Jesus died … why, again?

The basic message of Christianity, the key part that distinguishes it from the Judaism it grew out of, is that Jesus died on the cross in order to save humanity from our sins. His death was the final, greatest sacrifice which provided atonement for everyone, provided they believe in him as the Messiah and son of God. I hope this characterization of the Christian faith is not controversial.

Here’s what’s been really bugging me lately about this story: Pontius Pilate, Judas, the Jewish high priests … all the people who (according to the Bible stories) played a role in Jesus’ crucifixion, they’re all depicted as bad guys. Good Christian children are not supposed to look to Judas as a role model. He is a betrayer, a traitor to Jesus. We’re supposed to be saddened and outraged in when we read about Jesus’ pain and suffering as he died on the cross, crying out in anguish. What a terrible thing to do to the son of God, to the King of Kings, we are supposed to think.

But … if we are to trust the teachings of Christianity … wasn’t the whole point of Jesus coming to Earth so that he could sacrifice himself and atone for our sins? Wouldn’t it have been, like, extremely shitty for humanity — within the framework of the Christian worldview, of course — if we hadn’t crucified Jesus? There’d be basically no way to get to heaven! We’d all be doomed to infinite torment in hell!

So, I don’t get it. Why don’t Christian pastors routinely celebrate and thank Judas in their sermons? Why isn’t there a holiday commemorating the Sanhedrin for the role they played in securing salvation for humanity? Why, instead, have Christians throughout history slandered Jews by calling them “Christ-killers”? For that matter, why is it even a bad thing to be an essential part of what is supposed to be the greatest gift given to humankind since the Garden of Eden?

Terribly inconsistent, isn’t it? I mean, it’s almost like this whole story is a myth cobbled together after the fact by people scrambling to explain why their megalomaniac cult leader got himself killed…

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  1. My initial response–and this is just my gut-level impression based on your question–is to remind us of why Jesus died in the first place: To enable us to be in relationship with a holy God again. Our sin separated us from God and brought us death. Christ’s death and resurrection enables us to live. Thus, we can be horrified by the actions of Judas and others because they embody, in a literal way, man’s separation from God. The fact that God can and does use Redemption to turn it all around for our good is one of the super-cool things that thrills me about Christianity.

    Put a slightly different way: The reason Christ had to die was because He loves us even when we’re sinners. Our sin is ugly, nasty, horrific… just like Christ’s death. We do not celebrate our sin and its role in Christ’s death any more than it would make sense to celebrate those who were physically part of it. As way of example: We celebrate the fallen of war, not the reasons we went to war in the first place. Doing so, like your post above, confuses the cause and effect. We celebrate Christ’s death because it brings us life, not the fact that we–and those around us–are death without it.

    As for the point about calling Jews Christ-killers: They asked for it. Literally. Now, again, I’m big on redemption and grace and stuff, so I certainly wouldn’t support any kind of antisemitism–especially since I’m part Jewish [smile]. But to call a statement of fact “slander” is … odd. Belittling Jews for their role in Christ’s death is equally odd, since our separation from God is the real reason why Christ died.


  2. Luke, do you think it is appropriate to punish people for sins of their ancestors? When you say “Our sin separated us from God” you are talking of adam and eve correct? Is it just for people to be punished by a sin which was committed long before they were born?

    Same thing with your whole “they asked for it.” Do you think it is appropriate for that blood to be on their children’s hands? I find that very idea to be offensive.

  3. Back when I was Christian, this bothered me a lot. It’s actually worse than you describe, because Jesus specifically recruited Judas to follow him. And yet, Jesus taught his disciples to pray “lead me not into temptation” but that’s exactly what Jesus did to Judas. If we were to take the story of the crucifixion at face value, it is frankly deplorable, and the mastermind behind it is a criminal.

  4. hausdorff—Yes it is appropriate to do so as their gawd shows this is the way to do things. As it was this very point that luke talks about that literally threw me out of the seminary. They where going on and on about the original sin and our general sinful nature when the total BS nature of their argument finally hit home and threw the switch to send me home an atheist.
    And besides on its surface, never mind deep down, the whole judas-jew-killer thing sounds like BS and just an excuse to put blame on anyone other then the one that planned this whole silliness. And it helps when the jews had power and wealth to get them killed to claim their weath-property-power.
    But on the Judas thing I agree that as stated the story shows Judas as the hero who did the hard thing and then could not live with it. Jesus who have had only the best, most devote follower do that act to insure that it got done correctly.

