On “Good” Friday and the State of the World


Christians believe that Jesus’ death has something to do with their (and the world’s) salvation. This is understating the belief compared to what you usually hear. “Washed in the blood” and “by his stripes we are healed” are more common; but Christian faith tells us it’s the entire mystery (called Paschal), the incarnation, life, death, descent into “hell,” resurrection, and ascension to glory that saves. Still the death is a key element and not an accident or a mistake, as the Christian story goes. So we call the day on which powers of empire killed Jesus in one of the cruelest torture regimes ever devised "Good Friday." This makes for abhorence or, perhaps, delight among critics wishing to debunk Christianity. It makes Christians think long and hard about what they may have long accepted without question. In this essay I dig into the question and attempt an answer: What is good about Good Friday?".

We observe Jesus going apparently purposefully toward death. That’s not to say that he wanted to die, but he knew that death was out there on the same path as whatever it was he really did want. And that raises the question, What purpose could Jesus possibly have had in mind? Was it a reasonable or even a sane plan? A Christian would want a Yes answer to that last question for at least two reasons. First, Christians think of Jesus' obedience reversing Adam's or humanity's disobedience. It's not obedience if it isn't a free act; and it's not a free act if the actor is deceived, much less if insane. Second, Christians think of Jesus as changing the objective situation of the world (more on that later). Again freedom is required. An unfree act is not determined by a person's will, but it is determined instead by a pattern of acting or by a programed response to a stimulus. It never yields anything new except possibly by accident; and accidents are most likely to turn out badly.  So it’s reasonable for a Christian to want to know what was in Jesus’ mind, how reasonable or in tune with reality Jesus' actions were, and whether Jesus was truly free.

Before going straight to Jesus' mind, though, I’m going to form my own hypothesis about Jesus’ death and how it could be a saving event. Then, assuming that I’m right, the task will be to see, not if Jesus agrees with me, but whether or not Jesus’ understanding was a true one as far as it went. If it was, then Jesus acted freely, Jesus’ obedience to the Father was a human act and not just an accident, and Jesus' contribution to the course of history may have gone beyond what has always been fated to happen.


The first thing one realizes when theologizing about Jesus' death is that the Church has never given an official explanation of how it works for our salvation. Anselm, an 11th century saint and theologian gave an explanation that, in basic outline, has the virtue of staying power. I don't recall any questioning of it in the years, the 1960's, when I learned it. But it has been questioned in modern times by theologians and held up by atheists as a prime exhibit in the case against the Christians' god.  For several years I have been pursuaded that the atheists are right, at least about Anselm's idea. Anselm is explaining why "God became Man" in a book by that title, Cur Deus Homo?  The answer, as I learned it, goes like this:

  1. Humans have sinned against God.
  2. This sin amounts to an infinite offense because God is infinite.
  3. An infinite offense needs infinite satisfaction.
  4. Only God has the necessary infinite power, but the satisfaction must be provided by one of us, since we are the offenders.
  5. To solve the problem God became a human being, Jesus. As a man Jesus offered satisfaction for humanity, and that satisfaction was infinite because Jesus is also God.

It looks like an iron-clad logical argument, but it wasn’t that for Anselm. He explodes his own weak third premise when he says God could have forgiven us with no satisfaction at all. So “needs” in that premise must have some other force than what we imagine when we think, as enamored of science as we are, with our physical-science caps on. But stories have their own kind of necessity, and I think Anselm had this narrative kind in mind. A scientist can take a story apart and find a lack of logical connectivity from one piece to the next, but in a narrative frame of mind we see how beautifully a story hangs together, at least when we get to the end. That kind of necessity even clothes Anselm’s first premise, the sin that in the Christian story leads to “so glorious, so great a redeemer” (sung in the resurrection Liturgy of the Easter Vigil) --which is not the same as saying it was supposed to happen. I’ve long thought that the story Christians tell, just as a story, outshines all the stories of the sciences, the philosophies, and any other religion. I’ve felt—and I think it’s quite natural to feel—that life is a story; and, if so, then the true story would almost have to be a really good one.

