A Progressive Good Friday?

What do you do with Good Friday and the Cross when you’ve abandoned the doctrine of  substitutionary atonement and the divine necessity of Jesus’ death?  Like many progressive Christians, I grew up hearing the mantras “Jesus died for our sins,”  “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.”  Recently, I saw a billboard with the stable and manger and three crosses in the background, with the description “born to die.”  Without reflecting, many 21st century Christians, who regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion year process of evolution, assume the following:

  • Human sin brought death into the world.
  • We are born steeped in this original sin.
  • Human sin deserves divine punishment.
  • Jesus came to break our bondage to sin.
  • Jesus’ death was foreordained and Jesus lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross.
  • Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation.
  • Only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation.
  • The only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.

Although these “orthodoxies” may have provided assurance for us once upon a time, to many of us they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics.  Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations.  Can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

We do not need to celebrate divine violence on Good Friday or any occasion, but we live in a world characterized by implicit and explicit violence against the Earth, child and adult slavery and sex trafficking, political gridlock, disparity between the wealthy and vulnerable, and political unrest.  We are only too aware, when we open the doors of perception, not only of the beauty of the Earth but of our precarious situation as a result of human decision-making and the machinations of powers and principalities.

I believe that we can creatively remember Good Friday in ritual and retreat by reflecting on the interplay of our personal and institutional shortcomings and God’s companionship.  “Were You There When They Crucified by Lord?” is the quintessential Good Friday hymn.  Of course, none of us were there physically. But, we are all part of an ambiguous history that persecutes prophets and promotes celebrities.  On Good Friday, we can ponder all the little crucifixions going on right now in our world, often unnoticed, but very real – death dealing actions that lead to melting polar icecaps, global climate change and the potential cataclysm that awaits our children and children’s children, complacency at mass starvation and genocide, apathy at sex trafficking and human slavery, our addiction to oil and gun ownership, and the list goes on, even before we explore our own personal ambiguities and culpability in the subtle violence of everyday life.

Even though Jesus’ death was neither foreordained nor necessary to appease God’s wrath, we can recognize that we are no better morally and spiritually than many of those who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, stood idly by doing nothing to prevent it, and implicitly sentenced Jesus by their involvement in political and religious institutions.  Are our political leaders – and we as voters – any more moral than Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders?  We also operate out of self-interest and are willing for many to suffer or die for the “American way of life.”

Good Friday also affirms the tragic beauty of God’s relationship with the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the vantage point of a prison cell, proclaims that only a suffering God can save and Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the fellow sufferer who understands.  Throughout the centuries, Christians have debated the doctrine of patripassianism, the belief that God the Father suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus.  While patripassianism, or divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy, based on the belief that the divine nature is incapable of suffering and that Jesus’ suffering touched his humanity but left his divinity unsullied, I believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not suffer with the world.  A changeless, unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save.  In contrast to a passionless deity, a meaningful vision of Good Friday proclaims that God suffered – the whole of God suffered – on the cross and in every moment creaturely suffering.

Difficult as it is to admit our complacency and culpability, we can on Good Friday answer “yes” to the question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  We can also say “yes” to the grace that feels our pain and regret, the pain of those broken by the world’s greed and complacency, and live in the hope that the one who feels also forgives and transforms, and enables us to rise up with new energies for global healing.


About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

  • Harold Lewis

    Thank you for your essay, it was very timely for me. My question to you is this: how does someone (me) explain with humility and respect the John passage “no one comes to the Father but by me” that my church members have taken both seriously and literally for a very long time. (I take it seriously but not literally) I have no problem offering an invitation for membership before the final hymn; I have a problem with making an “altar call” to save souls from burning in hell. How does a progressive Christian handle this with integrity? Thanks, Hal

    • http://bruceepperly.com Bruce Epperly

      Harold, I appreciate your question and this requires a more studied answer than the one I will give at this moment. Perhaps, it requires an essay….one way to look at this to see this as inclusive not exclusive: that Jesus is the Way Provider such that any healthy way comes out of the abundance of God’s revelation toward which he points…..the grace that brings Jesus to the Cross cannot be stingy but abundant….well, my family is off to a beach outing so more to come…..feel free to “Friend” me on FB….

      • George Wallace

        I like Brian McLaren’s suggestion that Jesus’ way is the way of a radical openness of heart to love. This is the way the poets from many diverse traditions speak. Rumi, for example says that this the true gold “that glows in your chest when you love.”

