How did Jesus understand his death?

How did Jesus understand his death? April 2, 2013

How Did Jesus Understand His Own Death?
Brian Zahnd

A question for Good Friday:

How did Jesus understand his own death?
What meaning did Jesus give to his crucifixion?
Did Jesus have a “theology of the cross”?

Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death by crucifixion to his inner-circle of disciples, but did Jesus ever speak about what it meant?


In Jerusalem a few days before Good Friday Jesus said this in reference to his impending crucifixion:

Now is the judgment of the world.
Now will the ruler of the world be cast out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth—
I will draw all people to myself.
–John 12:31, 32

Jesus says his crucifixion (seen in the light of resurrection) does three things…

1. Judges the world.

2. Reorganizes humanity.

3. Drives out the satan.

The Cross of Christ Judges the World

Caiaphas and Pilate were the representatives of towering human achievements: Religion and Government. Jewish sacrificial religion and Roman Imperial government.

Caiaphas and Pilate both judged Jesus.
Using religious criteria Caiaphas convicted Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death.
Using political criteria Pilate convicted Jesus of treason and condemned him to death.

So Jesus was stripped naked, put to shame, and crucified.

But when the Supreme Court of Heaven overturned the verdicts of the Jewish High Priest and the Roman Governor by raising Jesus from the dead, it was Caiaphas and Pilate and the principalities and powers they represented that were stripped naked and put to shame! (This is how the Apostle Paul describes it in Colossians 2:15)

Sacrificed-based religion had claimed to be wise in executing Jesus as a blasphemer.
Power-based politics had claimed to be just in executing Jesus as a criminal.

But the cross of Christ judges them as neither wise nor just. In their “wisdom” and “justice” the human structures of religion and politics murdered God! The naked ambition of a world built around scapegoating and power is forever judged and shamed by the cross of Christ.

The Cross of Christ Reorganizes Humanity

Human beings can only survive in a social structure. We are utterly dependent upon one another and this necessitates some organizing principle. From the dawn of human civilization that organizing principle has been power enforced by violence.

This is the truth the Bible tells with the story of the first four humans. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, kills his brother Abel, lies to himself and God about it, and then founds the first city. The result is that power becomes the organizing axis for human civilization and exponential violence becomes its defining characteristic. (see Genesis 4…and world history.)

In more sophisticated societies the organizing agent of violence is largely hidden, but it is always present. Our flags and monuments and anthems all venerate the sacred violence by which our society is organized. And we are convinced that this is just the way the world is.

But at the cross Jesus re-founds the world!

Instead of Cain’s axis of power enforced by violence, Jesus re-centers the world around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness. In the new world founded by Christ, love replaces power, and forgiveness replaces violence. The cross of Christ speaks (shouts!) — there is another way! Jesus calls for humanity to re-organize itself around his cross. This is the seismic shift that can save humanity from itself.

When we see the King wearing his thorny crown and nailed to his wooden throne we learn that…
The kingdom of God is without coercion.
The government of God persuades by…

And if need be…
But never by force.

We don’t have to stay barbaric.
We don’t have to remain beastly.
We don’t have to be red in tooth and claw.

There is another way of being human.
There is a better way of being human.
There is a more human(e) way of being human.

This way is revealed in the cross of Christ.
At the cross we see who God is.

At the cross we see how we are to be.

“Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” –Hans Urs von Balthasar

“Christ’s teachings and Christ’s death on the Cross are not two separate issues. Christ’s WAY, the narrow path, is the road of loving and forgiving even unto death. And he didn’t say; ‘Let me do that for you.’ He said, ‘Come die with me.’” –Brad Jersak

Jesus is the defining Word of God.
The crucifixion is the defining moment in Jesus’ life.

Look at Jesus lifted up in crucifixion…
Hear him pray…
Father, forgive them…
Be drawn into a new orbit around Christ…
The life-sustaining orbit of love and forgiveness.
May the Holy Spirit give us enough theological imagination to see this.

The Cross Drives Out the Satan

Humanity went wrong when Adam and Eve listened to the satan as it accused God.
Human civilization went wrong when Cain listened to the satan as it accused Abel.

The satan is the spirit of accusation. (That’s what the Hebrew ha satan means: the accuser.)

As we relate to one another in terms of rivalry and competition, the satan begins to accuse our brothers and sisters: They’re not really your brother, they’re really your enemy. Watch out or they will take what is yours. You must not love them. You must fight them. You must kill them.

In our fear we form alliances by projecting our own anxieties and insecurities on a scapegoat called “them.” We achieve unity by pooling our collective fear and insecurity, loading it to a canon/cannon of common hate, and blasting “them” with it. This is how we exorcise the satan from our midst. This is how satan casts out satan. Except satan is not cast out — the whole phenomenon of achieving unity around the common enemy of an agreed upon scapegoat is the satan! It’s also the story of human history.

It’s why Jesus called the satan the ruler of the world. (Think about that!)

But at the cross the satan is driven out! When we choose love over power, forgiveness over violence, when we look to Christ instead of Cain…the devil is driven out of business. If we refuse to listen to the accuser and refuse to scapegoat our brothers, the satan simply has no place. Instead of unity achieved by the unholy spirit of the satan, unity is achieved by the Holy Spirit of self-giving love. When perfected love casts out all fear…the satan goes with it.