  5. Luke, your answer frankly makes no sense to me whatsoever. You write, “Thus, we can be horrified by the actions of Judas and others because they embody, in a literal way, man’s separation from God.” How is that so, if God’s plans were carried out by their actions?

  6. hausdorff,
    No, we are not punished for the sins of our ancestors. I personally have not studied all the ins and outs of the various views on Original Sin, so I’m not sure what others say about it. My personal take on the whole thing would be something like the Fall (Original Sin) separated us from God so we now seek our ways, not His. We are, thus, punished for our own sins which we all commit. Original Sin is not credited against us, it’s “merely” the catalyst for our current state. We know that actions of others can have a profound effect on us. As way of example: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In a way, we have been disable by the Fall and are in desperate need of healing… which only comes through Christ.

    “Do you think it is appropriate for that blood to be on their children’s hands?” No. Sorry, that wasn’t my point at all. My point was merely that calling a factual statement–with an ironic twist–is not at all slander. I’m sorry the rest of the stuff I wrote in that paragraph didn’t come across.

    I’m sorry I failed to communicate. God’s plan for humanity is for us to live in relationship with Him. That was broken with sin. Christ came to provide a way to repair the relationship. The mechanism was His death and resurrection. But, like my war analogy, Christ came to bring peace. We celebrate that He did that. We do not celebrate that there was a “war” to begin with, or those who sought to destroy Him. Both would be horribly inappropriate.

    Rather than seeing sin as the reason for Chirst’s death, I get the impression that you see God as the reason for Chirst’s death. In this view, Judas (and others) acted as God’s High Priest(s) who carried out His ultimate sacrifice. The irony in this is that the religious leaders, for generations, had been performing the sacrifices leading up to this one and missed the fact that this was it. There is nothing, that I know of, that in any way indicates that they have any idea what they are doing. And, as with all sacrifices, those who perform it are not the ones to be celebrated. The person offering it can be, and restoration should be.

    Hope that’s a little clearer.


  7. No not clearer at all. You seem to be saying that our “sinful nature” is both our fault and not our fault. That we are subject to Original Sin, so we can’t help but do wrong, but then are punished for our own wrongdoings. That somehow an all-powerful god had a perfect plan that we imperfect beings still managed to break. This is some strong cognitive dissonance here.

    But as to Judas, I much prefer the version in the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas”. There Jesus takes Judas aside, tells him that he needs Judas to turn him in as part of god’s plan, tells Judas that people will revile him for this, and so as a reward gives Judas a bunch of secret knowledge that he does not give the other disciples. This is a much more coherent story, but it does not allow for placing any blame on the Jews, so naturally the Roman church suppressed this version.

  8. Adam and Eve started this for all of us. Their sin doomed everyone after them. This is pretty uncontroversial stuff, at least in the American Evangelical community. I don’t believe it, but I used to.

  9. I’m a little pressed for time but saw all this and though I’d throw in m 2 cents.

    The conversations here are riddled with presuppositions which are very damaging. Let me start with original sin. This doctrine is not universally accepted among Christians, and has only been abstracted by some theologians. The truth is, with or without original sin we have sins enough to be judged by. This position does, of course, take for granted that there is a supreme, creative consciousness that determines morality, but that is another conversation. However, it is clear in Abrahamic beliefs that there is some sort of “fall” that corrupted the nature of creation (and I think pretty clear by observing the world as well). If there is original sin, its a matter or “product,” not necessarily “judgment.” Men, as a product of the fall, are inclined towards evil.

