Between Heaven and Earth

Why did Jesus Suffer?

Don: Michael is going to share some thoughts about grace and suffering. 

Michael: Thanks to Kiran and Dr. Weaver for their help in preparing this message. 

During the final days of Jesus’s ministry, beginning from the night at the garden of Gethsemane until His death on the cross, Jesus suffered in every category. He suffered physically, emotionally through betrayal of His friends, loss of freedom, and existentially when He asked God why he had left him. There are two prominent explanations that theologians provide for the suffering of Jesus. I would like to discuss them first.  

The first reason is that Jesus’s suffering and death serve as an atonement for our sins. From ChatGPT: According to Christian doctrine, Jesus’ suffering and death serve as a sacrifice that atones for the sins of humanity. The idea is that all humans are inherently sinful, and sin creates a separation between humans and God. Jesus, as the perfect and sinless Son of God, willingly took upon himself the punishment for human sin. His sacrifice is believed to reconcile humanity with God and restore the broken relationship between them.  

There are two problems with the above explanation. If you carefully observe the explanation given, the suffering of Jesus and His death were always discussed in combination together. I would like to separate Jesus’ suffering and death as we discuss these two problems.  

It is biblically clear from Paul’s letter to the Romans 6, that the wages of sin is death. In Hebrews 10, Paul explained the symbolism of Jesus’s death as an animal slain for the atonement of our sins. This symbolism was heavily drawn from the ancient Israelite practice of slaying the sacrificial animal at the altar of God’s temple. According to Leviticus 4, this sacrificial animal should be unblemished. The animal should be slayed by the neck and bled out, then the blood should be used for the cleansing ritual. The Israelites believed that the blood is the seat of the soul: Leviticus 17:11: For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. So, there are two important things to learn here:

First, the death of an animal, usually a lamb, was necessary, and second, the blood contains the essence of life that can make the atonement for the sinner’s soul. An important distinction to make here is that while death of the animal was necessary, suffering was not necessary for the atonement. In fact, to ensure that there are no blemishes on the animal, it must be carried around on the shoulders and hand fed. So, it is the most pampered animal of the flock. So, carrying this symbolism forward to Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” Jesus must shed His blood and die. But suffering is not necessary for the atonement of sins.  

The second problem with this explanation is that suffering is not a punishment from God for our sins, although it is possible for suffering to be a natural consequence of the acts one might have committed. In the eyes of God, the wages of sin is death, but NOT suffering. To convince you of this point, let us look at two stories from the Bible. The book of Job says that Job suffered greatly, despite being righteous. In the New Testament, when Jesus met a man blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. These two stories underscore the point that suffering is not a punishment for sin. 

The notion that suffering is a result of one’s sins is a deeply ingrained HUMAN notion/explanation of suffering. When we do something wrong, we have a feeling that one way to atone for it is by suffering the guilt, remorse, and anguish for the wrong we caused. We may even think that God perpetuates these feelings. We literally pay for our misdeeds by our health. This is the human method of atonement for our sins, and we project it onto God. This is what Job’s friends tried to convince Job, that it was impossible for him to suffer so greatly if he did nothing wrong, he must have done something wrong that he is not aware of it. But when God appeared, his position was clear, Job’s friends spoke wrongly of God, and they were reprimanded. It is important to note that when we think of suffering as an atonement for our sins, we effectively reject God’s grace. Instead of reaching out to God through suffering, we “carry our own cross”. But, isn’t that what Jesus taught? Is the cross of Jesus heavy or light? 

I believe one of the best stories to explain how we think God punishes us with suffering for our sins is the story of Cain. After Cain killed his brother Able, God asked Cain, where is your brother? What have you done? It is important how we read the intonations of God’s questions. Is the tone of God an angry one, or an inquisitive one, or a sympathetic one. Then God said to Cain: now you are cursed because of the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. At first glance, it appears as if God cursed Cain because of his sin, doesn’t it? But let us examine it carefully: God said, now you are cursed because of the ground. The curse is from the ground, not from God. It is a natural consequence of Cain’s action. On the part of God, what Cain received is quite different: God said, whoever kills Cain will be punished by Me seven times worse.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain so that anyone who found him would not kill him. I believe that the mark that God puts on Cain is the Cross of Jesus, which we will get to in a minute. 

