The resurrection of Jesus is at the core of Christianity. For most Christians their religion would not exist without the concept of life after death. It is important that this particular death, the death of Jesus, did not come from “natural” causes, from cancer or a heart attack or a liver disease or from what sometimes is labeled an Act of God, an earthquake or a flood or a tornado. It seems essential that the resurrection, the new life, came after a death caused by man. It was brought about not by an individual; it was not merely a murder or an accident. it was a death exacted by society. It was, in fact, an execution. If the resurrection is at the core of Christianity, at the core of the drama is also a state-enforced death penalty. Is there meaning in the fact that Christianity flows from capital punishment? As far as I am aware, the role of the death penalty in the Easter story is under-played. On the other hand, the method of carrying out the execution, the crucifixion, which by definition requires a cross, has a central role in the symbols of the religion.
Although not all denominations fetishize the stations of the cross, nearly all Christians have an image of a beaten, yet still heroic Jesus struggling to carry the cross to Calvary. And every follower of Christ has looked in wonder at representations of Him on the cross, which, whoever the artist, are strikingly similar. He no longer can keep his head erect; it slumps to the side. He bears a crown of thrones and a wound in His rib cage. Stripped of all but a loin cloth (where did that come from?), He is dead or nearly so, but still powerful with a muscular torso and manly shoulders. Even with death imminent, majesty is present.
Sermons and hymns almost rhapsodize over the agonies of the cross. Nails pounded through flesh, muscle, and bone into the wood. Hanging by the outstretched arms until death (mercifully) came. And this suffering, we are told, was for us, for our redemption, because of our sinfulness, so that we can have everlasting life.
As a boy, I felt that if this suffering were for me and my salvation, Jesus’ agonies had to be unique. How else could His crucifixion work this wondrous change in the future of mankind if that pain and torture were commonplace? Of course, I knew that two others had been crucified with Him and must have suffered similarly, but these deaths were merely an accompaniment to Jesus’ crucifixion. It was confusing, then, when I learned that this mode of execution was not unusual and saw depictions of fields of men nailed to crosses. Many others, I realized, encountered a physical pain that had to be almost identical to what Jesus encountered. If the agony of Jesus was supposed to mean something to me, did the agony of these countless others have special meaning, too?
Although I do not (fully) understand why, Jesus had to be executed for His resurrection to lead to the belief in Jesus’ redemptive power. The crucifixion, however, was not unique to Jesus and many suffered it; therefore His death did not have occur on a cross. But would it matter to Christian belief if a different form of capital punishment had been used? Perhaps it is important that the form was slow and agonizing, but Jesus apparently died a relatively quick death for a crucifixion, as indicated by the centurions’ surprise that He was no longer still alive. But if prolonged agony was important, even a quick form of execution like beheading or a less gruesome form like poisoning could have been preceded by lengthy flagellation and mutilations. And, of course, other horrific execution methods were also used then, such as stoning, impalement, starving, crushing under rocks, burying alive. My question then: What if crucifixion had not been used, but a different form of execution was? Certainly powerful symbols of Christianity would be different. Would that make any difference to Christianity itself? Is belief actually influenced by iconography, and if so, how?