I am having trouble accepting the Course’s view that Jesus did not suffer during the crucifixion. Can you help me?

Q. I am having trouble accepting the Course’s version of the crucifixion. I can only think that Jesus must have suffered, since the Bible mentions his anguish and his sweating drops of blood. Can you help me understand the Course’s point of view?

A. For a long time I had these same concerns. Actually, what I did was try to combine the Course’s view with the assumption that Jesus endured great pain. I found myself unable to question that assumption, because it is just so deeply ingrained in our minds that the value of the crucifixion lay in his suffering.

Since then, though, I have slowly come to see a whole different vision of the crucifixion and resurrection, one that I initially got from the Course, but one which I believe is also supported by a sensitive reading of the entire sweep of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.

Think about how we traditionally view the crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion steals the show. The vast majority of our attention goes there, and it’s all about the redeeming value of the suffering Jesus endured for our sake. And then the resurrection comes along, to tell us that that suffering was not the end. The great value of that suffering was able to purchase its opposite, so that obedient death was rewarded with eternal life. As the Apostle Paul said, “He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:8-9). The resurrection plays an important part, but the focus—and the theology—by and large revolves around the crucifxion.

I believe, though, that we have gotten it completely backwards. As I see it, Jesus’ ministry and teaching added up to one big, recurring message: You can freely enter a state called the kingdom of God, in which you live under God’s unconditional love and care, and in that state, nothing the world can do to you will touch you. Even while they take your coat and slap your cheek, they cannot mar your fullness in God. That fullness in you can only overflow, and shower its blessings on them, returning love for hate.

What if the crucifixion and resurrection were Jesus’ greatest and final way of conveying this same message? In that view, the resurrection represents Jesus’ real condition throughout the entire drama. It is the manifestation of what was going on inside of him even while he was being crucified. And the events of the crucifixion represent the violent yet ultimately impotent world, dashing itself against the immovable rock of one who was perfectly established in the kingdom of God.

In other words, I believe that Jesus’ real intent was for the resurrection to be the louder statement. It was his proof to us that the crucifixion had no actual effect, and therefore that we could be free of our own crucifixions, even while they are occurring. I believe he was giving us a message of the power of life and the powerlessness of everything in this world that would snuff out that life. By seeing the crucifixion as the louder statement, and as characterized by suffering, I believe we have neatly reversed his entire teaching intent, and returned to the throne the very power—the world’s power to make us suffer—that he was seeking to dethrone.

As I said, I got this message originally from the Course. It sees the crucifixion as a demonstration that Jesus could undergo anything and not see himself as persecuted or harmed in the least. He says in the Course, “I elected, for your sake and mine, to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter” (T-6.I.9:1). He also says,

The resurrection demonstrated that nothing can destroy truth. Good can withstand any form of evil, as light abolishes forms of darkness. The Atonement [the resurrection] is therefore the perfect lesson. It is the final demonstration that all the other lessons I taught are true. (T-3.I.7:6-9).

I personally find this to be a deeply attractive message, yet, as you say, what do we do with the Bible’s descriptions of Jesus’ suffering? You mention the description in Luke of Jesus sweating great drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane. Yet we have to realize that these accounts were written decades later, by people who were never there. I think they do contain a great deal of actual history, but they have also been colored throughout by the tradition that had grown up in the meantime. And the story of Jesus agony in the garden is one that, even according to the Bible, had no witnesses whatsoever. Luke stresses that Jesus “withdrew from [his disciples] about a stone’s throw,” during which time they fell asleep! So if you believe Luke’s account, there was literally no one there to witness what happened.

I think it’s quite understandable that Jesus’ followers would not view these events as he did. They would naturally give a great deal of reality to the world’s assault on their master, even if his whole point was that that assault could not really touch him.

But if his intent really is what I am suggesting, their error should not stop us. We should be eager to set right that ancient mistake, and view the crucifixion and resurrection as the profound and practical message of liberation that he intended them to be. In my experience, it takes a long time to make that switch, but in the end it is infinitely worth it.

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