An atheist acquaintance of mine once shared this opinion of Good Friday with me. I wanted to respond by pointing out that the “good” in Good Friday had more to do with holy than good, but I resisted the temptation. My acquaintance had his own beliefs about what constituted good, and I am certain he did not care much for the concept of holy.
The word excruciating was very fitting though. It comes from the Latin crux, meaning cross. Not many people know that.
My acquaintance did not understand Good Friday and showed no interest in wanting to understand Good Friday, but in his defense, he did not deny the reality of Jesus’s crucifixion as an event in history.
In other words, he accepted that a man named Jesus had lived and died on earth two thousand years ago, but he refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead three days after crucifixion. For him, the crucifixion represented cruel death and nothing more. Full stop. The end.
My atheist acquaintance is representative of most modern people for whom “good” exists in only in life. Thus, the ultimate goal is the pursuit of the “good life.” However, life is also filled with a great deal of “bad”. Hence, the modern mindset defines living a good life as embracing everything “good” in life – pleasure, success, health, happiness, etc. – while simultaneously avoiding the “bad” – pain, failure, illness, sadness, etc.
The “good life” also entails not thinking much about death, which the modern mind conceives as the ultimate evil of pointless negation. As such, death is removed from life altogether and placed in a category of its own – let’s call it “not life” or “anti-life.”
The modern, atheistic conceptualization of life and death renders the “good” of Good Friday ungraspable and incomprehensible. The deeper spiritual implications of the historical event are too strange to contemplate, let alone understand. Best not even bother and focus instead on the “good life” while one is still alive to enjoy it.
The strangeness of Christianity is rooted in Jesus’s mission, which involves demonstrating the reality of a Good Life that is infinitely superior to any “good life” men can hope to secure in this world. In a post from 2019, Dr. Charlton addressed this inherent strangeness of the Good Life Jesus offers:
What, then, did this man Jesus say about himself and what he brought?
That he brought, he made possible, an altogether higher, better, permanently-satisfying way of living. So, this good life Jesus gave would be not just greater than anything we had or could ever experience; it would be ever-lasting, it would be eternal.
Further; this good life would be experienced in our bodies, we would life forever and satisfyingly as embodied men; in bodies that would could not be destroyed. How extraordinary!
But - and Jesus was clear about this - we could reach this state of the Good Life (Jesus himself could only reach this state) only by first dying and then 'resurrecting'. The Good Life Jesus promised was on the other side of death!
And Jesus himself would 'show' that what he claimed was true, and how it worked; first by 'demonstrating' the process on his friend Lazarus; and then by himself going-through this same death and resurrection. How strange!
Why must Men die in order to be remade for the Good Life? Jesus did not explain. It seemed to be something to do with the fact that mortal bodies were intrinsically corruptible; and to 'make' eternal bodies required this process of 'resurrection'.
But why did Men need to live the Good Life in bodies? Why not as spirits? That was perhaps the strangest thing of all. Again; Jesus did not explain, but the fact seemed to be quite definite.
This is “good” my atheist acquaintance could not grasp. Even though he knew he would one day die himself, he could not accept the idea that there was anything “good” beyond death, let alone accept that the “good” beyond death was infinitely superior to any “good” he hoped to find his mortal life. He had made his choice in this regard – and understanding the “good” in Good Friday is exactly that – a choice. Dr. Charlton explains:
What Jesus did explain, was that if we wanted this Good Life for ourselves, we needed in some sense to follow him. And that this following was a matter of love; the Good Life was itself a thing of love, the GL was joined by loving.
The Good Life was made possible by Jesus's love for each and every Man; and the 'process' was completed by each Man who wanted this Good Life loving Jesus. It had to be our decision, each individual's decision.
This business was not something done by God, to Men - or for Men. This step was a thing that we needed to do for our-selves; there were two sides, and we each must participate in the process - God's side of the matter being accomplished by a Holy Spirit or Comforter, which Jesus would send after he himself left the mortal world. Jesus implied that this Holy Ghost was in some sense himself, returned, in a form who was accessible to any Man who wanted it.
And that was it, pretty much! That was the essence of the thing. Having made this clear, Jesus went ahead and did it; he completed the process.
. . . The Good Life was from now a permanent possibility for any Man; albeit only attainable on the other side of death and by the choice of love.
Atheists are not the only ones that struggle with strangeness of Christianity and the “good” of Good Friday. For many Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus centers on atonement, redemption, and the cleansing of sin. On Good Friday, Jesus fulfills his mission as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Christians the world over somberly reflect upon how Jesus died for our sins.
But what does this actually mean?
Dr. Charlton provides some penetrating insights on the matter as it pertains to the Fourth Gospel:
A man emerges, Jesus - who is instantly recognised, on sight, by John the Baptist as being the Messiah: the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. When John baptises him, John perceives that the Spirit of God does not only touch and depart, as usual; but uniquely stays with this man: Jesus has become divine.
