“Why Was Jesus Tortured to Death?” Or, Death to Our Toxic Ideas of Why Jesus Lived and Died
Have you ever wondered what Jesus did to deserve being tortured and crucified to death? How could someone so good be treated so inhumanely? Some answer this in purely theological terms, but do you not wonder the real reasons why people so despised him that they did this to him? Too often we haven’t thought about this latter question, and it actually gives insight to the theological answer as well.
Jesus died, if we look closely at the gospel accounts, because he was perceived as a threat to the value system of the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious hierarchy of his day. They considered him to be an insurrectionist, one who wanted to overthrow the system as it was, and had always been from one domination culture to the next.
And honestly, they were right about him. This is what the gospel writers seem to agree was his mission in life: to overturn all the earthly rulers and powers of this world, and to create an egalitarian world that lived in accordance with the values of God. Jesus believed that living by God’s values, not Caesar’s, would transform the entire world.
This may not sound subversive until we recognize the implications of this view. Instead of domination culture, all would be counted and treated as equal in worth – not only spiritually, but also politically and economically. This meant that non-Romans and foreigners were to be given the same benefits in the public domain as citizens of Rome. Essentially, everyone in the world, no matter what nation they came from, deserves the same rights as our own citizens. It also meant that there should be equity in the distribution of resources, such that everyone had enough to live on and flourish, but that no one had far more than enough. Likewise, instead of militarism to devastate one’s enemies, no one would be seen as an enemy as we are all siblings under God who is parent to us all. We are not to overcome our enemies with the use of force, but with the force of love. And instead of only giving justice and privilege to the relatively few citizens, the Romans, justice was to be for everyone, and there was to be no partiality. This is what “love one another as you love yourself” meant in real terms. It wasn’t simply for individuals to behave this way, but entire nations; indeed, the entirety of humanity.
Sounds like a better system, right? The problem with it however, is that it had never been tried. And quite honestly, it still has never been tried – at least not on a wide scale. Every empire has rejected such a radical idea, and has instead preferred to live in inequality to the advantage of the wealthy and powerful, and the disadvantage of the poor and weak. This is how domination systems work. It is indeed the way it has always been.
The Jewish people knew about domination systems, systems based on the theory that societies work best when one group of people is in control and dominate or control other groups of people whom they see as subservient. They experienced this domination culture from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and now, in Jesus’ time, the Romans. Domination cultures torture and kill those whose values are different from their own; especially if they see them as a threat to their own values. And given that Jesus wanted to completely reject the Roman Empire’s values and replace them with God’s values, well, this was definitely a threat in that he was getting a large following.
The Jewish religious authorities were the first to recognize this, and it was at their bidding that Rome’s governor over the Jewish people, Pontius Pilate, decided to allow Jesus to be crucified. Why did some of his own people want him to die? Because they believed, probably rightly so, that if he was allowed to continue his insurgent ways by speaking and acting against the values of Rome and Caesar that he would end up bringing a crackdown on all of the Jewish people. As John’s gospel attests, the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, said it was better to let one man die than to allow many to die.
The religious officials knew that Rome would not tolerate the type of unruliness that Jesus’ liberation movement and nonviolent social justice protests were creating among the people. He was becoming too popular for his own good. Some followers even referred to him as the Messiah, the one in Jewish lore who would bring about this egalitarian world founded on peace with justice, and the love between all peoples.
Jesus came from the peasantry, however, so those in authority found it difficult to believe that the Messiah would not come from their upper class. To them, he was deluding the people and giving them false hope; hope that would bring about the demise of all Jews if their protests continued. And so they had to kill him in order to save themselves and the Jewish people as a whole; fearing that Rome’s tolerance might grow weary of the insurrection attempts. That is the short answer to why he was killed. But let’s look at a fuller explanation of this position in contrast with a view that is unfortunately more common.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, “The Last Week,” give us the answer as described above to why Jesus was tortured to death. It is an answer that mainline Christian scholars have accepted as truth for a long time, and which has ancient support from the gospel writers as well, but which nevertheless is emphatically in contradiction to the more common idea that Jesus had to die for the sins of the world. Succinctly put, most scholars don’t believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but because of the sins of the world, as Borg and Crossan attest.
This may come as new thinking for those who have only heard the evangelical version of the interpretation of Jesus’ death, which scholars refer to as substitutionary sacrificial atonement theory. This theory essentially says that humanity is evil, that we are beyond help humanly speaking, that we need a divine savior to save us from the consequences of our own sinfulness, and that only a perfect sacrifice, one without moral or spiritual blemish, will be satisfactory in atoning for our sinful ways. The theory thus assumes that Jesus is this savior, and that his death on the cross served as the needed sacrifice that would expiate our sins. He did it for us, in other words, because we are so wretched that we couldn’t do it for ourselves.