To summarize, while Jesus had to die for the atonement of our sins, he did NOT have to suffer. While it is all too human for anyone to view their suffering as a fair punishment for their wrongdoings, in the eyes of God, suffering does not serve any redemptive purpose.  

The second explanation for the suffering of Jesus comes from Hebrews 2:18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. 

ChatGPT: This verse explains that Jesus’ suffering allows him to fully identify with the human experience, including pain, rejection, and isolation. This identification enables believers to see Jesus as someone who understands their struggles and can offer comfort and companionship in times of suffering. 

The idea that God came down and lived as one among us and went through the pain and suffering that we experience daily is so comforting and helps us to trust that Jesus can be a benevolent advocate on the day of judgement. Unfortunately, we mythicized Jesus to the point where we only allow Him all the negative experiences of humanity but not the positive ones such as joy, love, comfort, and the pleasures of life. The idea that Jesus could have experienced romantic love, or fathered a child are so repulsive to us. Is that fair? It sounds selfish, even narcissistic, on our part. If Jesus as human was to fully experience the whole spectrum of the human experience so that He could have identified with us, then it is fitting for us to allow Him the pleasures along with the pain. Therefore, this explanation does not sound valid to me.  

Unfortunately, these explanations that we came across do not explain why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer for the atonement of sins when the law only demands death. Could it be that Jesus suffered just because of the time he was born in? If he were born in another time or place, his death could have been through hanging, poison, a guillotine, or a bullet, all of which would involve less suffering than crucifixion. Jesus was born in a time when Romans ruled the world, which made crucifixion a common tool of death. He was born in a time when Jews were oppressed by the Romans, making it fertile grounds for some people to claim they are the messiah, who will deliver the Jews from the Romans. The Pharisees controlled the religion, and messiahs who did not conquer the Romans, undermined their control instead. So, the Pharisees delighted in the suffering of Jesus to serve an example for other wannabe messiahs.  

So, what purpose does crucifixion serve? Crucifixion caused severe medical trauma. I’m going to read parts of the abstract from a scientific paper on crucifixion and bodily trauma: Crucifixion in Roman times was applied mostly to slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners–only very rarely to Roman citizens. Death, usually -occurring- after 6 hours and up to 4 days, was due to multifactorial pathology: after-effects of compulsory scourging and maiming, haemorrhage and dehydration causing … pain, but the most important factor was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement. …. The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim. 

So, did Jesus really need to die this miserable death? Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anyone who was hung on a tree is cursed by God. Based on this verse, Jews considered that crucifixion is a curse or condemnation by God. When they crucified Jesus, they stepped into God’s shoes to show to everyone how this so-called King of the Jews was cursed, and to send a stern message to anyone else who may claim he is the Messiah again.  

Was Jesus cursed because he was hung on a cross? Paul says this in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). What is the curse of the law? Is it different than sin, which is the transgression of the law? 

Since the law of God was instituted in Deuteronomy, humans had a Godly standard to uphold in order to come close to God. Jesus summarized it like this: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48)”.  This standard of perfection is impossible to uphold. When faced with this standard, it elicits two types of reactions in humans: the strong, repress their guilt, act righteous and blame others for their sins. The weak, feel sinful, disconnected from God and undeserving of his love. But for all humans, it puts salvation in our own hands. I believe this is the curse of the law, namely, that the law puts our salvation in our own hands, even though it is IMPOSSIBLE to uphold the law by our own efforts.  

