Well-known atheist and psychologist Steven Pinker published a book in 2011 titled “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” The book focuses mainly on the philosophies of religion, asserting that religion (specifically Christianity) is one of the greatest contributors of violent acts and warfare.
If one groups together all religions into a single entity, the characteristics of the group as a whole will most certainly not fairly represent the characteristics of each individual religion. Certain religions preach peace and tolerance, while others teach punishment and submission. The assertion that Christianity is a source of evil and violence can be easily refuted by anyone who seeks to do so. However, I want to focus on a specific point that Pinker makes in his book. He spends a few pages talking about Jesus’ crucifixion, and how it is barbaric and disturbing that Christians see it as the most beautiful expression of love that God has ever shown.
To get a better idea of Pinker’s opinion on the subject, here is a paragraph from his book –
“More to the point, what was the lesson that the first Christians drew from the crucifixion? Today such a barbarity might galvanize people into opposing brutal regimes, or demanding that such torture never again be inflicted on a living creature. But those weren’t the lessons the early Christians drew at all. No, the execution of Jesus is The Good News, a necessary step in the most wonderful episode in history. In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor.” (p. 25)
Do Christians think that crucifixion is a brutal and barbaric method of execution? Of course they do. It is not as if Christians were advocating crucifixion as a good means of punishment for anyone. Rather, they saw it as the most brutal form of execution a man could endure. In this way, Jesus, both God and man, showed the extent of his love to his creation. Pinker seems to be making the false resolution that because Christians profess and value Jesus’ crucifixion, it means that Christians are heartless and barbaric monsters.
As happens with some secular or atheist philosophies, there is a grain of truth to be found in these assumptions. Are Christians barbarians? In a sense, yes. Because of our sinful nature, every human (Christian or otherwise) was and is born completely dead and void of any true love. Our natural opposition to God and his will is what warranted the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. All mankind was conceived in sin, even to the point that we are all enemies of God. As David states in Psalm 14:3,
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.”
Do we take pride that it is our sin that held Christ to the cross? Certainly not. The crucifixion was necessary because of the sins of the human race. We are held to blame for all of the sins that Christ took on as he suffered. We believe the crucifixion to be both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. It’s disturbing in the sense that we all took part in crucifying Christ. It is beautiful in the sense that God showed the world the extent of His boundless love, giving Himself up to death for our sake. And furthermore, we know that the nails we personally used to hold him to that tree have been cast out of God’s sight, out of His memory, as if we had never done any wrong to our Savior. Jesus has taken the blame and pardoned us from our guilt, and as a result our consciences and souls are free.
Look at it this way: Christians don’t walk out of a Good Friday service smiling and chatting about the recent college basketball game. It’s usually one of the most emotional and shameful experiences that a Christian can go through. On Good Friday, we focus on the fact that our sin is to blame for Christ’s suffering. We walk out of the service in sorrowful introspection, realizing the extent of our sin.
Then, when Easter comes on the third day, the beauty of Christ’s death is found in the fact the he didn’t stay dead. If Christ had died for us and not risen, the cross would be seen as anything but “good.” If Christ had been punished for our iniquity, and not overcome death itself, the cross would be the shame of all mankind. However, God ensured it to be the opposite. Because Jesus rose from death, we know that he conquered death for us through his atonement. We do not boast about ourselves, as is we have anything to do with our own salvation. Rather, we boast in the cross of Christ, rejoicing in the hope that comes from Christ’s atonement. We heed the words of Paul in Galatians 6:14 – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” We lower ourselves before the cross, recognizing that God’s gift of salvation was given to us despite our shameful stance towards God.
We also know that through our baptism, we were “crucified with Christ,” that is, our sin and rebellion were put to death through Jesus’ sacrifice. When we rejoice in the cross, we celebrate our death as well. In the same way, when we rejoice in Christ’s resurrection, we take heart in the hope that he has also secured our resurrection. The beauty of the cross cannot be comprehended or understood by one who has not been brought to faith. To Steven Pinker, the message of the cross is foolishness because he is not in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18). The death of Jesus Christ has absolutely no value to those who aren’t God’s children, and is absolute folly to the world.
When Christians look at the cross, we should call to mind both law and gospel. Our disobedience to the law was the very thing for which Christ suffered, but Christ suffered because of his perfect love and grace towards the world. Why would anyone worship a God who was humiliated enough to die such a barbaric death? We worship the humble Christ because God is love –
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)