The Meaning of Christ’s Suffering

[Books & Culture, March-April 2004]

* Selected for Best Christian Writing 2006*

Most movies wait till after they’re released to stir up controversy, but Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has been preceded by nearly a year of fisticuffs. It provided an unusually rich opportunity for people who don’t know what they’re talking about to do just that. I’ll continue that tradition by admitting that, as I write this, I still have not seen the film. I expect it will be good movie-making, a powerful example of the artistic possibilities of film. I hope it will stir up old faith in Christians, and break forth new faith in unbelievers.

But as I read interviews with Gibson before the release one theme caught my attention. Listen to this quote, for example. In the September 15, 2003 “New Yorker” magazine, Gibson told Peter J. Boyer, “I wanted to bring you there. I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before.”

That goal meant showing us what real scourging and crucifixion would look like. “I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty,” Gibson went on. “I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.”

Now, if you’re like me, you registered a double-take. Surely, the Crucifixion and its preceding torture were brutal events. But there’s nothing in the Gospels specifically about Jesus’ eye being destroyed. Didn’t Gibson say he wanted to make this movie absolutely true to the Gospels, as “has never been done before”?

So I tried to picture a movie that reflected only what the Gospels tell us, and realized that there’s not much there about the gore. A lot of each Gospel concerns the Passion, of course; nineteenth century theologian Martin Kahler said that the Gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Yet those narratives mostly record the swirl of events around Jesus in his last days, what people said and did. The description of his physical sufferings is as minimal as writers can make it.

“Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified,” the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) agree. “When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” Little more than a dozen verses later he is dead.

I’m not questioning whether the Passion actually was brutal. And I’m not questioning whether an artist is free to depict it however he likes. The thing I’m curious about is: why did Christians in the first millennium choose to depict it differently?

Did they avoid the bloody details because they were just squeamish? Not St. Luke, who, though one of the most elegant New Testament writers, describes Judas’ death in more graphic detail than we asked for: “Falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

Were they ashamed of the Cross, an emblem of criminal execution? Not St. Paul, who states: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

Were the brutal elements of a crucifixion so familiar that they needed no elaboration? Yet the pain that Christ endured was exactly what later Christians cherished; if the early church had felt the same way, mere familiarity would not have quenched devotion. A lover does not grow weary of contemplating his beloved’s face. But rather than poring over the details of Christ’s suffering, earlier Christians averted their eyes.

Graphic meditation on Christ’s suffering doesn’t appear before the medieval era, approximately the 14th century. Before that the presentation is more in accord with the way Christ appears in the Gospel of John. In iconography, He reigns serene from the Cross, a victorious conqueror who has rescued us from Death.

In fact, the concept of “rescue” is the key. The wounds that Christ sustained are like those of a hero. Imagine that a young policeman has rescued some hostages at great physical cost, including his own capture and torture. It would be unseemly, even insulting, to continually ask him, “How did it feel when they tortured you? What did it look like? Where did you bleed?” The officer would understandably wish you’d focus not on his humiliation but on his victory.

That’s the attitude we see in these ancient hymns from Holy Week: “The sun was darkened, for it could not bear to see such outrage done to God, before whom all things tremble…When Thou was crucified, O Christ, all the creation saw and trembled. The foundations of the earth quaked in fear of thy power. The lights of heaven hid themselves…The hosts of angels were amazed.” A hymn from the 4th century Liturgy of St. Basil is familiar even to some Protestants: “Let all earthly flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand.”

Devotion didn’t simply change with the times; the same awe-filled reticence continues unchanged in Eastern Orthodox devotion today. Something else happened to cause this change in European Christianity, and move the focus from Christ’s victory to his sufferings as the means of salvation.

Western theologians usually say that the greatest event in the development of salvation theology was the publication of the treatise “Why did God become Man?” by Anselm, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Picture the landscape when Anselm tackled his work. Scriptures talk about Christ’ death being a ransom or redemption, and up till then this had been chiefly understood as a ransom from the Devil. “The wages of sin is Death,” and due to our sins we were enslaved by death, poisoned and helpless to resist sin. Christ comes on a rescue mission, and in the process he suffers very like that policeman rescuing the hostages. As a human, he dies and gains entrance to Hades; once there he blasts it open, as God, and sets the captives free.

Some early writers elaborated on the question “Who received this ransom?,” unwisely it would seem. Today their analogies seem crude, for example, that God lured the Devil by hiding Christ’s divinity inside his humanity, and the Devil responded like a fish grabbing a baited hook (Gregory of Nyssa) or like a mouse going into a trap (Augustine).