The interesting observation is that Jesus did not only redeem us from our sins through his death, but He also delivered us from the curse of the law by taking the curse on his shoulders and offering us God’s grace instead. The cursed instrument of death, hanging by a tree or a cross, was transformed by Jesus’s suffering to an instrument of grace. When we look on the suffering Jesus, we see a cursed, miserable human. What Jesus achieved through his suffering is that he declared that salvation is offered free to everyone through Grace, because the curse of the law is no more. We have been set free from this curse. The purpose of this extreme suffering is to pound into our heads the magnificent magnitude of Grace. Crucifixion is an expression of Grace. It is the mark God puts on us when we relinquish trying to obtain righteousness by our own hands and instead accept his Grace. I think this is the cross Jesus asks us to carry, the cross of Grace. 

But wait, there’s more. While preparing this study, it suddenly occurred to me that Jesus during His suffering, exemplified all of the beatitudes. I’m going to read them now and I would like you to remember a bible verse or perhaps a scene from a movie where Jesus exemplifies that beatitude: 

Matthew 5:

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. 
4Blessed are those who mourn, 
    for they will be comforted. 
5Blessed are the meek, 
    for they will inherit the Earth. 
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
    for they will be satisfied. 
7Blessed are the merciful, 
    for they will be shown mercy. 
8Blessed are the pure in heart, 
    for they will see God. 
9Blessed are the peacemakers, 
    for they will be called the Sons of God. 
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Beatitudes are some of the hardest passages in the bible to understand. They are counter intuitive; they flip the usual script upside down. They suggest that God’s blessing is for the lowliest, it is hard to accept them. For that reason, we either brush over them, or provide a generic explanation for them. But the Beatitudes are not parables. There is not much wiggle room to provide alternate explanations. The Beatitudes are concise declarative statements. They declare the supreme blessedness bestowed by God upon humans. 

There may be an important reason why, deep down, we do not like the beatitudes. When we read them, we think that they are not for us. This is not me. Me, being meek? You just have no clue. 

In His suffering, Jesus exemplified each one of these beatitudes. He was poor in spirit, He mourned, He was meek, He was a peacemaker, He was merciful, He was pure in heart, and He was persecuted because of righteousness even though He hungered and thirst for righteousness.  

Before this new understanding, I tended to look at each of the beatitudes separately. Perhaps a person could be a peacemaker today, but he may not be mourning. Maybe I’m merciful now but definitely not pure in heart. But is this true? Is that even possible? It seems to me now that it may not be true, that these Beatitudes are not separate entities, but rather an integrated one. It may be that this is an 8-fold blessing, the ultimate Grace.  

In conclusion, I would like to offer this perspective. In our human experience, being in a state of suffering and accepting the suffering, is perhaps the only time that we can be in a state that is both miserable and blessed. How does that blessing look like, I do not know. But through suffering, we are stripped down of all of our defenses and control. Everything we are afraid of is here. Through suffering, we are forced to become poor in spirit, we mourn the loss of a loved one, or even a world view or a changing self. Suffering humbles us, opens our hearts to be merciful and peacemakers, and invites us to seek God and his righteousness instead of our own will and desires.  

So, the next time suffering overwhelms you and you feel utterly helpless and naked, I suggest that you read the beatitudes. Because you are blessed.  

My questions for you today are: Are the Beatitudes meant to be taken as separate entities, or are they integrated into one unit? What do you think of this explanation for Jesus’s suffering? Is the cross of Jesus heavy or light? Can you see Grace in the cross of Jesus? 

David: That was an excellent analysis that has added new perspectives on our topic.

Returning to something I said last week: As humans, we strive to eradicate suffering via modern medicine, longevity research, and even entering immersive virtual realities where no suffering exists. Given that one can attain a deeper understanding of God through suffering, what are the implications for our relationship with God if we remove suffering from our lives?

Donald: As we make strides in diminishing suffering, it’s essential to examine what we mean by ‘suffering.’ In many situations, suffering equates to separation, such as in divorce or the loss of life. Despite advancements, the rise in depression and pain suggests a nuanced relationship between suffering and emotional states. Being born human classifies you as sinful. Yet Christ was also human and sinless. So, can we live a sin-free life?