Beyond the tragic and dystopian view of humanity as inevitably evil, a view contradicted by the Genesis account in which we along with the rest of creation are created good, and much of both the OT and NT views of humanity’s potential as being created in the image of God, the view also attributes our powerlessness in the face of evil, and that the only thing that will appease a wrathful God for our waywardness is the blood sacrifice of one declared to be his own son.
To this view, let me say it with no uncertainty that this is toxic spirituality. It portrays God as a cruel and malignant deity who cannot love us as God created us to be, and then demands the murder of a sacrificial lamb in human form to appease his desire for vengeance. It is quite honestly a rather barbaric view of God, and it allows us to not only dishonor God’s own image in God, but also in us.
This view of God stands in direct contrast with the God of most progressive Christians who believe that God is epitomized by unconditional love for humanity and creation just as we are; who created us to also be good, but with the potential to choose evil because God respected us enough to affirm our freedom of will. Moreover, God doesn’t demand that anyone but ourselves be responsible for our own actions – with the exception being the systemic injustices of society in which we may help to create, be complicity with, participate in, and/or oppose.
There are psychological reasons for the toxic view of Jesus’ death as ‘necessary’ to save the world from its sins – which, evidently, hasn’t worked so well given how that sin has continued for over 2 millennia after Jesus. There is a certain kind of logic, warped though it may be, for this view. It is the view, by the way, in which I was reared with; and the one in which I never could fully accept because it is so demeaning not only of humanity, but also of God.
I have certainly had my doubts about humanity through the years, and still do. And there was a time in which I received so much pushback for having a more loving and generous view of God from people who were wanting to save my soul that I came to the conclusion that if God really did plan this whole escapade with Jesus just to have him come, show us the way we should live, and then kill him in order to satisfy his own apparent sadism, then I could not accept that kind of God.
If there was a God, I postulated, and that God actually planned and did this to his own son, not only torturing and killing him, or at least allowing it, but also heaping upon him the entirety of the whole world’s sins past, present, and future, then that is about as unfair and malicious as I could imagine a literal Satan as being. So if there is no real difference between God and Satan, as both appear to be egomaniacs who need their low self-esteem stoked by cruelties done to humans, then I don’t want any part of that kind of religion. You can count me out!
Of course, given that I’m standing here before you as an ordained minister since 1990, and that I served in churches 5 years before being ordained, and have served in them ever since, means that I don’t look at God or humanity in those ways. And neither, I believe, did Jesus. Indeed, I’d bet my life on it that he didn’t believe this way – and yes, I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Jesus’ life, illustrated both in his teachings and practices, reveals a very differently motivated individual than one who thought he only did what he did to save the world of its sins through his brutal torture and death. That was not what he was about, and none of the 4 gospels portray him as seeing this as his purpose – none of them! They all emphasize that he was about creating justice for the oppressed and exemplifying love for all people to the specific end of peace with justice throughout the earth.
Jesus was not focused on how to get you to the next life, but on how you should follow in his ways so that you can live your best life here and now on earth. The gospels are all clear on this – except, of course, for those who have chosen to see things in a way that relinquishes from us this extraordinary responsibility for living by his same virtues and values and makes life easy on us by simply creating a belief system about God and Jesus, a false one, that lets us off the hook of being spiritually authentic, ethically accountable, and morally responsible for our own thoughts, actions, and practices.
Which Jesus do you trust in? Which God best reflects your own views?
I was nearly led to atheism because of the view of God as demanding a human sacrifice of his own son in order to save me and everyone else. I don’t want to have faith in such a God, for that God is cruel, abusive, and unjust; and if we don’t say this is so, then we are perpetuating a toxic faith. Why should God be held to a much lower standard of morality than humanity?
Think about it. If your neighbor decides they need to torture and murder their own son or daughter to appease either themselves, or their God, what would you think of that neighbor? I know what you’d think. And you’d be right! So as crazy or evil as you just imagined your neighbor, why would we possibly want to conceive of a just, loving, and peaceable God as being willing or compelled to do such a horrific thing? If we would hold other human beings in judgement for committing such a heinous act, then why would we dare to imagine God, who is supposed to be better than us, to do such a vile and repulsive thing?
To save the world? No, for the ends do not justify the means. Nearly every moral philosopher, ethicist, and spiritual sage before and after Jesus has agreed that you can’t morally do an abhorrent thing in hopes of bringing about some positive outcome. Jesus was especially clear on this: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Mt. 26.52). In other words, the ends and means must be consistent.
I ask these questions and state these comments because we need to create better theologies of God and Jesus. Especially during Holy Week, we shouldn’t conform to views of God and Jesus that make them out to be moral monsters. We have corrupted God’s image, Jesus’ actual goodness, and our own potential goodness because of beliefs that too many of us have accepted as unquestioningly true. We need to do better at taking responsibility for our own faith and our own conduct, and our own views about God and Jesus. And this is exactly what Jesus himself taught in word and deed.
