If you’d asked me ten years ago why the commemoration of the torture and death of Jesus is called “Good Friday,” without hesitation I would have rattled off an answer about the good and necessary things that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross for my sins. There was little nuance or irony in my understanding of the event or its observance, it all made perfect sense thanks to doctrine and theology. Jesus knew he had to die, he died, and that was a very good thing. Even his killers were, in some sense, just fulfilling an important duty that had been prophesied since ancient times.
Today I want to toss all of that aside and recover the bitter tragedy of Jesus’ death.
It’s worth noting that the name “Good Friday” is a holdover from a time when “good” was a synonym for “holy,” not a comment on the value or efficacy of the event. In Germany, for example, the same observance is called Karfreitag, “Sorrowful Friday,” a name far more suited to the day. This is a day of harrowing loss and deep regret, not triumph or accomplishment.
While most Christians appreciate the pathos of the crucifixion as a dramatic downbeat before the glory of resurrection, many are baffled by the suggestion that Jesus’ death was anything other than a smashing success. Our doctrines of atonement and salvation and our retroactive appeals to “God’s plan” make the crucifixion little more than a pageant, a religious ritual manipulated by Jesus to trigger some sort of cosmic legal transaction.
I believe that we ought to see Jesus’ death for what it was: the unjust scapegoating and murder of an innocent victim by reckless powers of religion and empire. It was a scandalous and hateful event that did nothing more to please God or fulfill a theological need than any other human perversion of justice in history. To suggest otherwise is at least absurd, if not libelous toward the character of God.
Doesn’t The Bible Say That Jesus Had To Die?
A quick Google search for “why did Jesus have to die” reveals a mountain of detailed and footnoted Christian explanations of how and why the crucifixion was theologically necessary according to scripture. There is no single Bible verse that says “Jesus had to die because X,” so these presentations must cherry pick verses from popular passages on death and atonement like Isaiah 53, Hebrews 9, and Romans (though seldom from the gospels). They conclude that “God cannot let sin go unpunished” or that “only a perfect sacrifice could pay for sin.” This is the Protestant commitment to sacrificial logic, to the belief that God could only “deal with sin” by orchestrating the ultimate sacrificial death.
There are at least two major errors in this view of the cross, apart from the way it plays with proof texts. First, it ignores and undermines Jesus’ peaceful and anti-sacrificial vision of the divine. Second, it dehumanizes and mystifies an event that ought to be a horrifying outrage. This sort of doctrinally-motivated revisionism turns Jesus’ bold but tragic self-sacrifice into a cosmic charade, a religious ritual that perpetuates the lie of divine wrath and bloodlust. If Jesus had to die, it was because of human treachery, not biblical necessity.
Why Good Friday Must Be Bad
There is a massive irony in the way Christians have emptied the crucifixion of its messy human drama. By imagining that Jesus was knowingly fulfilling some cosmic plan of salvation, and by even suggesting that the human perpetrators of Jesus’ execution might be agents of that holy plan, we forfeit the opportunity to see the crucifixion as a grotesque real-world collision of human sin and divine mercy. We’ve traded genuine horror, heartbreak, and a real chance at self-reflection for more dubious religious ritual.
Why and how has this happened? Because modern Christians are not nearly as outraged by empire and religious scapegoating as the Bible’s authors are, and because we are far too comfortable with the notion of a God who uses violence to solve problems. The passion story is not about heavenly powers coming down to earth to fight a battle in the body of a man, it’s about divine mercy and pardon revealed amid human injustice and hate. These two do not swirl together, holy violence producing divine mercy. The violence is human, and the mercy is divine.
Good News On a Bad Day
The murder of Jesus was a heinous sin, like the scapegoating and murder of every innocent victim in history, and where was God? Not pulling strings or drinking it in but suffering, dying, and announcing forgiveness upon his killers. This merciful posture is God’s role in the crucifixion, not complicity or wrath. And this is the only thing that can be called “good” about Good Friday: that amid the blood and filth of human violence and scapegoating, God is revealed in the sufferer and not the killer, in humility rather than conflict, and in pardon instead of retribution. This is the good news in Good Friday, a hint of the glory of Easter obscured now by loss and sorrow.
I am profoundly grateful that Jesus gave himself, that he died in solidarity with every victim of sin, declaring pardon for every perpetrator of sin. I am moved and struck dumb by the courage and mercy of the crucified Messiah. But I refuse to call his death “good,” and I am appalled by the notion that such a senseless tragedy might have been necessary. If it was inevitable, it was not because of prophecies or God’s plan, it was because of the madness of a world that cannot abide the embodiment of divine peace and forgiveness. And if Jesus achieved anything, it was not to satisfy God’s wrath or provide magic blood for an efficacious sacrifice, he succeeded in exposing our addiction to violence and scapegoating and revealing the unexpected divine pardon that is our only hope.