What does it mean that Jesus would 'take away' sin? Sin seems to mean all the transitory nature of satisfaction in this world, the corruptions, the selfishness, that which contributes to the recurrent sense that life is travail and loss. Jesus will take away Mortality and all its badness, all that we know in our hearts to be intrinsically wrong about life.
Inspired by Dr. Charlton’s observations, William James Tychonievich offers a fresh interpretation of Jesus’s role as the Lamb of God as it pertains to Good Friday and the historical event of Jesus’s crucifixion:
The standard interpretation is that John is alluding to the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament -- particularly the "sin-offerings" detailed in Leviticus 4, in which animals were ritually slaughtered in order to obtain forgiveness for sins. Jesus, then, would be the ultimate sacrificial animal, and when the Romans executed him they were unwittingly playing the role of the Levitical priest who slits the victim's throat, sprinkles its blood about, and burns its fat and some of its internal organs on the altar, somehow effecting thereby the forgiveness of sins. On this view, the crucifixion of Christ was not merely an execution, nor even a martyrdom, but an act of ritual human sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. (Fortunately the Roman soldiers were not aware that they were participating in such a monstrous ritual. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.")
John, then, was saying, "Behold the sacrificial victim of God, whose death will bring about the forgiveness of all the sins committed in the world."
This interpretation of John is, I think, unacceptable. It makes no logical or moral sense to say that God's forgiveness can be obtained through blood sacrifice, whether animal or human -- or that a blood sacrifice "counts" when the victim only stays dead for a single weekend -- or that the greatest and most effective sacrificial ritual should be performed not by God's consecrated priests, but by the soldiers of a brutal pagan empire who didn't even realize that what they were doing had any religious significance. Suppose Genghis Khan sacked a village, killed all the livestock, and burned the place to the ground. Could we expect anyone's sins to be forgiven as a result of such an incident, on the grounds that it constituted an unwitting sin-offering? But we might as well believe that as that the blackguards and barbarians who put Christ to death were unknowingly officiating in the greatest priestly ritual of all time.
Any acceptable reading of John's words must do better than this.
I had never before considered that "the sin of the world" might mean anything other than "all the moral vices and crimes of which the people of the world are guilty," so Bruce's fresh perspective is very valuable. I think it's a very defensible reading, especially considering that John says "the sin [singular] of the world" rather than, say, "the sins of the people." A strictly literal translation of the Greek would be something like "the way in which the cosmos misses its mark" -- an apt enough description of "mortality and all its badness."
Taking away mortality and all its badness also sounds like something that Jesus could conceivably do -- a tremendous miracle, but a logically admissible one -- whereas taking away the moral shortcomings of all the people in the world does not. If I am sinful, how could anything anyone else can do, even in principle, change that fact? At best, the punishment of sins could be taken away, which is all that the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament religion were supposed to do.
Which brings us back to John's problematic declaration. Even if we reconceptualize "taking away the sin of the world," we are still stuck with his sacrificial-animal metaphor. In what logically and morally acceptable sense can Jesus be considered the equivalent of a sacrificial victim?
Something I discovered when preparing my notes on John 1 is that male lambs -- the animals indicated by John's Greek -- were never in fact used as sin offerings.
According to the regulations laid out in Leviticus 4 for sin offerings (presumably what is being alluded to), a bullock is offered if a priest or the whole congregation has sinned; a male kid if the ruler has sinned; and a female kid or lamb if a commoner has sinned. In no case is a male lamb offered as a sin offering, and even a female lamb seems to be a sort of second option if a kid is not available. Why then did John choose a lamb? Why did he not call Jesus the Bullock of God (the closest fit for taking away the sins of the world) or the Kid of God?
In that post I merely raised the question without attempting to answer it. I think now that the answer is that, despite the bit about "taking away the sin of the world," John was not alluding to sin offerings. Instead he was (obviously!) alluding to a different sacrificial ritual -- the one that all the Gospels associate most closely with Jesus' death -- namely, the Passover (Exodus 12). The Passover victim, unlike that for a sin-offering, was a male lamb. And the blood of the Paschal lamb was shed, not to obtain forgiveness for moral misdeeds or for infractions of the Mosaic law, but to cause the destroyer to pass over. The fate of the Egyptians -- "there was not a house where there was not one dead" -- is the fate of everyone in this broken world, but the Passover made it possible to escape that fate -- to be passed over by the destroying angel, and to be delivered from that death-cursed land into a better country. This is a much better metaphor for what Jesus did than are the sin-offerings of Leviticus.
On the one hand, Good Friday commemorates a strange event that occurred in history. An innocent man was executed on false charges in the most barbaric of ways.
On the other hand, Good Friday also marks the transformation of Creation. Jesus’s death and subsequent resurrection is a spiritual cosmic shift that penetrates every aspect of reality.
The crucifixion of Jesus happened. Good Friday is a testament to that. The rest depends on us – quite literally.