Getting to Easter through Good Friday

by Tim Moore

Good Friday stands on the calendar like an obstacle that must be crossed to get to Easter. You can’t get there without going through Good Friday – at least on the calendar. Theologically? Maybe that’s up for debate.

The prevailing view in the Church is that Jesus died on the cross to save humanity from their sins. Open a hymnal and you’ll see what I mean. But there’s a lot to question about this view of the cross. Did God really kill Jesus because God was angry at the sins of humanity? Why couldn’t God be forgiving, instead of wrathful? And why would your sins and mine destroy our relationship with God?
Can’t God’s love look beyond our problems?

This understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross did not exist during the Church’s first thousand years. Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, created it in the 11th century. Adapted later by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, the Substitutionary Theory of Atonement made Christian salvation dependent upon violence God planned to do to Jesus. Consequently, it’s been used to justify violence against women and people of color and validated the myth of redemptive violence. If we throw away Anselm’s theory, we still have to cross over the cross to get to Easter. If God didn’t kill Jesus to save humanity from their sins on Good Friday, then what happened on that day? Jesus’ death on the cross captivated New Testament writers. Mark devoted over a third of his Gospel to Holy
Week, in John’s nearly half. Paul believed that Jesus’ death had transformative powers. Hebrews said that Jesus died, “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” [Heb 2:9].

What if Jesus had died of old age in a nursing home with a catheter in his bladder? Or after he lost his hair and beard and half his weight to chemotherapy? Or when a drunk driver crossed the line and ran into him head-on? Would his death have been as important? If we embrace the incarnation, the moment Jesus was born in a manger his death was assured – divine nature in tow. Did how make a
difference?

After a thousand years it’s time Christianity re-evaluate how it understands Jesus’ death on the cross. Other theories are out there – Abelard’s medieval focus on God’s love; Moltmann’s Crucified God; the early Church’s idea of Christus Victor; the Eastern Orthodox belief that death was the enemy Jesus defeated on the cross – and they should at least be held up as alternatives to Anselm and Calvin’s Substitutionary Theory of Atonement.

Maybe that’s the best thing we can do in our congregations – to give people options to imagine the cross – so they can explore the ones that speak to their souls. To reflect upon Jesus’ death is to at least reflect upon our own mortality, and upon those we’ve lost and will lose to death, and maybe more important upon the tragic deaths of those unjustly killed.

That alone is worth some silence on Good Friday. And it might get us ready for the hope of Easter – which thankfully we can all agree on. Right! Right???

Tim Moore is the writer-in-residence and former pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He also is a current member of the Alliance of Baptists’ Board of Directors.

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