Anselm’s story becomes the basis for an atheist critique of Christianity. What kind of god demands infinite payment (whether the death of God’s own Son, or eternity in hell) for the stupid or mean ways that finite human beings behave? Why would a person worship or have anything to do with that god, who reinforces one of our lowest impulses—to even the score, whether by punishing the “naughty” child or executing the murderer? I think Anselm can be defended, with some difficulty, from this criticism, which takes the story out of its place in the biblical thought world and replaces the merciful God with a mechanical “scales of justice.” I’m dissatisfied with Anselm’s story on other grounds. The problem I see is that the path that Anselm has God take (though he could have taken another) doesn’t seem to be the path that the Bible lays out. In fact, I think (and in Part Two I look for evidence) that the Bible’s path is pretty nearly the opposite of Anselm’s. The theory I'm going to suggest in this part is almost Anselm backwards.

What’s good about Anselm’s story is that it places redemption from sin and slavery to sin into the objective world. God is really, objectively, satisfied by the obedience of Jesus. That changes the whole world. Very early in my days of thinking theologically, I missed this crucial point. I saw the crucifixion of Jesus as a demonstration of the true horror of sin. This is what sin does, and it’s so horrible that, once you see it, you have to turn away from it. Jesus frees us from slavery to sin by showing us just how evil it is, so evil that it would crush even the most innocent, the best, God himself. This idea actually has a name, which I didn’t know at the time. It’s called the moral theory of redemption, and it has been rejected by the Church. I can see now that the Church was right. My old theory reduces the saving act of Jesus to a matter of teaching about right and wrong, and Jesus becomes the great, even the greatest, teacher. You can look at the things Jesus taught and see that they’re pretty good. Taken literally you might want to object to some of them, and there are others that require a good bit of historical context or they make no sense at all; but even when you take all that into account, Jesus as teacher comes across just on a par with other great teachers in history—Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, etc. These all changed the world through their students. Jesus’ place in Christianity is not limited to that. Jesus was not just a teacher, not even one whose authority is reinforced by the ability to work miracles (as if having great authority makes one a great teacher, anyway). Christians believe that Jesus changed the world directly.

That was hard for me to see until recently. So here’s my hypotheses that is so much unlike Anselm’s as to be its mirror image: Anselm believe that Jesus gave (and because he was God-man he could do it) to God adequate recompense for humanity’s infinite offense—a real change in the objective world. My nearly opposite idea is that Jesus established in fact, in the real world, the impossibility of any adequate recompense. Jesus simply knocked the scales of justice off of its stand in the heavens. From now on there is no such thing as balance in the world; there is only forgiving and being forgiven, with accompanying (actually subsequent) contrition, conversion of heart, making up, reformation, and growth in love for both the forgiver and the forgiven—or refusal to forgive and rejection of forgiveness offered, continuing and deepening isolation, and widening gulf separating people from each other and from God.

With this hypothesis I’m expanding on an idea some theologians have pursued recently, namely that Jesus’ death (and life as a whole) was not, as commonly thought, a sacrifice to God the Father, a continuation and perfection of the sacrificial system of the Old Law. Some very early Christians conceived of Jesus' death as a payment to the devil, a ransom that freed us from the devil’s chains. This ransom idea connects us with some New Testament language, but Christians soon rejected the idea of paying anything to the devil in favor of the payment to God idea—seemingly more appropriate but, unfortunately, also hanging pretty close to the morally objectionable idea that God demands a pretty high price , even the death of God’s own Son. Some theologians' newer idea is somewhere between these two: Jesus’ sacrifice was a free offering to the persons and institutions that had been demanding the life-blood of victimized individuals and even masses through the ages. Jesus became their willing victim. This is the background for my hypothesis. As I see it Jesus' offering created an imbalance that could not possibly be righted, a tipping of the scales past the breaking point, not by an infinite evil (how could such a thing exist) but by the willing submission of “true God and true man” to a demonic enemy, or one in cahoots with demons, along with free forgiveness offered immediately from the cross. Even God can’t pay that back. I should say, rather, it doesn’t make sense for God to pay it back because it’s a debt that God willingly created.