    Secondly, I see that we all have the corner market on how to define free will here. The Christian doctrines on freewill and predetermination are far from being uniform, and simply because it fits in God’s “plan” for a particular person to do something, doesn’t mean that that individual had no part in making the decisions.The story of Jesus’ death is very much in line with stories from the Torah. Do Jews praise Pharaoh for having Jewish children killed? Of course not. Yet it is because of this decree that Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s home and set on the path to delivering the Hebrews. In the story of Joseph we also see that God would use the evil of many people to the ultimate benefit of Israel. Then what Joseph says to his brothers when they are finally reconciled is “you intended it for evil, but God used it for good” (not an exact quote), and this is the same attitude we take with Moses, and with Jesus. So the point here is that, however you want to define the relation between freewill and predetermination, it is clear that it is from the wicked nature in them that Pharaoh, Jacob’s son, and Judas acted, and God is simply taking their evil and turning it for good. It was the Holocaust and other related Jewish genocides that ultimately led to Jews having their own nation again, but do we celebrate Hitler or Stalin? I certainly hope not.

    Finally, just because someone puts on a Jesus mask and beats people up doesn’t mean that Jesus or God has sanctioned it. It is not proper Christian practice to hate Judas or Pilate, and it is certainly not proper for Christians to hate Jews or act out in any kind of violence towards them. Jesus teaches to love those who hate you, and to love them in a tangible way. You won’t find anything in the Christian bible that tells you otherwise, so the whole premise of this conversation is off base. You’re mad about what people did with Christianity, not Christianity itself.

  10. Hi. I just happened upon your thoughtful blog as I was looking for images of Mooby, the golden calf from the film “Dogma.” I thought I would reply to this particular blog as I have a different take on what others seem to take for granted. I do find the thought of Jesus’ death as atonement very controversial. Too much has been made of the reason behind divine motives in this particular cruel death. In fact, I often feel that Christianity has been hijacked by those who have us believe that humans are completely depraved due to “original sin,” a non-biblical concept that was first brought about by the musings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-450). One of the stories of creation in Genesis talks about the “fall” of humankind from “God’s grace.” Using other bits and pieces of scripture from the Jewish scriptures and Christian scriptures, Augustine dutifully promoted a system of thought around justification and sanctity that we now call “original sin.” It was a well-thought out well-intentioned system of theology. However, in dealing with the inherent paradoxes of divergent messages from variously chosen pieces of scripture, the focus came to be on the death of Jesus on the cross and why a loving God would allow his son to suffer in this way. There must be a reason for this. Augustine’s eloquent answer is that he suffered for the sins of the world, redeeming humans in the sight of God for all time. I personally can understand that but I think that the emphasis has been misplaced. The story of redemption for humans is at the story of the resurrection. We are redeemed because God has given us life. Jesus rises from the dead and his followers find an empty tomb where there should have been grief and sorrow. That’s where the true emphasis of “justification” should lie–not in “original sin.” I like to call it “original redemption.” It has less to do with punishment of creatures falling away from perfection and more to do with reestablishing our own vision of understanding our own existence in relationship with all of creation around us.

    As for Judas and the Jews in authority who hand over Jesus to be put to death. Did God condemn them? If God is omniscient, omnipotent, ubiquitous, etc, then why would God allow the serpent in the garden, Judas to be born, his “Son” Jesus to be put to a cruel death and allow a world to suffer so much. There are those so-called “Christians” who believe that it is because we sow what we reap, i.e., we deserve it. God is a cruel God who will get his own capricious justice for his own sake one day or another. The behavior has been to wrap these inconsistencies in scriptures in a bloody, cruel theology of “personal salvation from original sin.” This theology allowed early European conquerors in the Americas to slaughter millions for gain of “personal salvation.” It is time to abandon such an unsuccessful theology and turn instead to a redemptive theology of life. What if God is the relationship between you and me and the relationship between us and the created cosmos? What if it simply exists and does not call for worship or defense, but instead calls us for acknowledgement (which is a type of worship)? I like to think: “What if they’re wrong and that which is divine simply exists between us anyway?”

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts on your interesting post.

    Donald Whipple Fox / Hushasha, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

  11. Zarathustra

     /  November 8, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Bottom line… Geebus died because he was just an ordinary man… unable, even, to save his own pathetic life.

  12. One might draw a parallel with Abraham and Isaac. Christians laud Abraham for obeying God and placing his only son on the altar, knife poised. Yet we don’t laud Judas et al. for effectively doing the same thing.

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