A bit of a morbid subject matter considering the time of year we have arrived at, but nevertheless an important question to consider all-year-round. As we all sit down and get ready to tuck into our Christmas lunches tomorrow afternoon, we must consider that the reason we celebrate Christmas (Roman politics aside), is to acknowledge the birth of Jesus. As this boy grew up into a man and began his ministry, he embarked on a journey that would eventually lead to him being revered all around the world and widely regarded as the messiah, the Son of God, God incarnate; these are ideas I shall deal within this discussion and will lead me to ask the question: was Jesus’ execution necessary, in order for him to ‘fulfill his purpose’?
Now I don’t mean to brag, but the subject of Christology is something I’m quite confident and comfortable with; my dissertation was written on the subject of liberal vs conservative understandings of Christ and I’ve spent many hours researching and debating the topic with friends, family, students and lecturers. Christology is the area of theology that deals with the person of Christ both historically, and more importantly theologically. Undoubtedly intertwined with this area of doctrine is Salvation/Atonement, Soteriology, and to some extent Eschatology, all of which are owed some form of definition. Let’s take a look at the traditional understanding of these areas of theology:
Christology: The traditional understanding of Jesus’ existence is that he was simultaneously divine and human; he was God incarnate. God manifested Himself as a human in order to live among and die for us. This classic idea often goes hand-in-hand with a belief in the Holy Trinity. God exists as the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit simultaneously whilst each of these three personas are mutually exclusive of each other; the Son is not the Father, just as the Holy Spirit is not the Son. This is quite a difficult concept to attempt to grasp and as this article moves forward, I will highlight some of the issues in this traditional understanding.
Salvation/Atonement: Undoubtedly one of the most important doctrinal areas attached to Christology, the traditional ideas surrounding Salvation and Atonement dictate that Jesus died on the cross in order to save humanity from its sins. Just exactly how this works logically isn’t often considered in conservative branches of Christianity, instead the idea of a celestial ransom is adopted; God offered Jesus as payment to the devil in order to rid humanity of its sins. This is just one of the conservative theologies concerning Salvation and Atonement but sadly I don’t have the time nor the requirement to go into this area in any great detail. Needless to say, the traditional theology of Salvation/Atonement sees Jesus’ death as a literal salvific event that rid humanity of its sins.
Soteriology: This is understood as the work of Jesus throughout his life. There isn’t much else to say on this area of theology that adds anything insightful to this discussion; the miracles that Jesus is reported to have performed in the Gospels would contribute to a Soteriological understanding of Jesus as being divine.
Eschatology: Any theology that discusses the ‘end things’ or the events that occur following one’s departure from the physical world, comes under the term of Eschatology. Jesus’ death and resurrection serves as an example to humanity what one can expect to happen upon completion of one’s journey to ‘perfection’. If one understands life as a journey of gradual perfection, once the ultimate level of humanity is achieved (as seen with Jesus), then one may enjoy an existence in unison with the Father. In addition to this, the bodily resurrection of Jesus serves as a demonstration of what is documented in the book of Revelation. Upon the arrival of the Day of Judgement, all human beings with be resurrected in an embodied existence to face judgement by God.
Now having considered all of the above, we can begin to move more in the direction of the question at hand: was Jesus’ execution necessary in order for him to fulfill his purpose? Traditionally speaking, yes. If we take the traditional idea of Jesus being God incarnate then it is impossible to suggest that salvation could have occurred without his death. As God is traditionally understood to be omnipotent and omniscient then it must acknowledged that He knew the necessary path to take in order for salvation to occur. We see evidence of this in the New Testament account of Jesus’ final days, when it is documented that Jesus knew of his fate and what he had to endure in order to fulfill his purpose:
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. – Matthew 16:21
This is not the only suggestion of the necessity of Jesus’ death by execution. One may argue that a traditional understanding of Salvation and Atonement may also pave the way for the question at hand to be verified. If the only way to secure and guarantee humanity’s salvation was to satisfy the forces of evil (i.e. Satan), then Jesus had to be be offered as a ransom payment; there was no other solution! Of course the above two points are centred on a traditional understanding of Christian theology, something that those of you who are familiar with my writing will know is not something I proclaim to believe in. So let’s take another look at this question, but this time, from a liberal perspective.
