One of the advantages of coming to Christianity from lifelong atheism was that I got to read the New Testament like a suspense story. I knew from cultural osmosis that Jesus was born in a manger, that three wise men visited, and that he was eventually crucified, but I that was about it. So I was caught off guard when I learned the details of his conviction and execution. I was particularly shocked that many of the same people who shouted “Crucify him!” had joyously hailed his entrance into Jerusalem just a few days earlier. What could explain such a drastic change of heart?
There were undoubtedly many factors at play, and each person who joined in the shouting had his or her own reasons. But I’ve often thought that, at least for some of them, they were lashing out in anger—an anger driven by fear and disappointment. When they saw him enter Jerusalem they recognized him as the long-awaited King, and thrilled at the ideas of what his kingship might involve—maybe peace? Prosperity? Riches? Surely it would mean that life would somehow be easier and more comfortable for everyone. And when they saw the Lord’s seeming powerlessness in the custody of Pilate, they were crushed. Because what they had wanted more than anything—a decrease in earthly suffering—had not come to pass. In fact, the One who was supposed to make it happen was about to experience the worst kind of suffering in the world. And I believe that this fear and hatred of suffering is what was behind at least at least some of the cries calling for Jesus’ punishment.
This same fear of suffering is at the heart of so many of the scourges that plague the modern world. When suffering is seen as the worst evil, even worse than death, it opens the door for all sorts of malevolent ideas. Euthanasia is seen as necessary. Eugenics starts to look reasonable. Suicide doesn’t seem so bad. Contraception and sterilization appear to make life better. Abortion can even be touted as a compassionate choice for the children who are being killed, on the grounds that they might have experienced suffering had they lived. A terror of suffering always leads to death, whether it’s killing ourselves, our unwanted people, or even our Messiah.
This is why the world needs Good Friday. I don’t just refer to the great act that took place on this day, that reconciled us to God once and for all—that part goes without saying. But the world needs this commemoration of it, a day set aside to focus on the figure of Christ crucified. Because it is there, on the cross, that we learn that suffering is not the worst evil. It is there that we see the shocking truth that we do not suffer alone, that God himself suffers with us. And it is there that we come to understand that our suffering is now bearable, because it has been redeemed.