So why did Jesus die?

Maybe you have seen Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ or the recent BBC series (first shown in March 2008), and they have left you with more questions than answers, or perhaps it is a question that has always bothered you?

It is a question with lots of possible answers!

Jesus was crucified (nailed to a cross), a method of execution employed almost exclusively by the Romans, who were in power in the Holy Land at the time. In this sense, the evidence points to Jesus being killed by the Romans because they were worried that he would start some kind of revolution – in short, because they saw him as a political trouble-maker, who would rouse the oppressed Jewish population into rebellion.

On the other hand, in the new film, we see quite a lot of another answer – that Jesus died as a result of a plot by the religious authorities because of his (to their ears) offensive claims to be the Son of God.

It’s tempting to treat the question as a ‘whodunnit’, and decide whether we’re going to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Romans’. But there are other ways of looking at it.

We can look at the whole of the political situation at the time, and we can see that the risk of unrest was very real: Jesus died at the Passover, a time when Jerusalem was flooded with visitors from elsewhere in the Holy Land, emotions and religious fervour were running high, and the Romans may well have had good reasons to be worried about keeping the peace.

A small-scale and unsuccessful rebellion would have been disastrous for the rest of the Jewish community, too – the Romans were not known for being merciful and considerate to the nations they occupied, and the last thing the Jewish leaders needed was someone who would stir up trouble and bring down the wrath of the Romans on everyone. (in fact, this is exactly what happened in AD70, around 40 years after Jesus’ death). Can it be that silencing Jesus suddenly looked like the only way of preventing bloodshed on a massive scale?

Or we can look at it another way: historical evidence suggests that the Romans were actually pretty indiscriminate about their use of crucifixion. It was a deliberately cruel way of executing someone, and it took place in public, as a warning – basically as a way of showing people just who was in charge, and what would happen to those who stepped out of line. In this sense, it is just the supreme example of the sort of cruelty and desire for power that can be found in all human cultures, and Jesus therefore died as a result of the sheer cruelty that human beings are willing to inflict on each other – in short, as a result of human sinfulness, pride and fear.

Or we can look at it another way still: what about Jesus’ own motivations for acting in the way he did? He did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, presumably knowing that this would incite the crowds into claiming him as the Messiah promised by the prophets, and knowing that the political situation would mean that this was an action almost guaranteed to get him into trouble. He predicted his own death (and resurrection) several times, explaining what it meant. And he refused to defend himself at his trial. These are not the actions of an unfortunate victim of circumstance, so we cannot believe that Jesus died as an accident or as a result of a series of coincidences. No, these are the considered decisions of someone who knows that they have a task to perform, a vocation to fulfil, no matter what the personal cost.

Is it true?

There is much in the various films that is true to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days and hours before his death. And there is some poetic license, as we can expect from a film! But more importantly, is the story of Jesus true?

The answer is undoubtedly yes. Aside from the archaeological evidence, there is a wealth of corroborating textual evidence that demonstrates that the bare bones of the Passion and Easter story are indeed true. The very fact that the four gospel accounts differ in their detail suggests that they are using independent sources, and independent sources are unlikely to coincide on the main points if they’re the product of lies or delusions. Anyone who has seen any of the films should consider reading ‘the book of the film’ – the Bible’s four different gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.

But the best place to get at that truth if you are new to it probably isn’t in the cinema or the TV, nor even through reading the Bible on your own, but through the Church, which has had two thousand years to think about what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us.

Every Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) most churches will include at least one complete reading of what we call the Passion Story, as well as reflections on these central texts through hymns, sermons and prayers, and the chance to talk about all this with other people who are asking the same questions, but perhaps are further along in the journey of understanding.

Why does it still matter?

When Jesus went to the cross, he experienced the very worst that human beings are capable of doing to each other. And yet the resurrection shows us that such sin and evil do not have the last word, and that renewal, new life, complete forgiveness and a genuine fresh start are possible with God. The cross shows that, like a Father, God would go to any lengths to save us, his precious children. Because of God’s great love for us in sending Jesus to do what he did, this sort of fresh start and new life are available to everyone who asks, and we too can enjoy a relationship with God that will change our lives.

We come together in church to worship God, to hear His word and to share the Good news of Jesus,
receiving forgiveness and renewal through His death and resurrection.

We are sent out from church to live as Christian disciples, showing love to others
and living out our faith in all we think, say and do.

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