Good Friday: A World Indicted

Cristo_en_la_Cruz (1)

Good Friday: A World Indicted
Brian Zahnd

Good Friday offers humanity a genuinely new and previously unimagined way of understanding both the character of God and the nature of human civilization. As Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Crucified God, “the cross is the test of everything.” But to understand Good Friday we need to be clear on who did the accusing, condemning, and killing of Jesus of Nazareth.

As we read the passion narratives in the Gospels it’s obvious that it isn’t God who insists on the execution of Jesus. Mark tells us, “the chief priests accused him of many crimes.” (Mark 15:3) Jesus’ jealous rivals accused him of heresy, blasphemy, and sedition because they were possessed by the satanic spirit of rivalry and blame. It wasn’t God who charged Jesus with capital crimes. It wasn’t God who shouted, “Crucify him!” It wasn’t God who ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip. The work of accusation, condemnation, and torture is the work of human civilization under the sway of the satan. The spirit of God is not heard in the crowd’s bloodlust cries of “crucify him,” but in Christ’s merciful plea, “Father, forgive them.” We must not imagine the machinations of the devil as the handiwork of God!

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the principalities and powers of Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate and their constituent institutions of religious, economic, and political power were at enmity with one another. These power brokers were bitter rivals locked in a fatal embrace. But when they took their rivalry-induced fear and hate, and projected it onto Jesus as their chosen scapegoat on Good Friday, they achieved a demonic unity. Luke precisely tells us this. “That same day [Good Friday] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)

This kind of satanic unity is the glue of civilization; harmony is achieved through blame, accusation, and scapegoating, leading to communal violence that is condoned as necessary, just, and even sacred. This is how Cain built the first city — the Bible’s theological telling of the origin of human civilization. But on Good Friday the whole foundational system of accusation and violence reaches a hellish crescendo in the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion is a divine exposé of communal violence masquerading as justice. Jesus said that with his death, “this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” (Luke 11:50) According to Jesus, the crucifixion is not charged against God, but against Cain’s system of civilization that had reached its apex in the systems of power represented by Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate. Jesus died for our sins.

Good Friday is the divine indictment of the world as we know it.

The killing of Abel and Zechariah and every other scapegoated, sacrificed victim is finally exposed and indicted when human civilization did the same thing to the Son of God. Heaven’s solidarity is not with the Cain-like conquerors from Pharaoh to Caesar, but with all the Abel-like victims. On Good Friday Jesus refounds the world as a righteous Abel, not as a murderous Cain. This is something entirely new. It’s in this way that the blood of the Lamb is the foundation for the New Jerusalem. It’s in this sense that Jesus is the Lamb (an entirely innocent scapegoat) slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8) Indeed, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

The “foundation of the world” is not the beginning of God’s good creation, but the beginning of human civilization. Abel was an innocent victim whose blood stained the cornerstone of Cain’s first city. And the pattern has been repeated throughout history, from A to Z, from Abel to Zechariah, from dispossessed Arapahoes to enslaved Zairians, from Auschwitz to Zyklon B — sacrificial victims offered on the altar of empire, economy, and ethnic cleansing.

But when the satanic system of civilization sacrificed the holy Lamb of God, it crossed a threshold of gargantuan self-condemnation. On Good Friday we come to the devastating realization that our violent system of blame and collective killing is so evil that it is capable of the murder of God. (In this sense Nietzsche was correct in saying, “God is dead, and we have killed him.”) But here is the good news: Once we see this foundational sin for what it is, we can repent of it, be forgiven for it, and be freed from it. This is how the cross saves the world.

God did not kill Jesus. God’s will on Good Friday was to surrender his beloved Son to our sacrificial system — and our sacrificial system of retributive, self-serving justice killed Christ! But on Easter Sunday God overthrew our satanic verdict by raising Jesus from the dead! Let it forever be understood that God did not kill Jesus; Cain and all his scapegoating successors did! What God did was to raise Jesus from the dead and in Christ give us a new way of unifying the world. Instead of being united around blame and collective killing, the world is now to be united around forgiveness and co-suffering love.

If we persist in thinking that somehow it was God who demanded the torture and murder of Jesus, we continue to exonerate the very system of evil from which God is trying to save us. It’s at the cross of Christ that the world and its violence are forever condemned, so that the world, at last, might be drawn into the love of God. The cross is not about the wrath of God finding a suitable sacrifice. The cross is about the love of God offering humanity a way out of the vicious cycle of producing endless victims. The cross of Christ is the end of sacrifice. It’s not the appeasement of a vengeful deity, but the supreme demonstration of God’s everlasting love. Good Friday is the final indictment of the old world — a dead-end world that is to be abandoned for the hope of a new world opened to us on Easter.


(The artwork is Christ on the Cross by Diego Velázquez, 1631)