Suffering represents a loss of control, which is why we aim to lessen it. Biblical stories, like God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, present challenges to our understanding of suffering. These narratives raise the question of why a compassionate God would command such heart-wrenching acts.

Reinhard: Abraham’s ordeal was a test of faith, unrelated to sin. In Genesis 2:17, God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve upon eating the forbidden fruit implies that all human suffering is a result of rebellion against God. In other words, our suffering is a direct consequence of our disobedience.

As for why Jesus had to die, it was part of God’s preordained plan. It proves that God is loving when that love is reciprocated by His creations, humans. Transgressing against this divine law triggers God’s sanctions. Jesus’ death and resurrection serve dual purposes: They offer a route back to God, dispelling Satan’s accusations against God, while providing hope for believers through the possibility of overcoming death.

Don: One way to look at the story of Abraham and Isaac is to see Isaac as representing everything Abraham can offer to God. Despite offering his very best, it’s not enough. The central theme of the story, in my opinion, is “God will provide.”

Carolyn: Grace covers everything.

Donald: Two songs come to mind concerning these ideas: “He Died of a Broken Heart” and “I Surrender All.” These songs carry profound meanings that aren’t easy to grasp.

Don: Michael, your observation about the unity in the Beatitudes is compelling. The crucifixion story vividly expresses elements of the Beatitudes.

David: Does it mean those who aren’t suffering or separated are not blessed?

Kiran: When we found out my wife was pregnant, we faced choices about genetic testing and potential early abortion. People in the past didn’t have this option. Raising a child with a syndrome is difficult but also deeply transformative. Suffering can lead to greater spiritual depth if you choose to embrace it.

Michael: I question whether Jesus’s suffering was as important for the atonement of sins as his death was. Suffering might be more of a natural consequence rather than divine punishment.

Kiran: In Eastern philosophies like Hinduism, death is seen as liberation from suffering, offering another perspective.

David: If death is a portal to heaven, how can it serve as atonement? Atonement implies punishment, and death shouldn’t be feared if it leads to paradise.

Donald: The term “punishment” keeps appearing in this discussion. I don’t believe God punished Christ through crucifixion. Death can occur in Hell as well, and that doesn’t seem like a desirable form of death.

Don: There’s a commonly held notion that the more sins you have, the worse your punishment will be.

Michael: That idea reminds me of Dante’s Inferno and its different circles of Hell. However, none of that is biblical; it’s just human interpretation.

Don: But it’s surprising how ingrained this idea has become, not just in Christian thought, but also in Christian teaching.

Michael: Where did this concept come from? Dante isn’t Jesus or God; he’s just a writer.

Reinhard: For most people, suffering is a consequence of sin, as stated in the Bible. We all face mysteries in life; sometimes bad things happen to good people. But being in a good relationship with God gives us peace of mind. Trusting in God helps us not fear bad news or suffering.

Anonymous: Suffering and sin are connected. For example, Jesus, who was sinless, suffered because he carried our sins. Suffering can serve as a signal that something is spiritually wrong, just like pain indicates something is wrong in the body.

Don: Michael, your essay will serve as an excellent guide for our future discussions on the crucifixion and the concept of divine sacrifice. Next week, Sharon will discuss different perspectives on suffering.

Donald: I don’t fully understand the relationship between suffering and punishment.

Don: Perhaps we need an essay to explore that topic.

Donald: Is the purpose of punishment to make someone suffer? And why would someone be resurrected just to experience hell?

Reinhard: I don’t believe people will suffer eternally in hell; only Satan and the beast are destined for that.

Donald: Then why would one need to be resurrected just to experience hellfire?

Don: It boils down to the question of punishment.

Michael: In the end, what really matters is the suffering and death of Jesus.

Don: Which extends grace to us all.

Michael: Exactly.

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