The cross is the place where Jesus re-founds the world by saving us from the dominion of sin and satan. At the cross Jesus bears our sins, sins that we sinned into him by our complicity with systems of domination and violence. But Jesus did not retaliate. Jesus absorbed our sins refusing to recycle it in vengeance. Jesus dies with forgiveness on his lips. And he is raised speaking the first word of a new world: “Peace be with you.” Jesus saves us by forgiving us and calling us into a new orbit — an orbit around himself and his axis of love expressed in forgiveness.

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression, and open to them a sympathetic humanity.” –Jürgen Moltmann

Think upon these things on Good Friday.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Marshall

    Violence permeates organized social structures today, but it was not always so. Originally village life was built around mutual aid, sharing in times of shortage, and communal infrastructure. (Read eg David Graeber’s Debt). Where village life is allowed to flourish, away from colonialism and other forms of state-level control, it still does.

    I think Jesus’ message was (in part) that murderous reactionary violence is imposed on humans; it isn’t part of our original nature.

  • Percival

    Excellent post.

    Marshall, whaaaat?

  • Nicely done Brian. I hear Girard behind all this…

  • Yes, indeed, Michael.

  • Love these words, Scot. Potent and powerful. Yes, I need to remember this.

  • J.L. Schafer


  • norman

    I hope we realize that it is an ongoing battle to keep the fox out of the Hen House regarding power religion and the fusion with the corrupt state. Christianity was born out of the revolution to overthrow these entities but how many times have we seen their reemergence in the past 2000 years within Christianity. The fusion with church and state has merged to bring back the powers of darkness that were defeated within Catholicism and Protestantism as well. Remember the martyrs and burnings at the stake by the state whom were directed at the behest of the church. They simply picked up Cain’s mantle that has always been waiting in the wings. Thankfully those powers are actually less today in our postmodern society than historically in the past. And Christians think we are getting worse. Well the fox is still out there waiting for the night time.

  • TJJ

    Very well written piece. Insightful!

  • phil_style

    Here’s the pivotal phrase in Brian’s piece, for me:
    At the cross Jesus bears our sins, sins that we sinned into him by our complicity with systems of domination and violence. But Jesus did not retaliate. Jesus absorbed our sins refusing to recycle it in vengeance.

    I’d even go a little bit further. At the cross Jesus bears our sins, sins that we sinned against him by our complicity with systems of domination and violence.

    1. Humanity sinned against God/ Jesus by killing him
    2. Jesus sought no vengeance
    3. God thwarted this evil through resurrection

    The below is pasted from the webpage of Paul Nuechterlein.

    “…this man … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up…” (Acts 2:23-24)

    “…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15)

    “…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10)

    “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)

    “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…” (Acts 10:39-40)

    Humankind kills. God raises to life.

  • Thanks Brian (and Scott for hosting him),

    This is such a critical discussion because it asks afresh the question, ‘What is the significance of the Cross?’ I am hearing that on two fronts: from 3rd generation unchurched folks for whom our cliches mean nothing whatsoever … They ask, ‘What does the death of a first century Jewish Rabbi have to do with me?’ And second, from evangelicals who are abandoning a theology of appeasement of an angry God … but in favour of what? For both parties, Brian has stepped forward with good news.

    I also track with Scott’s heavy emphasis on the story. Maybe we should pause before giving our explanation of the story. Maybe we should just tell the story (John 3:16 is a good summary, but really, give our friends one of the four Gospels). And then we should ask our friends, ‘What did the story show you? What did it say to you? What does Jesus show you about God? And about you?’ Maybe we should trust the story to do its work and then listen for its impact.

  • Barry Kaardal

    Overall I like the piece…..the premise is basically a Christus Victor view of the atonement. I will say that I find some fairly large jumps in the piece. Just because Cain built a city does not necessarily mean that all cities are built to maintain power through violence.
    While I agree with Christus Victor as an important part of understanding the cross….I am concerned with the increasing aversion many evangelicals have to substitutionary atonement. I understand the rejection of the idea of an abusive father beating up his son for my sins….just because he needs his pound of flesh….however this is a gross misrepresentation of the true meaning of substitutionary atonement. We must always remember that God the Father was in christ reconsciling the world to himself…..the sacrifice, the pain, the cost was His…the mystery of the Trinity comes into play here.
    There are also so many images in the whole story that foreshadow substitutionary atonement…the passover for one…..most of the “Christus victor” texts have a forgiveness for personal sin context Col: 2:13-14 for instance precedes Col:13:15 giving it context “”And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross”
    We must always remember as well that the evil establishment that we rail against…that oppressess the masses….especially in our country is actually just “us”….the free spirits of the 60’s run the establishment today…..sin is cosmic yes and Jesus deafeated it at the cross…but evil runs right down the center of each of us…..that is also what Christ died for.

  • Jesus says his crucifixion (seen in the light of resurrection) does three things…

    1. Judges the world.

    2. Reorganizes humanity.

    3. Drives out the satan.

    So far, so good, but the author of the above enumeration left out Number “4” which is clearly implied by John 12:31,32, as follows: “I will draw ALL people to myself.” Jesus’ understanding of the efficacious results of his death included the ultimate salvation of ALL humanity, not just a limited few of humanity. Until the church finally agrees with his (Christ’s) understanding of the atonement, the gospel i.e., “good news” will continue to be presented with an attached “bad news” appendage. Let’s put Number “4” on our list. He did!