LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The controversy over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ” has renewed a debate that has been raging off and on for the last two millennia: Who is responsible for the death of Jesus Christ? Several answers have been offered, each one with a unique twist on the event.
Many believe that the Jews (or at least the Jewish leadership) are responsible for the death of Jesus. Jewish groups claim that the movie (and the Gospels) paints the crucifixion in these anti-Semitic colors. Our Jewish friends look back over a long history of persecution by numerous groups, movements and nations. Shamefully, the historical list of Jewish persecutors is not devoid of Christian representation. Many Jews fear that The Passion will ignite a new wave of anti-Semitism as moviegoers become convinced that the Jews were the “bad guys.”
Some are quick to argue that the Jews did not put Jesus on the cross, but the Romans did. Because Palestine was under Roman rule, the Jews had no authority to kill Jesus. They did, after all, take him before the Roman authorities, putting the ultimate decision on the shoulders of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate.
Still others, especially many evangelicals, do not want to pin the death of Jesus on either the Jews or the Romans. Instead, they want to emphasize that because all of humanity is sinful, ultimately everyone is responsible for the death of Jesus. The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ death was voluntary, with the purpose of atoning for the sins of the world.
There is merit to each of these arguments. In fact, ultimately all of these are at least partially responsible for the death of Jesus. The Jewish leadership brought Jesus to the attention of the Roman authorities. Pilate (somewhat reluctantly) ordered the actual execution, spurred on by the demand of the Jewish mob that Jesus be crucified. Jesus submitted to this entire humiliating experience voluntarily, so that he could pay the penalty for the sins of humanity.
In all of these arguments it seems that one key party is constantly left out of the equation: God. The New Testament teaches that the Jews and Romans, though personally responsible for their sinful actions, were actually fulfilling the predetermined plan of God. In his death, Jesus was submissive to the will of God. The biblical evidence seems clear on this:
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8-9, ESV). When He died, Jesus was being obedient to the will of God and, as a result, was “highly exalted” by God.
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23 ESV). Those who killed Jesus were playing a part in God’s ultimate plan for His Son.
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32 ESV). God Himself did not spare Jesus, but gave Him up for the sins of humanity.
There can be no doubt that God is ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Many may ask why God would do such a thing. Fortunately, the New Testament answers this question as well:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). God was motivated by love for the world and a desire that all who repent receive eternal life.
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV). Because God loves us, he sent Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice for sins.
God sent Jesus into the world so that the world might be redeemed. All those who repent of their sins, believe in Jesus Christ and trust in His sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection are given eternal life. God killed Jesus because God loves sinful people.
The third stanza of the great hymn “How Great Thou Art” captures beautifully the reality of God’s delivering up His only Son to be crucified for sinners: “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing/ Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;/ That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing/ He bled and died, to take away my sin./ Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee;/ How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”
How great indeed.
Nathan Finn is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.