How to respond, how to live in this new world without the possibility of any balance, of any proportional justice? If one sees oneself—truly, as I hope to show—as participating in that enemy, that demonic quality of the world, then the moral exhortations of the great (but not the only) Teacher, including the central precepts of forgiveness and reconciliation among enemies, have their place. If Jesus not only washed away our sins with his blood and opened the gates of heaven but also effected an objective change in the world, then "standing near the cross" may be more than just a sentiment and a way to save our souls. Self-defense and taking a stand against evil are not ruled out, but appropriate suffering in the face of evil (hunger strikes, Lenten fasts, martyrdom, or daily little sacrifices) may be another way of saving the world. If we understand that revenge, evening the score, meting out justice (however you phrase it) don't cure evil, then we may start using more creative tools (in Part Two we'll see some of Jesus' creativity). "Spare the rod and spoil the child," though it's in the Bible, won't be seen as good Christian advice; but natural and logical consequences, advocated in the U.S. by Rudolf Dreikurs and his followers since the 1940's, which you won't find in the Bible, would seem to be very Christian child-raising techniques. Capital punishment is in the Bible too, but Catholic and other faith leaders are following Jesus when they reject it. My mother taught me that it was a sin to lie even to save the world. I'm sure she got that from a priest or from here parents, who got it from a priest. But if the scales of justice no longer count for anything, then the essence of moral teaching is not about intrinsic evils that by their very being, regardless of consequences, throw reality out of balance and put us on the downward side. Rather, the demands of the universe and the moral requirements for purity of soul are the same as the demands of love.

All of these things no doubt were good advice before Jesus lived. Whether Jesus thought of anything like this first is not important. Innocents suffered, even willingly, in the face of evil before Jesus. We have records of it in the Bible. Jesus didn't have to be first. What Jesus gave us was more than good advice and a good example--plans for building an alternative way of living in the same old world. His gift, before a blueprint for building anew, was the destruction of that old structure. He pushed its foundational weakness to the breaking point by freely suffering the infinite injustice that that no payment or punishment in the old sacrificial system could make right but that could be forgiven. Perhaps he needed to be God to do that suffering and that forgiving, and, if so, then Anselm, with his Cur Deus Homo? -- Why did God Become Human? -- was on to something after all.


This second part is important because Jesus himself, not just what he taught, is so important to the central idea of Part One. The hypothesis presented there depends on a real Jesus acting freely in history to change the world and its history. Jesus, by an amazing free gift of his life to those who, in a travesty of justice, demanded it and his offering of forgiveness on top of that tells the world that God is pointing history in a new direction. No more counting offenses and keeping score. No more the security of quantifiable debts and obligations. Not even the calculation of number of times to forgive (but forgive 70 times 7, i.e. forever). The scales of justice no more rule the relations among people or between people and God. It's disorienting, but to those who can accept their own being forgiven, also freeing.

No new direction is possible except by a free act, and only the truth makes one free. This part examines Jesus’ awareness of his mission, the program Jesus identified for himself. It is assumed that Jesus’ task did not require perfect or complete understanding and that, as truly human, he would not have had that kind of perfection. But a Jesus caught in a false understanding, a Jesus who was not in his right mind as he understood and pursued his final objective, would be a failed Messiah, somewhat different from other would-have-been Messiahs, whether in Jesus’ time or our own. The latters’ plans were interrupted by defeat or death, but Jesus’ plan included his death. Could that possibly be a reasonable or even sane plan? Part Two hopes to tell, if possible, how such a plan, as Jesus understood it, could be reasonable in the cultural world Jesus inhabited, sane, and even effective.

To be continued...