The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the core of Christianity. I have never fully grasped this. Somehow, Jesus died for our (my) sins. I have heard that aphorism many times, but as with many pithy pronouncements, when I tried to analyze it, I had questions. If Jesus had not died, God would have just dismissed me? Condemned me to eternal torment? What about all those people who died before Jesus did? If He died for my sins, am I somehow responsible for His death?
I understood that the resurrection meant that Jesus was not to be considered a mere mortal. For me that meant that I should try to follow his teachings because they had come from a divine being. I was also told that His resurrection assured me of eternal life. This raised even more questions. Before the death and resurrection, Jesus said that all who believed in the Son of God would have eternal life. At another time He is to have said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in Me will live even if he dies.” Even before the resurrection, we were all promised a conditional eternal life. What did the resurrection add to the promises already made?
The devout are clear that His death and resurrection are essential for their faith, but also implicit in their message is that the manner of His death is crucial. It seems important that Jesus’s death 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, or an accident. It seems essential that the resurrection comes after a death caused by man, but not just by one person. A murder—even an assassination–would have been insufficient. Instead, it was a death exacted by society. It was a death by differing authorities who perceived Jesus, with his unorthodox views of the relationships of society, God, and individuals, as a threat to their status quos. Of course, this belief has led to anti-Semitism, but even when Jews aren’t being blamed, humanity in general is somehow the instigator of his death.
Jesus’s death was, in fact, an execution, and executions are always done at a society’s or a community’s instigation. If the resurrection is at the core of Christianity, at the core of the Easter drama is 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 (was someone really concerned about his modesty?), 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. But the death was a lingering one and allowed Jesus to make pronouncements that the religious still try to interpret. 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 when I struggled with religion, I felt that if this suffering were for me and my salvation, Jesus’s agonies surely must have been 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’s 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 an agony that had to be 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’s redemptive power. Crucifixion, however, was not unique to Jesus and many suffered it. That seems to indicate that even if His death was required, it did not have to occur on a cross. 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 were 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 had been? Powerful symbols of Christianity would have to be different. Would that make any difference to Christianity itself? Is belief actually influenced by iconography, and if so, how?