taking on those “wages” mentioned earlier—Jesus knows and says that he has come to shoulder God’s curse of death, the punishment due to humans, in all of its forms. Furthermore, he says that he will do so “willingly,” in order to reconcile humanity to God fully (John 10:18). Oddly enough, Jesus predicts the manner of his death, too—execution by flogging and crucifixion (Matthew 20:19). Why a cross, specifically? Not only is this manner of death an illustration of God’s curse, Jesus notes that his manner of death echoes the Old-Testament image of a bronze snake that was “lifted up” so that the ancient Israelites who were dying of plague could be healed by the sight of it (Deuteronomy 21:23, John 3:14). In doing so, Jesus declares His sacrifice a public display of hope and healing. We, as humans, are plagued by sin and its consequences, and yet He—the “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”—took all of that spiritual plague upon Himself so we wouldn’t have to bear it (Hebrews 1:3). His final words, breathed out between suffocated breaths, serve to confidently seal the full exchange of our sickness for his healing: “It is finished” (John 19:30).
The cross not only demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s justice, but the depths of His love and mercy towards humanity. Even as humanity unjustly nailed Him to the cross, Jesus asked for the perpetrators to be forgiven (Romans 5:8). But, there is a deeper dimension to this love: God, the one who hates sin so much that he must destroy it, let himself be destroyed in order to spare his people from the consequences of their own actions. This is an extravagant mercy, completely unparalleled in any other circumstance. The cross is not just a symbol of a good man dying because of screwed-up people. It is the remembrance of a good God covering the sins of his screwed-up people with his own blood.
Furthermore, the story of Jesus’ cross doesn’t end in death. Three days after our debt had been paid, three days after Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, God raised Him bodily from the dead (Acts 13:28-31). The threat and the impurity of the cross, along with the powers of sin and death that it represented, was obliterated in the victory of Jesus’ sacrificial love. His quiet “it is finished” has become a shout of triumph: “I am the living one! I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys to death and the grave!” (Revelation 1:18). Jesus is not only free from death—he rules over it. If God can transform the most miserable of deaths into a wellspring of life available to everyone, what’s left on this earth that can make his followers rightly afraid? Christians are called to “deny ourselves and take up our crosses” to follow Jesus. That sounds threatening and humiliating, but there is hope, because God, the one who took the threat and humiliation of the cross upon Himself, has gone before us. He will be with us, always, until He returns to share his victory with us (Matthew 28:20).
So why have I, who flinched to look at a crucifix as a child and who regarded it as mere art later on, now come to love the cross? I suppose that I, and Christians around the world, love the cross in its irony—the irony that God came to take the punishment for the very ones who had wronged him. The irony that in Jesus Christ’s dying, his followers gain eternal life. The irony that God can craft the deepest, most horrific suffering into the source of even deeper joy. We love the cross because it is a reminder that, because of Jesus, we need not fear it, nor anything that it stands for, ever again.
1 Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
2 For more information, please refer to “The Crucifixion—A Forensic Approach”
3 Gildenhard, Ingo, and Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero, Against Verres, 2.1.53-86: Latin Text with Introduction, Study Questions, Commentary and English Translation. Cambridge: Open Book, 2011. Open Book Publishers. 2011. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
Article written by Tori Campbell, MC ’16