Monday, July 22, 2013

Why did God Allow the Crucifixion?

A common Muslim criticism is that God would never have allowed His son to die on a cross. If Jesus was so powerful, why did he allow himself to be killed? Muslims, going all the way back to Muhammad, see the crucifixion as a defeat, and they refuse to believe that their god could be defeated. This lack of understanding translated to the Quran in verse 4:157:

And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.

This verse and the ideology behind it, which defecates on the very foundation of Christian belief, demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the multiple layers of meaning of the crucifixion. To understand the profound implications of the crucifixion, you need to go back to the Old Testament, and forward to the Acts of the Apostles, and examine the culture, history and subsequent events around the crucifixion..

The Abrahamic Covenant
One big misconception about the Genesis account is that God turned his face away from Adam and Eve and punished them by banishing them from Eden for disobeying Him. A careful reading of the account indicates this is not the case. Adam and Eve turned away from God, hiding themselves from His presence in their shame. Like any good father, God was irate, but did not punish them, except to make them accountable to the consequences of their disobedience. One of those consequences was that they had to leave Eden. Ever since this time, God has been calling His children back, trying to tell them that they shouldn’t turn away from Him in shame, thinking their sins have made them unworthy of His grace.

Abraham demonstrated his love for God by sacrificing his valuable possessions to God. For Abraham, this was the prize rams of his flock, for his wealth was measured by the size of his herds. For his love and devotion, God blessed him. When Abraham’s beloved wife bore Isaac, The Lord demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, as a further demonstration that nothing, not even his most beloved son, was more important that his love for God. Abraham reluctantly made the preparations, and God, knowing Abraham’s heart, stayed his hand at the last moment before cutting Isaac’s throat. For God knew Abraham’s heart, and for God, the intent was as good as the deed.

Jesus is the final ingredient in God’s plan for a righteous people. Once the Law had been inscribed in the hearts of the Jews, and leavened with Greek philosophy to get them to think about the law and not just obey it, Jesus came to fulfill it. He caused it to coalesce as a whole so that the faithful would live the law and live in God’s way without even necessarily knowing what the law was, because it was written in their hearts by their faith.

A covenant is a contract, and a contract contains details of performance between the two parties. It also contains some demonstration of the commitment of the parties to honor the contract. Abraham was ready to demonstrate his commitment with his knife at the throat of Isaac. To truly demonstrate His commitment, God needed to make an equally challenging sacrifice. And as the dominant partner in the covenant, who could step in to stay God’s hand at His sacrifice?

Jesus was crucified and died as God’s sacrifice to the Abrahamic covenant, to show that nothing – no sin – is greater than His love for us, and that we should return to Him with open and penitent hearts and seek His forgiveness so that we may walk in His way forever.

The Temple mount is traditionally the spot where Abraham is to have sacrificed Isaac, but there is no record of this in the Bible. The Temple mount was built on the site of Ornan the Jebusite’s threshing floor, as recorded in 1 Chronicles 21. Abraham, going to Mount Moriah for the sacrifice, would have picked a higher promontory, the highest he could find. We know that Christ was crucified on Golgotha, a limestone promontory outside the northwest wall of the city. It’s very possible, in a poetic closing of the circle so common to God, that Jesus was crucified on the very spot that Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.

The Passover Sacrifice and the Sin Offering
In keeping with the Abrahamic tradition of offering that which is most valuable to demonstrate one’s love for the Lord, the offering of an animal – preferably an animal of some value – evolved into a sacrament of penance for the absolution of sin. If one sinned, the sacrifice of something of value demonstrated one’s penitence and shame at the sin. Levitical law dealt with this extensively. The value of the animal was often associated to the severity of the sin.

If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he is the most valuable human that ever walked the earth. In his crucifixion, we see an example of a sin offering beyond value. This sacrifice that God has made for us shows that His love for us is so great that He will even pay our penance for us – a debt that we can never repay. If we understand that sin is that which causes us to separate ourselves from God to hide our shame, we see through the sacrifice of the cross that we need not, that God will accept us back if we only ask.

