Good Friday, in the Gospel accounts, is the day on which Jesus of Nazareth died. What many people don’t know, or don’t care to know, is that in John’s Gospel, he died on the Thursday.
Confusingly for the rest of us, the Jewish day runs from sunset to sunset, so Friday begins on what you and I call Thursday evening. It was on the Thursday afternoon that the lambs for the Feast of Passover were slaughtered and prepared for the (now Friday) evening meal. John’s Gospel changes the day of Jesus’ death to Thursday because, in that Gospel, he’s called “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. What would be more appropriate, than that ‘the lamb of God’ should die at the same time as the passover lambs were being slaughtered, rather than on the following, Friday, afternoon, as in the other three Gospels. This is one example, among many, which shows that the Gospels aren’t ‘history books’ in our modern understanding of that term.
Similarly, when we’re told that Jesus “died for the sins of the world”, it seems to me that this is not a historical fact but a religious belief, and one that invites, if thought about, some pertinent comments. For example, since ‘sins’ in the Bible are offences against God, those who don’t believe in the Biblical God can’t be sinners, and so don’t need anyone to die for them. Judging by the statistics of regular church attendance, that would seem to apply to most people in this country.
But if we imagine, for the sake of discussion, that we are sinners, the question then arises, why does God need someone to die a humiliating, excruciating and bloody death before he is able to forgive us? Often enough in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, God tells his people that if they regret they’ve done wrong, and demonstrate this in their lives, forgiveness will freely be theirs. That’s how we’d expect any good and decent human father to treat his children, so how can it be either credible or acceptable, that the Biblical God should adamantly demand such brutal punishment? What kind of god does that make him?
Or again, how can it be morally acceptable for a substitute to be put to death instead of the offender? In countries where there’s a death penalty, can you imagine a trial judge saying to a condemned person, it’s ok, I’m putting someone else, who has volunteered for this, to death instead of you? How can anyone with any sense of fairness and justice regard such an arrangement as being rationally and ethically acceptable? The same should apply, it seems to me, to the death of Jesus.
In the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death, his followers came up with various interpretations of what it meant. The idea that he was a substitute for sinful humanity is only one of these and, in my estimation, it’s one that’s now past its use-by date. It tries to meet a ‘need’ most people no longer feel they have, and does so in a way that lacks credibility and ethical acceptability.
My own view is that Jesus was indeed crucified. He was a charismatic Jew, a prophetic preacher, who believed that his God, any day now, was about to establish his kingdom on earth, centred on Jerusalem, and that because of this spectacular restoration of Israel, all the other nations would acknowledge the Jewish God to be the only one. Jesus, however, made powerful enemies among the leaders of his own people, as well as the occupying Roman forces, and for staying true to his vision of a new world order, the cost was his own life. He exemplifies the archetypal hero, who’s prepared to give up his own life in pursuit, as he believes, of better lives for others.
The devil is always in the detail, so let’s sit loosely to all of that, and just appreciate a powerfully dramatic, colourful and emotionally moving story, which has inspired some of the world’s greatest prose, poetry and drama; paintings, frescoes and sculptures; oratorios, passions and requiems. It’s a story which, taken just as that, is more than meaningful enough to challenge the mind, stir the emotions, and inspire the heart to aesthetic accomplishment and altruistic endeavour. What more, I ask myself, do I need than that?