Friday, April 18, 2014

Christ's horrific death on Good Friday

Jürgen Moltmann's The Crucified God is one of the most personally influential books I have ever read. It helped me to appreciate and to understand the theological as well as socio-ethical importance of the utter godlessness of Christ's death on the cross. It inspired the title and tagline of this blog: a blog about the Son of God, abandoned by God.

Moltmann does a good job of noting the disturbing quality of Christ's death compared to the martyrs of history:

Socrates died as a wise man. Cheerfully and calmly he drank the cup of hemlock. This was a demonstration of magnanimity, and was also a testimony to the immortality of the soul, which Plato tells us he taught. For him, death was a breakthrough to a higher, purer life. Thus his farewell was not difficult. . . .

The Zealot martyrs who were crucified after the unsuccessful revolts against the Romans died conscious of their righteousness in the sight of God, and looked forward to their resurrection to eternal life just as they looked forward to the resurrection of their lawless enemies, and of the transgressors of the law who had betrayed them, to eternal shame. . . .

The wise men of the Stoics demonstrated to the tyrants in the arena, where they were torn to pieces by wild animals, their inner liberty and their superiority. 'Without fear and without hope,' as we are told, they endured in freedom and demonstrated to their fearful overlords and horrified crowds their complete lack of terror even at their own death.

The Christian martyrs too went calmly and in faith to their death. Conscious of being crucified with Christ and receiving the baptism of blood, and of thereby being united for ever with Christ, they went to their death in 'hope against hope.' . . . 

Jesus clearly died in a different way. His death was not a 'fine death'. The synoptic gospels agree that he was 'greatly distressed and troubled' (Mark 14.33 par.) and that his soul was sorrowful even to death. He died 'with loud cries and tears', according to the Epistle to the Hebrews (5.7). According to mark 15.37 he died with a loud, incoherent cry. . . . Jesus clearly died with every expression of the most profound horror (The Crucified God, pp. 145-6).

Jesus' death was horrific because there he experienced utter abandonment by God. This is a crucial element of Christ's incarnation, because insofar as God becomes human he takes upon himself the accursed condition to which humanity had been condemned. But through his incarnation, through taking upon himself the burden of humanity's sin, through becoming sin himself (cf. Rom 8.3; 2 Cor 5.21), he offers himself to undergo that to which humanity had been condemned so that humanity might live instead. Through his incarnation, he confronts the curse of sin and death and utterly destroys it, even as he succumbs to it in death on Friday.

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finite of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him (p. 276).

Christ's death is horrific because this is what being in the world apart from God amounts to. It is too easy to think of ourselves as "not that bad, really," as if human persons are fundamentally alright at the end of the day, because we don't regularly commit horrific acts of violence and terror. But the cross of Christ shows us that even those whom we would consider most godly -- the Pharisees and the temple authorities, in the case of 1C Palestine -- are capable of committing deicide if their toes are stepped on.

More than that, Christ's death shows us to what end humanity ought to be abandoned in light of its sin. Sin is a deeply rooted perverting force in human nature, and if we went on living forever as we are now, there is no telling what calamity might befall the creation. This is why sin must be destroyed: otherwise it will destroy everything else.

But God, the good creator of all there is, will not allow that his creation be destroyed along with the destruction of sin. As Athanasius says, it is beneath God's goodness that he allow the works of his hands to be undone, whether by its own fault or through the deceit of another. His way is one of repair and not just destruction. Therefore he incarnates, takes upon himself the curse and death and abandonment to which humanity had been condemned, and exhausts it and totally consumes it. But he also sanctifies human nature in his own person, he restores the imago dei which had been marred and lost by sin, and offers himself to all; through union with him, we too are transformed, the image restored, and we begin to exhibit and exemplify that life for which all humanity had been created -- a life in fellowship with the Holy Trinity.