    • Molly

      I’ve lately come to read that passage through the cultural context of 1st century social/familial structures. The word used in Greek is “patron” which is translated “father”. It might more helpfully be translated as the word it is – patron. A patron – or paterfamilias – in the 1st century was a male who assumed life and death responsibility for his household, blood kin, servants, adjunct staff. It was a relationship that had mutual benefits – the patron had status and the patronized had security. I think Jesus was adopting this structure to express his relationship with God that was different from any other understanding of God extant in world religion at the time. Jews understood YHWH as a God who took a unique interest in them as a people – I think Jesus was expanding that understanding to include all of humanity (incurring the wrath of Jewish leaders who were less than eager to give up the special status they claimed as God’s people). He was showing people a different kind of relationship to be had with the Creator; a relationship that showed personal interest in an individual and the opportunity to be a part of a household of God that had a much broader boundary than before. So, no one comes to the Patron/Paterfamilias except through the model I have given you, which is to love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. He BROADENS the scope rather than narrows it.

      Just my two cents.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

        My take on that “No one can come to the Father except through me” passage is that what Jesus was actually saying was “No one can make contact with the Divine source except through the self” – in other words, you have to go within your own soul, and meet the Divine in the depths of your own being.

        Also, the Gospel of John is the least literal and most metaphorical of the Gospels, so you have to be very careful with taking it literally.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

        I very much like Molly’s interpretation too, though.

  • Eva

    This is incredibly helpful. I tend to avoid church over Easter, as the weight of my uncertainty can be too much. You have given me plenty to think about now.

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    Beautifully written.

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  • stephen mills

    One traditional belief that does not appear to be addressed in this piece is the declaration that there is no separation between God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. Those who struggle with the notion of a father demanding the sacrifice of a son might find it more profitable to consider the mystery of God completely identifying with creation by being human to the point of death and divine to the point of resurrection. It is indeed a mystery but perhaps no less a truth to be approached with humility and awe.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

    I am very glad to see someone addressing this question. I regard the Easter story as a mystery representing the descent of the soul into the depths – the death of the ego and the resurrection of the Divine self. Easter is therefore symbolic.

    There are very many dying and resurrecting deities in Pagan mythology (Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, and so on) so I regard Jesus as similar.

    My internet friend Steve Hayes has written an excellent piece on the Orthodox Christian perspective on Easter, which I find most illuminating. They mostly subscribe to Christus Victor theology, which is different from penal substitution.

  • DRW

    Given the strong liklihood that Jesus did not utter these words, it seems fair (and no less awesome and liberating) to understand them as the theology of a young church who had found THE WAY via the faith and life and teachings surrounding Jesus in the 1st century. It is, for me, indeed THE way but need not be understood as excluding others who come to the way via other religions or teachers. Now, the call to follow Jesus! That’s where the mere believers are separated from folks who really get it!

  • gently reformed

    Where is the at-one-ment. How are we reconciled to God.

  • John

    I’ve read a number of theologians recently who allow us to still read it that all will go through Jesus, but the text doesn’t say when that has to happen. This leaves open that all people would still find God after death also.

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  • Bob

    You did a great job of describing the problem for progressives, but fell seriously short in prescribing a solution. Are you aware of a progressive alternative to the traditional reading of the passion as though it were a press account? Would you consider coming up with one?

  • Jeremy R Howdyshell

    The problem is that you have completely disregarded the dogma of the church. There is a reason why tradition and scripture are half of what is recognized throughout theological academia to be the best system for developing theology: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. There is no way to consider scripture and tradition and still have this man’s perspective. What you have referred to as doctrine is the dogma that separates Christianity from other religions. You sir are not in any way Christian, but in fact a Gnostic. You believe that you have somehow received some divine revelation that allows you to disregard what is Christian dogma and you think you can replace scripture with your own thoughts because they are more pleasant. Apparently you have never taken any courses on Biblical Hermeneutics, or if you did you do a great job of ignoring every aspect of it.

  • Soupergenius

    Help me out. If you don’t believe any of the doctrines of the Bible related to the death of Jesus then in what way are you a Christian? Wouldn’t it be easier if you just admitted you are not a Christian? Then this supposed discontinuity would go away. You don’t believe the core Christian Doctrines…therefore you are not a Christian….therefore ….no conflict. No stop trying to dress up your concerns over carbon fuels, guns, and global unfairness as a religion. Just be concerned and be a human. Won’t that work? Why bring God into it?

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