For the inaugural post on John’s Apologetics blog, we will be tackling an oft-discussed but not oft-understood aspect of Christ’s death – the pain of the crucifixion.
Before I jump into that, I would like to give a brief introduction to this blog. If the Christian message could be distilled down into three simple words, it would be: “God loves you.” This message is exceedingly powerful, and is one of the major reasons that Christianity has spread all across the globe; in fact, it continues to grow rapidly and is the world’s largest religion. By 2050, there are projected to be 3 billion Christians worldwide, with China and sub-Saharan Africa seeing the most significant growth.
The message of God’s love is exemplified so poignantly in Christ’s death and resurrection that it has become the most recognizable event in human history, both in art and our collective consciousness. We are not talking about Eastern history, or the history of Western civilization, we are talking about the history of humanity. While, of course, the world is full of many non-Christians (and is beautiful and diverse for it), there is something uniquely striking about the image of Christ on the cross. Even the most irreligious may feel a pang of emotion at the artistic portrayals of the crucifixion. We see Christ’s emaciated body, covered with cuts from Roman scourges, his shoulders dislocated, his wrists and ankles nailed, the crown of thorns resting on his brow and a look of quiet acceptance on his face. “It is finished.”
Even if you don’t believe that God became man and endured one of the most barbaric execution methods ever devised, you’ll likely agree that crucifixion undeniably hurt. The process of crucifixion was specially crafted for three distinct purposes: pain, humiliation, and ultimately death. The pain was first, with prisoners being stripped to their underwear and whipped relentlessly with Roman scourges. The scourges were multi-pronged strips of leather with shards of metal knotted into each strip, designed to tear at the flesh each time it made contact. Contemporary Roman historians note that scourging often continued until the prisoner’s bones or veins were visible. The brutality of scourging meant that it was saved for prisoners who were not Roman citizens. As we see later in Acts, Roman citizens had rights that made them exempt from these forms of punishment.
After taking such a barbaric beating, Jesus was already near death. The centurions forced him to carry his heavy cross to the nearby hill of Calvary. He was unable to complete the journey himself and received help from Simon of Cyrene, a bystander in the crowd. By the time he was nailed to the cross and lifted into the air, the end was nigh. When a prisoner is crucified, their shoulders are dislocated, making it difficult for them to keep their body erect. They slowly start to sag downward, putting pressure on the chest and making it increasingly difficult to breathe. To combat this, the prisoner will push back upwards with their legs, temporarily regaining their breath. After a period of time, the legs will become too weak to make this push and the prisoner will asphyxiate. Jesus lasted about three hours.
Arguably the most important part of the Jesus story is the resurrection. If he had just been tortured, killed, and buried, there wouldn’t be much to remember or rally behind apart from his role as a wise and prophetic teacher. However, sometimes Christians can get a bit too wrapped up in the resurrection and forget the gravity of the crucifixion itself. For one, it was the culmination of God’s donning of our human form. He lived the life of a man – sweating, bleeding, feeling heat and cold, and ultimately dying in agony on the cross. This was done to prove a point. God loves us, God suffers alongside us, God hears us, and God is closer than we could ever imagine.
The concept I want to unpack a little further is Christ’s pain. We’ve discussed the physical pain of the scourging and the crucifixion, not to mention the humiliation of being spat on and insulted by the crowd as he dragged his cross through the streets. What isn’t discussed as often is the spiritual pain Christ felt in the lead-up to the crucifixion and during his time on the cross.
An integral Christian concept that can be a bit difficult to understand is the Holy Trinity. I won’t get too much into it, that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother blog post. Instead, I’ll let John do the talking. In John 1, he writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” He continues, “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-2, John 1:14 NIV). The Trinity is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons in one being. If you can, try to imagine three forces engaging in a divine, beautiful sort of dance. They are circling each other and glorifying each other – the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit loves the Father, etc etc. This dance of love has been occurring since before the existence of time or the universe. Even before God had a creation, he loved. The Trinity is love.
So what happens when one part of the Trinity is separated from the others? Christ the Son, who had been with the Father for all of eternity, finds himself huddled on the cold ground of the garden of Gethsemane. His followers, the apostles, sleep nearby. The Son, being God and therefore omniscient, knows what is going to happen to his physical form. He will be barbarically whipped, beaten with sticks, dragged through the streets, and nailed to the cross to die. Even being God, he still occupies the body of a human, he still will feel this pain. Christ asks his Father if there is any way he can avoid crucifixion, already knowing the answer: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, as you will.'” (Matthew 26:39 NIV.) The table is set, but Christ is hesitant to sit.
For the first time, we are seeing Christ push back a bit on his mission. He has been through quite a bit up to this point. He was tempted by Satan in the desert and held fast. He was heckled, demeaned in his hometown, and mobbed by both supporters and detractors. He traveled all over Judea performing incredible miracles, including the raising of Lazarus, a foretelling of his own eventual resurrection. Never once did he truly doubt himself or what he was sent to do. However, here in the garden, faced with what tomorrow holds, we see that Trinitarian dance of love being tested. Three persons in one being. Have you ever not wanted to do something, even though you know you should? Even as humans, we can be of multiple minds.
Finally, we come to the cross, and one of the most well-known bits of dialogue attributed to Christ: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Having spent an eternity in the bosom of the Father, the Son now finds himself separated, dying under the blazing sun as a centurion readies the spear to pierce his side. This separation, this spiritual separation, is a greater pain to Jesus than anything physical that was inflicted. Any hurt that we experience physically in this world is lesser than the greatest hurt there is – separation from God. We see Jesus recognize this on the cross and serve it to us as a powerful lesson with one of his final breaths.
It is the Christian view that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, and here we see him using his last moments of human life to teach us. It is easy to look at any depiction of Christ on the cross and simply think to yourself, “Man, that must have hurt.” It’s a bit more difficult to look further and truly understand the depth of Jesus’ pain. Understanding this pain leads to comprehension of the Christian religion on a more fundamental level. This is what God was willing to go through for us. An unimaginable pain for the free gift of salvation.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s topic! Please come back next week for more.