I’ve already defined what liberal theology is many times in previous articles I’ve written so I shan’t endevour to repeat it here. A liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine may alter the answer to the posed question quite significantly, so it is important to clearly set out my own personal Christology. I am undoubtedly influenced by the work of John Hick and my dissertation research only helped to reinforce the faith I placed in Hick’s theology. His Christology argues against all traditional accounts of Jesus’ co-existent divine and human natures, instead suggesting a purely human existence that was lived in perfect response to the divine, based on the grounds that a supposed God-Man is both logically and metaphysically impossible and unjustifiable. Instead, the divinity of Jesus is to be understood as metaphorical. Just as Martin Luther King, Churchill and Mandela embodied the will and spirit of millions of people to fight injustice and to change the world, Jesus embodied the characteristics one would usually attribute to God and used them to bring about a new message of love, hope and peace. We do not say that King was literally the will of the millions of racially oppressed people; we do not say that Churchill was literally the will of the entire British population; we then cannot say that Jesus was literally divine or Godlike.
So, if we understand Jesus as a fully human man who embodied the characteristics of God, how then are we to understand the significance attributed to his execution? What was so special about it? Those of you who were alive when Luther King was shot will know the impact it had on the world. We know the impact that Mandela’s suffering in prison had on the world. My point being that the suffering of these exemplar people influenced the world to change for the better; in the two above examples, the segregation of white and black people was gradually abolished and the idea now is abhorrent to (most) people in the 21st Century. So too was it with Jesus’ death. People then and now can see the positive work Jesus was attempting in First Century Palestine; he preached a message of loving one’s neighbour and enemy the same, to turn the other cheek when someone wrongs you – this was all pretty revolutionary stuff considering the Jewish notions seeking just revenge, “an eye for an eye” for example.
When Jesus was executed, it sent a message to people; it was inspirational. People saw that this man was killed for preaching what he believed in and so inspired others to attempt to live their lives in a similar fashion. Now in terms of religiosity, Jesus’ death and suffering was perhaps more significant than that of King and Mandela, in that it is understood that Jesus lived in what may be called ‘perfect response to God’; this then is the inspired way of living seen by people across the world. If people who follow the example of Jesus (i.e. Christians) are now inspired to live their lives in a similar way to their ‘saviour’ and aim to live in perfect response to the divine, and Jesus’ execution is the event through which this inspiration took place, then it is undeniable to assert that the torture and execution of Jesus was necessary. This assertion then leads one to speculate that there must have existed some sort of divine plan in place to ensure that the ‘event of inspiration’ took place. What would have happened if the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Jewish High Priests had simply turned a blind eye to Jesus’ then heresy? Or can it be clearly said that it was inevitable for Jesus to be arrested and executed?
The suggestion of a divine plan of sorts has had me thinking this past week and is the sole reason for my writing of this piece. I believe that Jesus’ execution is the reason humanity was and continues to be inspired to live better lives, but I am also under no illusion that his execution is the catalyst through which this inspiration took place. If Jesus had have been left alive then his eventual natural death would have had less an impact on those around him and the world; would we still have been as inspired to live a life akin to his? The possibility of a divine plan points to a more close relationship between Jesus and God that I have ever previously considered, not to mention dramatically altering my concept of God from a transcendent creating force with no involvement in the world, to some form of immanent entity that can influence events that take place on Earth.
But I am man of principle and I refuse to accept the above suggestions. There is no logical explanation as to how or why God could interact with the world on an immanent level, let alone alter the events of one single man’s life; nor does it occur to me that it is at all possible that Jesus was more than a highly inspirational man who has helped shape the morality of millions of people across the world. So taking this into account, it appears as though the necessity of Jesus’ execution is called into question as the two certainties (the necessity of his execution and my Christology and theology of God) are incompatible. So, was Jesus’ execution necessary in order to fulfill his purpose? My answer, no.
If we look at Jesus’ life it was already clear that he was amassing a large following of those people who liked what they were hearing; these people were being inspired to live lives akin to Jesus. As with all religious sects and cults, the more following they gain, the bigger they become and so it would have been inevitable that eventually, if Jesus had lived out his days as a cult leader (let’s face it, that’s what he was back in the day), then he would have gained enough following to have kick-started a group large enough to have been classed as a religion; Christianity – the followers of the Christ, the saviour.
It is merely historical coincidence that Jesus was executed. Whilst it is unavoidable that his death acted as an inspiration for millions across the world and prompted the foundation of Christianity, what it did do was merely speed up this process; without it, it would have happened anyway. This is in no way to take away the significance of Jesus’ execution (that point is obvious, just as Luther King’s assassination cannot be ridden of its significance if the equal rights of black people had eventually been reached without it), but this discussion simply sheds light on a thought I had earlier in the week.
Having said all that, the necessity of Jesus’ execution is really of little consequence. One cannot change the facts of history, but theologically it does add an extra dimension of enquiry that hopefully will be followed up in the years that come.
Here’s hoping you all have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. My last request; please don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas. Use this time of year to reflect on your lives and to see if there any changes you can make; try and live in a way that is selfless, giving and above all forgiving. We celebrate the birth of the man who lived that life perfectly, tomorrow, it would be a shame to completely ignore his life and example.