 In an incredible literary foreshadowing, God prepared another symbol of the crucifixion when He instructed Moses on how to prepare the people for the angel of death to visit Egypt. The people of God were instructed to sacrifice a year old male lamb, and the blood of the lamb was to be applied to the door posts and lintels of their dwellings, to notify the angel of death to pass over those homes.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus was crucified on the day before the beginning of the Passover feast, which is the traditional day that the paschal lamb is to be sacrificed in remembrance of the Lord leading the people out of bondage. Through Christ’s blood, we who have accepted his salvation are marked as his followers, members of his flock.

Contrasting the image of Christ as the Paschal lamb is the image of the Good Shepherd. This is a literary juxtaposition made real by God, who is the ultimate author of the universe. Such literary devices may be lost on people with no foundation in literature, who insist on literalism instead of appreciating the push and pull, yin and yang nature of a well-told story. Nothing can enhance Jesus’ own words on this metaphor:

“I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

-John 10:11

Taken in context of the rest of the passage, it’s clear that Jesus lays down His life in order that His faithful may enter His door to new pastures.

Jesus Explains
Jesus referred to his crucifixion many times, both directly and in parable. Throughout Israel’s history, Prophets had been sent to bring Israel back to the ways of God when it had strayed. As in the parable of the vine-growers, God sent His son to call them home one last time. The son suffered the same fate as in the parable:

And He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard, and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the wine press, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. And at the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. And they took him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent them another slave, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. 5 “And he sent another, and that one they killed; and so with many others, beating some, and killing others. He had one more to send, a beloved son; he sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ And they took him, and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others.”
Mark 12:1-9

Jesus gave a glimpse of the reason for his crucifixion, indicating that his church would bear fruit only if he died to give it life:

And Jesus answered them, saying,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
-John 12:23-24

The Resurrection
The birthday of the Christian Church is Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the temple. But Christians are an Easter people, a people of the resurrection. Easter is celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. We know that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath that began the week-long Passover festival. We know the resurrection was on the morning after the Sabbath. We know that Passover is celebrated according to the Jewish lunar calendar on the full moon of the first month, which is connected to the vernal equinox.

Jesus was a brilliant teacher, never giving the answers to his student, but delivering his lessons in such a way that they could figure the answers out by drawing inescapable conclusions from what he taught. He also demonstrated who he was by great signs. The sick were healed, the blind made to see, the lame walked, demons were cast out, the dead were brought to life. He commanded the very elements, and even nature bowed to His command. But none of this was unique, great prophets had done such things in the past, albeit never quite on the scale that Jesus did. But Jesus did something no prophet has ever done. He died, publicly and unquestionably, was laid to rest in a tomb, which was sealed and placed under guard, and then rose again, restored to life.

That Jesus died is without question. Some skeptics have posed the “swoon theory,” postulating that Christ just lost consciousness, or had slipped into a coma, and never actually died. This is without merit. The Roman soldiers who executed him were professionals and quite capable of telling when a man was dead or not. The mode of death in crucifixion is asphyxiation. When hanging by the arms, the diaphragm is paralyzed. To draw a breath, the victim must raise himself up. If the victim’s feet aren’t secured, death comes quickly, as the victim quickly becomes exhausted. If the victim’s feet are fixed, it may take as much as three days to expire, as the legs can be used to push the victim high enough to release the diaphragm. This is why, when it came time to remove the three from the cross, the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, causing death to come quickly. But Jesus had already been beaten nearly to death and had lost a lot of blood, and had died. A lance point into the side, piercing the pericardial sac confirmed this. Had Jesus merely swooned, he would have lost consciousness and hung limp, unable to raise for breath. Death would have occurred in about 10 minutes from that time. He could not have possibly survived a swoon.

