Many Christians talk about Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate suffering anyone has ever been subjected to. The way The Crucifixion is talked about paints Jesus experience as an outstanding even the most horrific event anyone has ever had to endure. Certainly this seems to be the sentiment that motivated the production of the Mel Gibson’s movie which focuses on the especially violent aspects of Jesus death.
It is not hard to see that Jesus death was on most accounts rather common-place. It should be noted that crucifixion was not only a common feature of the Roman justice system. It was used for crimes like theft that even advocates of the death penalty would not accept as appropriate measures today. All of the actions surrounding the crucifixion (beating, thorns, even the crowd of protestors) that Christ endured were fairly common in this form of execution. What begins to appear then is that the insult of the cross was not how extraordinarily cruel it was - but how demeaningly banal it was.
In addition it would seem that Jesus suffering in terms of both emotional and physical pain has been far exceeded by other victims through the course of history. Think of the torture endured at the hands of Nazi or dirty war death squads in Argentina. Or the horror of genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, etc. Many convicts who were crucified had their legs broken to ‘speed up’ death. One of the ideas that is promoted is that Jesus can identify with the depths of pain experienced by victims of these horrors because he suffered such a horrific death himself. While in a general sense because he is more than just human it is clear that identification with the incredible suffering of the world is possible for Jesus – the cross itself does not automatically bequeath this unparalleled suffering on Christ.
One of the other factors that must be considered is Christ’s willingness to go to the cross. While Jesus’ Divine nature could have certainly prevented his own death, it is not responsible psychology or theology to suggest that Christ essentially committed suicide. However, what must be accepted is that this particular form of death was intentionally chosen to demonstrate critical features of God’s redemptive plan. Again it is common to hear the rhetoric that suggests that Christ’s death was a tragedy of perpetuated by religiously calloused Jewish leaders and indifferent bystanders. This is not faithful to the notion that Jesus’ death was intended to occur and that his accusers were instrumental to that intentional plan.
All this brings a few important aspects to light that I think bear reinforcing:
-the cross must be understood as a largely symbolic act designed for a human audience. God could have just snapped his fingers and forgiven sin instead he chose to elaborate his plan in this specific drama.
-understood as a symbolic act it seems that theology must tread carefully in constructing a too specific doctrinal paradigm around this event. It seems that some fairly spurious doctrinal positions have risen out of a too literal interpretation of the crucifixion. Instead the cross ought to be the starting point of a discussion about the ideas that God wanted to communicate in this drama.
-perhaps the most important message of the Crucifixion is not the injustice of the God/Man being killed at the hands of individuals too steeped in religiosity to see Jesus’ true identity. Instead it is the fact that God was willing to have his most benevolent act toward humanity forgotten in the triviality of common cruelty. He was willing to have his death become just as meaningless as the untold thousands who lie namely in mass graves – their personal meaning erased by the identity as number. There seems to be almost a disservice that is given to Jesus’ death by elevating it above all other human suffering. I think this what Isaiah was getting at in the image about ‘the lamb to the slaughter’. This is the utter beauty of God’s death drama – not only was he willing to give up his status as God but ultimately he was willing to be reduced to a statistic.