The Singularity of Good Friday

The Singularity of Good Friday
Brian Zahnd

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

–T.S. Eliot

Most of us have an instinct to associate Good Friday with the forgiveness of sins and this instinct is correct. Something did happen on Good Friday that makes the forgiveness of any and all sins possible. But how does this forgiveness actually work? St. Paul says, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” But what does this mean? Did Christ’s death somehow restore honor to an insulted omnipotent monarch as some have suggested? Is the crucifixion a ghastly appeasement of an offended deity through the torture and execution of an innocent victim? On Good Friday did God vent his anger by brutally killing his Son so he could finally find the wherewithal to forgive? Are we to imagine that John 3:16 actually means that God so hated the world that he killed his only begotten Son? No, imposing the primitive notion of a sacrificial appeasement upon the cross is what N.T. Wright describes as “the paganizing of atonement theology.” The events of Good Friday are not God punishing his Son. Regarding this mistake understanding of the cross, Wright says,

“If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial mistake that could be easily corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not to the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.” (The Day the Revolution Began, p. 43)

The cross is not what God inflicts in order to forgive; the cross is what God in Christ endures as he forgives. This is an essential and enormous clarification! At the cross the Son does not act as an agent of change upon the Father for, indeed, God is immutable. Orthodox theology has always insisted that God is not subject to change or mutation. Thus the cross is not where Jesus changes God but where Jesus reveals God. On Good Friday Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God as Savior! We don’t have to imagine the Son as pacifying an angry Father in order to understand Good Friday as the epicenter of forgiveness. But if the point is not appeasement, how do we associate Good Friday with forgiveness? Allow me to suggest that we think about it like this:

On Good Friday the sin of the world coalesced into a hideous singularity that upon the cross it might be forgiven en masse.

The cross is the wood between the worlds — it is the true center of history. Everything leads up to the cross and everything flows from the cross. The death of God upon a tree is not just some event within history, it is the event that defines and explains, reveals and redeems all of history. However we understand the origin of sin within the human story, its trajectory moves inevitably toward Good Friday. And however we understand the salvation of the world (the task given by the Father to the Son), it all flows forth from the eternal moment within time when Jesus, nailed to the wood between the worlds, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” From that moment both our primordial past and our most distant future fall under the redeeming work of grace. The “Father, forgive them” moment upon the cross is not the moment when Jesus changed the mercurial mind of God. No! This is the moment when the eternal love of the triune God intervened decisively in human history to once and for all forgive human sin. This is the moment when the Spirit of Love that flows between the Father and the Son erupted to engulf and forgive the sin of the world. The prophet Zechariah imagined it with this prophecy: “On that day a fountain shall be opened to cleanse them from sin.” John the Baptist foreshadowed it when he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Paul summed it up like this: “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.”

We can think of Good Friday as the moment in history when the sins of the world became a hideous singularity. On Good Friday all the many sins of the world amalgamated into a single sin — “the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist called it. On Good Friday the mystery of iniquity — diabolically manifest in pride, greed, blame, deceit, injustice, oppression, and all that is ugly, vulgar, and blasphemous — was present in the taunts and jeers, the scourging and crucifixion of the Son of God. As the sun was darkened over Golgotha the unspeakable potential of evil became the single sin of deicide — the murder of God. Every sin, from the original Adamic transgression to the final iniquity of a fallen age, became the one sin of killing Jesus. And what happened? Were twelve legions of avenging angels unleashed to wreak divine retribution? Did a thunderclap of damning judgment fall upon the guilty? Did the angel of death appear to slay the executioners of Christ? No, Jesus simply absorbed it all and forgave it all. Jesus was killed, not by God, but by the hands of wicked men. With great violence the principalities and powers sinned the sin of the world into the sinless body of Jesus. When the sins of the world became the sinful singularity of Good Friday, the one who knew no sin was made to be sin. The body of Jesus hanging upon the cross was made to be the repository for the sin of the world. What does sin look like? Sin looks like the grotesquely distorted and anguish-ridden body of Christ as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim Altarpiece. It looks like the Innocent One nailed to a tree bearing in his body the entrance wounds of sin.

But once sin entered the body of the crucified God, there could be no escape. On Good Friday the sin of the world was drawn into the infinite gravity of God’s grace. At Golgotha the sin of the world as a hideous singularity was drawn inescapably into the greater singularity of God’s love where sin itself was undone. Christ’s self-sacrificial death upon the cross became a cosmic supernova irradiating time and space with divine forgiveness. This was when the sin of the world was taken away, as foretold by the forerunner. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” what was forgiven? Everything. Not only the betrayal committed by Judas; not only the murder committed by Barabbas; not only the false accusations leveled by Caiaphas; not only the unjust sentence handed down by Pontius Pilate; not only the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus; not only the jeering crowd who mocked Jesus, but everything! Every sin, every transgression, every act of idolatry, every deed of injustice, every stone-age murder, every space-age iniquity, every notorious crime, every hidden sin — it was all forgiven. On Good Friday all the sins of the world became a single sin that it might be forgiven once and forever. This is what makes Good Friday good!


(The artwork is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald.)