Good Friday – What Does it Mean?

When you think about it, it’s an incredibly odd name: Good Friday. This is, after all, the day on which Jesus was crucified, nailed to a wooden cross until he died. It is the day nearly two thousand years later on which we remember his suffering. It is the day we read the story of his trial, sentencing, crucifixion, and death. It is the day we hear of how all of his companions and friends either betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.

How can this day be good?

Because, we confess, that in and through Jesus’ life and death God acted in a unique way to save the world. For this reason, and for this reason only, do we make bold to call this awful day Good.

But our questions typically don’t stop there. We also want to know how? How, that is, did Jesus’ death make such a difference? And why? Why did Jesus have to die in the first place?

Once you ask those questions, you are venturing into territory described by theologians as theories of “atonement.” The one word in theology that comes from English, atonement means just what it describes: at-one-ment, the process by which God restores our broken relationship with God and makes us one again. At-one-ment.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing of late on atonement. In addition to my recent book, Making Sense of the Cross, I’ve had two shorter articles published this week that, if you’re interested, you can read as part of your Good Friday reflections. Both deal with what’s called the “penal substitutionary theory of atonement.” People who advocate this understanding of the cross answer our “how” and “why” questions by saying that because humanity sinned, God must punish humanity by sending us all to eternal hell. But Jesus stands in, or substitutes himself for us, and takes the punishment and beating we deserve, satisfying God’s wrath and justice and releasing us from punishment if we believe in him. This theory sounds logical and rational and all the parts add up, and perhaps for that reason is the dominant understanding of the cross in popular American – and especially conservative – religious culture.

It’s also highly problematic. In an article I wrote for The Huffington Post that came out today, I describe the problem in terms of the picture of an angry, even bloodthirsty God this theory assumes and wonder why we can only think of justice in terms of retributive violence. In a shorter piece on the blog of friend Tony Jones, I compare this theory of the cross with the recent and blockbuster book and film The Hunger Games, suggesting that a comparison of the plot lines of this story and the substitutionary atonement story makes us, quite rightly, pretty uncomfortable.

In addition to offering you these couple of pieces for your Good Friday reflection, I want to make one more suggestion: perhaps the most important question to ask today isn’t “how” or “why” but “for whom.” That is, maybe how and why of what God accomplishes in the cross will always be a bit beyond our reach and must and should remain something of a mystery. But we can answer this other question, “for whom.” That is, “for whom did Jesus’ die?” The answer: “for us!” As the hymn writer Elizabeth Clephane once wrote:

Upon the cross of Jesus,
My eye at times can see
The very dying form of one
Who suffered there for me. 

And from my contrite heart, with tears,
two wonders I confess:
The wonder of his glorious love
And my unworthiness.

Whatever we don’t know – the hows and whys and all the rest – we do have this promise: Jesus lived, died, and was raised again for you, for me, for all of us and, indeed, all the world. Thanks be to God.


Post Image: Crucifixion, Tintoretto, 1565