But when we speak of Christ paying with his blood, we don’t necessarily have to imagine a two-sided transaction. The brave policeman, above, “paid with his blood” to free the hostages, but that doesn’t mean the kidnappers were left gloating over a vial of blood. When the Lord ransomed his people out of Egypt, Pharaoh did not accept a fat bag of gold in exchange. “Redeem” can just mean “doing what is necessary to set free.”

Further, the young officer might have said “I offer this mission to the honor of my chief, who has always been like a dad to me. I love him and want to do his will, and I am making this sacrifice in his name.” The chief didn’t receive the young man’s blood either-a bizarre thought-nor did he require that blood before the hostages were freed; he was not their captor, but an ally in the rescue. So take a grammatically giant step back and see these terms in a looser sense. Sometimes we use images like “paid” to mean a simple act of giving, without envisioning a two-sided transaction that includes a receiving on the other end.

Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) protested that the question of “Who received the payment?” should not be pressed hard. No matter what debt the Devil was owed it could not possibly have included God himself. On the other hand, the Father could not have been the recipient of the ransom, since he was not the one holding us captive. And if the blood of Isaac had not pleased him, why would he desire the blood of his beloved son?

Nazianzus sums up: the Father accepts Christ’s sacrifice without having demanded it; the Son offers it to honor him; and the result is the defeat of the Evil One. “This is as much as we shall say of Christ; the greater portion shall be reverenced with silence.”

Anselm took aim at the exaggerated versions of the ransom theory, but didn’t agree to leave the greater portion to silence. He theorized that the payment *was* made to God the Father. In Anselm’s formulation, our sins were like an offense against the honor of a mighty ruler. The ruler is not free to simply forgive the transgression; restitution must be made. (This is a crucial new element in the story; earlier Christians believed that God the Father did, in fact, freely forgive us, like the father of the Prodigal Son.) No human would be adequate to pay this debt, so God the Son volunteers to do so. “If the Son chose to make over the claim He had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid Him doing so, or refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?” Christ satisfies our debt in this, the “Satisfaction Theory.”

“And that has made all the difference,” as a tousled Yankee poet liked to say. Western Christian theology marched on from that point, encountering controversies and developments and revisions, but locked on the idea that Christ’s death was directed toward the Father. When Western theologians look back at the centuries before Anselm they can’t find his theory anywhere (well, there are some premonitions in Tertullian and Cyprian, but it wasn’t the mainstream.). You can read St. Paul to support the “satisfaction” view, so Anselm is hailed as the first theologian to understand St. Paul.

That’s a stretch, though. Would Christians really have misunderstood their salvation for a thousand years? Did the people Paul wrote his letters to have no idea what he was talking about? Did the early martyrs die without understanding the Cross that saved them? Why would the Holy Spirit permit such a thing, if He was sent to lead them into all truth? Is the “plain meaning of Scripture” is so obscure that it couldn’t be discerned for a thousand years, and then only by someone from a culture utterly different from its authors?

Western theologians search the pre-Anselmian millennium and can’t find the theory they’re after, but fail to see the theory that permeates there. Before Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is seen as located within us. We are infected by Death as a result of Adam’s fall. This infection will cause us be to spiritually sick and to commit sin, both voluntarily and as a result of the Devil’s deceptions. Christ offers to rescue us in accord with the Father’s will, like the young police officer above. In this action, God the Father and the Son are united: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”

That’s the “before” snapshot. With Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is between us and God (we have a debt we can’t pay). After Anselm it is even sometimes formulated as *within* God (His wrath that won’t be quenched until the debt is paid). This theory loses the unity of will between the Father and Son; it can appear that the Son has to overcome the Father’s resistance. It loses the idea that the sickness is within us, and we need to be healed; it can appear that a legal acquittal is sufficient and a transformed life a nice afterthought at most.

Some rebelled against this formulation and claimed that it was too legalistic, too ethically superficial, too “Old Testament.” They proposed instead that Christ’s sufferings are just meant to move us by example, so that we will turn and be reconciled with God. (In response to a similar proposition many centuries earlier Augustine had harrumphed that, if an example is all we needed, we didn’t need Christ; the human condition would have been cleared up with Abel.)

In all these varied “after” snapshots, however, the wounds and suffering are the major point. It is the pain of the Passion that saves us, whether objectively (by paying a debt) or subjectively (by moving our hearts). From Julian of Norwich’s meditations on the Crown of Thorns, to “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded,” to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is a single devotional thread.

This is a strand that has produced powerfully affecting works of art, and moved and inspired Christians for centuries. The Crucifixion was, in fact, bloody and brutal-Gibson is on good historical ground in wishing to depict them this way-and when he prayerfully reads the Gospels, no doubt these are the pictures that appear in his mind.

But they are not, actually, there. The writers of the Gospels chose to describe Jesus’ Passion a different way. Instead of evoking empathy they invite us to grateful, respectful awe, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of his suffering.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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