The crucifixion of Jesus: the central image of Christianity and one of the most powerful and enduring images in Western civilization. I hesitate to write about something that is sacred to so many millions of people. Yet beliefs about the crucifixion are changing. The traditional understanding that Jesus died for the sins of mankind is being broadly questioned these days. I have met many who remain devoted Christians yet no longer accept that interpretation.
One source of skepticism about the traditional view is historical scholarship. Most New Testament scholars appear to believe that Jesus did not foresee his crucifixion, let alone ascribe theological significance to it. They tend to see it, therefore, as simply the kind of thing the Romans did to those who bucked the system.
Was the death of Jesus merely the unplanned, unjust death of a righteous man? Or was it a divinely arranged event which changed humanity's relationship with God? What we believe on this topic is, of course, a deeply personal matter, but even so, it helps to have options to choose from.
A Course in Miracles offers a very different and, so far as I know, unique interpretation of the crucifixion. The Course claims that the crucifixion did happen for a divinely ordained purpose. Its purpose, though, was not to pay for the sins of humanity. Rather, the crucifixion was a teaching demonstration. Jesus was trying to teach us by example. Rather than being aimed at God, therefore, it was directed at a human audience.
Jesus taught some very challenging ideas, among which were his notions of radical forgiveness and defenselessness in the face of attack. When struck in the face, he said, we should turn the other cheek; when someone tried to take our coat, we should give our cloak as well. How interesting, then, that the Gospels portray him meeting his own death in exactly this spirit. Could it be that the whole point of the crucifixion was to provide a powerful living example of his own challenging teachings?
This is what A Course in Miracles claims. It says that the reason we (just as Jesus) can afford to be forgiving and defenseless is that our true nature is divine, and therefore invulnerable. Our body can be killed, but the spirit deep within is indestructible. Knowing that our true nature cannot be hurt, we can meet those who attack us without defense or anger, but with defenselessness and forgiveness. We can meet their attack with love, for love is our true nature. Here, then, is how the Course encapsulates the message of the crucifixion: "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13).
I find this way of viewing the crucifixion to be not only logical, but also eminently practical. Every day I feel crucified in little ways. And every day I can remember that if Jesus could respond to his ordeal the way he did, perhaps I, in the midst of my far milder crucifixion dramas, can do the same.