The Foundation of the Church

Christianity would have never taken root without the resurrection. Israel is a land of prophets and holy men, both real and self-proclaimed. Throughout history one of the tasks of the Jewish courts was to vet claims of prophets. Cults abounded as people flocked from one holy man to another. They would rise up, but as soon as a self-proclaimed prophet was discredited or died, they would just as quickly evaporate.

Many people considered Jesus a great prophet of his day. Tales of his miracles were told throughout the land, and even the gentiles were impressed. Greeks, Romans, Canaanites and Samaritans are recorded as being witnesses to His works. But when he was seized and tried in a kangaroo court whose legal basis was suspicious at best, most people shrugged their shoulders and forgot about it. Jesus had directly preached to thousands of people in his day, but in our era of TV and instant communication, we don’t appreciate that even as popular as he was, most people in Israel had done little more than hear His name and some rumors, and relatively few could even identify him on sight.

His closest disciples were devoted to him. In the heat of passion, Peter offered his very life for Jesus. But faced with an amorphous bureaucratic  juggernaut and cut off from their leader, the eleven remaining disciples despaired. They fled the scene when he was captured, and after he’d been crucified, they locked themselves in, fearful that the Sanhedrin’s guards would seek to arrest them next. These were normal, common men, fishermen, down-to-earth men who worked with their hands, not given to heroics. They were afraid.

Had this been the end of Jesus, that’s where it would have ended. These men would have drifted back to their homes and their work, kept their mouths shut, and told their grandchildren tales about a great rabbi they once followed. The Jesus cult would have evaporated like so many others before them.

So what happened? What took place to convince these men beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ was Lord? They were so utterly convinced of this that to deny it would be to deny that the sky was blue. They left their families and homes for a greater calling, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to all men. All of them save one found a violent martyr’s death, and they died praising Jesus. Not one of them ever so much as considered denying what they knew to be true. What could have happened to make such a profound impression on these men?

The Gospels are clear. Jesus Christ conquered death and rose on the third day, and walked among them, ate with them, spoke with them, and was seen by thousands.

The Identity of Jesus
Jesus was never the sort of teacher to state a fact as a simple declarative. He was very much a thinking man’s teacher. He would present a lesson and allow his pupils to draw conclusions based on his lesson, and praise them when they got it right. He never identified himself as Rabbi, Priest, Prophet, Messiah or God. The understanding of his disciples of who he was slowly grew as they learned from him. The Resurrection was the clincher to convince them and make them understand that they weren’t dealing with a man, but with God Himself.

Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.”
Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” 

John 20:27-29

The Muslim Claim:
With Quran 4:157, Muhammad casually sweeps aside 600 years of Christian belief, and the very foundation upon which Christianity is based. Muhammad was never taught any of the theology of the resurrection, and lacked the perspective of Jewish tradition in which to understand the implications. He simply could not accept that God would so abase Himself to be killed like a slave.

But wait, if it wasn’t Christ crucified, who was it? The Apocryphal and proven forged Gospel of Barnabas suggests it was Judas. Apparently some sort of magical geas was cast that made people think that it was Judas and not Jesus on the cross.

But this makes little sense. If it had been Judas or anybody else, wouldn’t they have been proclaiming their innocence, and telling anyone who would listen that they had the wrong man? There is no record of this. Wouldn’t a falsely condemned man be cursing everyone in sight for the horrendous injustice being perpetrated? What did the man on the cross say?

And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
-Luke 23:39-43

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household.
-John 19:26

Are these the sort of things that an impostor would have said? How could Jesus’ mother misidentify him? You can fool a lot of people, but you will never fool a mother.

There is no doubt but that the man on the cross was Jesus. There is no doubt that he died on that cross. And there is no doubt that he rose again on the third day. We have briefly examined some of the many meanings of this action on the part of God’s Word made flesh and blood. There are many more that have yet to be explored, for God’s style is circular and concentric. Whenever you think you have discovered a meaning to God’s plan or actions, you have only opened a door to more than was concealed.

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