In The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson portrays the presence of evil during the passion narrative with a character that sort of lurks in the crowd and follows Jesus as he is flogged and led to Calvary. Immediately after Jesus “breathes his last,” the androgynous figure is seen in some sort of pit (apparently in hell), on his knees, beating his chest and screaming in utter anguish. Presumably, Satan is now realizing he has been conquered by Jesus death—a resulting victory for Jesus and his followers. The liberty Gibson takes here in the passion narrative—it is not recorded in the Gospels—betrays his understanding of the atonement, more specifically, Satan’s reaction to it.
I recently read a book where a bunch of guys way smarter than me argue over the nature of the atonement. One says we need to understand the crucifixion of Christ as a substitution for the death of humanity (penal substitutionary atonement). Another argues we need to place primary importance on the victory of Christ over Satan, where Satan no longer holds humanity in ransom (Christus Victor). I really don’t care—I think both are right. The beauty of Jesus’ work is that it solves a multifaceted problem with a single act. I draw upon Gibson’s take on the atonement because I think most Christians (myself included) view Good Friday as cause for celebration. I don’t deny this. But what is interesting to me is not a single disciple felt like a winner that day; this particular Friday was NOT a “Good” one. The reality for the disciples was their hopes in Jesus as the Messiah died with the crucifixion. The disciples did not have the advantage, as we do today, to view Good Friday with Easter Sunday in mind. It is abundantly clear in the Gospels that the disciples had NO CLUE what Jesus was talking about when he repeatedly said, quite explicitly, that he was going to Jerusalem to die at the hands of Rome and rise again on the third day. They didn’t get it—otherwise, rather than lopping a man’s ear off, Peter would have said, “Oh no problem, see you on Sunday Jesus! Thanks again…”
At this point, Jesus was no different from the scores of other “Messiahs” who had led temporarily successful revolts against Rome—but ultimately wound up with a violent death. The disciples were in shock on Friday. But they had a decision to make—give up their faith in Jesus as Messiah, find a new one, or both. In fact, we have that answer: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). On Saturday, their shock would have turned into mourning. They now need a plan to save their own hands and feet from being nailed to a cross. Peter was no fool; he was guilty by association. He did what he did before the rooster crowed all in the interest of self-preservation. Over time, if they didn’t suffer the same fate as Jesus, their mourning might have turned into fond reminiscing about the good ol’ days when Jesus walked the earth. Some might have even been angry that they were fooled into believing Jesus was the Messiah. But eventually, they would have moved on—maybe visiting the tomb of Jesus once in a while to remember him. Maybe they would have forgotten about him completely when they found another one worthy to follow as Messiah. Perhaps one strong enough to “restore the Kingdom to Israel”—at least one that was strong enough to escape violent death for insurrection (provoked by his own people, no less). Whatever the case, the story of Jesus of Nazareth might have been told for a while, but eventually would have died out and surely would not have lived on until today. Most importantly, on Saturday, Jesus could no longer be followed as Messiah, because he was dead.
(to be continued)