A few years ago I was watching a documentary about Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was presented by Armando Iannucci who had been writing a PhD on Milton before he became a comedian. During the program he explained that he had once considered becoming a Catholic Priest but had lost his faith because he couldn’t see why Jesus had to die.
The conventional answer to this question is that ‘he died for our sins.’ The Crucifixion is seen as way for God to forgive humanity for its sins. But that doesn’t really explain the problem. Why doesn’t God just forgive us? Why is the horror of God himself dying on the cross necessary?
And let us not minimise that horror. Crucifixion is a means not only of execution but also torture:
Someone nailed to a crucifix with their arms stretched out on either side could expect to live for no more than 24 hours. Seven-inch nails would be driven through the wrists so that the bones there could support the body’s weight. The nail would sever the median nerve, which not only caused immense pain but would have paralysed the victim’s hands.
The feet were nailed to the upright part of the crucifix, so that the knees were bent at around 45 degrees. To speed death, executioners would often break the legs of their victims to give no chance of using their thigh muscles as support. It was probably unnecessary, as their strength would not have lasted more than a few minutes even if they were unharmed.
Once the legs gave out, the weight would be transferred to the arms, gradually dragging the shoulders from their sockets. The elbows and wrists would follow a few minutes later; by now, the arms would be six or seven inches longer. The victim would have no choice but to bear his weight on his chest. He would immediately have trouble breathing as the weight caused the rib cage to lift up and force him into an almost perpetual state of inhalation.
Suffocation would usually follow…..
Perhaps the most frequently voiced explanation for this suffering is that without it the demands of justice would have gone unmet: there would have been a crime but no punishment. However, for all its prevalence this view makes little sense. How does punishing an innocent person/deity for the sins of others represent any semblance of justice?
My view on this – largely inspired by the fragments of Calvin’s theology which I understand – is that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were not necessary for humanity’s salvation. Rather they were essential if that salvation was to change us during our earthly existence. It dramatised it for us: showing us human that even when we tried to kill God, he not only survived but continued to love us. It is a dramatic example of unconditional love that even if we cannot follow, we must be humbled by.