He wanted us to question the claims of authority, as he himself did. He died because he insisted on questioning and critiquing authority – that is how important it was for him. Moreover, he never asked us to blindly believe in God, or unquestioningly follow him. No, he wanted his disciples and would-be followers to understand the importance of thinking critically about our faith, and for sifting and winnowing out the truth about himself and God so as to make us true followers – those who ‘get it’ and follow in his ways, rather than those who seek for an easier way of simply believing creeds and doctrines about God and himself and figuring that is enough to ‘get by.’ ‘Getting it’ versus ‘getting by:’ Which do you think he really wanted from us?
This is a different Good Friday service message than I am accustomed to giving because too often we tell the story as imagined by one of the four gospel writers, all whose accounts have variances, and insert our own interpretations based on what we’ve been told by others. So on this Good Friday, I want us to take some ownership about what makes sense to us, and not just blandly reinterpret things from a perspective we’ve long been taught, but perhaps have not thought sufficiently about.
Why am I doing this? Because it was Jesus’ way. He told parables for this very purpose – to get us to think about what we really believe and why we believe it. He taught in ways that made it clear that he didn’t accept the traditional beliefs of his own faith at face value, but came to new understandings based upon his own reflections and experiences. Remember that sermon where he said repetitively “You have heard it said…, but I tell you…?” This was Jesus reinterpreting and redefining his own religious tradition – because he took responsibility for his faith, and he wanted his disciples to go and do likewise.
Jesus didn’t die to wash away our sins on our behalf. That wasn’t his belief, but the belief of shoddy thinking created centuries after he lived. He instead lived a life of impeccable virtue to show us how it is done, and he encouraged us to do the same.
His actions don’t save us. Our following in his ways is what saves us. It is the virtues, values, and ways of Christ that are our saving grace; not a belief about him dying as a sacrifice for the sins of others so they don’t have to be held accountable for their own evils. When asked what was most important about his teaching, did he say that we simply have to believe the right things about him and God and that would be enough? Of course not! He instead told us the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule – both focused about how we treat one another and honor God through our own conduct.
To quote Borg and Crossan: “Was the death of Jesus the will of God? No. It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified.”
Moreover, they make clear that they don’t believe it was God’s plan. Jesus didn’t have to die to appease God, or even to fulfill a destiny to let humans off the hook.
They go on to mention that they saw Jesus’ death as virtually inevitable, but for reasons not linked to God but rather the domination systems that humans have created to benefit the few at the expense of the many. When you challenge the status quo of domination systems, prepare to be dominated.
They say: “Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination’s system’s brutality. He was a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God. He spoke to peasants as a voice of peasant religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day…. He challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion what he was passionate about: God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice. Jesus’s passion got him killed…. To think of Jesus’ passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life…. Jesus did not die for the sins of the world…. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed him, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization…. Jesus was not only executed by the method used to execute violent insurrectionists; he was physically executed between two insurrectionists. Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No…. As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes…. Jesus’ final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system. And, as all know, it killed him.”
To put in in my words rather than theirs: Why was Jesus tortured to death? Because the domination culture of his day could not put up with his critique of them. They wanted everyone to believe that because this is the way human societies had always organized themselves, with a minority in power and a majority subservient to them, that this is the way it “had” to be. They could not tolerate anyone who broke with their traditions and opposed their value system. Jesus did this, like those who went before him and after him, all who speak truth to power. And they did to him what they do to all who tried to change or create a new system.
They mocked, ridiculed, berated, persecuted, tortured, and finally murdered him. This is what domination culture has always done to those who call its values into question and propose a system of nonviolence over violence, of compassion over domination, of collaboration over competition, of forgiveness over vengeance, of gentleness over ruthlessness, of peace over war, of egalitarian justice over justice according to the powerful and wealthy, of rehabilitation and restoration to the community over retribution and punishment by the community. He was tortured to death because this is how domination cultures survive – by ravaging those who question their evil methods.
With this understanding, are we willing to follow Jesus?
I cannot accept that what happened to Jesus is somehow good. It was cruel and evil. But I do believe that what he tried to get us to trust with our own lives was this value system that he emulated. Why? So that we could collectively change and transform the world. He believed we could do this. He didn’t believe that the way it has always been is the way it has to be. And that is why he believed that his own death was not the final statement. He believed in a reality called resurrection that will outlive the cruelties and evils of domination cultures. Is that what you believe?
On ‘Good Friday,’ is our takeaway that Jesus tried nonviolence, love, peace, and justice and failed? Or that we, his followers, still have something to say about that despite the injustice and cruelty of his death?
— Rev. Bret S. Myers, 3/28-29/2021