Followers of Jesus have struggled for centuries to make sense of his death on the cross.
Some, not all, have settled on the “no, take me” scenario, familiar from countless action movies. The hero takes the place of the hostages, declaring, “You don’t need them. Let them go, and do what you want with me!” It’s powerful when the hero steps in for their partner, their spouse, their child. It’s even more impressive when the hero faces pain, suffering or death for someone they don’t even know.
One way some Christians interpret the events of Good Friday is that Jesus “gave his life” in place of the rest of us. He paid a price that was owed, allowing the rest of us to go free. Some ancient storytellers put that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written in the first 75 to 100 years after the first Good Friday.
We admire noble sacrifice and it’s the theme of much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, hymns and sermons. We also deeply crave the assurance we are loved. It resonates on a gut level that Jesus would do this as a loving sacrifice. When we love someone and they’re in pain, or their life is at risk, part of us may want to negotiate with God, the universe, whoever or whatever has the power to allow us to trade our life, our health, in exchange for their well-being.
It’s a powerful wish and a clear statement of love. It’s also a fantasy. In most cases, in real life and in real death, it is not a trade we can actually make.
I have another problem with this interpretation. Think of the movies and television shows in which you have seen this drama played out. The good guys are called in to deal with a life-or-death situation. There are innocent hostages — maybe we identify with them. We have moments when we feel caught between life and death and in need of rescue. There is the hero who puts down their gun, takes off their body armour and offers to be the replacement hostage.
We can easily see Jesus in this role. This is often the moment when the hero raises their hands to show they are unarmed and they look like they are about to be crucified. The villain has been holding hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up or employing some other dastardly means to kill them.
In the movies and TV shows, of which I have obviously watched far too many, there often two reasons the villain would take hostages. The first is the villain wants to trade hostages for safe passage. They want a bus to take them to the airport so they can fly someplace beyond legal reach. The second typical reason is the villain is insane and just wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away.
But what parent in their right mind and with a loving heart would set things up this way?
The hero appeals to the villain’s last vestige of human decency — let the innocents go and accept the hero as a substitute. Sometimes, in the movies, this works. The villain releases the hostages and keeps the hero captive.
In the movies, the hero may have a trick up their sleeve. There’s a clever way to defuse the nuclear warhead or they secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them with the meat cleaver or duck and only suffer a flesh wound when the villain shoots at them.
If it’s a movie with a satisfying end the villain is captured or dies while trying to escape and the hero survives. But in the Good Friday story if we are the hostages and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to die for us, who is the villain? Who needs the hostages or Jesus to die? And why? The way it’s often explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that must be upheld. If a crime is done, a price must be paid. If our sins are crimes, offences against the universe, God the judge needs the price to be paid. There actually aren’t any innocent hostages because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place and pays the price.
When I was in seminary, we learned that this is formally called the penal substitutionary atonement theory. It’s not the only way to think about Jesus’ death, but it is one that informs a certain kind of evangelism that I often find manipulative. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”
The God who acts like judge and executioner rolled into one scary figure and who’d accept the hero as a substitute hostage does not much resemble the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, which means “Daddy,” the loving parent.
But what parent in their right mind and with a loving heart would set things up this way? Did God set up a universe in which we’re all guilty without trial — and sentenced to death — and the only acceptable outcome is to kill the hero? Why set it up that way?
Perhaps the problem is not with God but with this spin on the story. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil and Jesus faced it and sacrificed himself to it even though it wasn’t at all what God wanted for him or for us. If Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. God loves us and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and can accept us without requiring blood sacrifice. I don’t think God killed the hero or desired his death. I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this version of the story needs God to be.
God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the movie, who after the hostages are safely rescued, and the villain dealt with, says,“Are you OK? I was so scared. You’re OK? Good!”Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What they hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”
But that’s not the scene we end with. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross with nothing to take away the pain for him or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed or produced that movie.
Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.