Today is a special, sacred day. During Holy Week this day is traditionally called “Good Friday”. It’s a day when people of Christian faith recall, and for some relive, the torment and crucifixion of Jesus before the authorities of his day. It’s a day when Christians find reason to celebrate in a story rife with violence, pain, and death. It’s a day we commemorate with the color black and the gruesome symbol of Roman torture: the cross. But why should this otherwise dark, somber, blood-dripping day be called “Good”? What is Good about Jesus’ death?
That’s right. Nothing.
If today were about death, it would not be Good. It would be bad, very bad.
I’m not surprised that, as Christian, we are often clumsy with this day. We know this day signifies a gift that is mysteriously beautiful and surprisingly wonderful, yet our limited vocabulary about what it means theologically keeps tripping us up. It leaves us with a kind of contradiction–a day of destructive death we celebrate as Good: the goodness of Death.
I’m convinced that many Christians are under the impression there is only one way to embrace what this day means for us as people of faith: namely, through the lens of “penal-substitutionary atonement”. Sure, we may have no clue what the bewildering theological jargon of “penal-substitutionary atonement” means, but most of us draw on it–however unknowingly–to make sense of and talk about this day of Holy Week. We grew up with it, it’s simple, seemingly straightforward, and fits in with other kinds of “hero stories” we know–even it if is “the most precious” one we know.
Simply put, penal-substitionary atonement means something like: God killed Jesus to satisfy a cosmic imbalance brought about by human sin. Yes, God was so injured by human sin that God required the torture and murder of Jesus Christ in order to restore the universe and draw humanity back into relationship with the divine. On those terms, God saves us by an act of terrorism–Jesus was a helpless (innocent) victim, one who was placed by God into human existence and who courageously endured God’s wrath for our sake.
This leads us to talk about the cross as saving us. Sometimes we pan back just a bit and say “Jesus saves us on the cross” or “God saves us by the cross”. We mean roughly the same thing though: the event of Jesus’ crucifixion is the “place” where salvation “happens.”
What happens, and I don’t think many of us actually intend this, is that we chop off the beginning and end of the story and reduce all theology to an event (a cosmic exchange). Jesus’ life and ministry are reduced to a crucifixion prologue, mere evidence for the divinity necessary to stand in appropriately for us. And Easter? Well, that gets reduced to a crucifixion epilogue, confirming proof that Jesus was indeed divine and thus the appropriate stand in for us.
Call me a heretic (though this is not very heretical, if at all), but I think there is another way. For me, Jesus does not save us on the cross, nor does God save us by the cross–the cross does not save us.
God saves us in Jesus Christ. The person of Jesus Christ saves us, not an event (his crucifixion). By faith, we don’t have an abstract relationship with a historical event, but a personal relationship with a savior.
How does this change things?
1) At Jesus’ birth, God is saving us. At Jesus’ baptism, God is saving us. In the healing of the sick and the feeding of the multitudes and the fervant prayers of Jesus, God is saving us. At the last supper, in the garden, before Pilate, carrying the cross… God is saving us. On the cross, God is saving us. Burried in the tomb, God is saving us. Resurrected before Mary, Peter, and the disciples, God is saving us. In the aftermath of Resurrection, in the quivering of our own hearts with the presence of Christ, God is saving us. Salvation is not an event: it is a person, a living person, the Incarnate One. As such, salvation is not confined to one part of the story.
2) Jesus is not a “hero” who courageously endures difficulty to achieve some third thing (called salvation) after he is crucified. No, Jesus’ achievement is himself: he is salvation. Jesus is not a hero, but a Savior.
3) We can reject the suffering, cruelty, and torment of the cross (rather than glorify it in those terms). A more gruesome death does not make for a more wondrous salvation. Jesus’ heroic death does not save us. Jesus saves us.
4) This Friday is not about death. It is Good Friday not because Jesus died, but because his death does not stop God from saving us. The “inner meaning” of Good Friday is Life–not death–the life of Jesus before, during, and after the crucifixion; the Life that shines in his death, despite his death, beyond his death.
This Friday is Good because the story pivots around the person of Jesus Christ, and his story does not end here.