How Christ’s cruel death has a special resonance today

Mark Stephens reflects on why people over the ages have been drawn to the message of a crucified king.

“Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.”

That’s how the American historian Bruce Shelley opens his story of the Christian church. It’s an arresting opening line.

Most Australians aren’t religious, at least in the practising sense. Even at Easter, on a non-corona year, only 11 per cent of us will darken a church door. Nevertheless, even secular Aussies still retain some basic expectations of religion, of what it should look like if we could be bothered. For some, we might associate churches with proper behaviour, ordered ritual, and being well dressed. Or, if we’re vaguely familiar with a modern megachurch, our expectation might be glossy brochures, espresso machines, and slick music. Either way you expect that religion will at least try and look clean, neat, serene, and ordered.

By this measure, the story of Easter is profoundly irreligious. Because the centre of the Christian faith is a person dying a degrading and violent death.

This doesn’t really fit anyone’s expectation of how a god should behave. Even for those of us who think religion is merely a human invention, nobody plans a marketing campaign for a faith by suggesting “Hey, let’s put crucifixion front and centre.”

We, of course, now live in a post-Christian moment, where the cross has been buried under centuries of sentimentality. We put crosses on pieces of jewellery, sympathy cards, and church stationery.

But in the ancient world crucifixion was always ugly, dirty, and shameful. It involved the brutality of forced nudity, slow asphyxiation, and the trauma of cardiac arrest.

The Roman orator Cicero regarded discussion of crucifixion as entirely in bad taste. The first Christians openly admitted their message was a kind of “foolishness.” They didn’t mean that Jesus’ crucifixion hadn’t happened. What they meant was they knew how strange it sounded, bordering upon mad, to construe the crucifixion as a positive event.

So why did they insist on Christ crucified? Not just the death of Jesus, but his death on a cross.

From its earliest days, the Christian church has held great attraction for nobodies. To be sure, religion has always had its fair share of celebrities and the power-hungry, those who are now disproportionately featured on our TV screens and social media feeds.

But the faithful are, for the most part, unimpressive.

One of the earliest critics of Christianity, a philosopher named Celsus, castigated the faith as made up of the “foolish, dishonourable, and stupid.” He was being unfair, but he had a point. Even today, under non-corona circumstances, church gatherings around the world are filled with the poor, the addicted, the broken, and the ashamed.

If the Christian story about a crucified Jesus is true, then it means that God has come all the way down into human experience.

This should not surprise anyone if the centre of the faith is a crucified Saviour.

In Neil Simon’s play God’s Favourite, the central character Joe cries out to God in complaint: “I’m only human. You don’t know what it’s like … Try it sometime.” If the Christian story about a crucified Jesus is true, then it means that God has come all the way down into human experience. Not merely to experience our happy and delightful moments, but all the way down to our places of pain, humiliation, and abandonment.

The Jesus presented to us in the New Testament Gospels is fully acquainted with the suffering of the world, culminating in his own experience of a slow and agonising death. This has a peculiar resonance for us in this moment of collective anguish for those threatened by a slow and agonising death.

The manner of Jesus’ death is a clue to the breadth of his intended reach. As the American preacher Fleming Rutledge puts it, the crucifixion of Jesus is the death of a nobody, a death the Romans reserved for the lowest.

Perhaps that is why the last, the least, the lonely and the lost have always found themselves drawn to this message of a murdered king. They see someone who is with them, for them — and just as important, because of what happens next in the story, someone who can actually help them.

Dr Mark Stephens is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia.